Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Robert Gaden (1938–1990)

by Peter Sherlock

This article was published:

John Robert Gaden (1938-1990), Anglican priest and theologian, was born on 3 June 1938 at Leicester, England, the son of Stanley Simeon Victor Gaden, Church Army captain, and his wife Frances Hughes, née Mullins. The family migrated to Australia after World War II and John was educated on a scholarship at Geelong Church of England Grammar School before studying classics at the University of Melbourne (BA Hons, 1961; MA, 1964). An active member of the Australian Student Christian Movement, he was also profoundly influenced by Dr Barry Marshall, chaplain at Trinity College. Appointed a tutor (1962) in classics at the university and at Trinity, Gaden commenced studies at the Australian College of Theology (Th.L. Hons, 1964; Th.Schol., 1966). On 8 December 1962 at Trinity College chapel he married Janet Eade Agar, also a university teacher.

Made deacon (1963) and ordained priest (1964) in the Church of England, Gaden served in the parish of Mudgee, New South Wales (1965-68), until winning a Mercer scholarship to the General Theological Seminary, New York (Th.D., 1972). He returned to Melbourne and served as assistant-chaplain at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School (1972-73), chaplain at Monash University (1974-76), and chaplain also to the national church’s commission on doctrine (1973-89), for which he was a highly influential secretary (1975-89). In 1977 he became director of theological studies at Trinity College and consultant theologian to the archbishop of Melbourne.

An `innovative and courageous’ theologian (as Archbishop Keith Rayner later recalled), Gaden first gained public prominence in 1976 for leading the campaign for the ordination of women as priests. In 1981-84 he was president of the Australian and New Zealand Association of Theological Schools, and in 1982-90 a member of the International Anglican/Orthodox Joint Doctrinal Discussions. Anglo-Catholic in sympathies and lucid in conveying complex issues, Gaden encouraged free, theologically informed debate. He was criticised for his refusal to have his children baptised as infants, for referring to the Holy Spirit as `she’ in a 1985 sermon, and for challenging the church’s negative attitude to sexuality.

After years of intense work in Melbourne, in 1986 Gaden was appointed warden of St Barnabas’ Theological College, Adelaide. Controversy followed him: the failure of the 1987 Anglican General Synod to permit the ordination of women prompted him to renounce his priestly duties for more than a year. Bearded and nuggety in later life, Gaden could defuse confrontation with his infectious laugh. If not well published as an academic, he produced many reports and addresses that provoked wide-ranging debate in church and society. Some of his theological papers were gathered in D. Reid (ed), A Vision of Wholeness (1994). His most lasting influence was personal, and exercised through hospitality and conversation, whether as teacher, preacher, mentor or friend.

On 27 January 1990 John Gaden died suddenly of coronary artery disease while on study leave at St Paul’s College, Camperdown, Sydney. He was survived by his wife, a theologian and leader of the Movement for the Ordination of Women, who had been made deacon in 1988 (ordained priest, 1992), and by their three sons and their adopted daughter. Only two weeks before his death Gaden had been interviewed as a potential archbishop of Melbourne. He was cremated and his ashes were buried in the grounds of Trinity College.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Porter, Women in the Church (1989)
  • K. Rayner, `Foreword’ in D. Reid (ed), A Vision of Wholeness (1994)
  • Age (Melbourne), 8 Aug 1978, p 12
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 9 Oct 1987, p 1
  • See (Melbourne), Mar 1990, p 16
  • Corian, June 1991, p 106.

Citation details

Peter Sherlock, 'Gaden, John Robert (1938–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 18 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


3 June, 1938
Leicester, Leicestershire, England


27 January, 1990 (aged 51)
Camperdown, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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