Women still face church ‘patriarchy’, global meeting told

By Stephen Brown
19 Feb 2011

The World Council of Churches needs a “gender policy” to ensure full participation by women in governance, staff positions and representation, a meeting of its main governing body has been told.

Still, “the commitment for participation cannot be reduced to numbers,” said Dr Magali do Nascimento Cunha, a professor at the Methodist University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, in a presentation to a meeting in Geneva of the WCC governing body, the central committee.

It also means, “women being able to speak … to lead, women respected as partners being seen, being heard, their gifts being recognised and valued”, Cunha said on 19 February 2011.

Her call follows concern at the previous central committee meeting in 2009 about the lack of women in senior staff positions in the Geneva-based church grouping.

The church grouping’s three women presidents warned then that the WCC was moving away from a “hard-won commitment” to the goal of equal participation by women and men in its structures.

The goal was agreed in 1981, after an international WCC consultation on the “Community of Women and Men in the Church” earlier that year.

“It is about more than the numbers,” the Rev Dr Bernice Powell-Jackson, one of the three women presidents, told the 2011 meeting. “It is about how we share power and how we share in God’s abundance.”

The WCC has 349 member churches, principally Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant. The Roman Catholic Church does not belong to the WCC but has members on some of its committees.

The Rev Gregor Henderson, a former General Secretary and president of the Uniting Church in Australia, pointed to the ordination of women as a “major point of division” between churches.

While many Protestant churches ordain women, he said, “this is not even on the horizon of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.”

But some Protestant churches find it easier to state the principle of gender equality, Henderson said, than to live it out. Of the 13 national presidents in the Uniting church since its formation in 1977, only one had been a woman. “Patriarchy is extremely resilient,” he said.

The Rev Aaro Rytkönen, a Finnish Lutheran, explained how the Nordic countries are often seen as a “model” for women’s equality. But while two-thirds of new pastors in his church are women, not one of the 21 congregations in Helsinki has a woman as a leading pastor.

Orthodox Archbishop Anastasios of Albania, however, warned against creating “new difficulties” for Orthodox churches by stressing women’s ordination.

“We have a great respect and tolerance for what happens within other churches,” said Anastasios, one of the WCC’s eight presidents. “Please see with the same sympathy and tolerance what is happening in our churches.”

Dr Fulata Mbano-Moyo, a Malawian Presbyterian theologian and the WCC’s programme executive for women in church and society, told Ekklesia there should be a process to explore how WCC member churches are promoting the “community of women and men”.

A gender policy, she said, would be “a very important instrument of monitoring and evaluating the participation of women and men” within the WCC, and she urged the creation of a WCC gender advisory group.

In her presentation, Cunha highlighted the importance of language as a factor in the full participation in the church by women and men.

“The way we talk about God and the way we talk to men and women and refer to them is the way we understand the other,” she stated. “It has to do not only with the way we speak. It is reflected in the language of our body.”

At church gatherings, people’s eyes and ears often turn to the person who is speaking if that person is a man, Cunha said. “If the microphone is taken by a woman, it is time to drink some water, go to the toilet, begin some writings or check the computer.

“The language of our body,” she said, “can be exclusivist.”

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© Stephen Brown is a Geneva-based journalist and writer. He is reporting for Ekklesia from the WCC central committee.

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