Women in the Reformed churches of Switzerland are honouring two Kenyan theologians whose work is aimed at overcoming barriers to the ordination of women in the Reformed Church of East Africa.
Esther Mombo and Dorcas Chebet Wamalwa received the Sylvia Michel prize of US$ 5,000 at a celebration in the Canton of Argovia in eastern Switzerland on International Women’s Day (8 March 2009).
Claudia Brandixen, President of the Reformed Cantonal Church of Argovia, says the award was created to draw attention to the struggle of women who work in the church.
“We wanted to spotlight a project that would make women’s leadership visible.” The project in Kenya was selected from among 32 proposals Brandixen says because it is clearly-defined and is already showing results.
The initiative created by Mombo and Wamalwa focuses on the justifications used for refusing to ordain women in the Reformed Church of East Africa: exclusionary interpretation of Biblical texts; the cultural beliefs of the tribes in the Rift Valley area where the church is located; and the denomination’s constitution which limits ordination to pastors who are “biologically male.”
Mombo, a professor of church history at St Paul’s College, Limuru, and Wamalwa, a lecturer in theology at St. Philip’s College, have initiated a multi-phase project which seeks to offer women theological and leadership training so that they can make the case themselves for the ordination of women.
“It is better to challenge from inside through sensitization seminars and debate in church decision-making circles than to advocate from without,” says Mombo.
Mamalwa, one of the first of St. Paul’s female graduates in theology, is preparing to lead seminars to encourage church member to re-examine the justifications for excluding women from ordination.
For Mamalwa, this project has a particular urgency. She wishes to be ordained, as is her husband. “When I see him put on his robes,” she says, “I want to put them on too.”
With the support of funding from the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) 15 women from the Reformed Church of East Africa have received theological diplomas and degrees through St Paul’s College since 2002 and there are three active requests for ordination.
Discussions are now underway in the church Synod to challenge the constitutional provision that only men can be ordained.
The Sylvia Michel award, established in 2007, is to be given every two years to an organization or individual working to promote women as leaders. A jury of women presidents of the Reformed Cantonal Churches in Switzerland and the executive secretary for gender programmes of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) select the winning submission.
Sylvia Michel, in commenting on the role of WARC in promoting women’s leadership in churches worldwide says, “The beauty of WARC is it can tell other churches about the Kenyan project and to ask ‘What is the situation in your church?’
Brindixen agrees. “How can we in Switzerland live as if we are alone in our small, happy world? If we don’t connect with the broader world, we are incomplete. God wants us all connected and sharing.”