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Women’s ministry

17 July 2010

I’ve been putting off writing this post because the way things are in the world today, it is bound to be misunderstood. I’m writing to clarify some things I said, and didn’t say, in the two preceding posts, both of which alluded to the debate in the Church of England about the ordination of female bishops.

As most people reading this blog will know, I am a member of the Orthodox Church, and the Orthodox Church does not ordain women as bishops, priests or deacons. That has led some people to assume that I must be against “women’s ministry”, and some have said as much to me. One colleague in the University of South Africa’s department of church history once complained to my department, the department of missiology, about their employing me at all, because she said it was “sending the wrong signals”. Perhaps that’s why I hit the glass ceiling there.

I read a number of blogs of women in ministry in different denominations, and some of them I know read this one, and though none of them has actually said anything about it, it is possible that some of them might be a bit annoyed with me for “not accepting their ministry”, or there might be some, like my former colleague at Unisa, who will tell them that they ought to be annoyed with me for that.

And so I take a tentative step into the minefield, attempting to clarify, and yet aware that I will probably just succeed in muddying the waters, theological, ecclesiological and ecumenical.

In alluding to the Church of England’s debate about the ordination of women in my earlier posts I was careful not to mention that issue directly, because I don’t have a dog in that fight. It really does not matter to me one way or another what the Church of England decides.

The first of these two posts, on St Euphemia and Paul the Octopus, was based on a sermon preached to an Orthodox congregation, and alluded to the Anglican debate mainly in order to show the different attitudes towards Tradition found in the Orthodox Church, and among Western Protestant denominations. I also noted that while the Orthodox Church does not have female bishops, priests or deacons, it does have female apostles, like St Olga of Kiev. So the Orthodox Church is not against “women’s ministry”, because these two women had pretty powerful and influential ministries.

In second post, on the decline of Anglo-Catholicism, though I did not explicitly mention it, the Anglican debate about the ordination of women lies behind it, though what is at stake is really a question of ecclesiology. Among South African Anglicans, Anglo-Catholic ecclesiology was dominant until about 1960, and thereafter it began to decline, and it has reached the point where there is no longer any room for it in the Anglican Communion. Anglo-Catholic ecclesiology is not the same as Orthodox ecclesiology (though many Anglo-Catholics seemed to think it was), but it pointed me towards Orthodox ecclesiology, and for that I am grateful to it.

Another sign of the decline of Anglo-Catholic ecclesiology, which I did not mention in the previous two posts, though I have written of it elsewhere, is the mutual recognition of ministries of South African denominations involved with the Church Unity Commission (CUC) — Anglicans, Congregationalists, Methodists and Presbyterians. So the distinctions between different ministires (like bishops, priests and deacons) became blurred, and all became part of “The Ministry” — a kind of pan-Protestant religious functionary.

Among Pentecostals there was a similar process, though with as slightly different nomenclature. The minister of a local congregation was called “The Pastor”, but sociologically there was very little difference. Some denominational differences remained, however. Anglicans retained vestiges of episcopacy. Congregationalists retained vestiges of congregationalism. Methodists retained vestiges of connexionalism. But whether the full-time functionary in charge of a congregation was called “minister”, “pastor” or “priest” made little difference. The theological interpretation was tailored to the sociological reality. And in that kind of reality it matters little whether the main religious functionary is male or female, except to a few Evangelicals who believe that male “leadership” and “headship” is scriptural.

I sometimes think it is a pity that in this process the Methodist ministry has lost some of its distinctive features. Historically the Methodist ministry consisted of itinerant pastor/teachers, who travelled in a “circuit” caring for and enouraging local preachers and class leaders, and following up the work of more widely itinerating evangelists, like John Wesley. Until they separated from the Anglicans, the ministry of the sacraments was left to the local parish priests, and wasn’t really the concern of the Methodist ministry. After the separation from the Anglicans, Methodist ministers had to perform a sacramental ministry as well, and over the years their ministry has gradually become assimilated to that of Anglican priests, so that now the main difference is connexionalism as opposed to episcopacy.

If John Wesley had been Orthodox, he might have been known as “Equal-to-the-Apostles” too, for his apostolic preaching ministry, like his contemporary, the John Wesley of the Balkans, St Cosmas the Aetolian.

But when I read the blogs of women who are ministers in Western Protestant denominations, I accept their ministry as much and as little as I accept that of their male colleagues.

One of my favourite fiction authors is Phil Rickman, and the protagonist in many of his books is Merrily Watkins, a female Anglican priest, in the west of England. Rickman originally wrote tales of supernatural horror along the lines of Stephen King, and when Merrily Watkins first appeared in his books, it was with her appointment as a replacement for the diocesan exorcist, who was retiring. In accordance with the modern sociological interpretation of “The Ministry”, the post was renamed “deliverance consultant” when she took over. I have to admit that, having been out of touch with Anglican life and thought for the last 25 years, and the Church of England for the last 40, I now get much of my knowledge from Anglican blogs, interpreted through the lens of Merrily Watkins, so I may have a weirdly distorted picture of what is going on.

If Anglicans, or Methodists, or any other Christian body, want to rearrange or reinterpret their ministry in any way they like, that is really none of my business. I find it interesting, of course, because I’m interested in the history of Christianity and its growth, and as a missiologist I’m interested in the way that ministry affects mission and vice versa. But their decisions about whether their ministers should be male or female or both does not concern me, and I have no stake in what they decide about it.

The Orthodox understanding of ministries is somewhat different, and I’ve tried to explain it here in terms accessible to Western Protestants.

One observation I will make, however, on Protestant ecclesiology and ministry, in comparison with Orthodoxy. In South Africa there are many denominations that fall into the general category of “Zionist”. They comprise one of the largest groups of South African Christians, and one Zionist denomination, the Zion Christian Church (ZCC), is the largest single Christian denomination in South Africa. Martin West, who made a study of Zionist and related denominations in Soweto, published his findings in 1975 in a book Bishops and prophets in a black city. The title summarises his findings. He found two kinds of ministries in the churches, which he summarised as “bishops” and “prophets”. Zionism appeared in South Africa about 100 years ago, when Zionist missionaries from the USA (Zion City, Illinois) converted a former Dutch Reformed congregation in Wakkerstroom, in what is now Mpumalanga. After four years the missionaries returned to the USA, leaving their South African flock to sort themselves out. They sorted themselves into white-led groups, like the Apostolic Faith Mission (Pentecostal) which organised themselves along lines similar to the Dutch Reformed Churches (right down to the architecture), and the black-led groups, called Zionists, who were left to themselves and cookbooked their ministry patterns from the Bible, observing other denominations, and their own experience. And what they came up with was “bishops” and “prophets”. And the bishops were often male, while the prophets were often female. The woman founder of the St John Apostolic Faith Mission, Christianah Nku, was its prophet in chief, yet she appointed her husband as a bishop. The Zionists, left to themselves, seemed to have rediscovered something that the Orthodox knew from 2000 years of church history.

But with Western Protestant bodies differences tend to be more apparent. The Orthodox Church does not have female priests, but it does have female pastors. Some might think that the Pentecostal pastor is the functional equivalent of an Orthodox priest, but it is not so. A priest is not necessarily a pastor, and a pastor is not necessarily a priest. An Orthodox priest may be a pastor if he is in charge of a parish, but not all priests are in charge of a parish. And the Igumena (abbess) of a monastery is a pastor, but not a priest.

People in Western Protestant denominations often have a “one-man-band” conception of ministry. Anyone who studies theology as an academic discipline is assumed to be seeking ordination. When I tell people that my daughter is studying theology at the University of Athens they someimes say “I didn’t know that the Orthodox Church had women priests.” But the fact is that most lecturers in the theology faculties in Greece are not ordained. And in the not too distant past many parish priests did not have an academic education. When I taught at the theological seminary in Albania ten years ago, about half the students were male and half female. And there are many ministries in the church besides the ordained ministries of bishops, priests and deacons.

I wrote in another blog post about a deliberately misleading article in a British newspaper about disciplinary action to be taken against Catholic clergy who participated with episcopi vagantes in mock ordinations of “Catholic” female clergy. The article quoted one person as saying “This declaration is doubly disempowering for women as it also closes the door on dialogue around women’s access to power and decision making, when they are still under-represented in all areas of political, religious and civic life. We would urge the Catholic church to acknowledge that women’s rights are not incompatible with religious faith.”

It seems strange to me that such a secular source should be quoted, someone who clearly doesn’t “get it”. No one has a “right” to be ordained. Anyone who sees it as being about “access to power” has got it all wrong, and doesn’t understand what the word “ministry” means. And most of the women who have ministries of various kinds in their churches whose blogs I read certainly don’t have that kind of mentality either. As I read their blogs, I don’t see any signs of a desire for “access to power”, but rather signs of a desire for an opportunity to serve. We may differ in theology, in ecclesiology, and in our understandings of ministry; we may not be communion with each other, but we can still communicate with each other and read each other’s blogs. Two whose blogs I read fairly regularly are Sally Coleman and Jenny Hillebrand, and there are several others as well.

Do I think they should not be doing what they are doing, because they are women? No. That is for their own denominations to decide, not for me. Do I think that they are Orthodox priests? No, and neither are any of their male colleagues. Having said that, I hope they will still be willing to talk to me!

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 17 July 2010 7:10 pm

    Well, I think that your tentative step into the minefield says some very worthwhile things …

    One quick response regarding your CUC point: one of the things that first started sowing doubts in my mind about feminist theology and the general direction that those in favour of ordaining women in the Anglican and Catholic Churches were going, was that they (I generalise, but I have specific examples in mind) were also strongly in favour of such “acceptance of ministries” and the blurring of all distinctions in which “excluding” anyone was the big sin. And I came to see that their conception of the Church was fundamentally sociological and had lost any theological, ecclesiological meaning.

  2. Dana Ames permalink
    18 July 2010 1:15 am

    As it was beginning to become clear to me about three years ago that I was being led to Orthodoxy, the issue of the place of women in the church was the biggest one for me to work through. It took several months of praying, thinking and reading, even after I became a catechumen. Yannaras was very helpful for me. Being “on the inside” and seeing what women actually do was very helpful for me. Thinking about why Judaism did not have female priests was very helpful for me. Knowing that no one in Orthodoxy gives a second thought to female theology professors teaching men who will one day be ordained was also very helpful for me. Finding out that the Greeks tonsure women readers was very helpful for me.

    In the US, there are quite a few “conservative” Evangelicals who believe that women should not be theology professors. Some well known male Evangelical theology professors teach subordination within the Trinity, mostly as a way to justify subordination of women within marriage; some go so far as to say that, since Eve was created from Adam, women are only sort of secondarily and not fully created in the image of God. (Some “ultraconservatives” believe that a woman should never be “out from under” a man’s authority, even as an adult; if not married, her “head” is her father and she should live at home and attend to him.) All this in the name of being faithful to Scripture. In my first years as a Protestant, I was involved with some groups (not the “ultras”) who taught these things; the older I got, the more uncomfortable I became with all of this, for various reasons, and kept moving away from it. I finally left Evangelicalism in 2000.

    Orthodoxy was more than a breath of fresh air for me; it was relief, comfort, healing, affirmation, on a very deep level – because of both the written and the lived theology. I know there are “patriarchal” cultural factors in historically Orthodox countries, but that’s all they are- cultural factors. “Patriarchy” as keeping women down is not an expression of the Eucharistic life of the Church, and being in the Church is the best chance people have of being healed of this sin, too.


  3. 19 July 2010 1:49 pm

    I am certainly still talking to you – and reading you! It is the strength of denominations that we can differ on issues like this and still be in communion. I suppose that I would feel differently if I was called and yet had no avenue in which to exercise to my ministry. Be blessed!

  4. 11 January 2011 9:24 am

    Here is how I think the Church should approach women ministry biblically:

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