Faith and Order Paper 105 World Council of Churches, Geneva, 1980
Women and Men as Living Images of God:
New Initiatives of Women in Ministry
from Ordination of Women in Ecumenical Perspective:
Workbook for the Church’s Future
edited by Constance F. Parvey
Faith and Order Paper 105
World Council of Churches, Geneva, 1980, pp. 48-53
In those churches which have increasing participation of women in ministry and women entering ordained roles, there is an evolution of the images of ministry, as well as the images of the whole people of God in Christian community. As congregations and clergy experience women in sacramental and pastoral roles, they begin to identify the representation of the whole people as more fully expressed through participation both of men and women in the worshipping life of the Church. They also begin to identify the representation of God with both women and men, and thus as imaged in more holistic metaphors. Both male and female are created in the image of the trinitarian God, and both together express a unity of existence, mind and will. As women and men become newly aware of their interdependence as symbolized in mutual ministry, they are set free to share this sign of unity in the New Creation. Perhaps by the power of the Holy Spirit, the growing unity may help all to “discover the glorious liberty of the children of God”.
A. Renewal of ministry
1. A second promising area for community of women and men is the new experience of the liberating power of the Gospel in every part of the globe. Persons who are struggling for equality and human personhood are glimpsing a new reality of what it means to be set free in Jesus Christ. “For freedom Christ has set us free…” (Gal. 5:1). This new experience provides many insights into our understanding of the way God is at work to establish justice and partnership in New Creation. In the area of ordination and ministry these insights may help churches to name and understand the way God is at work among us.
2. Those who have long been assigned the status of servant in many cultures and societies have a unique opportunity to renew the ministry of the Church through re-examining the assumptions held about service, and about the separation of service (diakonid) from clerical roles. Of particular importance in this matter is the recognition that service voluntarily undertaken is a form of empowerment (Phil. 2:1-11). For all Christians the life-style of Jesus the Christ is one to be shared through a life of voluntary service which makes possible the use of talents on behalf of God’s mission. Such empowerment comes through sacrifice, and breaks through rigid roles and power structures.
3. In those churches where women are entering ordained ministry, they discover that the authority of this role is difficult to exercise. On the one hand, there is usually an acceptance of the authority of their role by congregations, yet on the other there is a temptation to allow this role to perpetuate a false sense of set-apartness. If ministry is that of the whole people of God who share in Christ’s ministry, then the practice of ordained ministry in our churches can well be renewed by both women and men who bring to it the gifts needed “for the equipment of the saints, for the work of ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-12). Struggling to reject competitiveness and dominating roles, they can share in nurturing, cooperating and supporting roles that enhance the gifts of every member of Christ’s body. At the same time, they can present a new image of equality and mutuality in working together in collegial models of service, that bring authority through authenticity, rather than through position and status.
4. New experiences and questions of those discovering their call to freedom and new responsibility present a challenge to the present disunity of the churches. There is no way to enter into the groaning of creation in hope of God’s gift of liberation (Rom. 8:22), unless the scandal of our ecclesiological differences is transcended. Just as justice cannot be a stumbling-block to unity, but ought to be an occasion for renewal and unity in ministry, so the ordination of women need not be a stumbling-block to unity. It provides an occasion for struggling against the sin of our separation at the table of our Lord. In the community of women and men God’s Spirit may renew our ministries, both lay and ordained.
B. Some concrete examples
1. Women in priestly and pastoral roles
An ordained woman serving in a North American parish described the difficulties of entering a priestly role: “It was not easy for me to feel at home in the sacred space of the chancel. Centuries of socialization had conditioned me that women do not belong here. Learning how to be ‘at home’ and also to be myself in this sacred space meant breaking through barriers — the barrier that this is a space only for men; the barrier within myself making me hesitate to express here my full gifts as a woman person. Simple things such as how to walk and talk in the sanctuary had to be learned. As a woman, there were no role models, no maps for me to follow. In this situation, I found that my only guide was the action of the liturgy itself. To enter into a priestly role meant to step into a cycle of time and a level of Tradition that raised for me fundamental reflections about both the nature of personhood and the practice of priesthood. In one and the same experience of the Church at prayer, it was for me a challenging experience combining the very ancient and the new, the very foreign and the familiar.”
The same person also reported about the impact of her presence in the eucharistic liturgy on the spiritual development of both women and men in the congregation. Her liturgical leadership and preaching helped other women to see that they could also be a source of spirituality. Spiritual authority did not come only from men. Her spiritual leadership liberated the men to express in their spirituality what is often referred to as “female qualities” such as poetic expression, showing grief, daring to think intuitively, etc. They could admit these qualities to a woman without fear of appearing weak.
In the area of pastoral care, several persons stressed the importance of team ministries of women and men. It is the experience of many people in parishes with team ministries that women and men will seek counsel from both a male and female minister. On such difficult issues as choosing a life vocation or a partner in marriage, or facing a crisis in family life, a more balanced view is possible when counsel can be sought in confidence from both a woman and a man. Rather than the authority of women in ministry being a threat to married life, it gives support to the couple in difficult times.(1)
A woman pastor from Latin America gave an example of work in a team ministry: A marriage was to take place and the team decided that the woman pastor should celebrate it. The couple concerned, however, disagreed and insisted that it be conducted by a man. The team maintained their position and helped the woman pastor prepare the ceremony. After discussion, the couple eventually accepted the decision. Afterwards they were happy with her manner of carrying out the wedding and said: “We could never have believed a woman could do it so well.” Long-standing prejudice or superstition can disappear when new experiences are encouraged.
2. Experiences of women in diaconal ministry
An ordained woman deacon from India said that she is accepted in her church but not yet ordained a priest. One church official said to her: “We do not know what to do with you. We cannot make you a man.” She reported the following: “It is my experience in the ministry of the Church that I am accepted because of my gifts and commitment as a person to God’s call which knows no sexual barriers. Women like myself, who are deacons with responsibility for congregations, have a variety of experience. Our work includes pastoral visits, care for the needy, administrative responsibilities, worship leadership, teaching, preaching and the general nurture of the congregation. Our role is accepted and more and more members of the congregation, both men and women, come to us for pastoral help. Some women would never go to a male priest with their problems but would go to a woman with pastoral responsibility. The experiences of women in the ministry refute the arguments that women do not want women priests and that men will leave the Church if women are ordained. There are instances of many men and women attending the services conducted by us and listening to us preach just to experience the difference. We, like men, have strengths and weaknesses in the ministry, but congregations soon learn to accept us for what we are as leaders in the Church.”
She concluded: “On the whole, women of the diaconate have a very fruitful ministry of caring and sharing. It comes so naturally to us as we enter the homes and hospitals, classrooms, church halls and all walks of life.”
3. Experiences of women in lay ministries
A Roman Catholic sister involved in the European charismatic renewal movement said:
“The lay ministry of women and men is indispensable to the Church. All ministries in the Church are called forth from the Holy Spirit, discussed and approved by the authority of the Church. Although within the Protestant tradition deaconesses have always been in service in the parishes, in the Roman Catholic tradition the women religious are only now recognized as vicars in the parishes, taking on responsibilities, in order to supplement the lack of priests.
“Team work should be, for women and men, the mutual recognition of the talents received from God, used in the service of mission, in a total sharing of joy and suffering, hope and love. This work presupposes a life of deep faith, grounded in personal prayer and sharing together (Rom. 12:3-19).”
An African woman teaching theology reported the following experience: “I never questioned my role as a theologian until my students questioned what business I, as a woman, had in teaching theology. It was then that I began to reflect on the gap between what women are expected to do and what my own interests and commitments as a Christian have led me to do. I found myself resenting other people defining me and taking it upon themselves to tell me what I could or could not do professionally. Yet in teaching theology I have also had encounters which suggest to me that I have become not only a role model for some young women, but also a new learning experience for the men I teach and those who hear me preach.”
An Orthodox woman from France expressed her experience in the following way: “When I was elected lay president of our parish I was expected to be concerned basically with material problems: upkeep of the church buildings, organization of parish meals and, if necessary, catechism work among young children. As it happened, however, I had theological training and little aptitude for housework or cookery. The priest of our parish became accustomed to discussing with me theological and spiritual problems arising from the integration with the Orthodox Church of a community which, in language and culture, was French. Other parishioners, men and women, took part in this reflection and assumed different reponsibilities. This effort was not without its problems, but with God’s help our common desire to serve the Church enabled each of us gradually to find his or her place within the community according to his or her particular charisma and competence.”
The issues surrounding the ordination of women are difficult and painful. Yet it is only out of travail that New Creation comes. New communities of women and men experience suffering today, but they also celebrate the signs of new life in our midst.
These few examples serve to expound the question: What are women actually doing in ministry today? Most women do not write about their work. Most churches do not record it in their histories or acts of ministry. These examples are indications of the research yet to be done on the antecedents and partners to these stories in all churches and regions of the world.
(1) See “Mixed Pastoral Teams, Results of an Enquiry”, Pro Mundi Vita Bulletin, 78, July 1979
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