Home » Women in Church Ministries. Reform Movements in Ecumenism

WOMEN IN CHURCH MINISTRIES
Reform movements in ecumenism

Translated from the German by Neville Williamson

OSNABRÜCK THESES

A scientific congress under the title “Women in Church Ministries. Reform Movements in Ecumenism” was held in Osnabrück from 6 to 9 December 2017 as a joint ecumenical cooperation between theological institutions of the Universities of Osnabrück, Oldenburg and Münster together with German Roman Catholic and Protestant associations and institutions.After lectures, discussions and intensive consultations, a majority of over 120 participants to the congress, who came from multilateral ecumenism in Germany and other countries, adopted the following theses:
1)
The declared goal of the ecumenical movement, the visible unity of the churches, cannot be achieved without an agreement on the presence of women in all ecclesiastical ministries.
2)
Women in church ministries make a profound difference to the way each religious community is perceived by itself and by others.
3)
It is not necessary to find reasons for women’s access to offices and ministries of the church, but rather for their exclusion.
4)
The discussion can and must remain open as to whether God has given an immutable instruction as to how and by whom He/She is to be witnessed through the church’s ministry.
5)
The distinction between specific offices within the one (sacramental) ministry (episcopate, priesthood and diaconate) has developed historically and can be further developed in an ecumenical perspective. All forms of office should be opened for women. It is important to ensure that no gender-specific determination is made.
6)
Critical inquiries into the church’s teaching on the exclusion of women from church offices and ministries are a manifestation of women’s readiness to exercise their vocation to serve the proclamation of the gospel in word and deed.
7)
The Spirit of Jesus Christ obliges us always to approach the various theological convictions regarding ecclesiastical ministries with argumentative cooperation, appreciation and readiness to reconciliation.

SELF-COMMITMENT
(1)
We will ensure that gender equality in the assumption and exercise of ecclesiastical ministries is the touchstone for credibility in the proclamation of the gospel. This is indispensable for the apostolic mission of the churches. Beyond the question of the ordination of women, other forms of insensitivity towards gender equality in the churches should be recognized and overcome.

(2)
We will continue the theological discussions on the presence of women in all ecclesiastical ministries with the goal of reaching an understanding in the remaining controversies. Depending on the denominational situation, we will not shun critical discussion with the responsible church leaders about all forms of the ordained ministry. In ecumenical fellowship, we strive for the ordination of women as deaconesses, presbyters (pastors, priests) and bishops.

(3)
We will continue to make theological contributions to the necessary differentiation between the opening to women of the diaconate and of other ministries within the one (sacramental) ordo. As a ministry for men and women, the diaconate strengthens the basic diaconal orientation of the church.

(4)
Within the bounds of our responsibility, we will strive for the increasing participation of women in leadership positions and ministries. We seek a culture of partnership in all churches.

Osnabruck, 9 December 2017

Prof.Dr. Margit Eckholt, University of Osnabrück
Prof.Dr. Ulrike Link-Wieczorek, University of Oldenburg
Prof.Dr. Dorothea Sattler, University of Münster
Prof.Dr. Andrea Strübind, University of Oldenburg

EXPLANATORY NOTES ON THE THESES

1)
The declared goal of the ecumenical movement, the visible unity of the churches, cannot be achieved without an agreement on the presence of women in all ecclesiastical ministries.

The joint ecumenical commemoration of the Reformation in 2017 invites discussion of the issue of the presence of women in all ecclesiastical ministries. This ecumenical event has been an encouragement to strive constantly for reform movements in all Christian churches as a common path to renewal.

After a long internal struggle in the 20th century, many churches of the Reformation as well as the Old Catholic Church introduced the practice of ordination of women with prayer and laying on of hands. In Protestant churches, women preach the gospel and lead the celebration of Holy Communion. Since the middle of the 20th century, in a process of several stages involving painful discrimination, women have come to take on various ecclesiastical ministries, offices and functions in many churches of the Reformation. In numerous church ordinances the equality of women and men in the service of the church has meanwhile been explicitly defined. In recent decades, women have been able to form and shape not only the pastorate but also many other areas of the Protestant churches. This includes the office of bishop. The participation of women in church offices is therefore part of the profile of the churches of the Reformation, thus also making a mark on ecumenical relations.

The question of women in church ministries is therefore of central importance in the search for the visible unity of the churches.

2)
Women in church ministries make a profound difference to the way each religious community is perceived by itself and by others.
Nowadays, the way in which women exercise ecclesiastical ministries is perceived as one of the primary features distinguishing churches from one another. Society expects women and men to be equal in professional life, and this forms the backdrop for a critical examination of gender roles in the churches. Gender equality is an essential criterion in today’s society in order to test the legitimacy of institutions claiming universal representation.

The consideration of the official roles of women in the churches is closely connected to the general question of upcoming reforms in the exercise of ecclesiastical ministries by men and women. The outward appearance of the church community influences the credibility of the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In the Roman Catholic tradition, the legacy of the Second Vatican Council with its normative doctrines on the understanding of the mission of the church is of the utmost importance. The Council drew attention to the fact that the nature of the church is its mission to proclaim Jesus Christ. Closely related to this is the concept of a prophetic dimension, to which all believers are called, at first by baptism and later strengthened by confirmation. Accordingly, all baptized persons are entrusted with a prophetic, royal and priestly ministry by Jesus Christ (cf. 1 Pet 2:9-10; Lumen Gentium 34; Apostolicam Actuositatem 3), and a new breadth of the representation of Christ is established in this common priesthood. In view of the Council’s new perception of the church’s global horizon,combined with the recollection of the basic diaconal determination of the church’s mission in solidarity with the poor and the marginalized, there is now – in the subsequent period in which we stand – no excuse for any kind of activity that excludes or discriminates against women.

In all churches, women have increasingly taken on leadership positions at local, regional and national level in recent decades. Women are responsible for training women and men for the preaching ministry in parishes, schools and universities. Women are now heading departments for personnel, pastoral care, finance or public relations. They act as legal advisors, directors of academies, human resource developers or as leaders in Caritas and Diakonie. Many academically educated women are engaged in research and teaching of scientific theology with a social mandate.

For the churches of the Reformation, it is desirable that the number of women in church leadership functions continues to increase despite the equality of women and men in the ecclesiastical ministries which has already been achieved. All churches need to review the history of discrimination against women with regard to exclusionary practices.

3)
It is not necessary to find reasons for women’s access to offices and ministries of the church, but rather for their exclusion.
From a theological point of view, the mere reference to social changes in the description of gender roles is not sufficient to justify women’s access to ecclesiastical ministries. Theological reasons must be given, if charismatically gifted women are still excluded today from the public preaching of the gospel in most churches, especially in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, even in some of the Reformed churches. According to common ecumenical conviction, biblical testimonies are normative for doctrine when justifying a decision. Tradition should preserve what the canon of the Scriptures teaches.

In the controversial discourses on this subject, it was and is undisputed that women and men enjoy the same dignity before God in the order of creation and redemption. God created humankind as man and woman in his image (see Gen 1:26f.). The affiliation to Jesus Christ by baptism overcomes the socially or religiously based boundaries between Jews and Greeks, slaves and the free, male and female (Gal 3:28). In the light of this theological-anthropological insight, the question arises whether there are sufficient arguments to allow only men into the circle of possible ministers. Such arguments would have to be equivalent to a divine directive for the institutional form of the church.

The development of ecclesiastical ministries which is reflected in biblical texts leaves the possibility of women’s participation in such ministries open. Many women belonged to the group of people who were open to Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God and joined in his mission (Lk 8:1-3). They were the first witnesses to the resurrection. In the biblical and post-biblical Christian tradition, there were longer periods in which it was a matter of course that women exercised ecclesiastical ministries. In the Pauline communities, women and men had missionary duties and were locally the leaders of the first small congregations. Womenwere also charged with regional services and even recognized as apostles (cf. Rom 16:7). As Christian congregations emerged in the first centuries, women were officially involved as deaconesses in the baptism of women.

Thus there is a very ancient tradition of women’s participation in various church offices and ministries. In this context, it is particularly important to remember the ministry of deaconesses, who were indeed ordained in the first millennium by prayer and the laying on of hands, as can be verified by reference to the sources. The alteration of this practice, which led to the exclusion of women from church ministries– first of all in the West and later in the East –is in need of justification.

4)
The discussion can and must remain open as to whether God has given an immutable instruction as to how and by whom God is to be witnessed through the church’s ministry.

Bible texts repeatedly emphasise that God moves in a mysterious way, and in scientific theology it is an open question whether humans can possibly discern the will of God as He/She directs the course of the world. In controversial discussions about the ecclesiastical ministries, the recognition of this fact is not always confessed.

In the Christian tradition, the question has often been considered whether Jesus may have appointed twelve (male) disciples in order to predetermine the divinely intended future shape of the community that was to preserve his memory. Exegetical commentaries on the relevant biblical passages mostly hold the opinion that the calling of the twelve members of his inner circle were supposed to symbolise Jesus Christ’s enduring mission to Israel until his death, to one nation in twelve tribes. At that time, in a patriarchal society, it would not have been possible to convey this theological concern if women had been allowed to belong to the Twelve.

It was only the New Testament author Luke who identified the twelve disciples with the apostles in his Gospel and in Acts, and this only for a certain period as a sign of continuity with Israel’s history of salvation. Later in Acts, this group is replaced by other authorities such as James, the brother of Jesus, and Paul. All the other authors understand witness to an encounter with the risen Christ as the foundation of the apostolate. From ancient times, Mary of Magdala therefore bore the honourable title of “Apostola Apostolorum” –the apostle sent to the apostles with the Easter message (cf. Jn 20:17ff.).

The discovery that women held responsibility in the early Christian communities (Rom 16) and that their charismatic equality was thus recognized renders the idea of exclusively male representation particularly dubious. In addition, this teaching is an affront to the churches of the Reformation, in which women work in all areas of service and bring blessing by their activity.

The interpretation of the texts of the Second Vatican Council together with differentiations in systematic theology and church law lead to the realization that the existing Roman Catholic doctrinal texts have not come to an ultimately binding decision on the access of women to all ecclesiastical ministries.

5)
The distinction between specific offices within the one (sacramental) ministry (episcopate, priesthood and diaconate) has developed historically and can be further developed in an ecumenical perspective. All forms of office should be opened for women. It is important to ensure that no gender-specific determination is made.

At the institutional level, the Christian denominations have chosen different models of differentiation between the official ministries until today, which is also due to the variety of concepts of ministry in the New Testament. In many Christian churches there is presently a renewed attention to the question of whether there may indeed be theological reasons for making a distinction between the ministry of supervision over many parishes (episkopé), the leadership of the local congregation (presbyterate) and the leadership of missionary-social services (diaconate).

After the 16th century, the churches of the Reformation tradition tended to focus on church ministry in the local pastorate. The ecumenical dialogue, especially with churches of the Anglican, Old Catholic and Orthodox traditions, has led worldwide to a reconsideration of the biblical tradition of three differentiated ministries. For Roman Catholic theology, the Second Vatican Council was formative for doctrine. Since the fullness of the sacrament of Orders is given in the episcopate, whose primary task is the preaching of the gospel (see Lumen Gentium 25), diaconate and presbyterate can be assigned to the episcopate in a complementary fashion, that is to say, as additional and autonomous ministries: the diaconal ministry as a mission directed to the margins of the church, while the priestly ministry acts from the centre of the parish.

As understood ecumenically, a sacrament is a divinely endowed symbolic action which reveals God’s being in time and history. God made human being in Jesus Christ is the most evident sign of God’s presence in the world. According to biblical terminology (see Col 2:2), Jesus Christ is God’s sacrament (mysterion). A person who follows Jesus Christ as a leader in ministry to his neighbour is Christ’s representative in the social context. The ordained deacons and deaconesses are especially entrusted with the charitable administration of care for the poor, the weak, the sick and the marginalized. In this way they share with the other church ministries the missionary task of proclaiming the gospel, as well as in celebrating the eucharist and baptism in the sense of personal representation of Christ Jesus the servant. The argumentation of Roman Catholic scientific theology thus reinforces the position that the diaconate of men and women should be positioned in one single sacramental ordo.

The form and practice of ecclesiastical ministries as well as their relationship to one another serve the proclamation of the gospel. Thus, constant reform and examination should be inspired by impulses from Holy Scripture. At just this point, ecumenical fellowship in reconciled diversity can be revealed as a space for renewal and inspiration. The recent ordination of deaconesses in the Patriarchate of Alexandria and in the Patriarchate of Jerusalem is a sign of hope.

6)
Critical inquiries into the church’s teaching on the exclusion of women from church offices and ministries are a manifestation of women’s readiness to exercise their vocation to serve the proclamation of the gospel in word and deed.

All offices and ministries must always be directed towards the glorification of God and the proclamation of his Good News. The impetus for the recognition of women in church offices and ministries was caused by the calling of women to the preaching ministry. They set out to develop structures and functions in the church corresponding to their mission. Women who see themselves called into the discipleship of Jesus Christ suffer from the disregard of their spiritual experience in those churches which continue to reject the ordination of women to this day. At the present time, people are aware that the categorical exclusion of women from church ministries (in the denominations concerned) limits both the effectiveness of the proclamation of the gospel and the diversity of the charismas. As long as the respective churches do not seriously examine the vocation of women to the ministry, they deny that God also calls women.

It is not the zeitgeist that determines the debate about women’s access to ecclesiastical ministries, but the recognition of the mission of Jesus Christ to proclaim God in all ages. In ecumenical solidarity we jointly pose the question: how can we convey to people today the significance of following Jesus Christ in the search for a life filled with meaning? Many people think that church leaders today are disregarding the gifts of God’s Spirit when they fail to offer women an official vocation so that they may use their calling and their talents to testify publicly to the gospel in word and deed.

7)
The Spirit of Jesus Christ obliges us always to approach the various theological convictions regarding ecclesiastical ministries with argumentative cooperation, appreciation and readiness to reconciliation.

The history of the discussions on the issue of women’s access to church offices and ministries is highly charged in all Christian churches. In all traditions, many wounds have been inflicted and continue to cause pain today. When this unsettled question is brought up, fears of imminent sanctions accompany the discussion down to our own day.

From a scientific point of view, it is necessary to present the arguments to the public dispassionately, and not to conceal the personal interests which always play a role in the findings. There can be no impartial opinion on the matter. Every insight is limited. In the scientific discussion, the conditions leading to the arguments are considered critically.

Osnabruck, on December 9, 2017
Translation: Neville Williamson