Equal before God, divided in church

2008-12-15 00:00

A CHALLENGING initiative led by a Pietermaritzburg Christian agency is questioning policies, practices and attitudes related to gender in South Africa’s mainstream churches.

The initiative follows a groundbreaking research study — a first for South Africa — that was presented to churches and church agencies in Johannesburg during the launch of the “16 days of no violence against women and children” campaign on November 25.

The independent study calls on churches to make “an honest appraisal” of the way that gender power relations in the church have been skewed in favour of male authority and women’s subordination. It challenges the churches to take steps to overhaul what it calls the “male, clerical model” that relegates women primarily to household functions in the church.

The researchers combed more than 100 public documents from five mainstream churches and analysed their approach to issues such as women’s ordination, homosexuality, abortion, gender-based violence and HIV and Aids. They found that views about women in the family and in the church have become outdated under the impact of the migrant labour system, HIV and the Aids pandemic, and provisions in the Constitution to establish gender equality.

“Gender issues are regarded as women’s issues and pushed to the margins,” said Daniela Gennrich, the director of the Pietermaritzburg Agency for Christian Social Awareness (Pacsa), which spearheaded the research. “Very often church authorities appear to take gender policies seriously, but in reality they merely pay lip service. Financial resources are not allocated or prioritised and appointees to gender offices do not have the clout to make things happen.”

She added, “The issue is not about demanding equal rights in an angry, feminist way. It’s about attitudes, practices and policies which contradict respect for the dignity of both men and women as equally made in God’s image and which prevent all from fulfilling their potential.”

The study reports that “voices that are absent in the churches” are those of poor, rural women and their communities, young women, women in lay organisations, and women who are struggling to survive in the HIV and Aids pandemic. It adds: “Those whose silence is the loudest are the women and children who experience their bodies as a battleground; who experience through abuse and violation the impact of the unequal power relations between men and women in its most damaging form. The high risk among young women of contracting HIV is linked to sexual coercion and violence and men’s control over women’s bodies.

“Such harmful attitudes and practices are shaped by powerful social and cultural forces, of which the church is one of the most influential agents. And yet this is rarely acknowledged in the church’s discourse on HIV and Aids and sexual abuse.” While some local churches have developed life-saving ministries to respond to such evils, “in most cases the churches are silent on this, thus creating an environment where gender-based violence, and HIV, are able to flourish”.

The Johannesburg meeting was attended by 35 representatives of church agencies and the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Evangelical Lutheran and the Uniting Reformed churches. “All the official responses affirmed the truth of the findings and committed the churches at some level to take the findings further,” said Gennrich. “An enlarged task team was assembled to take the gender agenda to local churches at many levels, as the report was seen as just the beginning of a long overdue systematic process of mobilising for genuine gender equality in church and society.

“The key challenge is for all churches to examine themselves dispassionately and make concrete decisions to put resources in place. There needs to be the political will to see that the findings and recommendations filter down to all levels.”

The take-up is not likely to be plain sailing. Gennrich acknowledges that “we can expect resistance, most likely from the lower orders of clergy and from older men and women. As a representative at the Johannesburg gathering pointed out, gender is a deeply emotive issue, similar to the feelings generated by the debate about race under apartheid. Men in leadership positions and other members often struggle with their own issues of power and identity. Because of this, people often don’t respond at a rational level. It’s all part of a journey of discovery …”

The study is an initiative of Pacsa and its KwaZulu-Natal partner organisations, including the South African Council of Churches, the KZN Christian Council, UKZN’s School of Religion and Theology, and the local Circle for Concerned African Women Theologians.

Its findings, however, are likely to make an impact on church policies beyond South Africa’s borders. Two parallel studies have taken place in churches in Zambia and Malawi, and a synthesis of common themes from all three countries was tabled in Maputo last week at the ninth Assembly of the All-Africa Council of Churches.

The report is available from Pacsa (loul@pacsa.org.za) and a booklet is being developed that contains guidelines for leaders and members of other churches to undertake their own gender audits.

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