Unmasked: the church's sin of sexism

2008-12-15 00:00

THE study, entitled a Gender Audit of Policy Frameworks of Five South African Churches, aims to encourage the church to examine and question attitudes and practices “implicated in the sin of sexism”.

Although four of the five churches surveyed have ordained women as ministers, this has not helped to change the face of the church, according to the research. The reasons are not hard to find.

Women have been ordained in the Anglican church in South Africa since 1992, but eight years later there were only 130 women among its 2 000 priests and there are still no women among its 28 bishops. The Methodists have ordained women ministers for many years, but have only one woman bishop. Women clerics in the Evangelical Lutheran Church (which has ordained women since 1972) rarely, if ever, lead their own congregations. In most of the churches women have a say in decision-making, but very few are accepted as leaders in the higher councils of church governance where agendas and policies are set. In the Uniting Reformed Church, women may have a seat on the church councils, but it is men who are elected elders. And while some of the churches surveyed have gender offices in place, they are mostly dysfunctional or have closed down because they are under-funded and given low priority by church leaders.

Men pastors count on their wives to support them in their ministry, but it doesn’t cut both ways — women ministers cope with the double shift of home and church, and work twice as hard as men to be equal in the system.

Not surprisingly, women often find themselves on opposite sides in the battle of the sexes in the church. A recurring theme in the research is the emphasis on the “essential” differences between women and men – the stereotyped notion that women are more suited to caring, nurturing roles and that men are more able to lead and make decisions. While only one church overtly still refers to this, all apply it in practice. The study indicates that many women’s organisations fail to question such self-limiting attitudes and traditional roles such as fundraising, preparing food, cleaning and other service jobs, and are threatened by women advocating for transformation.

All the churches in the study consider homosexual acts as unnatural, with two indicating that homosexuality is not to be condoned. The others believe that homosexuals are called to be celibate and should be treated with compassion. Abortion for one of the churches is considered tantamount to murder. Another believes abortion is permissible in the context of a woman’s life being endangered, or in the case of rape. For the other three churches, abortion is at best the “lesser of two evils”.

Says Daniela Gennrich of Pacsa, which led the research initiative, “It is encouraging, however, that in all the churches in the study, there are pockets of both women and men – in leadership, among clergy and members – who are actively working to bring about gender transformation.”

Among the recommendations in the research report are for churches to:

• take steps to examine their policies and apply gender awareness in all aspects of their ministry;

• find new ways to equip women for leadership within the church;

• take account of “fresh understandings of the gospel based on contextual Bible study”, provisions in the Constitution and the law, and important changes in the nature of the family and roles of women as a result of the migrant labour system and the effects of HIV and Aids; and

• deepen understanding of women’s religious experience and recognise the need for an inclusive religious language, one that does not view “maleness” as an essential character of God or the norm for God’s people, or that sees women as subordinate.

Gennrich says a follow-up study is planned of individual women’s experiences – “what it feels like to be a woman with a strong calling who finds herself locked out of a position of influence by the church hierarchy, as well as experiences of men and women who are working for change”. She tells of one congregation of a mainstream church in Durban which has declared a “no-go zone” for ordained women.

The research tool, which consists of a series of questions, can be used by anyone wanting to examine the policies and practices in their own church that affect relations between men and women. The summary research report and simplified booklet containing sample reflection questions are available from Pacsa (e-mail loul@pacsa.org.za or phone 033 342 0052).

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