God calls Women - Part Two

Celebrating the fiftieth anniversary, this year, of Rev Dr Dame Phyllis Guthardt as the first woman to be ordained to ministry in a mainstream Kiwi church, an historic event described in my posting of last week, is only part of the story of church leadership opening up to women. I have been ordained since 1975, nearly 35 years, and have seen the patterns of ministry change in both the Presbyterian Church, my heritage, and in the Baptist  movement, my adopted church home. My recent attendance at the National Baptist Assembly (these days called "the gathering") brought home to me the fact that these changes seem at last to be well bedded-in in the New Zealand Baptist family of churches. But this has been a  long time coming.

When I was at university in the seventies, a close friend and former teacher felt called to enrol for theological studies at Baptist College, now Carey Baptist College. As far as I know she was well received and did well in her courses. But like the other early pioneers among Baptist women, she found there was simply no opening for her to serve in pastoral leadership. Later, after she married, the family went overseas to serve as missionaries, where her training was put to good use, albeit informally.

Over the next two decades, I kept an eye on what was happening in the Kiwi Baptist churches, and eventually saw a number of qualified women  accepted to serve on  the staff of local churches. However the role of Senior Pastor seemed at that stage to be unattainable. Children' s workers yes, assistant and perhaps even associate pastor, but the notion of a woman "having authority over men" was still deeply discomfiting. This was in no small part due to the evangelical interpretation of Paul's teachings about women in church. Although most twentieth century believers were able to grasp that his advice about hair length and the wearing of hats was culturally contextualised, most seemed to take literally his words about women teaching in the church. The helpful presentations of Dr Chris Marshall on  "the Sticky Passages" later helped enormously with this. 

In this the Baptist churches were travelling a similar journey to the one I described last week, in the NZ Methodist and Presbyterian churches, but about twenty years behind them. That journey has not been a smooth pathway for women responding to God's call. In 1989 Dr Vivienne Adair undertook a research project exploring the experience of women ministers in the PCANZ, 25 years after the Reverend Margaret Reid Martin had been accepted for ordination. She interviewed 63 women clergy to determine whether any patterns were emerging in age, marital status, opportunities and distinctive gifts. The findings which were published under the heading "Women of the Burning Bush" were fascinating, and told of experiences both positive and painful. Both of these, of course, are experienced by male clergy as well, but it seemed that there were incidences of discrimination, difficulty and difference that characterised the stories of women ministers. The report describes the climate at the time of the Assembly ruling to admit women as equals: "Men are more fair-minded and independent, able to make far reaching decisions....however some women could learn to be leaders"..."the admission of women to the ministry may well enrich the church" (cited byAdair p5 from Weinberg 1989).

Women ministers over that 25 years found that the role of a pioneer involves changing attitudes as well as  regulations. At one stage, in 1984, the PCANZ needed to officially reiterate its  position on women ministers, because of the bizarre situation of some male clergy choosing to stand apart from the laying on of hands, if the candidate was a female. People in general needed to become used to seeing and hearing a women preach, lead worship and conduct weddings and funerals. It was common to be told in a surprised tone "you did that quite well" after a funeral, and also to find people suddenly found another denominational connection or a local kaumatua, once they learned the Presbyterian minister was a woman. In my own interview with Vivienne Adair, I told of being on Search Committees where lists of potential ministers were purged of all the women and Pacific Islanders a priori. This infuriated me, but in those early days I was not confident enough to challenge it. Nor did I tell my own parish (where I was serving not as the minister but as an elder, while our children were little) how hurtful it was that they imported a doddery retiree from an hour away to take Communion when the minister was away. As an ordained minister I could have taken that service and would have loved to do so. When I did later take Communion there,  a young man stood up and walked out, and another couple declined the elements. These stories were  I found, repeated up and down the country, and re-telling them to Dr Adair and to each other gave us as women clergy new courage and hope.

That is why my heart sang when I  saw at the Baptist Gathering a range of women ministers, of varying ages and stages of the family life cycle, participating in the leadership of the Baptist movement. Especially moving was hearing the story of R, a woman I had mentored while she was at Carey College. The Conference theme was "Hearing from the God who Speaks" and R set the tone on Pastors Day by telling her amazing story of a Catholic upbringing, a longing to know the reality of God, personal experience of his love and power through the joy of adoption and the pain of divorce, and then the wearying experience of years in a Pentecostal church founded on legalism. Add into that a new husband, home schooling three boys, and a perinatal stroke, followed by a strong call to pastoral ministry while leading worship in a Baptist church, and you have one of the most inspiring presentations I have ever heard. I knew all of the story already but to hear it "joined up" was deeply moving, and it was a special thrill to hear R mention my name, as someone who had helped her make sense of that call of God to a busy wife and mother.

R is now a sole charge parish minister, and facing all sorts of challenges, as new pastors do. Some of those may be because she is female, but it is unlikely that she will have to challenge attitudes and values to the degree that Phyllis Guthardt and Margaret Martin and Vivian Coleman did. Women have proved capable and gifted not just to do the so-called "natural" pastoral care and Christian education aspects of church work, but to engage in scholarship and  governance and in some cases take a real prophetic role in leadership.  Western society is now post-feminist, and in New Zealand we have seen women take on leadership roles in most aspects of society, including  that of Prime Minister.  This has all helped congregations accept and value  the leadership of women pastors, who now make up 10% of clergy.  It is still an uphill journey, but surely the likeable and very human  TV caricature the Vicar of Dibley - Dawn French aka Geraldine Granger - has  doen her bit to demythologise the role on behalf of us all!

To Chew Over: What is your experience of women in leadership, in church and in your daily life?  Are there any problematic aspects you have noticed? Can you identify distinctive gifts that they bring?

Who is this man who gave to women dignity
In partnership of worth and equal grace,
Who listened to the stories that they told him,
And honoured each whatever was their place;
Who let them choose to come and join his company
And learned with them God's love for every race,
Who showed to each the courage of their nature
To care and tend each lonely and each suffering face?

    Who is this man, who spoke to men of gentleness
And showed them all the children at his side;
Who taught of love and justice for all people,
And took a towel and washed away their pride?
In him they saw the strength of truth and mercy,
And how he trusted God to be his guide,
Knew how he led them through misunderstanding,
And then forgave them when they ran away to hide.

Who is this man, who calls us now to follow,
A shadow presence asking us to be
Companions of the way through this life's journey,
To live in truth, to set our tired world free?
So, let us find each other now in partnership,
With ears to hear and eyes awake to see,
That we might grow in grace and understanding,
And walk beside that man who comes from Galilee.
Author unknown.