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Ordination of women in the LCA - Yes or No?

Further considerations as we face the decision regarding the ordination of women
Tanya Wittwer, North Adelaide, SA

If any of you have come to this presentation to hear sociological arguments for the ordination of women, you will probably be disappointed. I could use this time to show evidence that in today’s society in Australia, given our membership, the LCA is unhelpfully anachronistic in having an exclusively male clergy, with only token female involvement at leadership level. I could further argue that this feature of our church means it is irrelevant to many who might otherwise find it to be their denomination of choice, and that therefore we must ordain women.

I could also show evidence that for many - maybe for most - the church is the one safe place in a society of constant change and turmoil. Marina Craig wrote in the Sunday Mail last weekend:

There are a variety of things people want from religious services these days … a sense of continuity, an opportunity to worship, a link with the past, an experience of sharing and, perhaps most importantly of all, a stepping away from the pressures, the stresses of daily life on to a more spiritual plane.

For those that share this understanding of the church, it could be argued on sociological grounds that it is important to honour the desire for what has always been, the desire for a safe place away from change. I could therefore maintain that perhaps it is our duty to provide a niche for those who do not want women to be involved in leadership and service, as clergy, and that there are other churches that people can go to if this does not suit them.

However, I do not believe we have the luxury of being able to turn to sociological trends and theories as we make decisions about being church. We are not called to be church to help people stay comfortable, or to fulfil their perceived needs - however noble; we don’t do needs analysis when we are determining our mission. We have already been given our Mission Statement, we already know what it is that we are to do.

I believe that the LCA must ordain women, if it is to be faithful to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, of Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel, the God of Jesus the Christ, the God of Martin Luther and the God of Tanya, of John, of Philippa. My understanding is based on theological grounds, on my relationship with God and my understanding of Scripture, and informed also by an understanding of my own call.

So rather than arguing for the ordination of women on sociological grounds, I wish to supplement the discussion about theological and pastoral issues by reflecting on some sociological and historical issues and raising questions about how we go about making this decision.

How do we know what we know
How do we know what we know — about God, about God’s will, about living as God’s people? Initially, and, I hope, constantly along our baptismal journey, we learn from those who incarnate God’s love for us — our parents, maybe a pastor or teacher, a special friend, a partner. We learn from being in the community of faith and participating in the liturgy and ritual of the church. We learn from those who seek to teach - our parents, our Sunday School teachers, our pastors. And we also learn from our own relationship with God; we bring our own understanding, our own storying, our own sorting out. And we learn from Scripture as the normative means for seeking to know God’s will. But here we find a problem.

On Luther campus for these two days there has been brought together a collection of people who are convinced, from Scripture, that it is either imperative that the church ordain women, or that it is absolutely necessary that this not happen. For others who are not so certain, there can be a lot of confusion as they try to sort through the paradox that each person is using the same Scripture, yet coming to different conclusions. Maybe we all included in Jesus’ comment to the Jews, as I paraphrase and summarize from John 5:39-40, You study the Scriptures diligently … and yet you miss the whole point!

When we do go to Scripture to find the answers to difficult questions, is it so important that we use a process which is consciously critical and self-critical. The most helpful resource I have found to inform the discussion on the use of Scripture in approaching difficult issues is Willard Swartley’s Slavery, Sabbath, War and Women (1983, Herald Press, Scottdale, Pa). Using case studies of social issues he illustrates how the commentators have used Scripture to support their own predispositions. Together the case issues raise basic questions of biblical interpretation, including:

1 How are the two Testaments related?
2 How is the authority of Jesus related to all of Scripture?
3 What is the relationship between divine revelation and the culture in which the revelation is given and perceived?
4 Does Scripture mandate, regulate or challenge practices associated with the issues?
5 Does the Bible say only one thing on a given subject, or does it sometimes show differing, even contradictory          points of view?
6 What does it mean to take the Bible literally? Is that a vice or a virtue? Does "literal" signify the intended
        meaning of the author or a meaning that seems natural to us?
7 To what extent do the interpreter’s predetermined positions, even ideologies, affect the interpretive task?

These are questions we need to answer in order to enter discussion in which the Bible is used to inform our decisions. If we cannot state clearly the principles that we are using in interpreting text, we do a disservice to those we teach. Scripture is not only a powerful resource, but also a source of power. The one who interprets Scripture is exercising power over his or her community. It is not a neutral action.

What do we bring to the task?
While each of us accepts the Bible and its teaching, in the task of understanding it and applying it to our lives we all begin with our own suppositions. We all carry our own baggage, and often we are completely unaware of what it is. How can a fish see water? How can we see our own cultural setting? How can we know how we are applying our own cultural norms when trying to understand what Scripture is saying to us? My experience has been that for many people who have lived in other cultural settings there is a gentler approach to issues when they return, as there is a greater understanding of the blinkers that each of us wear in relation to our own culture.

It seems so important to have an understanding of the cultural setting of those who recorded Scripture for us. I have known people who have rejected Christianity because no-one has given them the tools to understand the cosmology of the Hebrew Scripture and their scientific rationalism leads them to reject the Bible.

We also bring to Scripture the traditional teaching that we have been exposed to. In my confirmation year I was taught that Scripture says women may not be Ministers of the Word and Sacrament, with a number of key verses being used as evidence. If we have been taught something so clearly, how do we unlearn it so that we can look at all of Scripture without that prior teaching affecting how we read what lies in front of us?

Even our own personal identity influences how we interpret the Bible. Again, I use a personal example. One of the real difficulties that I have in listening to someone maintain a position that women should not be ordained, is that I know myself as a child a God, a human person, rather than as a woman. Yes, I am female, and that is an important part of my identity in relation to the physical expression of intimacy and commitment, or to my inability to father children, or my ability to nurture children through my uterus or breasts. To me it is totally irrelevant in considering ordained ministry. I hope that when I do encounter an ordained person, in their capacity as minister, their gender is not that part of them to which I am relating. Because I do not see my femaleness as somehow defining differentness and being a limitation, so many of the arguments are incomprehensible to me, as they would be if they were arguments about whether people who wear glasses should or should not be ordained. 

In the first session, one participant said at this point that she was feeling really uncomfortable about what I had said. For her, her femaleness was intrinsic, was part of all that she was and did. I suggested that this was a demonstration of how each of us are different, and bring a different sense of self to the task of interpreting Scripture. Something else that I could have said here is that we may not have been very different in our understanding: I certainly think my femaleness does pervade my being and actions, but not in a way which is limiting, or conscious.

And finally, we cannot learn about questions concerning our living out the Christian life within our own society without taking into account our own social context. An example that is perhaps easy to understand is to think about clothing in the Tongan islands. Scripture does not prohibit bare shoulders in public places, and as a Christian I have the freedom to show my shoulders. However, if I were in Tonga I would not wear dresses with shoulder straps and no sleeves, as culturally it is offensive and as a Christian person I do not wish to cause offense.

I believe that we cannot enter helpful discussion on the issue of the ordination of women until we are willing to step back from the issue itself and examine ourselves and the way we approach the issue. My experience and that of others who have been involved in the on-going process regarding women’s ordination is that study and discussion, when conducted in an adversarial way, only leads to each participant becoming more entrenched in the opinion they had prior to entering dialogue. If, instead, our discussion centres on self-examination of the presuppositions we bring, the prejudices, the ideals - if you like, the glasses we wear - we may find there is more to talk about, and understanding is more possible.

We have a history as a church of taking a strong stand on issues, and of believing that we need to have the right answer, and speak with one voice. Our very existence is Australia bears witness to this. One of the consequences has been the multiplicity of synods in our family tree. For those of our denominational forebears who felt the divided nature of the church to be a scandal and a limitation on the effective living of the Gospel, union of the two major synods in Australia was a consuming dream. We have been left with a legacy of a church that seems to value unity above all else. Rather than celebrating diversity and the strength that can be found in diversity, we have feared it.

In this fear, we have not found ways to deal with diversity. We have no strategies for discussing issues in ways that are mutually uplifting and aimed at finding consensus. Instead the preferred methodology seems to be of bludgeoning the ‘other side’ into submission. So discussion is set up as debate. In other arenas methods have been devised through which even difficult issues are worked through in ways that do not avoid essential differences, but which are not confrontational.

If we did not conceive of the topic of the ordination of women as an issue to be debated, but were genuinely interested in listening to each other and finding the points of agreement, would these two days look different?

Participants were asked to take three minutes to brain-storm ideas with someone sitting near them, of how such a symposium could work.

Towards a decision
Consensus decision-making takes time and energy. I think the only way this topic can really be considered by the church is through a well resourced process. Training in respectful interactive and invitational group work could be given to a group of people who would then lead small group workshop/discussions throughout the church. These group discussions would need to be facilitated with particular care given to providing emotional safety to the participants. I would hope that in small groups, in familiar local settings, people could feel safe enough to ask questions, raise issues, and speak about their concerns.

Apart from the restraint of the time and energy needed for building consensus, another barrier is the lack of trust. We need to start trusting that even if the opinion we hold on an issue is different from that of another person, this does not mean they are unfit to facilitate discussion on the issue.

Our history has left us with not only a culture that values unity above all else, but with significant sections of the church who appear to value Union over faithful searching for God’s will. Some within the church still play on the fear that the historical Union of the two synods could be broken, and seek to threaten the rest of us with the dissolution of the Union. A violent marriage is already broken by the abuse, long before one partner has to leave for (usually) her very existence and integrity. If our inability to make a good decision on the ordination of women is the reason for a section of the church to leave, perhaps Union was never a reality. I believe that one of the most difficult legacies of the union of the two Lutheran synods was that the issue of how Scripture is to be understood and interpreted was not resolved. How can we speak a common language until we have agreed on the principles we will use to approach Scripture? This goes beyond agreeing on formal hermeneutical principles. I’ve already suggested that perhaps it begins by examining our own baggage, our own predispositions.

For those who remember the years of work toward Union, and the pain of giving up so much to achieve and maintain it, for me to suggest that maintaining it against all odds may not be worth the cost would seem close to blasphemy. However I firmly believe we cannot allow the blatant manipulation of a few to control us through fear.

Perhaps one step along the journey that would take us away from such manipulation would be the public acknowledgment that the Theses of Agreement is an historical document which served a particular purpose at a particular time. As the LCA matures as a church, so this document needs to be left behind and our common understandings subjected to continuing scrutiny and the possibility of revision.

Fear has been a major factor in the life of our church. Fear of a split in the church. Fear of getting it wrong. Fear of losing power. Fear of vilification by the far right. Fear of censure in public forums. Fear of discipline by those further up the hierarchy. The edicts which prohibited pastors from publicly speaking on the issue of the ordination of women have only been softened in very recent times. When a colleague and I were asked to lead a series of studies at a Lutheran Student Fellowship camp on the Ordination of Women (only six years ago), we received letters from the President reminding us of the position of the church, and warning us that our teaching must clearly state this position. We knew when we consented to lead the study that if someone was offended at something that had been said or at an approach that had been used, that rather than speaking to us about it, it would be reported to the President and we would be called in for a "little chat". It is not only within our church that such methods of control have been, and are being used. Did you know that just a couple of weeks ago, the punishment for Catholics who speak about the ordination of women has been strengthened to be excommunication?

We know this part of our history, but what does it mean for the current process? When pastors and people have been controlled by fear, how can there be open discussion? When our church paper has not be used to explore a diversity of theological opinions and attitudes, but only to proclaim to official line, to what neutral source can people turn when they seek information to inform their own thinking? When people have been silenced, when people have been fearful of speaking out, what are the continuing effects of this when they are finally given permission to discuss an issue, perhaps even to publicly state their view? How can strong leadership be given and open discussion be held, without first addressing the history and fear?

It is a very difficult time to be discussing the ordination of women. Many of the mainstream churches are feeling under siege. Whatever our own congregational experience might be, we have visible signs within the denomination that maybe things aren’t going well: many congregations are finding it hard to fund their ongoing work, and part-time pastoral positions are being offered, parishes are being amalgamated, and synod contributions cut back. National and State budgets become difficult to balance, and there are a declining number of non-parish positions being funded. On one of the few occasions that the church chose to speak out on an issue of importance, great public debate ensued, with many suggesting the church was irrelevant and should keep its nose out of public discussion.

In times of siege we dig in, raise the barricades, and don’t take risks. It is not an ideal climate for facing an important issue with courage and openness. 

One participant shared that he believed there was an important question to ask of people who were both for and against the ordination of women. If the decision, when made, went against their own position, what would they need in order to stay in the church? What would providing care for them look like?

Last month the clergy of the Uniting Church in South Australia were gathered for the first time in the history of that church: all previous meetings had been of laity and clergy together. The clergy were told that as the church had an excess of clergy, not all clergy would be found settlements, and the church could not guarantee them security of tenure. In our own church a pastoral letter some months ago indicated that in the near future we might be in a similar position. What impact might this have on those for whom the church had provided security of employment, as they come to consider a move which would double the potential number of candidates for ministry (if God calls as many women as men into ordained ministry)?

It seems is it necessary for the LCA to begin developing processes to deal with an excess of clergy. Our process for supporting clergy who are, for whatever reason, not currently in church positions, is minimal, and unsatisfactory. Do we need to be clear that the call to ordained ministry is not a call to life-long job security? Perhaps we need to make sure this message is heard long before it is somehow tied to the ordination of women in a way which further impacts that decision.

Taking the discussion a little further: imagine that we have made the decision to ordain women. Already there are many women who have completed significant theological education, and who would not take long to complete the academic requirements for ordination. What processes would we need to develop to ensure that those gifted for service in this way were not prevented from serving because of their gender? Both the Uniting Church in Australia and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America found it necessary to introduce quotas to deal with the situation. In the LCA, at its formation, thought was not given to the impact of the church suddenly halving the number of committees - or, to phrase it differently, to suddenly having twice the number of experienced people to serve on committees. The most obvious impact was that the women who had served were displaced, so that the men from both sides of union could continue in their roles. Does our current composition of boards and committees show that we have recovered from this, thirty years later? 

Participants were asked to discuss with those around them: How would you want the church to approach the issue of finding the right people for service? What ideas do you have for ensuring a just and fair system?

Imagining women in ordained ministry
There is another developmental and sociological issue I would like to raise. In the mid-seventies a friend of mine completed some research which showed that when children aged 4 to 6 heard words which were thought at the time to be generic - like ‘man’ to mean ‘humanity’ — they did not hear them that way at all, but as meaning specifically male persons. Because of this research it became very important to me that, in our worship services, inclusive language be used. The world has moved on. Children growing up today are in a world where gender is not a defining thing. To my daughters, career choice is about skill and interest, not gender. They would find it difficult to conceive that certain occupations are closed to them because of their gender. They are unlikely to hear the generic ‘man’ anywhere now. In the church, however, things are different: gender is still a defining characteristic. Someone of my age may be able to hear or sing "man", and translate it to mean ‘person’, and we may be able to tolerate an exclusively male clergy because we know and understand the history, and love the church. But can we seriously ask our children to learn to translate, just for this particular part of their lives? And can we, with integrity, expect our children to tolerate exclusion on the basis of gender, only in this area of their lives? Aren’t we setting up an impossible situation for them, if at the same time we talk about a faith which permeates all of life? If it is necessary for us to explain that the ‘otherness’ of being female is something which applies in the church, how do we line this up with the things we want our children (female and male) to know deep within them, that they are created in the image of God, that they have been made a child of God in their baptism, and that in Christ there are no such divisions?

At least one participant felt that it was appropriate to teach our children these things, along with the special language used within the church. For others this was a deeply painful issue, as they considered that it impacted the formation of their children in negative ways. Even though they put energy into helping their children understand the radical equality of male and female, as created in God's image, they felt the church experience worked against their children really knowing this, deeply.

For many who are older the issue is almost the opposite: without role models, how can we imagine women in ministry? People are not able to conceive of something for which they have no prior experience. It happens so often that people who are against the ordination of women, or ambivalent regarding it, spend time overseas and change their mind through experiencing the ministry of women. With the change of mind comes a change in understanding of which Scripture passages are important, and how these should be interpreted, so that a theological change of heart (or is it head) accompanies a conversion from experience.

Some people do find themselves moving to a different understanding through study of Scripture. My confirmation pastor told me that although in the years following my own confirmation he had come to believe that Scripture did not prohibit the ordination of women, he still felt "in his gut" that it was not appropriate. When he shared the leadership of a funeral with a female Uniting Church minister his gut discomfort disappeared, and his understanding changed to be that not only did Scripture not prohibit the ordination of women, but that the church, to be faithful to Christ’s teaching, had to ordain women.

So how do we provide the experience that people need, so that the head/thinking part of the discussion is not limited by our lack of imagination regarding women in ministry? I believe the small moves are very important: that women serve within our churches in the ways not prohibited them - by reading, leading prayers, serving communion. I believe it essential that careful consideration be given to the involvement of laity, including women, in the construction of worship opportunities at all synodical gatherings and regional events. I do not see this as manipulating people into accepting the ordination of women, but as providing a means for taking away one of the barriers to being able to consider the issue.

My own experience as Associate in Ministry has supported this view. One very conservative young man was quite embarrassed when he realised that in asking me about whether I was ordained or not, he had forgotten that the LCA did not allow ordination. Another member shared with me that he had been quite vocal in his opposition to the ordination of women, but had changed his mind through experiencing the collaborative ministry of a male and female person. The most recent example was when I visited Epping soon after they heard their pastor had accepted a call away from them. One of the members asked if they could call me as their pastor. I answered, ‘There is a problem - the church thinks I’m a woman’. She replied, ‘I don’t!’

The experience given that particular congregation was not of an ordained woman: it was of a lay person sharing pastoral leadership in a team which consciously tried to model a discipleship of equals. Most members came to a point of being able to easily imagine a woman consecrating and preaching, not by experiencing it directly, but by generalizing from the ministry they witnessed and shared in. Our ministry was collaborative, and when I accepted the invitation to speak at this gathering, I did so expecting that my presentation would shared and discussed, as always with our work, using the other’s insight to sharpen our own ideas. It was often difficult and frustrating for Rick and myself as we each encountered barriers to collaboration in our own person and values, but we had made a commitment to finding our way through these difficulties. Rick Mickelson’s death was a great loss to the church, and a great personal loss to many of us.

One participant had a question:
Participants 1: From the things you have said it seems you in  no way consider women subordinate to men, even in the church or home. Am I correct?

Tanya: Yes.

Participant 2: There you are [name]! That's where your discussion with Tanya should start from.

Tanya: No. Our discussion would need to start from  the way we read and interpret Scripture. That is at the heart of the differences between our views.

Can you image what the church would look like if we were living a discipleship of equals? What would be different if men and women were working together at all levels within the church? If your imagination is big enough, what would the church look like if it had never been divided on gender lines?

Participants were invited to spend time discussing their visions of such a church.

For some the picture is terrifying. We would be talking about a change that the secular world has strived for and come no-where near achieving. We would not be talking of a church where men allowed women to exercise ministry, but where women as well as the men would be expected to be people of integrity, serving the church as responsible, self-determining, self-affirming children of God. Those that fear change or loss of power would be wise to fear this particular change.

My own kingdom vision imagines a church where ministry is truly understood as service, not power and authority; a church where the time and care needed is invested so that good decisions can be made; a church where at the heart of all processes is the understanding that everyone is included; a church where the life-giving power of God is reality and stands in stark contrast to the oppressive structures of the world in which it lives and moves.

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