Here in Jerusalem, the observance of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity by the ecumenically minded will begin Saturday evening. In many other places in the world, the week has already started.
For Christianity, unity remains a valued, if elusive, ideal. Theologically, we Christians claim to be one in Jesus Christ, but the way our communities manifest themselves in traditions and denominations, parishes and congregations, has a long history of fracturing along seams of difference. Even the question of what unity truly entails does not receive a common answer: for some, working towards unity means bring churches together under common structures as schisms are healed and agreements are reached; for others, unity is closer akin to solidarity, with a healthy dash of friendship, a desire for understanding, and a care for the particular well-being of those who are and will remain different. But what happens when the wish for unity clashes with some other theological value? Should unity trump equality–meaning, should unity at all costs quell one faith community’s desire to be more inclusive than others wish to be? Churches which ponder becoming more inclusive to people beyond heteronormative life will be told that such a choice might harm unity as churches which refuse such inclusivity might break ties. People point to women’s ordination as another point of tension between those church traditions which celebrate it and those which are, shall we say, uneasy about it.
The other day I ran across this post from a blog called The Kneeler in which the author cried out the grievance that churches’ ideas of unity do not always reflect everyone’s notions of justice: how can there be unity when one group thinks it is wrong to ordain people like the author of the blog post? Sent off thinking about this conundrum I remembered that I planned to write a post about what I have observed about women and Judaism here in Jerusalem.
However, before this man weighs in on the traditions of another faith, or about unity and inequality in any other Christian traditions for that matter, I need to take a closer look at my own. Many Presbyterian/Reformed churches proclaim equal opportunity among the sexes now–that is, they no longer bar women from ordination to the ministry of word and sacraments. For example, both the Church of Scotland and The Presbyterian Church in Canada have celebrated fortieth anniversaries of women’s ordination in the last five years. (Canadian Presbyterians moved on this slightly earlier.) In my own life, I have not known a time when women could not become ministers. Growing up, I assumed this was normative. The congregation which my family attended even had an associate minister who was a woman for a short time when I was young.
It was not until much later that I heard how much difficulty she faced, a rumour of unease and certain members of the church making things unhappy.
But that was not long after women’s ordination began. Today, surely the situation is different, right? Certainly, when I went to theological college, a slight majority of ministry candidates were women, moving somewhat towards the way that women make up the majority of church attenders. And there must be fewer and fewer people who begrudge women their space in the pulpit. Yet, after the recognition of the anniversary of women’s ordination in Scotland, it was remarked to me that there’s a long way to go yet–how many of the big parishes have a woman as their minister? Anecdotal evidence would say few to none.
Thinking about this, I decided to look at the most recent statistics for The Presbyterian Church in Canada. The denomination is slightly smaller than the Church of Scotland, and so this would be quicker. Plus the statistics are easier to find on the internet: The Acts and Proceedings of the One Hundred Thirty-Sixth General Assembly (June 2010) have all the statistics for 2009 on congregational ministers, membership numbers, and total revenue for 2009 in the sections ‘Presbytery and Congregational Information’ and ‘Congregational Statistics and Financial Reports’.
This is what I found. The PCC has 111 prominent congregations, where ‘prominent’ means the congregation has the largest number of members or the largest total annual revenue in its presbytery, or has a membership roll of over 400 people, or has an annual total revenue over $400 000, or has regional or historical importance. (The latter bit is important in parts of the country that have overall lower wealth and population, or they would disappear.) Of those 111 congregations, 8 had a woman serving as their only minister, 4 had women as part of more or less equal clergy teams with men, and 9 had women serving as associate ministers. There were 32 congregations with 400 or more members: only two of these had a woman as their sole minister; one had a woman as part of a clergy team; and five had female associate ministers. There were sixty congregations with over $400 000 in total revenue; ministers in these congregations included 8 women as associates (it stands to reason that only the wealthier congregations could afford associates in any case), one woman in a clergy team, and only one woman as the sole minister. There are no clearly recognisable cases where a woman is a lead minister with men in staff as associates or assistants.
So, what does this suggest to you? To me, it suggests that, for all the theological equality, for all the equality in church polity–ministers in small churches have just as much clout vote-wise as ministers in larger ones–there is still some barrier keeping women away from prominent positions in the church. Presbyterian search committees seem reluctant to trust women with leadership roles when large numbers of people or amounts of money are involved.
There is more work to do on this, most certainly, both in terms of study and of activism. I am not sure what can or should be done, or what I can do as a minister and a theologian. At the very least, I want to draw attention to it, and try not to forget it myself as I go about what I do. One’s sense of justice should not forget home soil.
What is it about religion that involves such flashes of inequality even when the best theology would suggest something very different? We cannot blame it only on the cultural context, or the history, or what other people have done or are doing. We must not forget to notice what happens, though we cannot simply point to problems without pointing to ourselves.
Early in our time in Jerusalem, I accompanied Alana to Yom Kippur services at a Reform synagogue. For ease of preparation, Alana pinned a kippah on my head before we left. A few other guests from the institute where Alana works also went with us. All of the group, except for Alana, were Christians. Walking the streets of Jerusalem wearing a kippah was no problem for us men, even if we were Christians. Alana did not put hers on until she arrived at the synagogue. She was not alone; at the synagogue, all the men I saw arrived wearing kippot, but the many women who would wear them during the services only put them on when they got in the door. Evidently, this included rabbinical and cantorial students, etc. The same thing happened later when we went to a different Reform synagogue. Women, for whatever reason and as far as I could tell, would only don their kippot inside the synagogue: they did not wear them while walking in the beautiful evening at the start of Shabbat. What sticks in my mind, all these months later, is that it feels unfair that I, a Christian, can wear a kippah in the streets of Jerusalem without any notice, while Alana, the Jewish one in this relationship, cannot.
From women not being called as ministers in prominent Presbyterian congregations to women not feeling able to wear kippot even though their own sense of Jewishness tells them that they should: such things should at least make us men in faith communities wince. It would be even better if we all could think of ways to improve the situation.