Ever since that infamous reptilian encounter in the Garden of Eden; Mother Eve and her long lineage of daughters have laboured under a crushing sentence and sanction of enforced subservience in matters religious and secular. In almost all spheres of human endeavour; in business, politics, and religion, women, more often than not, live and function in the shadow of men. Perhaps no where else, is this practice of institutionalised subservience more apparent, than in the major monotheistic religions of the world. Religions in which, it is taken for granted that women are destined to function almost exclusively in secondary and second class roles.
As an adherent of one of these faiths, and a keen observer of this practice; I have often wondered, if and when, a time would ever come, when women believers would mount a challenge to the status quo; or, if they would, in accordance with age long tradition, simply accept their fate, and continue without clamour in their lesser roles. It occurred to me, also, that if any meaningful protest were to emerge on the part of women, regarding their status in these major monotheistic faiths; such protests would in all probability emerge from within the bounds of Christianity; rather than any of the other major monotheistic faiths.
But this is not to suggest, in anyway, that Christianity, in contrast to the other major monotheistic faiths, is or has been more amenable to change over the course of its history. For even within Christianity, there are, still to this day, major denominations, which remain inflexible and opposed to change, in much the same way as the other major monotheistic faiths. But it is fair to say, however, that where change has not always occurred within Christianity, at least a discussion of it has. And if nothing else, these discussions represent a beginning of sorts, which may eventually lead to something more tangible being accomplished.
If one were to pinpoint a denomination within Christianity, where change and discussions about change have been taking place in recent times; it is the Anglican denomination. And as can be expected, because of the nature of change; much of the discussion regarding it, has been of an emotive and divisive nature; such that the discussions have threatened to fracture the unity of that denomination.
Within the Anglican Church bitter arguments have arisen regarding the propriety and otherwise of ordaining practising homosexuals as clergymen; and the elevation of one of such, to the rank of bishop; an act undertaken by the American Episcopal Church. These bitter arguments have also been compounded by the perceived failure of the Archbishop of Canterbury to discipline the American arm of his Church for its provocative action; thereby giving rise to deep schisms in the Anglican Communion.
Such that, for the first time; the Anglican Communion’s 10 yearly Lambeth Conference, holding this week at Canterbury, is being boycotted by a number of African provinces; most notably that of Nigeria; where only one of its bishops, that of Owerri, is attending the conference, ostensibly to promote church unity, but I suspect also to undertake a much desired shopping trip to England. The Church of Nigeria has been particularly vociferous in its opposition on this issue; and its boycott of the Lambeth Conference, effectively deals, the Archbishop of Canterbury a bloody nose.
But while tempers continue to flare on the issue of the ordination of homosexual clergymen; the debate has shifted to the issue of the role of women in the Anglican Church. As it happens, this debate has been no where near as emotive or divisive as the other one. In fact, female clergy are already being ordained in the Church of England; and have been for some time now. And the General Synod of the Church of England has recently agreed to assign bishoprics to women in due course. This follows the example of the American, and Australian, provinces of the Anglican Communion, where women bishops are in place.
But where does the Church of Nigeria stand on the issue of the ordination of women clergy and their eventual elevation to bishop status? Is it opposed to such a move? And if it is, what is its opposition based on? And are there scriptural prohibitions against this practice? And if there are, are they justified or justifiable in the light of the historic and present role of women in the advancement of Christianity?
At present, it appears that there is no evidence of, or plans for, the ordination of women in the Church of Nigeria. It remains a bastion of male dominance. However, the Church of Nigeria recognises that it in spite of its discomfort with, and its reluctance to, the idea of women clergy; it acknowledges that it may, at some point in the future, have to cede ground on this point. Hence, its general, but non committal statement of futuristic intent to appoint female deacons at some indeterminate point. This undoubtedly, represents a common sense approach, given the fact that the fast growing sister and ‘rival’ Pentecostal movement in Nigeria, allows for greater female participation, visibility, and leadership.
I suspect that the reluctance of the Church of Nigeria to follow in the steps of its English, American, and Australian, counterparts in this regard has much to do with scriptural as well as cultural considerations. But I suspect that it is upon the basis of scriptural provisions, that it justifies itself position in not empowering women in the Church; rather than cultural considerations.
It is interesting to note that from a scriptural perspective (the New Testament) the Lord Jesus Christ is not known to have espoused, endorsed, or enforced any prohibitions regarding the participation of women in matters of ministry or in their holding of office. Even though as we know it, there were no women amongst his designated apostles; but I find it inconceivable to imagine, that there would have been no women, in the band of 72 disciples that he sent out on specific ministerial assignment, on one particular occasion.
However, unequivocal and specific prohibition, regarding their participation in the Church is to be found in the injunctions of St. Paul. And some examples of these injunctions are as follows:
1 Corinthians 14:34-35
“Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.”
1 Timothy 2:11-12
“Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.”
The above injunctions are emphatic in their purport. They leave no room for contention. But it is difficult to reconcile the absoluteness of the above provisions, when one considers some of St. Paul’s other statements in the New Testament. For instance, in Galatians 3:28, he states that in Christ there is no male or female; thus underscoring the equal status of men and women in things pertaining to God. So I wonder what was going on in his mind when he recorded his prohibitions regarding women. Could he have been privy to some information about them that was not freely available to others? Or was his approach simply a throwback to the stance of the law and events in the Garden of Eden?
But notwithstanding his emphatic provisions as to the conduct of women in the church; different attitudes have been adopted by different denominations to his prohibitions. Some see them as being anachronistic and not in keeping with present realities, and, therefore, requiring change. And others simply ignore them; allowing women to play visible and vocal roles in the church in Nigeria and elsewhere; while others still, follow them to the letter.
In approaching scriptures, as much as is possible, I try to refrain from using the ‘anachronistic’ argument i.e. that times have changed and so the scriptures must also be changed to reflect present realities. The problem with this approach is one of, where do we draw the line, in an increasingly changing world like ours?
I much rather take the view, that the scriptures should be interpreted, in the light of the revelation of the love of God. A God whose love is reflected by his desire to draw all towards him; and one who causes the sun to shine, and the rain to fall, upon all without discrimination; one whose love and character is demonstrated in the many parables narrated by the Lord Jesus Christ (the parable of the missing sheep; the missing coin; the prodigal son etc.).
My view is that Christian women, have for many years, been a bedrock of support in and for the advancement of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And I believe that it is only proper and fair for women to be allowed to play greater and more visible roles in establishment Churches; holding office and positions as men do. One only has to look at the pivotal role of women in the ministry of the Lord, and even in that of St. Paul to form an idea of their importance.
The Church of Nigeria has been stalwart in its opposition, to those it views as trying to devalue and undermine the Christian faith. It must now also demonstrate its support for the strengthening of the same faith; by reforming its own house of prayer and by promoting the fair and equal treatment of its loyal female base.
I know it will take a quantum leap of faith and a radical paradigm shift in order for the Church of Nigeria to travel along this route; but I suspect that going forward, it will have little choice, other than to embrace its women in higher ministerial capacities. Its putative plans to introduce female deacons at some indeterminate point in the future, is encouraging; but as of now they remain only plans. I sincerely hope that it is able to muster the courage to go all the way; particularly if it is to retain its long term relevance as a redemptive and reformative force in Nigerian society.
Interestingly, for millennia, male bishops have worn dresses as their official garb of choice; so maybe the time has now come for women too to try on the trousers of authority in establishment Churches.
Remembering that ‘… God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.’ Genesis 1: 27