The Struggle for the Equal Rights of Women in the Church of North India
Revd. Sonal Christian, lecturer in Old Testament, Gujarat United School of Theology Ahmedabad, Gujarat, describes the place of Women in the CNI and suggest that an Indaba process might encourage better participation for both men and women in the Church.
Women and men have coexisted since their creation by God. In the creation account itself we are told that the Lord intended equality when God created them in His own image as male and female (Gen.1:27). After the fall this equality was lost, but it was re-established by Jesus on the cross as he died for all human beings irrespective of any barriers. In the New Testament the apostle Paul talks about the new humanity as he proclaims that in Christ Jesus there is neither male nor female (Galatians 3:28). It is God’s plan that men and women live and work together in freedom and harmony. They are intended to complement each other.
Since the beginning of time, however, men and women have been at odds with each other. Religious ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ play a major role in any community, and Christianity is no exception. Any culture or mindset has its religion at the centre, and Indian society is patriarchal in nature, as are its religions. Hindu women enjoyed freedom and equality during the Vedic period, but then their freedom was taken away, and it has not been given back to them up until today. Women in the Bible went through ups and downs in their status in family, society and religion. In the patriarchal Jewish culture of Old Testament times women had a very low profile, but their status improved in the time of Jesus and the early church. Their situation deteriorated again when the church was organized and institutionalized as there were issues of position and power. Since then, men in Christian settings have dominated in the family, in society and in religion.
This paper examines how the Church of North India has responded to this issue of women’s rights in church and society and how its efforts have influenced the status of women in India. Case studies assist in assessing the church’s efforts and its results.
Churches’ Struggle with the Status of Women
As mentioned earlier, during Jesus’ time and early church history, women enjoyed freedom in expressing themselves, serving Jesus, and ministering actively in the church. We know from the gospels that, besides twelve male disciples, Jesus had female disciples who were always ready to help and serve. Women were at the cross and were first to arrive at the empty tomb. Such was the dealing of Jesus with women that a Samaritan woman became the first missionary and Mary of Magdala became the first announcer of Jesus’ resurrection. In the life of the early church women took an active part with the apostles in the church’s work. Though some of his statements have been used as a tool for suppressing women, even Paul had women co-workers.
When the gospel arrived in India women took an active part in most fields of the church’s life during the missionary period. After the missionaries’ departure, however, when the leadership came into the hands of Indian leaders, patriarchal sentiment prevailed and men took the leadership position in all areas and women were given the back seat. A similar situation prevails in most churches around the world.
The World Council of Churches (WCC) as a international body, and the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI) as a national body, have played their part for the empowerment of women. The WCC launched the Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women on Easter Sunday of 1998 to give churches the opportunity to respond to God’s call to inclusiveness, solidarity with the oppressed, and the sharing of power and resources within communities. This was designed to build on the momentum of the United Nations Decade of Women. It called the churches to end physical and emotional abuse of women, their economic insecurity and political powerlessness, and their exclusion from decision-making processes. It called for churches to encourage and empower the full contribution and participation of women in every aspect of society and the church. The UN’s End of the Decade Conference in 1995 reminded us that millions of women and girls continue to live on the margins of society.
In 1988 the General Conference of the United Methodist Church committed to participate fully in the WCC’s designated decade; support full participation of women in decision-making and development bodies; support women in theology and shared spirituality; produce educational resources and programs on the marginalization and oppression of women; encourage all levels of the church to study the root causes of sexism; find ways to increase the participation of women in all aspects of the church; increase the involvement of racial, ethnic, national minority, indigenous, immigrant and refugee women; support the WCC Women Under Racism Programme; encourage governments to implement the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. In 1996 the United Methodist General Conference recommitted the church to working on the goals of the decade.
Despite this stand, however, there are very few female presbyters in India in the Methodist churches. For instance, after ordaining one woman the Gujarat Conference decided not to ordain women anymore. It is not that there are no theologically trained women in the Methodist Church in Gujarat, but they are either working as wardens in ladies hostels or are teaching in schools.
The Struggle of the Women’s Fellowship for Christian Service in the CNI
Church of North India women participated actively in the Decade for Women, and later in the World Alliance of Reformed Churches’ programme on “men and women in partnership.” Yet in the forty years of the CNI’s existence it is only in the last seven to ten years that women’s situation has seen progress. It is not that the CNI had not taken any steps during the previous years, but it did not work out in practice, or it was not allowed to be practised.
The Women’s Fellowship for Christian Service (WFCS) was founded shortly after the formation of the CNI in 1970 to give a forum to women of the church above the age of 21 to form a network of women in the 26 dioceses of the CNI through unity, witness, family life, social outreach and friendship. The mission of WFCS is to empower women at all levels to take control of their lives, and each pastorate has a WFCS through which women are committed to work as agents of change in home, church and community. Although the majority of the church and male presbyters recognize WFCS’s ministry and service, women of the WFCS face considerable struggle with with male presbyters and congregation members in many places. For instance, many women fellowship presidents and congregation members complain that when they want to celebrate certain days (like Mothers Day, Blessed Day of Mary, World Day of Prayer), they are not given co-operation and space during the church services. Many women testify that when they ask pastors about arranging some programmes for women, the response is along the lines of “Your women always have some programme or other. If we always make room for your programmes, when we be able to offer other programmes?”
Women from the platform of the WFCS have tried to fight for the equal rights and status of women and also for empowerment of women in the church. However, there has been another setback in recent years. Women in top positions of the WFCS have minimized their fight and struggle. They are keeping themselves away from conflict for fear of losing what little power and influence they have. They are in an identity crisis and so are not taking controversial issues in their hands but are content with holding seminars and conferences. They did not raise their voice for the Women’s Bill.
Women’s Struggle in Ordained Ministry and in Theological Education
As the majority of CNI women presbyters struggle to make their presence felt in the church, they are still looking forward to the leaders and church members offering support, co-operation, encouragement and appreciation. Ordination of women started in 1980, but in 2010 there are only 47 women presbyters in a church of 1,200-plus male presbyters. In a a survey taken several years ago, 90 percent of diocesan bishops said ‘No’ to ordaining women and gave various reasons including placement problems. Many women who studied theology have had to wait months or years for congregational appointments, or they are placed in rural congregations where there are no facilities. For instance, one woman who received a Methodist bursary to study in the UK, had to wait for three years upon her return for a job in the CNI.
In the election of bishops, two women presbyters were candidates but were not elected. It was said that other reasons contributed to their not being elected, which might naturally be the case, but it is also probable that their gender was a major factor.
On a positive note, when the WCC declared the Decade of Women in 1995, the CNI declared a 35 percent reservation for women at the pastorate, diocesan and synodical levels, while the nation was still struggling to pass a Women’s Reservation Bill. In 1995 as well, inclusive language was adopted in the CNI constitution, and priority was given to scholarships for women.
Previously, women-related subjects were included in the B.D. curriculum as optional subjects by the Senate of Serampore College, the accrediting and syllabus-setting body in Indian theological education. It was left to the students in the various Serampore related theological colleges to decide whether to take such subjects or not. There were very few takers, and the majority of them were women. In the year 2000 a Women’s Study Department was included for M.Th. studies; women enrolled, but few men did so. Since 1989 women’s studies have been interwoven with all other study areas at the B.D. level.
These are the welcome steps. However, not all seminaries have endorsed women’s studies and encouraged their students to enroll. Ten years of Serampore Senate statistics show that, for example, 189 students took up M.Th. studies in the field of theology, whereas only 24 students pursued the M.Th. in women’s studies. Only three seminaries offer the M.Th. in women’s studies. On the other hand, the gap between B.D. and M.Th. and M.Th. and Ph.D. enrollments is greater for men than it is for women. That is, while the total number of women undertaking theological study is small relative to men, a higher proportion of the women go on to advanced degrees. Over time we can expect that women will be in a strong position to teach in theological education.
Yet significant questions remain: How many women take up theological studies? How many women are encouraged either by pastorates or dioceses to undertake study? If they study, do they receive appropriate appointments? Are they ordained? Do they receive different treatment when they are not CNI-sponsored?
A Personal Story
I am the first woman in the Diocese of Gujarat to be ordained as a deacon and then as a presbyter. My journey up to this point has been one of struggle and of hardship, and hurdles have come at every step. There is no scope to share every step of my journey, but it is appropriate to share some important incidents. When I went for the interview for ordained ministry, I was asked, “What do you want to do after your theological studies?” My answer was straightforward: “I want to become a pastor because that’s the call I have received from God.” Many eyebrows were raised in the committee, as if they had heard it wrong. They asked me again and again, and my answer remained the same. Finally they stopped asking and concluded by saying, “Okay, once you finish your studies we will look into it.” It was as if they were trying to convey the message to me that, “Once you finish your studies, then you will have to do whatever we say!”
When I finished my B.D. studies in April 1996, I asked for an appointment but waited through August, four months, for a response. At last, in September, a letter came telling me to work among youth, children and women in a particular area of the diocese. Although I was inclined to reject the appointment as not in line with my call to the presbyterate, I decided after much thought and with conviction that if God had called me to be a pastor, He would lead me forward. I accepted the appointment and worked there up to the end of that year. But through those months, whenever I got the chance, I reminded the church authority that this was not my vision and call.
Then in January 1997 I was appointed to a tribal village church located in a jungle area where there was no water connection, no transportation and where electricity was not at all regular. One house is half a kilometre from another house. I was given one room in the old missionary bungalow, and there I lived alone for two years. The bungalow was so scary that even men were scared to live in it. Yet God gave me strength to live there for two years and serve the church as an assistant pastor. The congregation accepted me well, and I enjoyed my work, but it was difficult not to conclude that the appointment was intended to discourage me and induce me to leave the ministry.
After two years of this acid test, I went for M.Th. study, and only after that was I given ordination as a deacon. Ordination as a presbyter came after a gap of two years. My male counterparts, on the other hand, were ordained three or four years earlier than I was. Currently with a pastoral charge and teaching in a theological college, my story is one of both struggle and success.
Some sister presbyters in CNI, however, have not tasted even a bit of success. One woman presbyter in another diocese was in a city church where she was doing well. But for no apparent reason she was transferred to a village church, which had yet to be established. The city congregation was given no explanation by the bishop or the diocese as to why the transfer was made. While members of her congregation were upset about the transfer, no one had the courage to ask the bishop why it occurred. The presbyter accepted the transfer, and that was the end of the story.
Other women presbyters have had similar experiences. To a disturbing extent, women presbyters receive little appreciation for their services and continue working unnoticed in remote churches, sometimes resigning from the ministry altogether. In view of this record, some women hesitate to offer themselves for ordination, and those who do receive little encouragement or cooperation. At Gurukul Lutheran Theological College in 2000, the ladies’ hostel was full with B.D. and M.Th. students. Recently, I visited the college and what I saw was heartbreaking. More than half the rooms of the ladies hostel are empty. This indicates what kind of message women are getting when they see their senior sisters ministering. So now the church has to decide what’s wrong!
This paper has set forth the current position of women in the Church of North India. The situation raises important questions: Although we have talked a great deal about women’s liberation and women’s empowerment, has the church succeeded in nurturing it? Do the theory and practice match? Have the many claims that have been made by the church been realised? Does the church know the reality of women’s situation, or does it pretend not to know and then send the message that all is well?
Equally important, it is not clear that the processes of the church have functioned well to clarify and address issues of conflict related to the situation of women. Statements have been published and policies have been promulgated, but the CNI has not faced squarely the conflicts involved in implementation. Instead, the church has avoided the issue, and thereby sought to give the impression that a problem does not exist. It appears that the motives for such an approach are a desire to avoid confrontation and a disposition to preserve the existing system of male privilege.
In closing I ask: Is it not possible to adopt the indaba model of conversation amid difference in family, society and in church in order to promote greater participation for both men and women, as God had intended from the beginning?