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Women in ministry confront barriers, envision future

 


Women in ministry confront barriers, envision future

March 31, 2004

By Holly E. Nye*

BOSTON (UMNS) - More than a century after Anna Howard Shaw became the first woman ordained in the former Methodist Protestant Church, women are still confronting barriers in ministry.

Fifteen women religious leaders discussed those barriers and other aspects of being in ministry at the 20th anniversary of Women and the Word. The Anna Howard Shaw Center at United Methodist-related Boston University School of Theology presents the symposium to celebrate women's preaching and leadership. More than 80 people attended this year's event, held March 24-25 with the theme, "Celebrating the Past, Honoring the Present, Envisioning the Future."

The speakers included pastors, teachers, community leaders and two bishops. They led panels on four themes, focusing on the past, present and future as well as on the power of women to effect change. In the process, they acknowledged their cultural contexts, faith stories and institutional struggles.

Shaw herself was no stranger to struggle. Ordained in 1880 by the New York Conference of the Methodist Protestant Church, she was the first woman to have that distinction in a Methodist denomination that would later become part of the United Methodist Church. Earlier, she had been denied ordination in the Methodist Episcopal Church - another forerunner of the United Methodist Church - though that denomination had licensed her to preach in 1871.

Several Women and the Word panelists described cultural and institutional barriers they had encountered in ministry.

The Rev. Yong Ja Kim, pastor of Rainbow United Methodist Church in Portland, Maine, is the first Korean-American woman to serve a predominantly Korean congregation in her annual (regional) conference. After being refused ordination in the Korean Methodist Church, Kim came to New England to pursue her call to ministry.

Her journey has taken her, she said, from a European-male theology to feminist-liberation understandings, a movement she likened to "crossing a Red Sea that I could not return across."

"Jesus crossed boundaries all the time, in his multicultural world," Lee pointed out. The United States, she asserted, now faces a test in learning to live as a multicultural society.

Unzu Lee, a Korean-American Presbyterian clergywoman and author, spoke of confronting the Western emphasis on speech, while honoring her Asian cultural understandings of silence. Silence, she said, is not an absence of speech, but can be seen as a bowl, as a person "filling up before speaking." Silence can be an act of resistance, she said, so long as it is a chosen, rather than enforced, silence.

Lee noted a proverb that has been used to silence women: "A crowing hen will come to no good end." Turning the proverb in a new direction, Lee quipped that "when women crow, we had better lay eggs." To lay eggs, she reflected, is to "enflesh the words, incarnate the Word."

Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, a professor of English and author on topics of religion and society, also recounted a story of the silencing of women. She recalled that a teacher in her Presbyterian high school said that "when women do theology, the result is always heresy." In this and other ways, she said, "girls were shamed and silenced ... I remember the shame I felt."

She also reflected that in one sense the teacher's remark is true: "If andro(male)-centric theology is the norm, then we do introduce heresy."

Amid a guilt-centered, suffering-centered theology, she said, Christians are entrusted with the ministry of reconciling the world to God, as outlined in II Corinthians 5:16-20. "Since God is a loving God," she said, "we have to remove the barriers to good life" that afflict many.

She encouraged women to take the lead in breaking barriers among different religions, leading to mutual understanding of "the universal, trans-religious experience of faith." She also urged the breaking of gender-role stereotypes, "the assumed and exaggerated differences between male and female." Much of the controversy over same-gender marriage, she said, stems from the challenge such couples pose to traditional gender roles.

While celebrating the past and present work of women in ministry, the Women and the Word event also raised the question of how transformation must continue. The Rev. Lynne Westfield, assistant professor of religious education at Drew University in Madison, N.J., mused about "chasing the 'how' questions: How do you get power to change? How do you get power? How do you change?"

One strategy for change, she said, involves working with parables, stories from women's actual lives that reflect an incarnational theology. She offered as a parable the story of her own mother, who invited her children's white teachers to the family home.

"She refused to let white people name her reality. She refused to let white people come into our neighborhood without breaking bread. ... She invited the soldiers of Pharaoh into our home." Her story, Westfield said, reflected an act of transformational power. Her mother knew the power of the table for reconciliation - even if her guests did not yet know.

"We have got to learn to tap into these stories," Westfield said.

Bishop Susan Morrison, who presides over the Albany (N.Y.) Area of the United Methodist Church, offered a challenge for a new attitude in the face of change.

"The church has a compulsion toward a conserving role" as the culture around it changes, Morrison said. The church takes a defensive posture of "sulking judgmentalism," she said. Faced with this response from what she called "a distant church," many opt out of church life.

"Why aren't we excited and positive?" Morrison asked. "Can we dance with delight at new melodies that God may be sending our way?"

She questioned whether the church could move "from an institutional stance to being a new community, where people feel at home, with no exceptions." In the process, she suggested, Christians might move from debate to conversation and learn from others, rather than simply learn about others.

*Nye is the communications director for the United Methodist Church's Troy Annual Conference.  News media can contact Linda Bloom at (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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