Women and Ecclesiology

By Crawford, Janet | The Ecumenical Review, January 2001 | Go to article overview
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Women and Ecclesiology

Crawford, Janet, The Ecumenical Review

Two Ecumenical Streams?

At the inaugurating assembly of the World Council of Churches, held in Amsterdam in 1948, a report on "The Life and Work of Women in the Church" was presented by Sarah Chakko. Chakko, one of the few women present, began by pointing out that the subject of women in the church should be the concern of the church as a whole, and not seen as a problem of women alone. The report began with the statement that "The Church as the Body of Christ consists of men and women, created, as responsible persons, together to glorify God and to do his will. This truth, accepted in theory, is too often ignored in practice."(1) Thus at Amsterdam women insisted that the question of women's place in the church was a theological and ecclesiological issue, that it had to do with the very nature of the church and their membership in the body of Christ, and that women's experience in the churches was not to be ignored. Thirty years later they were still insisting this, resulting in the study on the "Community of Women and Men in the Church" (1978-82), an ecclesiological study undertaken by the Faith and Order commission in collaboration with the WCC Sub-unit on Women.

The Community study was followed by the Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women (1988-98), a decade in which churches were invited to participate actively in carrying out certain objectives. The first priority was women's full participation in church and community life. The eighth assembly of the WCC, held at Harare in 1998, marked the end of the Decade, which was celebrated and affirmed in various ways. However, in words reminiscent of those at Amsterdam fifty years earlier, WCC Moderator Aram I, Catholicos of Cilicia, told delegates that: "Despite the gains of the Decade and the ecumenical movement, women have not yet been fully accepted and integrated into the life and work of the churches."(2)

Already in 1948 the ordination of women was identified as a difficult ecumenical issue. The "Interim Report" of the inquiry into the Life and Work of Women in the Church, while noting that the subject of "women clergy" represented only one aspect of women's contribution to the church and should not be allowed to overshadow the whole, and while acknowledging the controversial nature of the subject, also stressed its importance:

   The full ordination of women to the ministry is indeed a controversial
   subject. Perhaps no subject related to women in the church stands in such
   great need of full, ecumenical study as this one, not because of the great
   number of women who at this moment are seeking ordination, but because in
   certain groups throughout the world there is great interest and concern
   with the principles involved, and because it has important implications for
   church unity.(3)

If it were true, as Kathleen Bliss wrote in her book on the responses to the inquiry into the life and work of women in the church, that "without exception all churches which have seriously discussed the question of women in the ministry have also had to look to the broader aspect of the place of all women in the church",(4) then it was also true that those who looked at the place of women in the church were also likely to ask questions about the place of women in the ministry of the church, including in the ordained ministry. Bliss had also noted that "the nearer a service of women approaches to the ministerial function, the more on edge the churches are about it", arguing that the reason was that "the question of women in the ministry at once raises every other question on which there are divided counsels in most churches."(5)

The question of the ordination of women was thus taking shape as one with two aspects. On the one hand, the ordination of women was to do with women's participation, and therefore with the wholeness of the church; on the other hand, it was to do with the nature of ministry in the church -- and was, therefore, an issue which might cause division rather than unity within the ecumenical movement.

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