Academic journal article Africa

Patriarchies, Prophets, and Procreation: Sources of Gender Practices in Three African Churches

Academic journal article Africa

Patriarchies, Prophets, and Procreation: Sources of Gender Practices in Three African Churches

Article excerpt


The Celestial Church of Christ, the Christ Apostolic Church, and the Church of the Lord (Aladura) are indigenous churches, which share the selective blending of Christian and Yoruba religious traditions; however, their gender practices, specifically female access to decision-making roles, vary dramatically. The Celestial Church's prohibition against the ordination of women is associated with ritual impurity. Christ Apostolic excludes women from ordination, but without an explicit ideology of impurity. The Church of the Lord (Aladura) ordains women but prohibits them from the sanctuary when they are menstruating. Do these institutionalised constraints derive from colonial or pre-colonial gender practices? What other factors might contribute to these gender patterns? This paper argues that these gender practices derive from intersecting ambiguities in Western and African gender practices, which both empower and disempower women. The paper also assesses the interplay of doctrine and institutional history on gender dynamics. Finally, it explores the interaction of cultural legacy and socio-environmental pressures on the ritualisation of the female body in this African setting.

The problem: leading, though not from the helm

Sophie Odunlami, a schoolmistress in the Yoruba town of Isonyin, might have lived a relatively comfortable and predictable life had it not been complicated by two events: a dream and an epidemic. Her dream of healing waters during the 1918 flu epidemic, and her gift as a visioner, made her a central figure in the founding of Christ Apostolic Church (CAC); nevertheless, because she was female she would never become a CAC 'pastor' and head her own assembly. Mrs Rosaline Adebola Sodeinde, an educated successful businesswomen, was the right arm to the charismatic founder of the Celestial Church of Christ (CCC); however, she could not aspire to the clergy, for CCC rules and regulations prohibit women's ordination, their speaking in church unless called on by a male, and their entering the church compound when menstruating. In contrast, Church of the Lord (Aladura) (CLA) women are ordained and there is no prohibition against their becoming 'Primate' and heading the church; however, when menstruating, they must sit outside the sanctuary, even if they are the Minister-in-Charge.

How women negotiate power structures within these three African Instituted Churches (AICs) informed my earlier article, 'Impurity and power: women in Aladura churches' (Crumbley, 1992), which focused on menstrual taboos as a window on institutional history and organisational process. Thickly described vignettes immersed the reader in the engendered ritual life and power relations of Aladura congregations. As such, 'Impurity and power' laid the ethnographic groundwork for the more analytical investigation below by posing this question: are structural constraints on explicit female leadership in these case study churches the consequence of imposed foreign gender practices, a legacy of pre-colonial Yoruba culture, or mutually reinforcing traditional and foreign patriarchies? By focusing on women's access to explicit leadership---that is, formal decision making rather than indirect influence--this paper argues that the status of these women and associated gender practices reflect three dynamics:

1. intersecting ambiguities in both Western and African gender practices, which both empower and disempower women;

2. particularities of doctrine and institutional history; and

3. the reinforcing impact of environment and development on the ritualisation of female procreation.

The case studies, aim, and approach

The three churches in this study represent institutionalised forms of the twentieth-century religious movement among the Yoruba of Nigeria known as Aladura or 'owners of prayer'. These Nigerian churches share the centrality of spontaneous prayer, spiritual healing, and blending of selective Christian and Yoruba religious traditions. …

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