SEXUALITY ISSUES and women in positions of theological and church leadership are contentious matters at most church gatherings and the World Council of Churches' festival to mark the end of the Ecumenical Decade in Solidarity with Women was no different.
Those two issues were the most controversial ones participants faced as they drafted a "Living Letter" for submission to the WCC assembly in Harare, Zimbabwe last November. The women's festival meeting took place in Harare just before the WCC General Assembly.
Among other things, the letter challenges churches to act on a variety of issues affecting women and children, including racism, economic self-sufficiency, and the elimination of all forms of violence and abuse. Despite an impasse on the inclusion of phrases about human sexuality, an eleventh-hour consensus was achieved, and a drafting team went to work to create the final document.
The most contentious section challenges churches to address issues of sexuality, reproductive rights, divorce and the ordination of women, while acknowledging deep divisions on these matters within the church:
"We recognize there are a number of ethical and theological issues such as the ordination of women, abortion, divorce and human sexuality in all of its diversity that have implications for participation, and are difficult to address in the church community. During the Decade, human sexuality in all of its diversity emerged with particular significance. We condemn the violence perpetuated due to the differences on this matter. ... We acknowledge that there is divided opinion as women and men on this particular issue. In fact, for some women and men in our midst, this issue has no legitimacy. We seek the wisdom and guidance of the Holy Spirit that we may continue the conversation in order that justice may prevail."
Despite agreement among festival participants on the final Living Letter, it was questioned on the floor of the assembly. A woman from an Orthodox Church said the letter included a phrase about reproductive rights that was not in the original document, and said that the letter did not represent a consensus of women at the festival, according to Peter Wyatt, general secretary for theology, faith and ecumenism at the United Church of Canada.
"This woman said the drafting team had added new material that (participants) didn't agree with. The two words `reproductive rights' were apparently added, and I heard this confirmed later by other people, but this may be hearsay," said Wyatt.
Canadian festival participants generally supported the final version of the Living Letter.
"The process of coming to that letter was remarkable. It was an extraordinary exercise in decision making," said Juliet Huntly, who is responsible for women's issues at the United Church. …