number 4, december 8, 1998

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Decade plenary reveals consensus and division

A plenary session of assembly yesterday marked the close of the Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women, demonstrating an apparent consensus that violence against women is a plague that must be stopped.

The delegates to the Festival for the end of the Decade, which met 27-30 November in Harare, prepared a letter to the assembly. The message, "From Solidarity to Accountability", called for new initiatives to continue the aims of the Decade and the letter asked the assembly "to announce to all the world that violence against women is a sin."

Most delegates appeared to favour that idea. "Does the church wish to remain custodian of a culture of violence or as a catalyst to a culture of life?" asked the Rev. Deenabandhu Manchala, of India. "We must stop seeing violence against women as a women’s problem."

But no delegate was willing to declare the decade an unqualified success, and comments from Orthodox delegates revealed sharp divisions over what it accomplished and what should happen next.

"We have started down the path toward empowering women to share the fullness of their gifts and toward enabling the church to be enriched by those gifts," said the Rev. Bertrice Y. Wood (United Church of Christ, USA). But the realisation of full empowerment "is still largely before us".

Several panelists offered their views of the decade’s success and failures. Metropolitan Ambrosius of Oulu, Finland, said the decade has been "very important" for the churches. "In many places women have remained invisible and ignored, in spite of the fact that ... the church should always be the community of women and men," he said.

The decade should not have been perceived as a threat by any church, Ambrosius said. "The decade did not attempt to challenge in a negative way those church traditions which do not ordain women."

But Fr Vsevolod Chaplin (Russian Orthodox Church) said he considered at least one theme discussed by Decade supporters -- the call for inclusive language in church documents and liturgy -- to be "blasphemous".

"I affirm my church’s deep call for human and social rights for women. I strongly call for solidarity in this regard," Chaplin said. "Less and less acceptable for my church is (the call) to refrain from strong criticism of women’s attempts to obscure the agenda (with) radical feminist theology."

So long as other WCC churches push an agenda calling for all churches to ordain women and to accept inclusive language, he said, "the eucharistic unity that is a dream will never come true."

Wood said in a press conference following the plenary session that Decade supporters have not pursued that agenda. Inclusive language "was not a big issue" at the 27-30 November Decade Festival at Belvedere Technical Teacher’s College in Harare, although she added, "I come from the school that exclusive language is equally blasphemous."

Wood also told reporters that Decade leaders have not advocated ordination of Orthodox women or others who are not advocating it for themselves. "Our solidarity with them is around the increase of their role as laywomen." Some Orthodox women, she said, have sought ordination to the diaconate, which is in line with Orthodox traditions.

Anne Glynn-Mackoul, a laywoman from the United States and a delegate of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East, told the plenary session that many Orthodox women were not satisfied with a letter to the assembly issued by the last week’s Festival delegates because it did not represent a true consensus.

"We identify with many of the struggles articulated in the letter, especially violence against women," Glynn-Mackoul said. But she said that Orthodox women who attended the Festival contended that the document that emerged from a final drafting process after the meeting adjourned did not reflect their views. She was apparently referring to references to human sexuality and inclusive language.

"It is with great respect and deep concern that our presence at the Festival will be misconstrued as an affirmation," Glynn-Mackoul said.

Panelists in the plenary did not respond to Glynn-Mackoul, but Wood maintained in the press conference that she regarded the letter as a consensus document. "We allowed literally everyone who wanted to speak to be heard, long into the night," she said, describing the process of developing the letter.

Several assembly delegates expressed their support of the Decade’s goals during Monday’s plenary.

The Very Rev. Stanley J. McKay (United Church of Canada) offered a confession. "As a man, I have not yet learned to be in solidarity with women," he said. "After 40 years of misinformation, the Decade hasn’t been enough." He asked the indulgence of Christian sisters to continue working for the equal partnership of women and men in the church and society.

The Rev. Fr Larry Jia Herra (Philippine Independent Church) spoke in favour of the ordination of women. "If salvation is dependent on (Christ’s) maleness, then women would be excluded."

The Rev. Deenabandhu Manchala, one of the panelists, said that one of the sad findings of the Decade is that "violence against women is a reality everywhere." The churches need to discern this reality "and actively participate in ... grass roots ecumenical movements for justice, freedom and life."

The Decade plenary had opened with a dramatic demonstration of women’s solidarity. The Rev. Luzmarina Campos Garcia of Brazil, dressed in a biblical robe, proceeded down the main aisle of the hall carrying an urn of water that had been gathered from Festival delegates.

The water represented the tears of women around the world, and assembly delegates applauded as Campos Garcia poured the water into a larger urn at the front of the hall.

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Read other articles in this issue:

A day of hearings
Attention! Debt to be chained up
Padare' to showcase vitality of ecumenical movement
Harare liturgy marks growth of Orthodox Church in Africa
Invest in human rights education, church told
Assemblies: Nelson has seen them all
Church doing well in Africa?
Decade plenary reveals consensus and division
The topic was sin

8th Assembly and 50th Anniversary

copyright 1998 World Council of Churches. Remarks to webeditor