WCC Anniversary and Eighth Assembly
Feature Service
No. 7
A call to conversion
by Miriam Reidy

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A ten-year effort to change mentalities and structures, the Ecumenical Decade of the Churches in Solidarity with Women, is over. How far did it reach its goals? And how will these be pursued into the 21st century?

Having initiated the Decade, the World Council of Churches (WCC) is now providing time for those who were involved to take stock. A four-day festival in Harare, Zimbabwe, just before the WCC’s Eighth Assembly in the same city in December, will allow women to ask and answer these questions. They will also reflect on whether and how the Decade had an impact on their lives, articulate their visions for the Church and society beyond 1998, and celebrate their own struggles and commitments to the Church.

The Decade began at Easter 1988 - three years after the close of the United Nations Women’s Decade. Some 40,000 women who attended a conference and a parallel NGO Forum in Nairobi in 1985 to mark the end of the UN Decade agreed that the UN Decade had failed to significantly improve most women’s living conditions. In fact, the UN’s 1985 survey of the situation of women in 70 countries indicated that women almost everywhere were worse off than they had been ten years earlier! The WCC sent representatives to the NGO Forum who compared notes with other church women there. They all realised that the UN Decade had scarcely touched the churches.

So, after Nairobi, the WCC’s Women’s Programme did its own survey on the place of women in 105 member churches in 74 countries. This confirmed that in general women - who make up more than half of church membership - still held "traditional" positions and roles in the churches, and that traditional attitudes towards women both reflected and helped shape patriarchal cultures.

Women's meeting before the WCC's
1991 Assembly in Canberra
(Photo Oikoumene theme: 1988-1998 Women's Decade; ref. no.: 5036-18)
Where the UN had failed could the churches do any better? Convinced that they should at least try, the WCC Central Committee in January 1987 launched an Ecumenical Decade. Behind this decision lay a long history of WCC involvement in women’s issues. In 1948 a report to the WCC’s first assembly in Amsterdam had dealt with the role and status of women in the Church. In 1954 a WCC department on cooperation of men and women in church and society began its work. Among other highlights of WCC involvement with women were a pioneering world consultation on "Sexism in the Seventies" (Berlin 1974), a three-year (1978-81) study of "The Community of Women and Men in the Church", and the decision by the WCC’s Sixth Assembly (1983) to make women’s concerns and perspectives a focus of all WCC programmes.

The Ecumenical Decade aimed to offer WCC member churches a framework within which to look at and, where needed, to modify their structures, teachings and practices to allow for the full participation of women. Likening women’s liberation to the removal of the stone sealing Jesus’ tomb, it was a call to the churches to "roll away the stone".

From the middle of the Decade onwards, ecumenical teams visited all but a handful of WCC member churches to affirm what they had achieved and to challenge them, again, to move forward. Echoing Paul’s vision of the church in Corinth as "a letter of Christ, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts", the teams were asked to think of themselves as living letters.

In all, 75 teams made up of more than 200 women and men from every region and from all Christian communions related to the WCC visited no fewer than 330 churches, 68 national councils of churches and some 650 women’s groups and organisations. It was an effort unparalleled in WCC history. What did these living letters discover?

Their 1997 report tells enthusiastic tales about solidarity among women and their commitment to the churches. It describes women who are "pillars of the church", active in spiritual and liturgical life, in lay ministries, in religious orders, women without whom "the life of the churches would grind to a halt". It tells also of women who have started alternative church movements and "new ways of being the church".

The Living Letters report highlights the endurance and determination to overcome oppression of women "who are working to roll away the stones of violence, racism, economic injustice and exclusion... who are committed to social and political change, who are resisting the forces of death". It notes that, by working with secular groups, many Christian women are witnessing to a Church which is present in struggles for life, and at the same time are challenging the Church.
Collection after a United Methodist Church service in Mozambique:
"... women without whom 'the life of the churches would grind to a halt'"
(Photo Oikoumene ref. no.: 5616-25A)

The Decade revealed vast resources of strength and courage, endurance and solidarity among women. In recognition of these resources, of which the churches are often unaware, a thousand Christian women will go to Harare to celebrate each others’ gifts. At the Decade Festival from 27-30 November, an exhibition, "Recalling her story and our vision", will tell the stories of women who have contributed to the ecumenical movement, including a selection of icons of women saints from different traditions. Women involved in local struggles will share their experiences via posters, brochures, art, drama, poetry and music in one of eleven "theme huts" covering a wide range of concerns, from ecology and creation to globalisation. African women’s contributions to church and society will be celebrated with women-to-women visits beforehand, in a Festival plenary and in a setting shaped by Zimbabwean women.

On the other hand, the Living Letters report highlights an unfinished agenda. Wherever they went, the "stones" were still firmly in place. Violence against women, for example, still exists. Whether physical, economic, social, institutional, psychological or spiritual, violence "is an experience that binds women together across every region and tradition". Yet the subject is seldom if ever mentioned by church leaders. Churches tend to let violent men go free and prevent women from speaking out, to blame violence on culture, poverty and/or war, to justify it with a theology of sacrifice and suffering applied only to women, to see it as something that happens only outside the church, or as an individual problem. And the vast majority of women, out of shame, guilt, fear or loyalty, tend to accept violence in silence.

For the first time ever at a global gathering, women will testify in a special hearing at the Decade Festival about their personal experience of violence in the church - in pastoral situations and within congregations, violence caused by church structures, as well as the use of theological arguments to silence women’s voices. Realising how painful such opening up can be, the Festival organisers have promised to provide pastoral care and compassion - to which the participants’ combined commitment to struggle against such violence will surely contribute. The hearing will also give an account of positive actions for change.

According to the living letters, the "stones" of racism and economic injustice still make women’s lives a misery in many places; churches’ responses range from helpful to woefully inadequate, they said. On racism, they report, for example, that "some church women’s groups do not recognise the presence of racism... thus confirming the accusations of indigenous, minority and black women that women from the majority culture can be just as oppressive as men". On economic injustice, they point out: "Many churches in all regions mentioned poverty, economic constraints and limited resources as priorities taking precedence over women’s concerns. This reponse reveals a lack of awareness that these are women’s concerns, that women often bear an unfair share of the burdens caused by economic injustice."

The Living Letters report spotlights areas of church life where barriers to women’s full participation are most evident - the ordained ministry, decision-making and power in church structures, even theological education (with a dearth of scholarships, women teachers, or courses that deal with theology from a women’s perspective). And it looks briefly at some of the buttresses of male control, including the "hierarchical, patriarchal family" and oppressive theology and interpretations of the Bible.

The Decade asked awkward questions. For example, are churches ahead of or behind their societies so far as attitudes and practices relating to women are concerned? It raised burning issues: the barriers to women’s participation in church leadership, theology, spirituality and ministry; the global economic crisis and its grave impact on women’s lives; violence against women in both church and society; racism and xenophobia.

The Decade attracted a lot of attention, not all of it favourable. In several places Decade-related events were strongly criticised. Whether that simply illustrates the depth of opposition to the full equality and partnership of women and men in the church, or something else entirely, is a moot point.

The Decade impacted on women. It empowered women as individuals and groups, sometimes energising them to launch new programmes to address their concerns. It allowed them to express solidarity with each other, emboldened them to voice their thoughts and feelings openly in the presence of males. It provided a channel through which existing tensions could surface, differences could be acknowledged and common concerns identified. It provided the impetus for three major meetings of Orthodox women in which they explored issues within their own churches, notably women in theology, women’s ministries, and the family.

And the Decade offered a prophetic challenge: to recognise the biblical truth of the common blessing of women and men in creation (Gen.1:27), to affirm that "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3:28) - and to act accordingly!

But did the Decade produce genuine conversions in the churches? "There were places," the Living Letters report says, "where churches reacted with amazement to the Decade... suddenly realising that gender or community issues are not just ‘women’s issues’ but belong to the whole community of women and men, that is, the church." And it presents a few "signs of hope", examples of such conversion.

But it is clear from the Living Letters report that, as a call to solidarity with women, the Decade revealed at least as many problems as gains, at least as much resistance as openness to change, at least as much clinging to privilege and power as willingness to share, more deaf ears than courage to listen to a message of liberation.

"Most churches and church leaders responded to the Decade rather like the men in the upper room to the women who rushed from the garden to tell their story of the rolled-away stone... almost all... dismissed what the women were telling them as ‘idle tales’."

So where do we go from here? The Decade raised immense hopes which have, for the most part, remained unfulfilled. There is fear, now the Decade is over and in a context of diminishing funds, that work on women’s programmes will slow down or even stop. Those committed to the cause of the full equality and partnership of women and men in the church are determined that this must not happen. An important task for the Festival participants will thus be to formulate "new" challenges for the new millennium, in order not to lose the Decade’s momentum.

To that end, Christian women around the world have been working on a document that calls for continued monitoring and sets out an action agenda for the churches and the WCC. Entitled "Women’s Challenges: Into the 21st Century", it will be finalised at the Festival, then forwarded to the Assembly and, from there, to the churches.

At the Assembly a plenary session will tackle the job of assessing the Decade’s impact on the life of the churches and challenging them to recognise issues that require their continued attention beyond 1998. How to persuade and inspire in a 90-minute presentation? How to strike a balance between lifting up the positive achievements, and calling the churches to repentance, when the former could encourage complacency, a return to "business as usual", and the latter might provoke antagonism and resistance? The plenary will move through three phases: the memory - of women’s struggles over the past ten years; the present - of women’s experiences of economic injustice, violence, racism and exclusion; and the anticipation - of remaining challenges. Water - carried by women from their national celebrations and flowing together at the Festival - will be a central symbol. The session will conclude with a call to each delegate to change in his/her personal life, and to become a catalyst for change in his/her church.

The Decade began with a call from women to "roll away the stone", says WCC Women’s Programme coordinator Aruna Gnanadason. "The stones are still there. But we are now in a totally different mode: the women are running to the upper room to call the men to conversion."

Information for editors and journalists

Miriam Reidy was on the editorial team of the WCC’s former monthly magazine One World and now shares the task of maintaining the WCC’s presence on the World Wide Web.

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The report mentioned in this article, Living Letters: A Report of visits to the churches during the Ecumenical Decade - Churches in Solidarity with Women, (2-8254-1225-2, 50 pp. Sfr8.90, US$5.95, Ł3.95) is available from WCC Publications. If you would like to purchase a copy, send an e-mail to: WCC Contact.

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