8th assembly/50th anniversary


27 - 30 November 1998
Belvedere Technical Teachers College
Harare, Zimbabwe


Ecumenical Decade Festival Press Release No. 1, 28 November 1998

Almost ten years after the Ecumenical Decade in Solidarity with women was launched, more than a thousand women from all over the world are meeting in Harare, Zimbabwe this week to take stock of what has been achieved and to discuss what they will do with their collective power.

The World Council of Churches Decade Festival, meeting 27-30 November on the campus of Belvedere Technical Teachers Training College, precedes the Eighth Assembly of the WCC which meets at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare 3-14 December.

In 1988, the Council launched the programme to provide churches with an opportunity to study and review their structures and teachings to ensure the full participation of women. The aim of the decade was to enable women and men to share equally the responsibility for nurturing and serving the church and the world.

The common blessing of women and men was symbolised in the festival delegates themselves. They displayed a wide diversity in dress and language as people became one in worship, song and dance. About 30 of the Festival participants are men.

Dr. Musimbi Kanyoro of Kenya, general secretary of the World YWCA in Geneva, Switzerland, pointed out the paradox of Africa having a lot of poverty despite its natural riches because of heavy external debt.

Click here to:

Letter to the Eight Assembly of the World Council of Churches from the women and men of the Decade Festival of the Churches in Solidarity with Women

Press Release No. 2:Violence against women in the Church acknowledged with liturgy and tears

Release No. 3: Eminent women church leaders look beyond the Decade Festival - Part I

Release No. 4: Festival participants have long memories of other decades in the ecumenical movement - Part II

Release No. 5: Ecumenical Decade Festival concludes with challenge to upcoming WCC Assembly

Festival PHOTOS

Report of the mid-Decade team visits by "living letters" to all WCC member-churches
"Our lives as African women are often marked by endless struggles due to economic constraints resulting from unjust practices," observed Kanyoro, who also noted that AIDS, wars, and the rape of women and girls has made life especially difficult.

Kanyoro paid tribute to Africans, however, for refusing to give up on God, themselves and the church. She said in God's eyes, the downtrodden, the poor, the refugees and displaced, the street children, abused women, the sick and the dying, are precious.

"We can no longer just call for solidarity, but rather we need to be a part of a redefining and redesigning process for all the changes we hoped for during this decade," said Kanyoro, who called for a redoubling of efforts for women's empowerment.

She identified trouble-making as another source of seeking accountability, citing the many women who challenged their churches for justice on women's concerns during the ecumenical decade, including women and children who challenged apartheid and won.

"God invites us to join in the trouble-making that leads to justice and reconciliation in our lives and in creation." Although the church did not always stand in solidarity with women, the decade gave the latter courage to "manifest the glory of God" that is within them. The day began with the singing of the Zimbabwe national anthem by the Children's Performing Arts Workshop (CHIPAWO), a local group, in the country's two main languages, Shona and Ndebele. The anthem was followed by a Zimbabwean song of celebration and praise beckoning women and men to Jesus.

Delegates come from Asia, the Caribbean, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, North America, the Pacific and Africa. CHIPAWO capped everything with a play which, although related to the playing of marimba (a local instrument), taught that boys need to respect girls and their abilities for them to be able to work together.

Ecumenical Decade Festival Press Release No. 2 - 28 November 1998

Delegates to the World Council of Churches Decade Festival wept, sang and danced Saturday as church women from five nations offered harrowing personal testimonies of violence and abuse.

The statements included stories of rape, domestic beatings, sexual trafficking and abusive employment practices by church institutions.

But the Festival's Hearing on Violence Against Women in the Church also featured four positive testimonials on efforts to confront the issue and four statements of commitment to continue working on the problem.

The World Council of Churches Decade Festival, meeting 27-30 November on the campus of Belvedere Technical Teachers Training College, precedes the Eighth Assembly of the WCC which meets at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare 3-14 December. More than 1,000 women -- and some 30 men -- are participating in the Festival.

A Canadian Anglican priest told of being sexually abused as a child by her priest father. Later, after her parents forced her to join a cult, she was forced to have sex with a young man designated by the cult as her "husband." "I did not refuse because I did not know what would happen if I did," she said. "I call that rape."

A woman from Papua New Guinea said she was in a violently abusive marriage for six years and sought an annulment from the Catholic Church after she left her husband for another man. Twenty-two years later, the Church has taken no action and she is unable to receive Holy Communion.

"The funny thing about this is the perpetrator is not punished by the Church about the violence but the person who took me in and cares very much for me is punished for doing good," she said. "It should not take 22 years to get an annulment."

Not all the stories described physical violence. A clergy woman from Aoteara-New Zealand told how she was forced to resign from her position as a coordinator of ministry education because her supervisors perceived her as a trouble-maker. When she asked her church to evaluate why she had been forced out, her bishop interpreted her request as a "personal attack." Her ministry license was not renewed.

"To those who look at me the metaphorical bruises do not show," the woman said. "Yet from the inside the "bruises' have become disabling. The face of the institution is still smiling benevolently, the words from its painted mouth are still sweet."

Just as often, said Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz of the United States, male-dominated church structures abuse women by not taking seriously their theology or their gifts. "Women need to understand that God can be understood through women's experience," she said. "Women's theologies simply reclaim that as women we are made in the image of God."

The hearing opened with a liturgical ceremony in which nine women from around the world carried vessels of water representing women's tears and poured the water into a large bowl on the altar.

"I bring the tears of African women, of those who survived and those who never made it," said the first woman. "Our tears as victims of war and internal conflicts. Our tears as women whose story was never told. Our tears as women, struggling to survive because of national debts and global economic control."

World Council of Churches General Secretary Konrad Raiser -- the only man on the podium -- declared the Church "should not cover up the sickness any more."

"My final commitment is to work for and encourage a community of women and men where the sin of violence against women can be confessed and the healing power of forgiveness can be experienced," Raiser said.

The hearing concluded with a "healing act in the Shaman tradition from Korea" led by Professor Chung Hyun Kyung, who used music and dance to lead women from "crucifixion to resurrection."

A liturgical dancer swirled a rainbow-colored streamer behind her as other women passed throughout the audience with patches of color pinned to their sleeves. Delegates reached out to touch the colors as Chung sang reassurances that a woman's touch has great healing power: "Changes, changes, everything she touches changes."

Refugee woman, Liberia
Click on photo to order it.

Ecumenical Decade Festival Press Release No. 3 - 1 December 1998

The World Council of Churches' Festival commemorating the close of the Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women brought some of the world's most prominent church women to Harare this week.

The Festival, which met 27-30 November on the campus of Belvedere Technical Teachers Training College, preceded the Eighth Assembly of the WCC which meets at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare 3-14 December. More than 1,000 women - and some 30 men - participated in the Festival.

Several prominent women took time this week to reflect on successes and setbacks over the past 10 years, and to focus their sites on future developments for women in the churches.

"During the past ten years we were doing an awareness project. Now that the church is aware of the concerns of women, it is time to act to correct and to act to transform and this is a challenge that will take a long time," said Dr Mercy Oduyoye of Ghana, a former Deputy General Secretary of the World Council of Churches.

Dr Oduyoye said it is time for the churches to implement all the recommendations that were made in the past Decade. She challenged churches and church-related organisations to strengthen their women's desks so that the recommendations can be acted upon.

The energetic Oduyoye sees no particular obstacle for women to fully participate in the ecumenical movement. "We have to work hard to get there, there is no rule that says women should not be in top leadership of the church," she said. "The sky is the limit."

Dr. Musimbi Kanyoro, general secretary of the World Young Womens Christian Association (YWCA), said the Decade was significant because women from all over the world were able to sit together and discuss issues that affect them in their diverse realities.

In the Festival's opening worship service, Kanyoro told the participants that women are no longer just calling for solidarity but for change. "We can no longer just call for solidarity," she said, "but rather we need to be part of a redefining and redesigning process for all the changes we hoped for during this Decade. Even though we celebrate the end of the Decade, we must be sure not to accept being dismissed, but rather be ready to listen even more carefully and speak more articulately. We will not accept our gifts being minimized, but rather we will lift up all the gifts of the people of God."

Talking about the future role of women in the church, Dr Kanyoro said she was happy that women in the ecumenical world were now empowering themselves theologically, through formal and informal training, women were also familiarizing themselves with the structures of the church. This, she said was strengthening the position of women in the church. "Our strength is going to be visible to the church. We have been knocking silently but now we are not outside anymore," Kanyoro said.

Mrs Tendai Chikuku-Nyahoda, the Director of the Ecumenical Documentation and Information Centre for Eastern and Southern Africa (EDICESA), said the Decade was a success in that it has enabled women to collectively harness their energy. She added that the Decade has shown that there are no doors that can remain closed if women work together.

Nyahoda, the first woman Director of EDICESA, said the Decade was able to strip off the traditional roles of women in the church so they can participate meaningfully. However, she noted, women have to gain more confidence in themselves and to be more willing to be part of the leadership in the church. "Women are in the majority in the church," Nyahoda said. "We are the ones who elect the leadership, we are just not sure of our power."

Dr Aruna Gnanadason, who heads the women's programme of the WCC and was the primary staff person planning the Decade festival, said she sees more challenges in what she calls a "decadeless future . . . we no longer have a Decade project to depend on, we cannot use it as a crutch," she said. "We still have to create the spaces and keep up the energy to talk to the churches so as to keep their commitments alive. This we have to do because there is yet much to be done."

Bishop Andrea DeGroot-Nesdahl of the South Dakota synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America declared the Decade a success. She explained that if people generally look at whether women's lives have changed or not, they may dismiss the Decade as a failure. But if people really look at what has been happening, they will realise that a lot has been building up and that one day there will be a big change in the lives of women all over the world.

The Bishop cited positive examples in her own church, which has installed six woman bishops in the past decade. She explained that her church has been ordaining women in the past 28 years and it is only in the past 10 years that women Bishops were installed.

DeGroot-Nesdahl said one of the realities of the Decade was the realisation that we could not do what we wanted to do in 10 years and that we could not do what we wanted to do alone as women. This, she said teaches us the importance of partnership, discipline and to learn to rely on God.


Ecumenical Decade Festival Press Release No. 4 - 1 December 1998

Many of the eminent women who gathered at the World Council of Churches' Festival commemorating the end of the Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with women have long memories of the struggle for equal status in church leadership.

"The concept is that a mega-experience such as this is really the fusion of other related experiences," said Dr. Thelma Adair. "When I reflect on all the WCC conferences, Church Women United workshops, United Nations' decades, I ask myself, How can this flow from the past bring in new people and meld to move out into a new formation?'"

Adair is a weaver. For her, the Ecumenical Decade is part of the tapestry of this African American women's active leadership in the ecumenical movement over the past 60 years.

Adair is weaving new people into that movement. Both she and her daughter, Dr Jeanne D. Adair, of New York City, members of the Presbyterian Church (USA), are delegates to the Decade Festival in Harare, Zimbabwe. There's also her "newest friend Katie", a Canadian in her 20s, just joining the ecumenical movement.

"Katie comes out of the Student Christian Movement," Adair said. "I'm also out of the Student Christian Movement - 1938. We're both part of the thread of the organisation. This is perhaps my gift - watching the weaving."

Adair, a Presbyterian Elder and retired university professor, was the second woman - and the first woman of color - to serve as moderator of the then United Presbyterian Church's General Assembly, in 1976. She is a former President and Board Member of Church Women United, and currently serves as CWU Vice President.

Adair and her daughter both plunge headlong into conversation about their priority concerns - for full participation of women, for elimination of racism, violence and economic injustice - and they weave their comments together as they talk.

"My daughter brings a new perspective," Thelma Adair said. "Her whole vocabulary weaves the future."

Jeanne Adair, Project Associate with the New York Technical Center, picked up the thread, asking, "How you can take the individual's experience, package it, distribute it, evangelise it? Otherwise it's one or two voices in the wilderness. We must begin to organize in cells, and go back to the networks that have brought us to this point. "This experience, information, contacts and energy we have got from the Festival provide a higher octane to push those organizations into the future. The document and Festival serve as rallying points for women around the world. We need to think how we come back together and do benchmarks and checkpoints."

As Thelma Adair weaves new people and new generations into the ecumenical movement, she continues to weave new experiences and perspectives into her own life. She and her daughter made a pre-Festival woman-to-woman visit to Zambia, and were deeply moved at the devastating effect of the external debt - graphically illustrated at an orphanage for 2000 children, most of whom lost their parents to AIDS-related illnesses.

"The orphanage, in a Catholic church, is staffed by community women who scrape together resources - for example, selling bread rolls at two cents each," she said. Few government resources are available - an enormous percentage of the budget must go to external debt payments. "The people who want to help have so few resources."

"We as Christians need to help our government and the IMF to reflect on how they are asking these countries to pay their debt," she said, speaking in support of the debt cancellation campaign. "And we need a Marshall Plan of Christian sympathy that goes in to these areas to get them where they can participate. We need a new form of sharing."

For the Adairs, no one is a "charity project". Everyone is "family". "What happens in the use of resources anywhere in the world is for the good or ill of someone else," said Adair. "Reallocating money meant for one music CD can change someone's life. The Wall Street boom and explosion of wealth in America has consequences for others. Practices that demand the lifeblood of others, countries that become plantations in order for other countries to prosper - this needs to be re-examined."

The Zambia visit touched the Adairs' hearts in another way. "We experienced the total welcome of the stranger," she being the stranger in this case. "I am physically challenged," said Thelma Adair, who walks with a cane. "Neighbors, cousins, everyone constantly asked me, Grandma, are you alright?' There was a bad storm, and the family came with candles for me and to make sure I was ok. I would have let my guests sleep through it! The best they had, they offered. When I go back home I have to re-examine the casual manner in which I take other people."

While Susan Karava Setae was chair of the Papua New Guinea Council of Churches' Women's Committee, she used that ecumenical platform to speak widely urging greater participation of women in leadership roles in the church.

One campaign called on denominational leaders to place more women pastors in congregations. Ordination of women already was church policy, but graduating women seminarians were being assigned teaching and other jobs outside parish leadership.

On one occasion, the audience's response was an angry one. "The men shouted us down," Mrs. Setae recalled. "They said, Women, wash your mouths.' We replied, Men, wash your hearts.'"

Setae, a member of the Ecumenical Decade's global planning committee and a delegate to the Decade Festival in Harare, has served the women of Papua New Guinea for more than three decades. A trained teacher and lecturer who moved early in life to become a community development activist, she was the United Church Women's Coordinator until 1996, when she became President of the Papua New Guinea Council of Women.

The Council was incorporated in 1975 and mandated in 1979 by Parliament to be a watchdog on behalf of the women of the country. It has close to one million members drawn from 38 member organizations, including provincial councils of women, non-government organisations and churches.

A woman with warm brown eyes and a broad smile, Mrs Setae cited gains for Papua New Guinea's church women. "A lot of churches have responded very well," she said. "During the Decade, we have more female clergy and an increasing number of women at ecumenical decision-making meetings. More women are taking part in theological education. And now a woman is General Secretary of the Pacific Conference of Churches," with countries across the region with the exception of Australia, New Zealand and the US state of Hawaii.

Concern for women's role and status in society also has been part of work in Papua New Guinea under the Ecumenical Decade umbrella. "Church and society aren't separable," said Setae, who challenges the church to be concerned about social issues and not just preoccupied with its own administration.

In Papua New Guinea, domestic violence is a problem of particular concern. Many women have no property rights, the life expectancy among women is just 47, and the maternal mortality rate is high, said Mrs Setae, herself a mother of four. (Her husband, Miri Setae, is a former Secretary of Agriculture and Livestock.)

"We have a very high illiteracy rate," she continued. "Sixty percent of our rural women can't read or write. That's a violence in itself." In the Council of Women, "we do a lot of influencing of issues in the government," Setae said. She was cited in the latest issue of Papua New Guinea Woman as "the torchbearer of the movement to narrow the gender gap and promote women as equal partners in the development of the nation."

"Involvement in the Ecumenical Decade has built me as a person," said Mrs. Setae. "The Decade has made me become more aware of the problems we have as women. The Decade has done a lot of good but at the same time some of us have been victims because we challenged the churches.

"We are not just churchgoers singing hymns and praying. We also are involved in advocating on economic and other issues involving our countries. Women are pushing their voice much louder. The churches and the government are listening to what the women are saying, but there are still reservations to full commitment both by churches and governments to the cause of women."

The Festival, which met 27-30 November on the campus of Belvedere Technical Teachers Training College, preceded the Eighth Assembly of the WCC which meets at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare 3-14 December. More than 1000 women - and some 30 men - participated in the Festival.

8th Assembly and 50th Anniversary
copy right 1998 World
of Churches. Remarks to: webeditor