8th assembly/50th anniversary

Together on Holy Ground
Women Challenge the Church
Decade festival draws 1200, by Carol J. Fouke

What the assembly did

* encouraged member churches to find ways to keep alive the goals of the Ecumenical Decade -- Churches in Solidarity with Women;

* authorized the preparation of "guidelines for inter-gender conduct" that incorporate the understanding that violence against women is a sin;

* urged churches to provide opportunities for women to speak out about violence and abuse, where "both the victims and perpetrators of violence can experience the power of repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation";

* called for the development of just economic systems and structures in church and society;

* denounced the sexual exploitation of women and children.

At a four-day festival just before the Harare assembly some 1200 delegates from around the world marked the end of the WCC's Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women (1988-98). They also reached consensus on a forward-looking challenge that builds on the Decade's four major themes: economic justice, women's participation in the church, racism, and violence against women.

The women spoke clearly: we are celebrating the end of the Decade but we cannot accept being dismissed.

The small group discussions were a key feature of the Decade Festival

Photo by Chris Black/WCC
Click on the photo to order (ref. 7010-31a)

Participants celebrated the Decade programme's broad reach into grassroots church communities, increased participation of women in church leadership and heightened awareness in both church and society of women's strengths and struggles.

"The Decade opened things up for women around the world," said Karen Hessel, director of the Justice for Women Programme of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA. Reports from 75 "Living Letters" team visits to 330 churches, 68 national councils and some 650 women's groups during the course of the Decade revealed that "much education and advocacy happened", she said.

The pieces of cloth displayed at the Decade plenary symbolized the young women's network that was formed during those ten years.

Photo by Chris Black/WCC
Click on the photo to order (ref. 7026-09)

Nevertheless, Festival participants acknowledged that many churches ignored or resisted the programme, a framework within which churches could look at their structures, teachings and practices with a commitment to the full participation of women.

As the Decade ends, "women have expressed a real anxiety that the churches will heave a sigh of relief that the women have stopped talking", commented Aruna Gnanadason of the WCC women's programme. "In many places, there has been a reduction in funding and staff for work supporting women. The challenge is to ensure that the solidarity we seek is sustained. It is important that we ask the churches to recommit themselves to the issues the Decade has raised."

These issues, she explained, include the economic exclusion of millions of women, violence against women, racism and xenophobia. "What we need to emphasize is that these are all concerns which threaten the unity of the churches -- the very being of the church."

On its second day the Decade Festival held what is thought to have been a global "first" -- a special hearing, incorporated into a liturgy, on violence against women in the church. During an emotion-filled morning, church women from five nations offered harrowing personal testimonies of violence and abuse. The statements included stories of rape, domestic beatings, sexual trafficking, abusive employment practices and exclusion by church institutions.

But the hearing also featured four positive testimonials on efforts to confront the issue and four statements of commitment to continue working on the problem. "My first commitment is to not cover up the sickness of our church," said WCC general secretary Konrad Raiser. "We must share these stories and continue to break the silence about violence against women."

"I have made a handprint, a sacred one, for I am imago Dei, made in the image of God" -- mural created during the hearing on violence against women at the Decade Festival

Photo by Chris Black/WCC
Click on the photo to order (ref. 7022-28a)

A challenge letter drafted during the Festival responded with a series of demands, including the exposing of all sexual abuse, especially by those in positions of church leadership; the creation of processes of restorative justice in which both the victims and the perpetrators of violence can experience, in the light of truth telling, the power of effective repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation; the critical examination of any use of Bible and theology that seeks to sanction the spirit and presence of violence; and the denunciation of all initiatives of war.

While at no point did the document put before the delegates include the words "homosexual", "gay" or "lesbian", these issues were clearly at the centre of a debate on wording about "human sexuality in all of its diversity". In its final form, the paper simply acknowledged the differences around issues of human sexuality and condemned violence perpetrated because of these differences.

During the Festival, participants also joined in worship and Bible study, heard from young women and from African women, celebrated Africa's strengths and explored its problems. They encountered each other and a wide spectrum of concerns in the "Issue Huts", where they also shared information and resources on racism, ecology, theology, peace, uprooted women, violence against women, health, the global economy and other issues.

World YWCA general secretary Musimbi Kanyoro of Kenya, preaching at the Festival's opening worship, challenged participants to "engage in actions that move us from solidarity to accountability" and to learn from Africans "a spirituality of not giving up".

"Sometimes during this Decade the church did not stand in solidarity with us," Kanyoro said. "But this Decade has made us stronger and given us courage."

Go to Ordination of Women -- Still an Issue for Some
Return to Together on Holy Ground contents page
Return to Assembly Archive index

© 1999 world council of churches | remarks to webeditor