The value of women in ministry
2017 will be a significant year for all who value the ministry of women in the life of the church. It was in 1917 that the first woman was ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacraments in the Congregational Church in UK. That was part of the whole movement towards women’s suffrage, the service of women’s suffrage, the service of women in World War 1, and the opening of professional training to women in medicine, law and the arts.
Then in 1927 the first woman was ordained in the Congregational church in Australia. Winifred Kiek was ordained on 13 June that year in Colonel Light Gardens Church, Adelaide. A new book featuring this beginning of a tradition is “Our Principle of Sex Equality” by Julia Pitman, published by Australian Scholarly Publishing.
That seems an age ago, for we have overcome all those arguments, which still wrap chains around some church traditions. It is a curious anomaly that Christians of all colours can accept a woman as Prime Minister, President, Judge, University Vice Chancellor, brain surgeon or colonel but still find it impossible for a woman to lead a congregation in sacramental worship, or lead the church in its senior council.
The papal instruction that forbids any further discussion of the ordination of women, and the Protestant fundamentalist doctrine of the headship of men both rest on shaky grounds. Pope John Paul II in “Mulieris Dignitatem” gave as the chief reason for a male only clergy that Jesus chose only men as his first disciples. But that is to suggest that the cultural norms of the first century have to apply in the twenty first century, when we do not believe that about ownership of land or education or citizenship.
As a genus, we are slow learners, but we have discovered that partnership in the family life is more creative and more just than the hierarchy which is taught by St Paul in 1 Timothy chapter 2. And in the church, what gifts we have enjoyed from women in ministry. I wonder if opposition to it has an unacknowledged base in a fear that women might do the work better than men.
As General Secretary of the London Missionary Society/Council for World Mission in the 1970s I knew that men and women missionaries were equally vital in every field of service. What strong spirits they were, faithful in touch places, battling health problems, caring for the unfortunate and helping indigenous Christians to take the lead.
So in 2017 let us say a prayer of thanksgiving for those pioneers who trusted the Spirit, opened the way and gave themselves to a life of service.