National Women’s Day in South Africa on 9 August commemorates a powerful moment in our history. In 1956, 20,000 women marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, to protest against the carrying of pass books and legislation aimed at tightening the apartheid government’s control over the movement of black women in urban areas.
This month also marks the 28th anniversary of the Anglican Church’s decision to ordain women as priests. It’s a good moment to reflect on women and the church, whatever your denomination or faith community.
Women, patriarchy, and the church: A reflection
By Wilma Jakobsen
Wilma Terry Jakobsen is one of the first women priests ordained in the Anglican Church in Southern Africa. She is also the chaplain at Volmoed Retreat Centre and the coordinator of the Volmoed Youth Leadership Training Programme.
The first women priests in Southern Africa …
In August 1992 the Provincial Synod of the Anglican Church in Southern Africa (ACSA) voted strongly at 79.2% to ordain women as priests. Within six weeks, the first women priests were ordained, in Grahamstown and in Cape Town. Of those five, two have since died, one resigned a few years after ordination, one, +Margaret Vertue, is the bishop of False Bay diocese in the Western Cape, and myself. It’s been a journey of waiting, struggle and pain, joy and hope, faith and trust. By the twenty fifth anniversary of those first ordinations in 2017, over a hundred women clergy from almost all the dioceses and from six countries, gathered to celebrate and there are many more in the dioceses. By January 2020 the last remaining diocese without women priests ordained its first women deacons, in Lebombo, Mozambique.
Where are we after three decades?
As I listen to women in the church now, I am saddened, because over the past three decades there have been numerous resolutions, actions, intended to bring change to the church and make it a safe, life giving place for women, yet so many words and so little action.
Yes, it’s a Both/And story: While women have clearly made a difference in the church, and there are many wonderful stories of women’s leadership in creative and significant ministries, I also hear how the Anglican church continues to be a site of struggle and challenge for women, ordained and lay.
Some are in charge of churches and some hold leadership positions, but it took twenty years for women to become bishops. There are currently only two women bishops, both of whom are heading towards retirement. Women can tell many stories of harassment or gender based violence in the church, whether spiritual, emotional, sexual or physical. Some women have left the ordained ministry feeling hopeless and disillusioned, angry and hurt. Others have tried to tell their stories but have not been heard. Others stay in the church and work for change because our vocations keep us there and because we have hope.
Patriarchy lies at the root of gender based violence
In 17 July a group of mostly Anglican women, lay, clergy and women scholars of religion, including myself and VYLTP faculty René August, talked about the tragic levels of gender based violence in the church and society, the lack of women in church leadership, the violence of patriarchy, and the need for the church to do deep theological work to undo the patriarchy and patriarchal belief systems and practices that are the root cause of GBV in all its forms in the church.
On 17 July 2020 the following statement was published:
Gatvol yet hopeful! Women call the Anglican Church of Southern Africa to Action!
We call on you to sign the petition, but also to engage more fully with the content of the complete, final statement.
A Call to Action
‘Gatvol yet hopeful! Women call the Anglican Church of Southern Africa to Action!
Part of the wording of the official statement can be found in the petition below.
The final, complete document for discussion
We are hopeful that the document will catalyse many conversations that will mushroom and grow, and that the church will take the task seriously and put words into action.
Archbishop Thabo Makgoba called the statement “powerful, thoughtful and thought provoking” and on the feast of Mary Magdalene, 22 July, met with the group online so he could publicly receive it and respond.
To date over 6000 people have watched it. Though responses have been mixed, many found it powerful , hopeful , encouraging , enlightening , yet wonder why after all these years of struggle it seems we are still at the same place. People are asked to “Consider this, take counsel, speak out and act” (from the gruesome Biblical narrative in Judges 19 of a woman who was gang raped).
Discussions are encouraged – different churches, structures, ministries and members are urged to utilise “A Call to Action” in existing struggles for gender justice.
- What are the realities for women in your denomination or church, about GBV, or ordination or leadership? Do you have any stories or experiences to share?
- What do you most strongly resonate with or affirm in the Call to Action?
- Is there anything you disagree with or are uncertain about – if so, why?
- What action can you take about this in your life or in your church or denomination?
- How will you pray about this?
Also published in the Church of England Newspaper, 7 August 2020.