Women call for equality at World Council of Churches meeting
Vancouver, B.C. — Women from all corners of the globe, wearing everything from dashikis to habits to blue jeans, brought their concerns to the World Council of Churches meeting here this week. One of their aspirations is to become equal partners with men in the 300 churches - representing some 450 million people - who are members of the World Council of Churches.
The WCC meets once every seven years, and of the 900 delegates this year, 300 are women. At the first assembly of the WCC in 1948, women represented 2 percent of the delegates. The increase in their numbers represents a growing worldwide involvement of women in all religious denominations.
Representing Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, Anglican, and Episcopal churches, these women want to ''move out of the women's corner and into all decision and policymaking positions in their churches,'' says the Rev. Berbel Van Wartenberg, head of the women's subcommittee of the World Council.
Addressing a preassembly meeting of the women delegates, Philip Potter, general secretary of the WCC since 1972, said, ''It is only a matter of time before women are ordained into the priesthood in all churches. But even in ordination they have not found a way to make women equal partners in the church.''
Dr. Potter spoke of the work of the wives of early WCC leaders in urging their husbands to include women as delegates. He gave special commendation to the few vocal women at the 1948 WCC meeting in Amsterdam.
''Thank you, Philip,'' said Dame Bita Barrow of Jamaica, president of the worldwide YWCA. ''You did not tell us what the men did for us but what the women did for men.''
''We want the women at this assembly to be well prepared and well accepted,'' says the Rev. Ms. Van Wartenberg. Since 1974 her committee has been working toward that goal.
Pauline Webb, a Methodist laywoman and head of religious programming for the British Broadcasting Corporation's World Service, preached the WCC's opening-day sermon to more than 4,000 people of various faiths. ''The word of God is never just a spoken or written work,'' she said. ''It is always a real-life event.''
Miss Webb told the story of a minister in England who was leading a Christmas service. The children were dressed in costume for the nativity scene. ''I have a surprise for you,'' the minister said, and she went backstage where she picked up her own newborn son and laid him in the crib prepared for the pageant.
Miss Webb's sermon shows the degree of change that has taken place in world society during the past decade. The role of minister is now, for some, female, she points out. The sermons preached by women ministers and by lay people like Miss Webb include examples from the Bible and from contemporary life that portray women as regular and equal participants in the church.
But the concerns of women in Vancouver are broader than that of serving at an altar.
Archbishop Ted Scott, primate of Canada, welcomed the women and reminded them that ''the only foolish question is the question you don't ask.''
The questions the women asked were: Who speaks for the women who are prostitutes in Bangkok and Manila, where it is run as a ''tourist business''? What about the role of women in the peace movement? What is the position of women who raise the money for churches in those churches? And what does the life of Jesus Christ mean to the lives of women whom he has called from their kitchens, to whom he has entrusted the Easter message, who were first at the tomb and last at the cross?
Women delegates at this WCC meeting are homemakers, mothers, grandmothers, ministers, laypeople, working women, single, and married. Most seem to agree on the need for women's equality in all religious faiths. As Margaret Rushbrook, a Presbyterian homemaker from Rotorua, New Zealand, said, ''After all, it's on the basis of your Christian faith that you are critical of what's oppressing people, isn't it?''
When the World Council meets again seven years from now, the concerns of women are likely to be represented by many more women delegates. One-half of the youth delegates to this meeting are women and 44 percent are from the third world.
The task of the women at this conference, as many see it, is to ensure future equality for the women in their churches.