The rise of women as church leaders

After ordaining its first female priest 12 years ago, the Church of England decided July 8 to move toward electing women as bishops. The shift came soon after the US Anglican church (Episcopal) elected its first female presiding bishop. Neither action has gone down easy. Both have spurred dissension in the pews.

Many Christian religions keep women out of top leadership posts – especially the pulpit. Their reasons rely mainly on selective readings of certain biblical passages regarding women. That's why the Anglicans and Episcopalians have gone to admirable lengths to deliberate on female leadership – though a full consensus still eludes them.

For feminists (women or men), such decisions should be as simple as saying equal opportunity: Women can either be as good as men or bring something different and perhaps better to top religious posts. Full stop.

In Christianity, though, it hasn't been that simple. As a 2004 Anglican study on the issue noted, "The question of theological truth has to be separated out from the issue of popular enthusiasm." Women have not progressed up the ranks of clergy nearly as fast as they have in secular spheres. In 15 US Protestant denominations that do ordain women, only an average of 12 percent of the clergy are female.

And it's worth asking why.

One reason is that the Bible speaks of different roles for the sexes. Some religions bar woman leaders simply because Jesus was a man and he chose 12 men as disciples. Some passages by the apostle Paul are often read as requiring women to be submissive, while other passages show women with significant roles. One New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright, the Anglican bishop of Durham, offers a refreshing historical interpretation of the most controversial passages that upsets traditional interpretations of women's roles in the Bible.

Another reason for the slow pace of change has been the question of whether women and men are simply interchangeable as clergy, or whether each brings distinct and complementary qualities to church leadership – beyond the basic skills required.

Ordaining women might be easier if they were merely clergy clones of men. But the idea is often presented that women bring different sensibilities as church leaders beyond their traditional work in ministry. That prospect is often cited as society adjusts to the rise of women in the executive suites of companies and with the rise of female political leaders in rich and poor nations.

It is important for a church to look at the meaning of leadership. Is a person being selected mainly for spiritual qualities? And do those qualities include not only ones identified with men – courage, rationality, etc. – but also leadership traits associated with women, such as unconditional love, nurturing that involves patience but also rebuke, humility, peacemaking? What balance of both motherhood and fatherhood does each church need?

Christian communities can adapt to the advance of women in society by rediscovering the exalted place that women hold in the Scriptures. And as they rethink their ideas of leadership, those churches that decide to open their hearts to feminine-style leadership will naturally open the pulpit to women.

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