Ten Years of Not Enough Good News for Women and Religion

7 years ago

I've been asked to review the topic of women and religion over the past ten years. If we look honestly at organized religion, the news is not all good. There have been good moments, however.

Katherine Jefferts-Schiori
The Episcopalian Church in the US elected a woman as the head of their denomination for the first time in their history. (They have been ordaining women for less than 50 years.)As their own site puts it:

The Most Rev. Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori, previously Bishop of Nevada, is the twenty-sixth Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church. She is chief pastor to the Episcopal Church's 2.4 million members in 16 countries and 110 dioceses, ecumenical officer, and primate, joining leaders of the other 38 Anglican Provinces in consultation for global good and reconciliation. Jefferts Schori was elected at the 75th General Convention on June 18, 2006 and invested at Washington National Cathedral on November 4, 2006.

That was a very big deal. It got the US denomination in more than a little hot Anglican water with less progressive branches of the church, most notably in Africa and South America, places where women are not yet even ordained, let alone made bishops or elected as Presiding Bishop.

Reverend Elizabeth Keaton was walking outside the conference hall when a friend called her cell and gave her the news about Schiori. Here is her blog about that moment:

I smiled broadly, looking for all the world and the people passing me on the side walk like a fool. Then, I felt a chill go through my entire body, over taking me and waking every nerve with joy. I whooped and danced a dance to Shekinah, the Holy Spirit.
People looked at me with startled looks. A homeless man looked up absently from his place on the park bench and smiled. Although he had no idea of the particulars, he immediately recognized joy when he saw it and waved his hand in the air and whooped with me. I dug into my pocket, found a dollar bill and some change and gave it to him. He whooped and hollared and danced with me. A few well dressed folk made a wide path around me on the sidewalk...I’m told that, after the election was announced, Bishop Barbara Harris, tears streaming down her face walked over to Bishop Katherine to embrace her. As she did, she was overheard to say, “I never – ever – thought that in my lifetime, I would see this.” And then, they both sobbed in each other’s arms.

Alysa Stanton
In June of 2009, Alysa Stanton became the first female African American Jewish rabbi. Ever. Anywhere. As I commented on BlogHer back then "The ordination of Alysa Stanton is a massive change in the symbology of the American religious landscape."

But lest we consider this advance to be a deeper reflection of hope than it was, Rabbi Stanton received death threats and required a police escort the day she was installed as rabbi. Her congregation's web site is very basic, and she has not appeared in the news this year after her installation. One hopes that her absence from the news indicates that she is quiet, safe and happy.

The Roman Catholic Church
This has been a battleground for women. The issue of women's ordination keeps coming up. It also is not resolved. There is now a fairly extensive website which attempts to take on the issue in the spirit of obeying the Pope's injunction that the faithful should always "speak out" and siting the following Canon Law:“All the faithful, both clerical and lay, should be accorded a lawful freedom of inquiry, freedom of thought and freedom of expression.”
Gaudium et Spes, no 62; Canon Law no 212 § 3." They aggressively support the ordination of women.

And, on the other hand, the current Pope is investigating American nuns for being part of organizations that may not be toeing the Vatican line. The Huffington Post reports:

The National Catholic Reporter, an independent newspaper, said the Vatican ordered up the probe because the sisters had not addressed problems raised by the Vatican in 2001 about their promotion of church teaching on homosexuality, salvation and the priesthood, which the Vatican says is reserved for men.

It will get thornier in the following year. This is an argument that shows no sign of cooling down.

Women's Ordination in General Terms
There have been no big advances here. But just so we all understand that ordained women have not always been the reality, here is a timeline provided by womenpriests.org.

1852 United Church of Christ
1863 Universalist denomination, now Unitarian Universalist Association
1865 Salvation Army
1911 Mennonite
1914 Assemblies of God
1920s Some Baptist denominations
1939 United Methodist Church. (African Methodists had ordained women for decades.)
1956 Presbyterian Church (USA)
1972 Reform Judaism.
1970s Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
1976 Episcopal Church
1994 Church of England

The Muslim World
I am at a loss to understand the progress in the past ten years in this part of the faith world. Wikipedia tells us "Muslim majority countries have produced more than seven female heads of state including Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, Mame Madior Boye of Senegal, Tansu Çiller of Turkey, Kaqusha Jashari of Kosovo, Megawati Sukarnoputri of Indonesia and Bangladesh, the first country in the world to have one female head-of-state follow another, those two being Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina." Yet we also hear about horrific things done to women in the Muslim world, with the justification of religion. So it is a mixed environment, and one with so many unfamiliar twists and turns, with feminism being so closely linked to religion and politics, that I am inadequate to comment.

The Big Hurrah -- The Elders Speak
Two years ago, Nelson Mandela gathered up a group of world leaders, all in their mature years, and set them the task of finding global solutions to universal problems. They studied the issue of women's rights. And the more they looked, the more they knew that religious institutions were at fault. (Note - faith was not the problem -- nor was belief in God. The problem was the patriarchy of Institutionalized Religions.)

What they said was important. It named the beast. Here is their statement:

"Religion and tradition are a great force for peace and progress around the world.

However, as Elders, we believe that the justification of discrimination against women and girls on grounds of religion or tradition, as if it were prescribed by a higher authority, is unacceptable.

We believe that women and girls share equal rights with men and boys in all aspects of life.

We call upon all leaders to promote and protect equal rights for women and girls.

We especially call on religious and traditional leaders to set an example and change all discriminatory practices within their own religions and traditions.

The Elders are fully committed to the realisation of equality and empowerment of all women and girls."

Jimmy Carter has championed this in America. As recently as last month, he spoke to the 2009 Parliament of World's Religions which was held in Melbourne, Australia. He addressed the conference via video message on the 'Religious Imperative for the Equality of Women and Girls'. The full text of his speech can be found here. Parts of it are chilling. Here are some of the statistics he quotes:

1. Globally, at least one in three women and girls is beaten or sexually abused in her lifetime. (U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, February, 2000)
2. Our Carter Center has been deeply involved in the Republic of Congo. In war zones where order has broken down, horrific and sometimes lethal rape has become a tactic of warfare practiced by all sides.
3. In a study in 2000, the U.N. estimated that at least 60 million girls who should be alive are "missing" from various populations, mostly in Asia, as a result of sex-selective abortions, infanticide or neglect.
4. According to UNICEF, an estimated one million children, mostly girls, enter the sex trade each year and the U.N. estimates that 4 million women and girls are trafficked annually.
5. In some Islamic nations, women are restricted in their movements, punished for permitting the exposure of an arm or ankle, deprived of education, prohibited from driving a car or competing with men for a job. If a woman is raped, she is often most severely punished as the guilty party in the crime.
6. The same discriminatory thinking lies behind the continuing gender gap in pay and explains why so few women hold political office, even in most Western democracies.

And he has not even mentioned female genital mutilation (mistakenly justified as a "Muslim" practice, when in fact no evidence in Muslim scripture can be found advocating it.)Current estimates are that 140 MILLION women suffer from this procedure currently, and that about 3 million women undergo it every year in Africa alone.

Here is his full speech:

President Jimmy Carter addresses the Parliament from Parliament of Religions on Vimeo.

The point is - religious institutions have largely kept silent, or have been on the side of oppressive thinking/actions. And, women have not banded together across those lines to help each other.

So what can be said about Religious Organizations and women in the past ten years? I wish there were more good things to say. I wish I could report that women of faith all over America have banded together to protect other women from religious injustice. I wish more men like Jimmy Carter would stand up and say that their faith leads them to protect the rights of women, equally with those of men. But I cannot.

Has this past ten years brought us closer to that day?

I honestly do not know.

As Jimmy Carter said in his speech, "The truth is that male religious leaders have had – and still have – an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter.
Their continuing choice provides the foundation or justification for much of the pervasive persecution and abuse of women throughout the world. This is in clear violation not just of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but also the teachings of Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul, Moses and the prophets, Muhammad, and founders of other great religions - all of whom have called for proper and equitable treatment of all the children of God."

I wish I could say more about how religious institutions woke up, rededicated themselves to justice, repudiated violence of all sorts, and saw women as equals. I will pray for that, work for that, write for that -- and I will ask you to join me. Whether you are a part of organized religion or not is irrelevant. We can all agree that there is a need for change, whether one is inside or outside of the organization itself. Positive change in organized religion could literally save women's lives.

Mata H, CE for Religion and Spirituality, dreams for a better future at Time's Fool

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