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The rise of women as church leaders

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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.


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