Promoting gender justice in church and society

Five LWF vice-presidents: from left to right, Desri Maria Sumbayak, Propstin Astrid Klein, Archbishop Antje Jackelen, Rev. Jeannette Ada Epse Maina and Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton Photo: LWF/A. Hillert

A meeting of Lutheran women leaders looks at ways of transforming patriarchal attitudes and structures

(LWI) - Working together to challenge patriarchal structures and attitudes was at the top of the agenda as participants in a Pre-Council meeting on women gathered in Geneva to share stories and plan strategies to promote gender justice throughout the global Lutheran family.

Ahead of the opening of the 2019 Lutheran World Federation (LWF) Council, women leaders met on 12 June to discuss progress towards the goals enshrined in the gender justice policy that was approved by the Council in 2013 and is currently available in 26 different languages.

Within the LWF’s governing body, five out of the seven vice-presidents are currently women and they presented the many different challenges they face in their various national and regional contexts. Desri Maria Sumbayak, vice-president for Asia, explained that gender justice is a “very new idea” in her native Indonesia, where some church leaders are reluctant to publicly engage with women’s networks. She stressed the need for education around these issues, beginning with kindergarten children and their parents, as well as training at congregational level for both men and women.“In our Asian context, to implement Gender Justice, it is probably more possible and effective to approach the grassroots level first, rather than the leadership positions.

Cultural challenges, positive partnerships

In the Asian region, participants highlighted the way their work is often hampered by traditional teachings about men as leaders in family and society, with women expected to play the supporting roles. In several countries around the globe, women who have raised their voices about abuse and discrimination have suffered from repercussions and personal accusations. Other participants noted the way some church leaders are opposed to theological training for women, while others are seeking to reverse their churches’ decision on women in the ordained ministry.

In some parts of the communion however, substantial progress had been made, as Rev. Elitha Moyo from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Zimbabwe reported. Her church was the first in the country to establish a gender justice desk in 2012, translating the LWF policy into local languages and offering it as a resource for others seeking to follow suit. Despite the widespread problems of poverty and cultural conditioning, her church has established partnerships with the government, the police, the legal profession, village leaders and many other organizations, working together on the urgent issues of tackling violence against women, stopping child marriages and encouraging girls to stay in the education system.

Insidious attitudes, transformative theologies

In Europe and North America, Lutheran women have reached top levels of leadership in their churches, yet they still face the challenges of a patriarchal mind set. Archbishop Dr. Antje Jackelen, vice-president of the Nordic region, spoke about “the four dangerous Ps – populism, polarization, protectionism and post-truth” which are on the rise in society today. A fifth problem, patriarchy, is the background noise that makes these four into an even more dangerous cocktail,” she added.

Pröpstin Astrid Kleist, vice-president of the Central-Western European region, noted, there is still a widespread suspicion of anyone studying or speaking about gender and masculinities. As in other Western countries, she said, more women in ordained ministry has not always led to equal status and equal number in leadership. “In Germany a little more than 50% of church members are women. 80% of those are employed in our churches are women. But in the church councils, women are under-represented, the higher up the less women take part in administration.”

Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, vice-president for the North America region, talked about a new document that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) will be considering shortly on “Faith, Sexism and Justice: a Lutheran call to action.” She pointed to the negative comments that women in ministry still face and praised her male counterparts “who are working to bring to the fore the reality of what we thought we had overcome. We don’t have the threat of physical violence but we have other more insidious threats,” she added.

Youth Council members, men and women, joined the afternoon sessions to discuss the next steps in advancing the gender justice agenda within member churches. All participants agreed on the importance of strengthening theological education in order to challenge patriarchal structures in both church and society. While policies and quotas for women’s leadership are a key part of the process, they will only bring lasting change if they are grounded in a transformative theology that replaces oppressive attitudes with the gospel values of liberation and equal dignity for women and men.