Listening and talking to those from other Churches and indeed other faith groups can be illuminating. What we in our Unitarian and Free Christian community now take for granted is still contested in other churches. The whole issue of gender and leadership remains controversial.
The Church of England has finally approved the ordination of women as bishops having celebrated the 20th anniversary of women in the priesthood. 2014 also marked the 40th anniversary of the ordination of women by the Methodist Church. The United Reformed Church will commemorate the 100th anniversary in 2017 of women ministers within the Congregational churches. Pope Francis stated this year that “women must have a greater presence in the decision-making areas” of the Roman Catholic Church.
I heard Kate Coleman speak at a conference I helped organize for MODEM on “Emerging Themes in Leadership” on “Gender, Leadership and the Church”. She said that it grieved her to have to say on so many situations that she is the first women in a leadership role. She is a Baptist minister and first woman chair of the Council of the Evangelical Alliance and former President of the Baptist Union of Great Britain. She emphasised the power of personal history in shaping our perspectives; not least that she once belonged to a Church that did not believe in women in leadership positions.
In many ways Unitarians have much to be proud of. Gertrude von Petzold was in 1904 admitted into our ministry at Narborough Road Free Christian (Unitarian) Church, Leicester, the first woman to have full ministerial status in any British Denomination. Mrs Sydney Martineau was President of the General Assembly in 1929-30. Women have comprised increasing numbers of ministers and GA Presidents (seven of the last 15).
We would undoubtedly find offensive the conservative theological justifications for discrimination – either that women are inferior and incapable of leadership (Traditional view) or that they are equal but should not lead in the home or church (Complementarian view). We would surely advocate an Egalitarian approach that Kate outlined as the third view; that women are equal in being and in leadership.
However, we should not rest on our laurels. A look at the Roll of Presidents in the Annual Report will reveal few women Presidents in the first column and that equality took a long time to come. Women ministers for so long did not receive calls to the “plum” ministries. We have not had a woman General Secretary/Chief Officer. So whilst we have come further than others on the journey to equality and made lots of progress in recent years we still need to be careful about the assumptions we make about appropriate roles and positions.
We are influenced more than we think by wider society and we should pay attention to the conclusions of the Everyday Sexism project ( http://everydaysexism.com/) that sexism does exist, it is faced by women every day and is a valid problem to discuss. Yes, even in Church.
Kate highlighted that “Great leaders don’t just appear, they are crafted over time” (Reggie McNeal) and urged provision of systematic training for women. Elizabeth Welch, former Moderator of the URC, observed the paradox that “those in power think themselves powerless; yet those who feel powerless think those in power have too much”. Males and females need to take note as gender is not only an issue for women. A good start would be to make sure we reflect on this in all our decision-making and in the design of GA leadership programmes.