Sexuality, women’s roles occupy assembly

Published May 1, 1999

Alice Jean Finlay: The decade has had an impact on the work of the Anglican Church. There is an effort to be as inclusive as possible in programs, and there are a number of women in leadership at national church offices.

SEXUALITY ISSUES and women in positions of theological and church leadership are contentious matters at most church gatherings and the World Council of Churches’ festival to mark the end of the Ecumenical Decade in Solidarity with Women was no different.

Those two issues were the most controversial ones participants faced as they drafted a “Living Letter” for submission to the WCC assembly in Harare, Zimbabwe last November. The women’s festival meeting took place in Harare just before the WCC General Assembly.

Among other things, the letter challenges churches to act on a variety of issues affecting women and children, including racism, economic self-sufficiency, and the elimination of all forms of violence and abuse. Despite an impasse on the inclusion of phrases about human sexuality, an eleventh-hour consensus was achieved, and a drafting team went to work to create the final document.

The most contentious section challenges churches to address issues of sexuality, reproductive rights, divorce and the ordination of women, while acknowledging deep divisions on these matters within the church:

“We recognize there are a number of ethical and theological issues such as the ordination of women, abortion, divorce and human sexuality in all of its diversity that have implications for participation, and are difficult to address in the church community. During the Decade, human sexuality in all of its diversity emerged with particular significance. We condemn the violence perpetuated due to the differences on this matter. ? We acknowledge that there is divided opinion as women and men on this particular issue. In fact, for some women and men in our midst, this issue has no legitimacy. We seek the wisdom and guidance of the Holy Spirit that we may continue the conversation in order that justice may prevail.”

Despite agreement among festival participants on the final Living Letter, it was questioned on the floor of the assembly. A woman from an Orthodox Church said the letter included a phrase about reproductive rights that was not in the original document, and said that the letter did not represent a consensus of women at the festival, according to Peter Wyatt, general secretary for theology, faith and ecumenism at the United Church of Canada.

“This woman said the drafting team had added new material that (participants) didn’t agree with. The two words ?reproductive rights’ were apparently added, and I heard this confirmed later by other people, but this may be hearsay,” said Wyatt.

Canadian festival participants generally supported the final version of the Living Letter.

“The process of coming to that letter was remarkable. It was an extraordinary exercise in decision making,” said Juliet Huntly, who is responsible for women’s issues at the United Church. “As there is no consensus at the WCC anyway, the outcome was predictable. However, the assembly did adopt parts of the letter, and (put it to) the delegates to share with the churches in their regions.”

The letter was received by the assembly, with recommendations made to the WCC’s Program Guidelines Committee. These are to be referred to member churches for follow-up. Recommendations include:

  • preparation of guidelines for inter-gender conduct to eliminate any violence against women;
  • provision of opportunities for women to speak out about issues of violence and abuse and for forgiveness and reconciliation between victims and perpetrators;
  • further affirmation of the WCC’s work on de-legitimizing war;
  • encouragement of the use of languages and policies that support the inclusion of women in leadership positions;
  • advocacy of debt cancellation measures, with resources saved and re-allocated to improve quality of life for women, youth and children;
  • denouncement of commercial sexual exploitation of women and children;
  • commendation of the United Nations Convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women.

The Program Guidelines Committee has been asked to prepare a study of human sexuality in all of its diversity, to be made available to member churches for discussion and dialogue.

The central committee of the WCC will consider two further items at its fall 1999 meeting: whether to provide or to support programs, opportunities and curricula for theological education that include women’s voices, perspectives and experiences; and whether to organize a mid-point consultation in five years with member churches in order to monitor progress of recommendations and programs arising out of the Living Letter.

“It’s not clear yet what will happen in the member churches with these recommendations,” said central committee member Alice Jean Finlay of Toronto. There is no longer a national Ecumenical Decade office or staff person to co-ordinate the churches’ efforts to uphold women.

Within the Anglican Church, there is no women’s desk, as in some denominations. Women’s issues are part of the EcoJustice portfolio. However, Ms. Finlay believes that the Decade has had an impact on the work of the Anglican Church.

“Many of the Decade aims are being lived out. There’s an effort to be as inclusive as possible in programs and so on, and there are a number of women in leadership at national church offices,” she said. “I think more sensitivity should be considered at the diocesan level.”

Deb Luchuk is a freelance writer and editor based in Millbrook, Ont.


Keep on reading

Skip to content