Women’s work still not done

Published January 1, 1999

The Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women has been a failure, and more work is needed, says a group that gathered to celebrate the decade’s conclusion and plan for the future.

Women (and a few men) representing a wide diversity of denominations and cultures gathered in Harare, Zimbabwe, in November, just before the start of the Eighth assembly of the World Council of Churches. More than 1,200 participants took a critical look at the churches’ response to the challenges of the decade. The WCC launched the decade in 1988.

A “living letter” written by participants noted that churches still have a long way to go to address such key issues as theology, violence against women, sexuality, the empowerment of women in church structures, the enabling of young women, and economics. Many member denominations of the WCC did not address issues affecting women in church and society during the decade, it says.

The grassroots of many Canadian denominations are only now learning about the decade’s political, social, economic, theological and spiritual issues. The letter says the decade, far from living up to its name, became “a decade of women in solidarity with women.”

The WCC sent observers around the world five years ago in middecade visits, to evaluate progress in various regions and denominations. Women responded by sharing experiences of continued isolation, economic injustice, barriers to participation in church and society, racism, religious fundamentalism, ethnic genocide, sexual harassment, HIV/AIDS, and violence against women and children. Young women said they continue to experience marginalization within the church, through limited access to leadership development training and opportunities to participate in various structures.

As a result, those gathered at the Decade Festival, including about 50 Canadians, decided to put some teeth into the living letter document, From Solidarity to Accountability. The document addresses several of the key issues churches still need to address, to be, as some participants put it, “the whole body of Christ.”

In the days before the refining of the document, delegates participated in worship, Bible study, and discussion groups, addressing issues that churches still need to work through.

Discussion about sexuality, and in particular, homosexuality, was a hot topic, and threatened to stall work on the document. In the words of one delegate, the issue of homosexuality “has no legitimacy” in many denominations. As one delegate asked for the phrase “sexuality in all its diversity” to be struck from the document, another requested its inclusion.

Some African delegates said they could not endorse a way forward on any of the issues raised by lesbians at the conference, because their denominations had not yet discussed a position on homosexuality. One of the African delegates said she was threatened by three others when she left the stage, after suggesting representatives of these denominations could take the issues of homosexuals home for discussion.

The final document acknowledges “that there is divided opinion” on the issue, and asks for the guidance of the Holy Spirit that the conversation may continue.

An entire day was spent on violence against women, and participants heard the details of women’s stories about sexual, institutional, spiritual and theological violence in the church.

Anglican priest Ann Smith of Brooklin, Ont., spoke of experiencing abuse at the hands of her father, a former minister, and of a “charismatic” cult that her family was caught up in.

As the conference was held in Africa, in the midst of Zimbabwe’s current economic crisis, African women shared their experiences of poverty, food insecurity, negative effects of economic restructuring, lack of adequate health care, and the systems and

Several women attending the Decade Festival had visited other African countries in “woman to woman” visits on their way to Harare, and by living with families in host communities were able to glimpse firsthand some of the challenges their sisters face. Participants heard agonizing stories from wartorn countries such as Sudan and the Congo, and appeals to lobby governments and churches to help end the strife. The reality of AIDS was everpresent in the visits, and groups heard about the ravaging effects of the disease in the African population _ every family has a story about someone dying of the disease, and many are taking care of AIDSorphaned children.

Women and men of the Decade Festival called the WCC and church leadership to accountability in such areas as theological training and leadership opportunities for women; inclusive language; gender balance in church leadership; support for women in ministry; discussion of human sexuality; the elimination of violence (sexual, religious, psychological, structural, physical, spiritual, military, cultural); education for both genders and all ages to eliminate the culture of violence; the elimination of all biblical and theological justifications for the use of violence; and the full inclusion of youth and children in the life and ministry of the churches.

As part of the Eighth Assembly’s focus on Jubilee (the forgiveness of all debts in the 50th year), decade participants urged churches of the world to demand cancellation of the debts of the poorest countries, and to address women’s rights to property, equal pay for equal work, and reproductive rights.

Anglicans Gloria Cope of Duncan, B.C., and Sue MackaySmith of Penticton, B.C., presented a workshop on the Jubilee theme at the assembly, to highlight this aspect of the churches’ work in economic justice.

The Decade Festival document concludes: “We hope that a clear plan for Decade followup can be agreed upon. We suggest that the next 10 years be a decade of action and theological reflection, with a time line such as a middecade forum and enddecade evaluation.'”

Deborah Luchuk is a freelance writer, and publisher/editor of The Green Hills Gazette, a community newspaper in Millbrook, Ont. She was a delegate in the Decade Festival and participated in woman to woman visits.


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