Saturday, 19 January 2013

Men and Women together in the Church

Men and Women together: levelling the playing field in church

Structures of society are such that men are still constantly favoured when it comes to taking up leadership positions. The weight of tradition speaks in favour of having a man. Being a conservative body by nature, the church has by and large, and more than many others, maintained a male leadership ethos. One should remember that what I will say here is said against the background of generations of male dominance, a state of affairs that I have not forgotten.

The task is really to level the playing field. I think the metaphor is clear enough: we have to scrutinize ourselves, especially we who are men, and ensure that there are equal rights, equal access, that criteria that are in place are jointly agreed upon, by men and women alike; in other words, the rules on the ground have to be the same for all.

Time may not have come yet, as our culture immemorially to such an extent has prescribed what a male task and what a female task is respectively. Still I would maintain that there is a dire need to confront the reality of complementarity between men and women also in church, not for the sake of knowing who has access to which ministry but on a deeper and more profound level; not follow slavishly the legacy of uneven power sharing, but rather challenging that legacy; an ecumenical space, taking into account all different church traditions, could be ideal for such engagement, but God knows when time is ripe for such engagement (see forthcoming article by myself and Anders Göranzon in The Ecumenical Review, March 2013).

However, having agreed on a level playing field, the only way forward is to have a completely open process and having tested the various candidates one must let the best person have the job.

What has happened now, however, is that those who have a say do not fully trust that the ground rules for a levelled field are enough. They want to influence the very decision in favour of the one side. Here something else has come in, an altogether different category or rule has been allowed to play a role. What it amounts to when it comes to ensure that women get into leadership positions is simply a decision to favour women before men. It must be made clear that we are talking about two different systems here. One is about ground rules that must be the same for all, while the other is outright in favour of the one side, against the other. In line with this is to bring in quotas, for example making sure that we have an equal number of women and men.

We could here draw a parallel with the affirmative action mechanism that had to be put in place in South Africa in the new democratic dispensation after 1994, in order to help blacks entering those parts of society that previously had been the sole privilege of whites. The freedom fighter Joe Slovo, who was part of the first democratic government, saw the affirmative action arrangement as a set of “sunset clauses”, as they were meant solely for the period of transition (max 10 years). But affirmative action is still on in South Africa and is in the process of derailing the country. More than one million whites have left the country since 1994. Young whites do not get jobs in South Africa but well overseas so ironically the arrangement now backfires on those it should have benefited as the white exodus is a virtual brain drain.

When it comes to men and women in church one should agree on the ground rules and then trust the honesty and fair-mindedness of all involved. One must as soon as possible leave the whole issue of trying to enforce an equal number of men and women in the various positions. I want to see a woman in leadership because she is (at the time of appointment at least) the best on offer. What a shame: imagine you got a job because you are a man. It is like saying, you are blond and handsome, we like to see you as our boss, or you speak with a nice, national Swedish accent (rikssvenska) therefore we like to hear you speak, and also have you as our leader. This is utterly wrong, utter nonsense!

Those who deliberately have said, “we must have a woman here”, may regret this in two ways: 1) the appointee is there on the wrong premises and therefore will not deliver, and 2) the appointment will create resentment among the other half of humanity, among the males, which fact eventually will fall back on women; this because the fate of us as human beings is to live together, men and women.

More than twenty years ago I read a discussion in a German paper on this same issue among academics. I particularly remember two women who were adamant in saying that “my position as a professor at this university I hold, not because I am a woman but because I qualified for it and was the best on offer at the time”. This argument sticks in my memory till today. Women are making great strides into the academic work place these days and more and more there are indeed quite clear ground rules and criteria as to who is qualified to a certain position at a university.

It may be more difficult in a church, especially in a church like Church of Sweden, where it is very difficult to specify what kind of delivery the leader must come up with. Those who go to church seem to go to church whether they have a good bishop or not. There is no clarity as to which criteria should be used for a church leader. You have not heard of a church leader being fired because of not delivering the “goods” that were expected; rather he or she may be fired because of authoritarian ways of leadership or because of problems of co-operation (samarbetsproblem). The church is maybe a software organization without the necessary hardware backup (hard ware could be church attendance for example). This very fact makes it possible to appoint people who do not deliver, because it is very difficult to say what they should deliver.

I still want to maintain two things. First, if it is true that the best person has been appointed, and if that happens to have been a woman, good and fine, then my whole argument drops. But those who took the decision know pretty well what they were doing, it is if nothing else at least a matter between their conscience and their God. Second, what seems to have been the case also is that some of the eligible men have kept away. They may have smelt a rat here, they may have felt that they would not stand a chance and therefore they did not apply in the first place. By staying away they have helped aggravate the situation.

In the field of academic theology we are seeing a real shift these days, and young women are coming into the field of theology enriching the field immensely. The late Professor Per Frostin at Lund made the following remark in the 1980s already: systematic theology is still the domain of white, male theologians, and it is not just because the others are not good enough, because they are, but we have a culture that makes it difficult for the others to come in.

To me this has to do with the playing field having to be made level for women but also for men and women of the other continents. Make no mistake about it, for they are coming in full force. More and more people are discovering that they are having a real passion for theology. They are to be congratulated. Women may have their own programmes when doing theology, like the Concerned African Women Theologians (founded by Professor Mercy Amba Oduyoye, Nigeria), now serving all the various regions of Africa, but would do well to engage more with the male theologians. There is an expressed need for this in South Africa for example.

When I read texts of systematic theologians like Professor Sarah Coakley, Cambridge, or Dr Jayne Svenungsson, the Stockholm School of Theology (who comes from the same seminar in systematic theology in Lund as I do, but we were part of it at different times), I have to say to myself, here is something new and better than I have seen before. We here seem to have two of many people who have been appointed because they were the best on offer, at least at the time of appointment.

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