Several years ago, I was in the audience of a panel where the head of the Southern Baptist Convention talked about why women can’t be ministers. Although there were women ministers on the panel with him, he said that he would never support women as senior clergy, nor did he think rites performed by women could be considered valid. As a woman and a Unitarian Universalist clergyperson, I was aghast.
Of course, I know that the Southern Baptist Convention and the Roman Catholic Church do not ordain women. And as Jimmy Carter said last week, as he had at the Parliament of World Religions’ December 2009 meeting, religions have continued to hurt women. Indeed, Nelson Mandela’s chosen group of global leaders, The Elders, has a major project to end the religious and traditional basis for the discrimination against women.
In 2004, I had the good fortune of being part of the Peace Council’s meeting in Chiang Mai, Thailand, that created “The Chiang Mai Declaration: Religion and Women: An Agenda for Change.” This colloquium of religious leaders spelled out how religions have contributed to the suffering of women around the world:
•“They have made women invisible by denying them religious education and excluding them from decision making
•They have been silent when patriarchal systems have legitimated the violence, abuse, and exploitation of women by men
•This silence has been deafening in the face of such atrocities as rape, incest, female genital mutilation, sex selective abortion, and discrimination against sexual minorities
•They have not recognized the conscience and moral agency of women, especially in relation to their sexuality and reproductive decisions.”
They concluded that religions can and must do better.
And many do. Progressive faith traditions empower women as full partners in the life of the faith community and society. Numerous faith traditions, including my own, affirm women’s rights as human rights. In the past ten years, there has been notable progress in the rise of women to denominational leadership in the United States. Women currently lead the Episcopal Church, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and the Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches. Women are bishops in such diverse traditions as the African Methodist Episcopal Church, AME Zion, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and The United Methodist Church.
Change is happening, and religious leaders and institutions can and must play a role in advancing the status of women around the world. Indeed, more than one hundred congregations have pledged to devote part of their Mother’s Day weekend worship services to advocate for maternal health and universal access to family planning. Surely the day is coming when the majority of the world’s religions will recognize the full humanity of half of God’s creation.
Debra W. Haffner