Berit Hagen Agoey, Angelique Walker-Smith, Mary Anne Plaatjies van Huffel. Photo: Marcelo Schneider/WCC

Berit Hagen Agoey, Angelique Walker-Smith, Mary Anne Plaatjies van Huffel. Photo: Marcelo Schneider/WCC

by Kristine Greenaway with Ingeborg Dybvig

Stories of women in church leadership are vital to forming a new generation of female pan-African leaders, say speakers at World Council of Churches event.

The message is clear. The stories of women of African descent who have served the global ecumenical church movement can enrich theological education and encourage women to prepare for global leadership.

At a breakfast gathering today in Trondheim, Norway, female theologians in key leadership roles in their respective churches told of the power of stories to equip pan-African theology students and lay women to speak up for the rights of women, men and children.

The Pan-African Women’s Ecumenical Empowerment Network (PAWEEN) sponsored the event, held in the context of the meeting of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches (WCC) now underway in this city known for its history of welcoming pilgrims.

PAWEEN convenor, Angelique Walker-Smith told participants that the decision to attach the network to WCC’s programme for Ecumenical Theological Formation was intentional. “We want to bring together our experiences, and we want them to be heard within the theological education section of the Council.”

In welcoming the three guest speakers, Berit Hagen Agøyof the Church of Norway observed: “Your focus on sharing stories brings to mind the strong Norwegian tradition of pilgrims sharing stories. They walked; they sat down and shared their stories. We have to learn from each other in the same way today by sharing stories across borders and churches.”

The speakers are all pioneers whose own stories are part of church history. Mary Anne Plaatjies van Huffel is the first woman to be ordained as a pastor within the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa. Helga Haugland Byfuglien is the first female Presiding Bishop in the Church of Norway, and Walker-Smith is the first African-American woman to graduate from the doctor of ministry program at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Plaatjies van Huffel, a theology professor at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, recognizes the importance of formal theological education but also wants to expand the discussion to include reflection on equipping laywomen for leadership.

“I wonder how ordinary women and girls in African congregations see their opportunities in a world where they see mostly male leadership? There is a lack of information and of opportunities for theological education for those who don’t necessarily want to be ordained. I think we can use the beautiful narratives from the Bible to show strong role models and good examples. We should include all races and classes in the circle of storytelling,” she said.

In the Church of Norway, there are many women in key church leadership roles, Haugland Byfuglien told the gathering. Today, 30 percent of ordained priests in the Church of Norway and four of the church’s 12 bishops are women, as are the elected leader for the Church Council of Ecumenical and International Relations and the general secretary of the Bible Society.

“This mirrors the development of gender equality in our corner of the world. But it did not happen without discussion, and to some extent it also divided the church. We still have smaller lay groups who do not applaud women’s leadership,” the bishop notes.

It is even more difficult when Haugland Byfuglien travels to meet with other churches. “There are churches which are not used to ordained women. It is sometimes difficult to experience. I have been neglected and ignored and that is not a nice experience. It is tempting to just not comment on it,but I think we need to address this when it happens. If we don’t, it will not be easier for those coming after us,” the bishop says.

Acknowledging how privileged the Church of Norway is in regard to women’s right to hold responsible positions, Haugland Byfuglien says: “Our situation obliges us to share our stories and to contribute to our sisters in other churches. We can help by talking about the right we have to sit at the table and be visible there.”

However, the bishop believes that opening the way for women to move into positions of power in the church is not the work of women alone.“We must admit that to really get the message through, we are dependent on working together with men. If not, we can sit in conferences, meetings and fellowships for women but nothing will happen. We have to be wise, smart and strategic to also have networks with men.”

Walker-Smith agrees. “This is how we worked when we launched PAWEEN in Washington, DC, and of course in the academic worldwe have always had to work closely with men since they have had the benefit and privilege in the realms of theology education.”

Plaatjies van Huffel adds a note of caution. “We also have to remember that women still are being excluded. Therefore, we need to address the structures we are working within.There is a glass ceiling. We need to walk new roads and find how we can best form a new culture within our churches,” she says.

Fact on PAWEEN:

The Pan African Women Ecumenical Empowerment Network (PAWEEN) was launched in 2015 to create a worldwide, vibrant chain of support and empowerment among women of African descent as one contribution to the World Council of Churches’ pilgrimage of justice and peace.

More information:

Pan African Women Ecumenical Empowerment Network

WCC Central Committee