Gender Justice: The Vital Element in the Churches’ Journey toward Justice and Peace
Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, WCC general secretary
My sisters and brothers in Christ,
I greet you in the name of the 350 member churches that constitute the fellowship of the World Council of Churches. This is what we are representing here together, and as a fellowship of women and men in these churches we have gathered here. I welcome and honour your presence here, each one of you, committed to this fellowship and, committed to work for a just community of women and men in the churches and in the world at large.
We express our gratitude to the Jamaica Church Council and our member churches here for hosting this important event, remembering the Peace Convocation in 2011 with great joy.
We come together in gratitude to the many women and men who have contributed so much to make our fellowship aware of the need to be so. Here, now, on the 20th anniversary of the Ecumenical Decade of the Churches in Solidarity with Women, 1988-1998, we pause on this long, inspiring yet often arduous pilgrimage toward gender justice to acknowledge the courage, faith, and achievements of these pioneers of a fully inclusive ecumenical movement. We owe them so much.
Yet this gathering of intergenerational women and men from WCC member churches and their theological institutions and ecumenical partners is not only about celebrating the past. It is also an invitation for us to shape together the future vision for a just community of women and men and the further develop the strategies how we can promote that together.
So with pride and joy—yet also profound hope—we welcome you to the next chapter in this story, or the next leg in this pilgrimage.
The conjunction of this anniversary with the 70th anniversary of the WCC and in the context of our Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace is itself auspicious. It reminds us, first, that it was only after 40 years of hard work and leadership by women – and men - in the WCC that the Decade of Solidarity was launched. Second, the theological, spiritual, social, advocacy, and diplomatic tools we still employ in our pilgrimage and programmatic work today were crafted and used with important results in the Decade. And, third, the Decade reminds us how long the arc of progress is. The long journey of the churches on this crucial issue of the inclusion and dignity of women in their lives has given us a key measure of authenticity and accountability not only as churches but also as Christians, indeed as humans. But it is not finished. Gender justice is a key focus and criterion of our ongoing pilgrimage toward justice and peace for all.
During these several days I hope you will have the opportunity to listen, share, explore and learn from one another and in such various ways that we in the end will respond creatively and constructively to this history, and that quest for gender justice in the churches and beyond.
In the language of the pilgrimage of justice and peace, I would like briefly to evoke how commemorating the Decade allows us to celebrate its gifts, name or visit the wounds it addressed, and further develop tools for transformation towards a just community for all of us, women and men, and in all other aspects of our identity and diversity.
Remembering the Gifts
Christian commitment as disciples of Jesus has always been animated through memory and testimony. For example, through the stories of biblical women like Ruth, Hannah, Mary, the mother of Jesus, the Samaritan woman, Mary Magdalene, and many women. We also have the many stories from the history of the churches of women who have been giving examples for discipleship through their words and their work. We also have in our personal life stories names of many women who have given us formation and leadership.
I want to take this opportunity to honour the many women who have given me so much of their wisdom, strength, and clear insight to what it means to be a disciple, a theologian, a colleague, a pastor, - but also what it means to be a father, a husband, a friend. I owe them all a lot. In my personal faith story I am convinced there at least as many women as men who have helped me to develop and nurture my faith as an expression of faithfulness to our calling to work for justice and peace, in hope and love. Some of them have also been and are leading figures in the ecumenical movement.
In the ecumenical movement, we rejoice with women who walked through the doors when God opened them. Through them we know that our calling is not confined by who or what we are but rather by how God calls us within our context, embracing our experience and inspiring our perspectives. They envisioned their participation in terms of solidarity of a global community of women and men, allowed their hearts of compassion to burst into action, embodying their biblical foremothers, also long before the Decade.
Their stories still challenge us, reminding us to listen and hear differently, to choose new directions, or to notice new resources that God has placed in front of us. One of them was Suzanne de Dietrich, who led the work on Bible studies in the WCC since before the first Assembly and for many, many years through her role in the Bossey insititute.
We want also to celebrate the women who have held the WCC programmatic responsibilities, starting from 1953, when the Cooperation of Men and Women was born. Madeleine Barot, Brigalia Bam, Bärbel Wartenberg-Potter, Anna Karin Hammar, Aruna Gnanadason, and Fulata Mbano Moyo have carried the WCC mantle of coordinating the process of building the just community of women and men in close collaboration with member churches, theological institutions, and women’s theological and advocacy networks all over the world. Through the collaborative work of these women and men, it eventually became clear that WCC could not address gender justice without taking an intersectional approach to other issues of justice, addressing economic and racial justice, environmental issues, health and healing, and the work for just peace in all its dimensions.
I want particularly to thank those women from the WCC who have worked so hard in recent years to give visibility to women’s leadership in the council and the WCC’s work toward a just community. I think especially of our moderator, Dr Agnes Aboum; our vice-moderator Bishop Mary Ann Swenson, our deputy general secretary, Dr Isabel Apawo Phiri; the other two women in our Staff Leadership Group (which at the moment is composed of three women and two men) the directors for Finance and for Communication, Elaine Dykes and Marianne Ejdersten. We could mention many others. They not only stand in a long line of women dedicated to this movement; they in many ways exemplify it. Women in theological education should also be mentioned as they have a very significant role.
The WCC has witnessed and directly benefited from the growing number of women in leadership positions in the churches, theological institutions, WCC staff and governing bodies.
The Decade came at a crucial time theologically as well. One of the great achievements of the ecumenical presence and work of women was encouraging the impulse to retrieve the long-lost or neglected histories of women in the church, along with their theological and spiritual works. In turn, we saw the Decade bring to the churches the critical insights of feminist theology, relevant for many discourses in theology. This work continues to challenge and renew theology, in theological anthropology, of course, but also in the richer understanding of God, also how this is expressed in liturgy and spirituality.
We also need to celebrate the contributions to our understanding of the issues that we have received through international organizations like the United Nations’ international year of women in 1975, which led to the international decade of women (1976-1985), and the Beijing Women’s World Conference in 1995, then later to the Millennium Development Goals, and the current Sustainable Development Goals agenda 2030. These UN processes have direct and indirect impact on our ecumenical journey together, especially for the meaningful participation of women (and men) in work against discrimination against women in the societies at large – but also in the churches themselves. It is notable that when WCC member churches were not significantly impacted by the UN international decade of women, the Methodist Bishop Rogers Uwadi of Nigeria boldly called for the WCC central committee of 1985 to sponsor a similar decade.
Another of the gifts of the ecumenical Decade was the solidarity of women with each other. Through storytelling as a pedagogical methodology, the WCC discovered women’s agency in addressing political violence, which exposed the use of rape as a weapon of war. It also inspired the need for women-to-women solidarity visits as well as Living Letters visits, which included men as well. It is the women-to-women solidarity visits that actually opened women’s eyes to acknowledge the existing women’s movements and agency in responding to violence.
The ways forward
You are invited to reflect on where we have come but also the ways forward towards a just community of women and men in the churches, for the sake of our fellowship of churches, but also as a strong contribution to the human family and the one world in which we live and where we have to live together with justice and peace. For that to happen we need new and strong expressions of faith, hope and love.
As we celebrate 70 years of the WCC, we also have to acknowledge that the realities real of destructive forces and discrimination that continue to challenge our walking, praying and working together.
Addressing the wounds of exclusion on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, disability and age, has been part of the ecumenical journey. It is about “visiting the wounds”, and accompanying one another into transformation.
The deafening conspiracy of silence around sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) suffered especially by children and women is one of the most serious obstacles to the vision of a just community. We know that it is a reality everywhere. It is particularly hurting to know that it happens also in Christian homes, church-related institutions, churches and ecumenical bodies (which was acknowledged at the end of the Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women). This remains a great wound in the body of Christ. This scandal begs for urgent and honest acts of repentance because otherwise it undermines the integrity of our Christian witness.
Also within the context of HIV and AIDS, sexual and gender-based violence has been identified as a major determinant of HIV infections as well as a key hindrance to treatment, care and support. Moreover, rape can result in unwanted pregnancies. Needless to say, sexual and gender-based violence is a major cause of trauma and severe mental illness, which may even lead to death, often through suicide. Moreover, research has shown that unattended trauma contributes to a vicious cycle of violence that keeps paralyzing the church and society at large.
Unfortunately, there are several identified enablers and/or justifications for the culture of SGBV in the church and society. Certain readings and interpretation of scriptures, religious teachings and cultural practices have been used as impediments to dealing with SGBV. New studies and research have contributed to the unveiling of toxic masculinities and femininities, which beg for transformation.
The renewal of the campaign “Thursdays in Black” has really brought a lot of new dimensions to our common understanding and commitments to make a difference. I am encouraged to see how many women and particularly how many men in leadership roles in the churches have taken pictures of themselves and together to show this commitment. We have the responsibility to carry on the work of transformation and put into practice what has already has been affirmed and envisioned. The WCC has acknowledged women’s agency and spirituality of resilience, resistance and transformation by adopting, mobilizing and launching Thursdays in Black: Towards a World without Rape and Violence, an ecumenical product of the Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women. Now it is time to manifest again this as a campaign that also leads to actions beyond the important symbols.
The task of restoring human dignity to those who have been violated goes beyond this campaign to holistically embrace the ways in which culture, religion, and Scriptures are read and interpreted. For example, in addressing sexual and gender-based violence through the Decade to Overcome Violence and the process of addressing HIV and AIDS, the vulnerable and marginalized have been able to find hope through the contextual reading and community-based interpretation of the Bible. This methodology has allowed women and men to interrogate femininities and masculinities in different religious and cultural contexts in their search for life-affirming theologies and ethics.
We need to acknowledge the plethora of resources and processes from WCC and member churches that have mutually inspired the ecumenical movement for transformation. This was true, even before the decade: for example, several churches had addressed the role of women in leadership.
You are invited to work together for a better gender strategy for the ecumenical movement that also can be meaningful for the churches to engage in – in their own ways and capacities. We need to continue nurturing critical and constructive reflections in the churches on how we develop in all dimensions of life just communities of women and men. The WCC cannot decide for the churches what to do. But we have seen how through the Decade and other initiatives, the churches have got new platforms and impulses to have open and meaningful discussions and processes of change. I know how much the Decade meant for the development in my own Church of Norway.
Hopefully, the further work on a gender justice policy, while guiding the work of the WCC secretariat, also has potential to inspire member churches to engage in a similar process, if they have not already done so. The major challenge remains as to how such a policy is implemented to advance the transformative ministry and prophetic witness of the ecumenical movement.
It is exciting to contemplate the many new and positive factors at play and tools at our disposal for this work to make a difference in the world.
Memory, testimony, discernment, prayer, empathy, nurturance, resilience, solidarity, creativity, and resolve: these are the legacy not solely of the Decade but, through it, of the whole commitment to church renewal and world transformation that we call the ecumenical movement. They are the tools of love. They are also the tools for your work in this global consultation, divining a future path toward gender justice in the churches and beyond.
Yours is sacred work. As the women who witnessed to the resurrection of Jesus—“I have seen the Lord!”— lifted the sights of Jesus’ discouraged followers, may your work here inspire and embolden today’s Christians and Christian churches to renew their lives and practices into genuinely just communities of women and men, eager to walk in the ways of Jesus toward abundant – and just - life for all.