As a former attorney, I appreciate the line of Charles Dickens spoken by Mr. Bumble, the law is a ass. In the context of the novel, Oliver Twist, Mr. Bumble recognized that his own wife was more powerful than he in their marriage relationship, and the patriarchal presumptions of the olde English common law were false.
The first half of the twentieth century witnessed the successful struggle for woman’s suffrage, and during the second half the women’s liberation movement achieved notable social and legal successes. To be sure, the victory is not yet won, and pay inequality in the workplace is an obvious example of residual sexism in our culture.
So too the church. Except for a bright, shining moment in the earliest days of the Jesus movement, the men have been in control until recently. Contemporaneous with the women’s movement in secular society, the role of women in the church has changed, and the wide advance of female clergy is eloquent testimony; yet, in my own ELCA, only a handful of women have yet been elected to the episcopate, which remains mostly but not exclusively male. This weekend, I will travel to South Bend, Indiana to attend an Episcopal Diocesan Convention, and the honored guest of the Northern Indiana Diocese will be the Most Reverend Katherine Jefforts Schori, the presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the USA, who is the first and only female to head a major Christian denomination in the US.
Though female leadership in the church is not yet completely de jure, along with Mr. Bumble I recognize the de facto power of women. Theological critics of the 2009 pro-gay actions of the ELCA are right in one thing—it was the women’s movement in the church a generation ago that set the stage for the recent successes of the gay rights movement: a “slippery slope” some would claim, but I prefer the metaphor of opening the door.
History repeats itself and not always in a negative way. The civil war in Northern Ireland finally ended when Protestant and Catholic women said enough. More recently, the women of Liberia rose up and ousted the corrupt Charles Taylor regime and elected a female as the first head of state in an African nation.
One of the Liberian women leaders was Leymah Roberta Gbowee, a Lutheran and the keynote speaker at the Women of the ELCA Triennial Convention in Spokane this summer. Earlier, she had been a scholarship recipient through the International Leadership Development Program of the ELCA in 2006-2007 to support her study in peace building at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va. An announcement from Oslo, Norway this week named Gbowee as a co-winner, with two other women, of the Nobel Peace Prize.
The following is from an ELCA press release:
The starting point of the women’s movement was war fatigue, said Gbowee, a mother of six children. She grew tried of watching children die from hunger and “waking up every morning and not knowing whether a tomorrow was possible. You can’t plan for the future.” Along with thousands of other women from across Liberia, Gbowee wanted to dream of a better community.
She decided it was time to stop the war and called together women of all faiths — Christian, Muslim, indigenous and others — from across Liberia to “step out,” recognizing that Liberian women can play a critical role in peace building.
Using the experiences of the women before them, Gbowee used prayer, picketing and silence to further their mission. Despite insults and other behaviors that came their way, Gbowee said, “We kept quiet because we had a sense of purpose and sense of direction.” The women also put together statements of peace for African governments, engaged the media and initiated personal, one-to-one conversations with power brokers “to see how we could get the peace that Liberia was searching for,” she said.
“Leymah Gbowee’s life and leadership are a witness to the power of women to resist forces of violence and domination by creating a movement for reconciliation and peace,” said ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson. “In Liberia, I experienced her passionate commitment to rebuilding a nation torn by civil war not by seeking vengeance, but through her faith to encourage dialogue and inclusiveness at all levels of society.”
Bumble concluded his soliloquy: the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is that his eye may be opened by experience—by experience.