The real thing

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Why commissioning of women in ministry may be key

Brenton Stacey/Kirsten Bolinger
Public relations officer/Public relations assistant
Cooranbong, New South Wales, Australia

Disappointment over the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church’s decision not to include on the agenda of its most recent session the ordination of women as ministers has not only renewed interest in the issue but also challenged the concept of the ceremony itself.

A New Testament specialist, a director of a worship institute, a historian and a local church minister made their convictions public during a women in church-themed Sabbath on the Lake Macquarie campus of Avondale College, August 14.

The local church minister

Dr Bruce Manners, senior minister of Avondale College Seventh-day Adventist Church, surprised most of the members of his congregation and staff members at Avondale by announcing, via email on August 4, a request to change his credentials from an ordained minister to a commissioned minister, the credential given to women serving as ministers in the Adventist Church. The president and the Ministerial Association secretary of the church’s North New South Wales Conference agreed to process the request after meeting with Bruce on July 13. His request has been forwarded to the church in Australia and is expected to go to the church in the South Pacific before he receives a response.

Bruce gave, in his letter to the president, these reasons for the change:

1. The gender inequity found in commissioning women and ordaining men, with ordination perceived as a higher calling

2. The reticence of the church to follow through on its precedent for ordaining women as elders

3. Sensitivity to the issues women who study ministry and theology face and to the perception they are training to be second-class ministers

4. A matter of conscience about fair play, which needed addressing in a practical way

The decision to request the change came because Bruce felt increasingly uncomfortable working under the current policy with women as ministerial colleagues. “Because I can find no biblical reason why women cannot minister on an equal footing with men, I saw we had created an unfair situation,” writes Bruce in his email. “I’d hoped the recent [worldwide church] session would find a way to address this inequity, but it didn’t.”

Bruce and Carole Ferch-Johnson, the church in Australia’s Ministerial Association associate for women in pastoral ministry, preached the sermon during the worship service in Avondale College Seventh-day Adventist Church on August 14. That afternoon, presenters at a seminar co-sponsored by the church and Sydney Adventist Forum shared their views about the ordination of women as ministers from a historical, biblical and personal perspective.

The historian

Dr Arthur Patrick summarised the modern history of the place of women in the Adventist Church as being one of commendable study about the status and role of women but the continued partial exclusion of women. Credit: Ann Stafford.

Dr Arthur Patrick, an honorary senior research fellow at Avondale, summarised the history of the place of women in the Adventist Church as follows:

1844-1915: Cautious inclusion
Arthur noted three events: the supportive writings, one as early as 1861, of Uriah Smith, the longest-serving editor of the Second Advent Review and Sabbath Herald; a resolution from the 1881 worldwide church session that “females possessing the necessary qualifications to fill that position, may, with perfect propriety, be set apart by ordination to the work of the Christian ministry;” the ordination of women as deaconesses by ministers such as church pioneer Ellen White’s son William White in Australia near the end of the 19th century.

1915-1970: Progressive exclusion
Arthur used the church’s retreat into fundamentalism and the United States’ idealisation of female subservience as possible explanations.

1970-2010: Commendable study about the status and role of women but the continued partial exclusion of women
“Ordination is the church’s recognition of God’s spiritual gifts,” said Arthur. “The initiative is divine, the recognition is human.” He challenged the church to “disentangle” itself from 20 centuries of history “during which apostolic succession and sacramentalism were so dominant in the Christian church” so it might better understand its “sacred responsibility to acknowledge that when God pours out spiritual gifts upon His people, they are not gender specific.” Arthur concluded by describing as a “pressing duty” the need for the church to “fulfil the promise of its heritage and the implications of Scripture by the full inclusion of women in its life and witness—by ordination.”

The New Testament specialist

Dr Norman Young argued for the ordination of women by limiting himself solely to Scripture, “even if what we thought was there disappears like the man on the stair” in Hugh Mearns’ 1899 poem “Antigonish.” Credit: Ann Stafford.

Dr Norman Young, also an honorary senior research fellow at Avondale and a former senior lecturer in New Testament in the Faculty of Theology, argued for the ordination of women by limiting himself solely to Scripture, “even if what we thought was there disappears like the man on the stair” in Hugh Mearns’ 1899 poem “Antigonish.” He answered five questions: “Were there leaders in New Testament congregations?” [Yes]; “Did the leaders receive financial support from the New Testament congregations?” [Yes]; “Did the New Testament churches have a set ritual for ordination?” [If laying on of hands is part of the ritual or ordination, not many New Testament texts refer to ordination]; “Were there women among these leaders?” [Yes, despite some versions of the Bible giving Junia in Romans 16:7 a sex change by translation]; and “What about those texts that silence or subordinate women in the church?” [Read them in context].

The primary reason why the church should ordain women as ministers “relates not so much to justice as to the gospel,” said Norman. “At the heart of the good news of Christ is the assurance that all may come in faith into fellowship with God. All are baptised into Christ; there is no distinction. That’s the message. To appoint the bearers of this message on the basis of skin pigmentation, or social class or gender puts the messenger in direct opposition to the message.”

The worship institute director

Dr Lyell Heise expressed his opposition to the scarcity of affirmation by ordination as a “lover’s quarrel with my church.” Credit: Ann Stafford.

Dr Lyell Heise expressed his opposition to the scarcity of affirmation by ordination as a “lover’s quarrel with my church.” Lyell is a lecturer in the Faculty of Theology at Avondale and director of the church in the South Pacific’s Institute of Worship. He is also one of three remaining trustees of Women in Ministry, an independent association of church members providing support for women in ministry. He referred to a phrase in Psalm 85:10 as providing a context for the quarrel. My vision for my community, he said, is where righteousness and peace kiss each other.

Lyell noted the faces he sees when he reflects on women in ministry: his mother, Edna, a graduate of the teaching and the Bible workers courses at Avondale; Ellen White; the women ordained as associates in pastoral care at Avondale College Seventh-day Adventist Church when Lyell ministered there in the early 1980s; Pastor Hallie Wilson, one of the six ministers on the staff of La Sierra University Seventh-day Adventist Church when Lyell ministered there in the late 1980s; friends who with Lyell established Women in Ministry; Carole Ferch-Johnson, a former departmental director of the church’s South Pacific Division; and Pastor Kylie Ward, one of the first to receive support from Women in Ministry.

Lyell told of agonising over a request from Kylie to preach the sermon at her commissioning, a ceremony Lyell regarded at the time as a Clayton’s ordination. Then, he said, the Holy Spirit spoke: “Because this was a commissioning, and no one had written the rulebook, we were able to craft a service for which there were no deep grooves of tradition. . . . Kylie was not the only woman in the circle of prayer. I felt as though justice and peace had kissed.”

Lyell had also been planning to request a change to his credentials. He has now written to the president of Avondale requesting the commissioned rather than the ordained ministerial credential the next time the college issues credentials.

The panellists

The seminar ended with a discussion hosted by Dr Wendy Jackson, a lecturer in the Faculty of Theology at Avondale. The panellists, Dr Kendra Haloviak, associate professor of New Testament Studies in the School of Religion at La Sierra University (Riverside, California, USA), and Clansi Rogers, a former assistant minister at Canberra National Seventh-day Adventist Church, spoke of women’s ordination in the context of a journey. “The question I keep getting from my students is, ‘Why shouldn’t women be ordained?’ and that is encouraging,” said Kendra. She admitted later in the discussion she thought women’s ordination would not be an issue now and lamented the raising of the issue at the worldwide church level, where differences based on culture make consensus difficult. Kendra and Clansi described their colleagues—men and women—as supporting women in ministry but confirmed the perception of ordination as a higher calling.

The policy

The Adventist Church in the South Pacific has, at its Executive Committee meeting, August 31-September 3, now clarified the differences in the roles of ordained and of commissioned ministers. The “Ordination and Commissioning to the Gospel Ministry” policy notes ordained and commissioned ministers can:

  • Conduct baptisms and accept members on profession of faith
  • Perform marriage ceremonies
  • Conduct funerals
  • Represent the employer in their field of work
  • Dedicate infants
  • Preside at communion
  • Form companies

The policy also notes the “additional privileges and responsibilities of the ordained minister.” These ministers can:

  • Ordain elders, deacons and deaconesses
  • Dedicate companies and organised churches
  • Unite companies and organised churches
  • Organise churches

The policy clearly references the Working Policy of the worldwide Adventist Church as the document providing the criteria for ordination.

The real thing

It does not fully temper Lyell’s lover’s quarrel. What is the justification for creating a situation in which an ordained female elder may participate in the ordination of an elder but a commissioned female minister cannot lead the ceremony, he asks?

Righteousness and peace will kiss only when the Adventist Church expresses in policy and practice “the full working out of what it believes—namely the priesthood of all believers,” says Lyell. Commissioning may be the key, even the higher calling.

“When you take away from ordination the medieval overlay of transferred authority, and the lingering traces of power wielding that goes with it, and when you take away the implied message that church leadership can never be fully open to women, and when you talk commissioning, you are in the heart of the action of the New Testament church,” says Lyell. “What an irony, that in an improvising moment of setting up what looked like a lesser way to include and affirm women in ministry, the church has stumbled onto the real thing.”

Living witness key to reforming unjust policy: Dr Wendy Jackson’s personal reflection on ordination of women seminar