Jubilation after Historic Women’s Ordination in Cameroon
NGAOUNDÉRÉ, Cameroon/GENEVA, 13 July 2012 (LWI) – It was one of many such national church events. But at some moments, tears of joy and disbelief rolled down Jeannette Ada’s face as she participated in the liturgical order that would add four pastors to the roster of ordained ministers of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Cameroon (EELC).
Today was the historic turning point for the church she had served for decades. Ada, 45, and two other female theologians would become the first ordained women in the EELC.
“The path towards ordination was not easy,” she told Lutheran World Information (LWI) in an interview after the festive eucharistic service at the Cathédrale du Millénaire in Ngaoundéré, northern Cameroon, on 6 May.
Over the years of study and work in the church, women theologians had received support and encouragement but also suffered discrimination and humiliation.
“Today is a glorious day. I lack the words to say what I feel after being ordained,” she said following the ceremony, attended also by local and regional Lutheran and ecumenical guests, and representatives of partner churches from other parts of the world, including from The Lutheran World Federation (LWF).
The mother of four, currently pursuing a doctorate in theology, said she attributed the prevailing opposition to women’s ordination to lack of awareness about gender equality, which is openly manifested in many ways in the congregations, including having only male catechist teachers, evangelists and preachers. It is also visible in statements and messages that disparage the value of women’s participation in decision-making.
Ada is director of the national movement Women for Christ, regional coordinator for the LWF Women in Church and Society (WICAS) network and coordinator of women’s programs for the Lutheran Communion in Central and Western Africa (LUCCWA), one of the LWF’s sub-regional bodies. She was one of the respondents to the keynote address at the July 2010 LWF Eleventh Assembly in Stuttgart, Germany.
She said her ordination alongside that of Rita Dewa and Eliane Djobdi contributed not only to a sense of personal fulfillment and development but she hoped it would also open the doors for women to become church leaders nationally and at other levels. “I took my vows and I feel committed to a ministry that is both important and sensitive,” she concluded.
Long Years of Patience
Djobdi, 37, described this as the day that she had “harvested the fruits of long years of patience and resistance. My male classmates were ordained in 2005. I had to wait a bit longer to see this historic day arrive. We had people in the congregations who discouraged us but also those who were encouraging.”
The mother of three studied theology and education locally, and went on to teach religion and ethics in EELC schools, later becoming the first headmistress of a special school for the hearing impaired. Married to a theology student, currently she is pursuing further theological studies at the Protestant University of Central Africa in Yaoundé, while at the same time taking up special education courses at the school for the hearing impaired (EFESDA).
“We come with our gifts and our talents, something new to contribute. We want to contribute and not to compete. We are going to rely on Christ to conquer prejudice and not on ourselves. The Lord will be our strength,” she added.
For Dewa, 40, who waited 12 years between her theological studies and ordination, this had been a very long process. “There were five women in my graduation class. One passed away, another dropped out. The others are still waiting,” she said.
“I am the only one elected to this office. I thank the women from all over the world who have accompanied us during these times of waiting. They helped to lighten the burden for us,” added the mother of three.
Integration into Parishes
For EELC National Bishop Dr Thomas Nyiwé, the question of women’s ordination was complex in Cameroon. Some argued that the country was too influenced by Muslim practices and that ordaining women would hurt interfaith relations. Others said it would affect relations with other churches that don’t ordain women, while some said it was not suitable to African culture.
But, he explained, the church had set two theological goals in 2000: the episcopacy and the ordination of women to the pastoral ministry. Episcopacy was accepted in 2007, and today the EELC has ten regions (dioceses) each headed by a regional bishop.
Nyiwe especially thanked the LWF for the support it had given the church over the years with the issue of women’s ordination. He however noted that the three women ordained already work in different institutions in posts that lay people can fill. The next steps will involve discussions with the regional church leadership with the goal of integrating the women pastors into parishes.
“There are regions that do not always agree to work with women. We will not force them.We will start with those that are favorable to the idea, and continue to raise awareness wherever people still hesitate,” he explained.
Power Dynamics and Gender Misuse
Preaching at the ordination ceremony, LWF Area Secretary for Africa Rev. Dr Elieshi Mungure said, “It is time for the church in Africa to stop hindering women from ordination and leadership responsibilities in the name of culture.”
Mungure, an ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania, said that while there were varying opinions because of different legacies in the churches, “not all African culture is against women’s leadership in religious and spiritual matters.” Throughout Africa’s history, there had been women leaders in all spheres of society. “But what we see in some churches and communities is a result of power dynamics and gender misinterpretation and misuse,” she added.
LWF Secretary for WICAS Rev. Dr Elaine Neuenfeldt said the women’s ordination in the EELC was not only historic but “it goes a long wayin affirming the commitment of being an inclusive communion where women’s vocation in the ordained ministry is received and embraced as a gift in the missional task of the church, and as an expression to practice gender justice.”
The ordination was also a first for Saidou Abba, 36, who became EELC’s first Fulani pastor. The Fulani people are traditionally nomadic cattle keepers in Central and Western Africa and they are mostly Muslims.
“Today I have become a shepherd of people. They are made in the image of God and their souls are precious in the eyes of God,” said Abba after the ordination, also attended by some Muslim family members and friends.
The EELC joined the LWF in 1971. It has over 296,000 members served by around 180 pastors. (1,120 words)
(Interviews for this feature article were conducted by Simon Djobdi, EELC communications coordinator.)