Public Theology: Echoing Miriam’s prophetic song

During a 30 March webinar, four ordained women from Mexico, Austria, Tanzania and Malaysia talked about the challenges they face and responsibilities they share in bringing an alternative voice to the highest levels of church leadership. Photo: Composite
During a 30 March webinar, four ordained women from Mexico, Austria, Tanzania and Malaysia talked about the challenges they face and responsibilities they share in bringing an alternative voice to the highest levels of church leadership. Photo: Composite

Women theologians from Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America weave “constructive anger” into melodies of hope

(LWI) - Women working in public theology today are echoing the prophetic voice of Miriam, Moses’ sister, who protected life and proclaimed the liberation of her people from oppression. During a 30 March webinar, four ordained women from Mexico, Austria, Tanzania and Malaysia talked about the challenges they face and responsibilities they share in bringing an alternative voice to the highest levels of church leadership.

Rev. Dr Angela del Consuelo Trejo Haager, Director of the Augsburg Lutheran Seminary in Mexico, spoke of the powerful message that Miriam’s words and actions hold for lay and ordained women today. From the feisty teenage slave girl, determined “to fight back against an oppressive Egyptian government,” to the dancing prophetess, celebrating freedom from slavery, hers is a “song which cannot be stopped,” Trejo said. “It invites us to continue asking for justice for the women of our countries” today.

Trejo, a coordinator of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) Latin American and Caribbean Gender Justice Network, also reflected on the song of “another Mary” in the Gospels, who “rejoices” but also “intones a melody of denunciation” against “the proud” and “the mighty” oppressors of her day. These songs are a call to action for “transformation and renewal,” she said, inviting us to “build melodies that generate peace, […] justice and the freedom to express ourselves.”

Predominantly male public voice

Responding to her words, Rev. Dr Eva Harasta, theological advisor to the bishop of the Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession in Austria, noted that women make up well over a third of all pastors in her church. They are "cherished by their congregations and also acknowledged for their role as a theological and pastoral authority,” she said. But at higher leadership levels, she pointed out, there are currently no women serving as diocesan ‘superintendents’, meaning that “the public voice of the church remains predominantly male.”

In academic circles, Harasta continued, the situation is even more difficult for female theologians – especially in her chosen field of systematic theology. Writing on feminist topics, she was told early on, would be a “career poison” if she wanted to work in German-speaking theological faculties. But it is “theologically unsound,” she argued, “to ignore the whole tradition and position of feminist” perspectives, as well as leading to silence on issues such as domestic violence or other problems facing women.

The inclusion of more women’s voices in public theology, Harasta said, would help “to overcome traditional gender roles that led to oppression of women,” as well as a “reimagining of the role of ordained ministry.” There would also be important ecumenical implications, she noted, as well as a stronger focus on diversity, and a more inclusive theology rooted in a “freer understanding of our relationship to God.”

Structural and cultural challenges

Speaking from an African perspective, Rev. Dr Hoyce Jacob Lyimo Mbowe, Executive Director of the Mindolo Ecumenical Foundation in in Zambia, noted how difficult it is for women to reach leadership positions in the churches on her continent. Cultural challenges hold them back, beginning with a focus on education for boys, to the exclusion of girls, in poorer families, she explained.

Although some churches, such as her own Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania, ordain women pastors, there are no women bishops and therefore their voices are not heard at decision-making levels. “Some seminaries won’t admit women,” she continued and “some churches won’t send women” for theological training. During her own formation at Makumira University in Arusha, she was the only woman out of 18 students in her year.

Even women who do overcome these obstacles and find rare employment opportunities as theologians, are often unwilling to speak openly about the hardships they face, Mbowe noted. There is a culture of “silence” and “submission,” she said, which means that women who do dare to speak out “can be rejected by their superiors or by their communities.”

In Asia “it is good to be a woman doing public theology because you have a platform, you are acknowledged, [….] seen and trusted as a leader of the church and of the community.”
Rev. Ngui Au Sze, Dean of the English General Council for the Basel Christian Church of Malaysia

In many Asian churches, on the other hand, “it is good to be a woman doing public theology because you have a platform, you are acknowledged, [….] seen and trusted” as a leader of the church and of the community, said Rev. Ngui Au Sze, Dean of the English General Council for the Basel Christian Church of Malaysia. As spiritual leader of the English-speaking part of her denomination, she says women there make up more than half of those in ordained ministry.

But in Asia too, at the higher echelons of leadership, women are not so visible and “this imbalance is troubling me,” Au Sze continued. Citing former Bishop Josephine Tso of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Hong Kong (ELCHK) among her sources of inspiration, she worried that there are fewer women training in the Sabah Theological Seminary than in past years.

Participants agreed on the importance of taking “responsibility to raise one's voice in public,” strengthening each other and – “as fiercely as Miriam” - channeling their “constructive anger.” Noting that those resisting gender equality often seek to divide women along ethnic, racial or socioeconomic lines, Harasta said “no woman can speak for all women, but we do share certain aspects of being discriminated against” and “we should not allow ourselves to be robbed of this companionship.”

“Public theology is really about bringing God’s presence into the public sphere for the common good and we can’t do that alone or separated,” commented Rev. Dr Sivin Kit, LWF’s Program Executive for Public Theology and Interreligious Relations. As moderator of the event, he said it is empowering to listen and “to be in partnership together to deepen our own contributions” because we need the participation and leadership of all.”