Sunday, 14 June 2009

What role will women play in the ecumenical future?

Late on Friday a friend asked me to try and write a sound bite response to this question about the role of women in the ecumenical future. Not sure my reply was what she was looking for - not really short enough I fear. But it set me thinking about how I think the ecumenical future might look.
So often we choose to write history (of ecumenism or any other movement) in a way that looks at the "great achievements" of the past, the successful campaigns, our role in overcoming apartheid or in maintaining links across the iron curtain. The problem with writing the past in this way is that it can almost oblige us to think that the future of ecumenism is in mega campaigns and huge impact. In our more globalised and more fragmented world the networked bottom-up approach may bear much more fruit in the long run. This may also be good news for the role of women in a movement that will be more organic and have more grass-roots relevance.
Last year the WCC held an essay competition on ecumenism for young theologians. Reading some of the essays and meeting with the young theologians who won the competition was quite a challenge. In postmodern ecumenical Christianity we may see fewer internationally known ecumenical heros but there may be more opportunities to feel that we are all part of world-wide Christian family, holding all of that together and giving it form and direction are the challenges. I suppose this could be seen as an ecumenical living with fragments that I've been jotting about quite a bit recently.
Anyway in what I wrote yesterday I highlight two roles for women in the future of ecumenism. One is in the key relational work of building up networks, linking them in to practical work and keeping the global and local perspective in mind at all times. The other is the role of figureheads, women leaders, role models. It isn't enough for women to be doing so much of the work and never break through to leadership roles. I realise that this could be seen to go a bit against the future era of ecumenism not being one of heros (or heroines). It's really my way of saying that there will continue to be challenges to women and their role in the ecumenism of the future, we will still need to stand up and be counted. Lip service to women's issues is not enough, we need women to be appointed to top jobs on their own merits. Congratulations to the German Protestant Kirchentag on this front which has had three female general secretaries in a row. In the ecumenical future we will all need male and female role models to look up to. Not people who are perfect, but people who encourage us to think differently, who live out their faith in a way that helps us live out our own, people who despite their failings we can take seriously.
Of the world's thirteen or so Christian World Communions very few have ever had a woman leader - I can think of Jane Dempsey Douglas who was president of WARC, there have been others perhaps but not many. What not having female role models does to women is push women's concerns back to the domestic, the parochial. Not enough of that female learning, talent, experience and savoir faire is percolating upwards in our churches at the moment. The ecumenical future needs much more clearly to be one of a networked community of women and men.