Daughters of Eve

Print edition : May 13, 2016

Bishop Aloysius Paul D'Souza washing the feet of women devotees at the Rosario Cathedral in Mangaluru on the occasion of Maundy Thursday, on March 24. This follows a historic decree from Pope Francis that women be included in the foot-washing ceremony, which until then had been a male preserve. Photo: H.S. Manjunath

Bishop E. Pushpalalitha of the Church of South India. She is the first woman bishop of a mainstream church in India. A 2013 photograph. Photo: U. Subramanyam

In the light of the recent Supreme Court observations on women’s equal right to worship, a section of Christians takes a hard look at the patriarchal notions in the church.

In his first interview with a woman journalist, Pope Francis “joked” about women being “taken from a rib”. The pontiff’s light-hearted comment followed questions from Franca Giansoldati of the daily Il Messaggero about raising the status of women in the Catholic Church and the underlying misogyny in it as an institution. But it is no laughing matter. Be it Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, or any other, across denominations “the church expresses and serves a patriarchal civilisation in which it is proper for woman to be appended to man”, as Simone de Beauvoir says. In the 2,000 years of the church’s history, reforms with regard to equality between women and men in status have been slow to evolve.

There is now a growing realisation within the church that it is not just the Laws of Manu that want women in a subordinate role. In the light of the Supreme Court's observations in the Sabarimala temple case and the Bombay High Court's verdict in the Shani Shingnapur case, what was until now confined to closed group discussions on Facebook has come out into the open. Dress codes imposed on women, the concept of pollution surrounding menstruating women, and the resistance to the ordination of women have become hotly discussed issues.

Some churches insist that women cover their heads for any ritualistic practice, men and women fighting patriarchy say, which underlines their subdued status. There is also a purification service for women during the baptism of the newborn, they point out.

A century-old practice of barring women in the name of “safety” from the night meetings of the Maramon Convention, the annual spiritual gathering organised by the Mar Thoma Syrian Church, particularly generated a lot of interest on social media. The Church traces its legacy to the Apostle Thomas and prides itself on a reformation in 1836 which disclaimed many practices that had crept in.

Thanks to ideological spearheads and bold initiatives over the years, the church has indeed come a long way from the days when women stood behind men for worship and were not entertained anywhere near the lectern, says Bishop Dr Geevarghese Mar Theodosius of the Mar Thoma Church. During his stint as diocesan bishop of North America, he was instrumental in letting women assist the priest in regular Eucharist services (called Holy Communion or Mass in different churches) at the parish level. It was historic as far as the Indian churches were concerned, which prevented the entry of women to the sanctum sanctorum.

On the discussion on social media about women’s entry to the Maramon Convention venue at night, Mar Theodosius says: “In the light of the court verdict and opinions in favour of women’s equality, it is high time the Church responded to the voice of the people in contemporary times in a manner that is fit, and biblically and theologically sound.” Many appreciate such openness in welcoming change.

At least a handful of churches in India now have women priests too. The Church of South India (CSI) has currently more than 100 ordained women and it blazed a trail by ordaining Eggoni Pushpalalitha as the first woman bishop of a mainstream church in India. But that is an exception. In Kerala, where more than 20 per cent of its population is Christian, women priests are largely frowned upon.

The gender disparity that has been prevalent in the church since time immemorial owes it to the biblical reading that gives man superiority over woman, and in the particular context of India, to patriarchal and caste notions, says Mar Theodosius. Discrimination based on the concept of purity and pollution is not theologically possible, he affirms.

But such stances are not popular. In a closed group of Syrian Christians on Facebook, an informal poll as to whether women should be ordained or not got an overwhelming NO. Those who voted against included women.

“Women have internalised the patriarchal values so thoroughly that in many cases they themselves do not want change. Recently when Pope Francis issued a letter asking parishes to include women and others in the foot-washing ritual, some women were not happy. What is really needed is an attitudinal change both in men and women,” says Sr Shalini Mulackal, a Catholic feminist theologian teaching systematic theology at Vidyajyoti College of Theology, Delhi. She is also the president of the Indian Theological Association. “What we really need to work at is theological education for all and the knowledge of how to interpret the Bible. We need to understand the patriarchal system and how it is still operative in our societies and also in our religious practices, scripture, etc.”

Issue of ordination

When it comes to leadership, the church has considered women’s “habits” annoying. Women are hailed for their roles outside the church—as businesswomen, CEOs and as “our own” candidates in electoral politics, but never as pastors.

The official position of the Vatican regarding the ordination of women is uncompromisingly straightforward. “The Church has spoken and says, ‘No.’ John Paul II said it, but with a definitive formulation. That is closed, that door,” Pope Francis said on the issue during a press conference in July 2013 on a flight back to Rome from Rio de Janeiro.

The Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches (WCC), a think tank comprising representatives of churches belonging to the main historical streams of Christianity, including the Roman Catholic Church, in its meeting in Lima, Peru, in 1982 produced a BEM (Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry) document agreeing that women had a role in the ministry of the church and invited the response of the member churches. Some churches responded in a radically positive manner but put the onus on barriers owing to custom, culture and tradition for not allowing women in the ordained ministry.

“The resistance to women’s ordination among Indian Christians and the resistance to women’s entry to temples like Sabarimala stem from the same logic. The main issue here is sociological and patriarchal, not theological or scriptural,” says George Zachariah, who teaches Ethics at the United Theological College, Bengaluru. “We want to keep our sanctum sanctorums undefiled by people who are impure and polluted. In the Indian context, the doctrine of purity and pollution is essentially casteist and patriarchal. We use purity maps to perpetuate gender and caste discrimination. While Dalit churches and dioceses do ordain women, the dominant caste churches and dioceses in Kerala and southern Tamil Nadu continue to exclude women from the total life of the church in the name of culture and customs. For them, ideologies and practices of exclusion are normative for the faith and practices of the church and the community rather than scripture and theology.”

Monica Melanchthon is a Dalit feminist biblical scholar who became an ordained minister of the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church in 2009. Currently she teaches at the Pilgrim Theological College, University of Divinity, Melbourne, Australia. “In the Indian experience, the Bible along with a multitude of Indian cultural materials jointly affect the roles and the status of Indian Christian women for they both carry explicit and implicit suggestions regarding the appropriate social roles for women and men. The patriarchal principle of both traditions governs the functioning of home, workplace and community. Together these tenets legitimise caste divisions, reinforce social inequalities, and necessarily assign inferior status to the female,” she says.

Anshi David is a theologically trained social worker with a Bengaluru-based human rights organisation working with gender and sexual minorities. She says the church is selective in responding to pertinent issues and strikes a posture that is superficial and characterised by double standards when it comes to women sharing all ministerial responsibilities with men. “The church keeps women at a ‘safe’ distance from the altar, which is supposed to be a sacred and pure place, which is also the centre of power and authority. This affirms the dominant notion that men are God’s representatives and are the custodians of faith, and women are unholy, impure and objects who are not worthy for God’s call. This also deprives women of authority and power.”

According to Sr Shalini, it is more important to redefine the power structures in the church rather than allowing women to wield equal ecclesiastical power as men. “Ordaining a few women and putting them into the same oppressive structures is not going to solve our problem. Ministerial priesthood is for service and today it has lost its original meaning. It is more about power and control now. This has to be challenged and changed.”

Rather than just engaging in theological discussions, people like Aruna Gnanadason would prefer women to be in the public sphere to challenge regressive and patriarchal practices, including those in the church. She has worked as the coordinator of the Justice Peace and Creation Team and the Women’s Programme of the WCC and is a former executive secretary of the All Indian Council of Christian Women, a unit of the National Council of Churches in India.

In a paper titled “Christian women in the public sphere in India today”, presented at a seminar held at the Department of Christianity, University of Madras, on February 22-23, she says: “We have initiated a debate on developing Christian women’s position on the re-emerging issue of the Uniform Civil Code that is being proposed. We are also in the process of expressing our solidarity with women of other religions who are protesting [against] the barring of women into the sanctum sanctorum of their holy places.... It is important to note that [the] same arguments used by different religions are often heard in the Christian community to control or restrict women’s participation.”

The Indian Christian Women’s Movement of which she is a part, a growing network of Catholic and Protestant women with no institutional form or backing, tries to provide a platform for Christian women to claim their right to have a voice in the public sphere—not just to discuss discrimination or abuse that women experience in the church but “to engage with other national women’s organisations on issues such as reservation of seats for women in Parliament and to explore how to pursue with Dalit women’s organisations the follow-up on the suicide/institutional murder of Rohith Vemula”.

She says it is important to affirm and work for a secular India and work with all women of all faiths, especially with women of minority religious communities, to dismantle patriarchy and caste in all religions and to work for economic, political and social justice for all in the country.

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