Women in Church Leadership
From Words to Deeds

By: Maureen Cerne

Over forty people attended the FutureChurch workshop From Words to Deeds: Women in Church Leadership on February 13th in Cleveland.

Executive Director Chris Schenk gave an overview of the issue of women in Church leadership roles based on biblical scholarship. The powerful message of the Gospel is that Jesus was radically inclusive of all the marginalized. In particular, Jesus welcomed and ministered to women even though, according to Jewish law, they were not to speak to a man in public, learn to read and write, make a legal contract, manage land, or to touch and be touched by men during her menses.

The Gospels tell us that women accompany Jesus around the countryside (Luke 8); Mary sits at Jesus' feet as if in the posture of a rabbinical student (Luke 10); the bent-over daughter of Abraham is healed (Luke 13); the woman with a flow of blood, considered a perpetual unclean, is restored to health and society (Matthew, Mark, John); and Mary of Magdala is the first witness to the Resurrection and sent to announce the Resurrection to the Apostles (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John).

In the early Church, women held co-equal leadership roles with men. In Gal 3:28 we read a hymn which was sung as the newly baptized emerged from the water: "Neither Jew nor Greek, slave or freeman, male or female. All are one in Christ Jesus." This co-equal status of women in the Church changed when Constantine moved worship from home enclaves to Church halls that were part of the public sector where women held submissive roles.

Today, women hold 82% of the Church ministry positions. Yet they are rarely in visible liturgical roles. Since women are rarely seen on the altar, they may be perceived as less holy, worthy, or capable.

A responder panel made up of Mary James, on staff at Epiphany Parish, and Fr. Joseph Fortuna, pastor of Ascension Parish, addressed the problem on a parish level. James pointed out that the priest shortage has a greater impact on inner city parishes. She stressed the need for more African-American women and men to join formation for Church service.

Fr. Fortuna outlined the team organization at his parish, which includes two lay women pastoral ministers. He said, "The lack of liturgical visibility of women is basic to how people perceive roles in the Church." And he questioned whether there might be a liturgical ceiling in the Church.

If you are interested in having a similar workshop in your area, call or write to FutureChurch at the address below.