Women, faith and ministry

Text: Luke 17:5-6 (faith the size of a mustard seed) — a sermon preached in commemoration of the 80th anniversary of the first woman to be ordained in Canada.

When I was a child, ministry was almost exclusively male. My father was a minister, and all the other ministers, pastors and priests in Cornwall — the industrial city in eastern Ontario where we lived — were men.

But at an early age, I did encounter one woman in ministry. From the time I was two until I was nine, my family spent one month each summer in Muskoka north of Toronto. We lived in a manse in the resort town of Port Carling in exchange for my father’s work as pulpit supply at the church there; and the minister he replaced one month each summer was a woman. Phyllis Sykes was a deaconess and the minister of Port Carling United Church.

I only met Phyllis Sykes once during those summer trips from 1959 to 1966. Perhaps it was a day when she arrived home just as we were packing to leave; or a day when she was leaving just as we arrived with a station wagon filled with five children.

My mother also tells me that Phyllis came to stay with us overnight in Cornwall on her way to Expo 67 in Montreal. And though I don’t remember much about her, the fact that she was a female minister made an impression on me. Sadly, I also absorbed the idea that deaconesses were not considered “real” ministers like my father and other ordained men; that deaconesses never married; and that if they did marry, they were not allowed to continue in ministry.

It was only much later that I learned about Lydia Gruchy. Twenty-three years before we spent our first summer in Port Carling, Rev. Lydia Gruchy was ordained as a minister in the United Church of Canada. That was in 1936 in Moose Jaw Saskatchewan. Gruchy was the first Canadian woman of any denomination to be ordained. It was not until 1967 that another denomination, the Presbyterians, began ordaining women; and even today, the largest one, the Roman Catholic Church, does not ordain women.

Gruchy had finished her training for ministry in 1923 when she earned a theology degree from St. Andrew’s College in Saskatoon. Over the next 13 years, she worked as a minister in different places across the prairies, but not as an ordained “reverend.”

When Gruchy entered the United Church of Canada in 1925, her ministry became a test case on the role of women in the new denomination.

By 1936, women had won the right to vote, starting in 1916 in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. In 1921, Agnes McPhail became the first woman elected to Canada’s parliament. In 1928, Alberta’s Famous Five feminists won a case in the Supreme Court that established that women are persons under Canadian law.

But while politics and law were becoming less sexist, churches dragged their feet. Religion has deeper roots in antiquity than any other sector of society. And at the base of ancient civilization is patriarchy: the rule of husbands over wives, men over women, and the king over everyone.

Debating the role of women in the church confronts sexism in the Bible. Given that the 66 books of the Bible were written by scores of Jewish men from 1000 BCE to 100 CE, it is no surprise they have a patriarchal worldview. There are exceptions, of course: stories of Old Testament heroines like Miriam, Esther, and Ruth; of Mary Magdalene, the closest companion of Jesus according to the gospels; and of others.

But against these heroines are passages like the following words of Paul from the letter First Timothy: Paul writes: “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing.” (1 Tim 2: 11-15)

Is this not clear? Paul wrote that no woman is permitted to teach or have authority over a man. The early church canonized his letters to Timothy as the Word of God. Case closed. Women can’t be ministers. They are to keep silent in church. Instead of public leadership, they are to atone for the sins of Eve through childbearing.

In 2012, I had a discussion about this passage with the leader of the Alliance Church in Coronach, the small town in Saskatchewan where I began my career as an ordained minister. That year the Alliance denomination had finally decided to allow women to be considered for ordination and to be hired as senior pastors.

My friend was against this decision. He thought that choosing equality for women over biblical passages like the one from First Timothy was a slippery slope.

I agreed with him, but said that I perceived the slippery slope as a gracious one. If one could support equality for women in the church despite what Paul had written, one could also ignore passages in Bible that uphold slavery or condemn homosexuality.

Further, I shared with him something I had picked up in seminary: that the letter First Timothy was in the Bible by mistake! First Timothy is one of 13 letters in the New Testament said to be written by the Apostle Paul. Today, however, biblical scholars have determined that First and Second Timothy were not written by Paul, despite what the letters themselves claim.

Given the fact that early Church Fathers included these letters in the New Testament precisely because they thought they were written by Paul, one could now argue that First and Second Timothy should be removed from the Bible.

The question faced by the United Church in 1936, the Alliance Church in 2012, and the Roman Catholic Church today is one of faith. Do we put our faith in the text of the books of the Bible despite what scholars have taught us about them? Or do we put our faith in evolving social understandings, ones that have led most people in Canada to value equality between men and women?

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus says that the tiniest seed of faith can facilitate wonders. In 2016 — just as 2012 or 1936 — I believe the faithful choice is to disregard the ideas of First Timothy, and not just because of its false claim to be written by Paul. To support inequality for women based upon the sexism of First Timothy betrays anxiety and not faith, I believe.

And yet, no denomination — not even our liberal United Church of Canada — has removed the fake letters of Paul from its Bibles. Maybe one day . . .

The United Church takes pride in our liberal heritage, including the fact that we ordained Canada’s first female minister in 1936. But I question this. Pride is a sin, after all; and rooting out the sexism of our biblical and church heritage is an ongoing process.

It was not only deaconesses who were not allowed to marry in the first 40 years of the United Church of Canada. Ordained female ministers like Lydia Gruchy were also not allowed to keep their status if they married. This practice persisted into the 1960s, which might explain why only a handful of women were ordained in the United Church of Canada from 1936 until 1970.

The practice of removing women from ministry when they marry reflects the patriarchal idea that child-rearing is women’s only calling. I believe it also reflects our unease about sex. Male ministers presumably have sex. But the sight of a pregnant minister can make this uncomfortable thought hard to ignore!

Growing up in the United Church in the 1960s, I absorbed a lot of its puritanism and sexism. The rule that only single women could be ministers was part of this.

The United Church has shed much of this heritage since 1960 with successive rulings on birth control, divorce, abortion, and homosexuality. But when we mark events like the ordination of Canada’s first female minister 80 years ago, I think we should also point out how that step was partial and halting.

Unfortunately, our culture still has a long way to go in eliminating sexism. And nothing illustrates this more clearly, I believe, than the campaign of Hillary Clinton to become the first woman to be elected President of the United States.

After last Monday’s televised debate between Clinton and Donald Trump, I am somewhat more confident that she will beat him on November 8. But imagine if Donald Trump were a woman instead of a man. If a fictional Doris Trump had come to the debate as unprepared as he was; with his same history of adultery and multiple marriages; with his string of bankruptcies and questionable business deals; bragging about not paying federal taxes like him; and interrupting her opponent with a litany of nonsensical and false outbursts as he did, what would the public reaction have been?

If the Republican nominee were Doris instead of Donald Trump, Clinton’s lead in the polls wouldn’t be in the single digits. I think it would be close to unanimity. The fact that Trump still might win the election is about as striking an illustration of the strength of sexism that I can imagine.

I hope that Trump will be defeated and that his defeat will defuse some of the venom towards women unleashed in the campaign. But as Clinton has already learned, being the first woman in a field carries with it many burdens. This is something about which Rev. Lydia Gruchy as a female pioneer in our church and country could surely testify.

Today in the United Church, the majority of new ministers are women. I am pleased that barriers to women in ministry continue to dissolve in our denomination.

As for the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and other churches that still refuse to ordain women, I do not have patience. Given the damage that sexism continues to do to our consciousness, our families, and the world, I urge the Catholic and Orthodox churches to shed their sexist doctrines. To not do so is a crime against equality and peace, I believe.

Apologists for the church sometimes remind us that Roman Catholicism has existed for 1700 years and Orthodoxy for 1,000. They argue it is unreasonable to expect them to abandon sexist doctrines overnight. But against this idea, I point to the increasing speed of social change.

Today we mark a milestone in female ordination 80 years ago and remember the centennial of women getting the right to vote in Alberta. Next month, we mark the 40th anniversary of the founding of Mill Woods United as a congregation.

Forty, eighty and even 100 years might not seem long against the backdrop of thousands of years of church history. But social change is relentless. Today, with unhinged leaders like Donald Trump trading on fears of equality between men and women, I think it is past time for all churches to turn their backs on the sexism in the Bible and in our tradition.

May it be so.

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