Although it happened almost ten years ago, it remains a microcosm conversation in many parts of the Reformed Church in America (RCA) today.
A handful of seminarians from around the country had gathered for an intensive summer class on RCA polity. Most of the students were Reformed Church students who, for a variety of reasons, attended non-RCA seminaries. Most of us had never met one another previously.
It didn’t take long for us to launch discussion on what seems to be a perennially touchy part of our Book of Church Order (BCO), colloquially termed “the conscience clauses”. These are phrases of similar wording that appear three times in the BCO.
1. It [the board of elders] shall not penalize nor permit to be penalized any member for conscientious objection to or support of the ordination of women to church offices; nor shall it permit any member to obstruct by unconstitutional means the election, ordination, or installation of women to church offices (BCO 1.I.5.2h);
2. The classis shall examine students of theology for licensure, and licensed candidates for the ministry for ordination. If individual members of the classis find that their consciences, as illuminated by Scripture, would not permit them to participate in the licensure, ordination, or installation of women as ministers, they shall not be required to participate in decisions or actions contrary to their consciences, but may not obstruct the classis in fulfilling its responsibility to arrange for the care, ordination, and installation of women candidates and ministers by means mutually agreed on by such women and the classis (BCO 1.II.2.8); and
3. Ministers shall not be pressured in such a way as to lead either one who supports or one who opposes, on scriptural grounds, the ordination of women to church offices to offend against one’s conscience; nor shall any minister be penalized for conscientious objection to or support of the ordination of women to church offices; nor shall any minister obstruct by unconstitutional means the election, ordination, or installation of a woman to church offices (BCO 1.II.12.15).
When they were adopted in 1980 the intent of the conscience clauses was “to maintain unity and peace in the RCA despite the diversity of opinion on women’s ordination” to each of the three offices of the church, Minister of Word and Sacrament, Elder and Deacon..
I was in between my second and third years of seminary. Candidating for pastoral positions already loomed heavily on my mind and would continue to until a call was extended to me. There was no telling if or when that would be. I was on edge. Accordingly, the fact that the “issue” of ordaining women was yet an ongoing conversation weighed down my heart. My denomination had been ordaining women since 1978. The decision was not made lightly or without a serious study of Scripture. (We are Reformed, after all.) As such, it seemed to me that the case was decided and closed. Why (please tell me), why were we still talking about this in 2003?
I launched into a soliloquy about the unfairness of the conscience clauses when the topic came up in class. (Time and ministerial experience had yet to mellow me. I now protest in wiser, more empathetic and better thought-out ways.)
“It’s sexist!” I decried. “We decided to ordain women 25 years ago! Why is this conversation still happening? Why should a classmate of mine feel that he has the right to tell me that I should not be [in seminary] simply because I am a woman?”
The professor sat silent and allowed my pain to pierce the air. A pregnant silence occupied the space. (I would later learn that in addition to being a solidly Reformed theologian, he is quite a champion of women in ministry.)
“The conscience clauses keep us together,” a male voice from across the room eventually responded. It was Jeremy. He attended a conservative seminary in South Dakota. It was day two of a four day course, and he and I had already butted heads. Shocker.
“At what price?” I shot back. “Do you have any idea what most female students and ministers have to endure? Of course not…you’re a white male! The system was built by ‘you’; continues to speak ‘your’ language and espouse ‘your’ values; and sees everything from ‘your’ eyes. I can tell you that if the world was reversed for just one day and it was men’s ordination we were questioning, you wouldn’t like it one iota!”
Jeremy turned beet red and took a deep breath. (Hindsight: God bless him! At least one of us wasn’t in his/her reptilian brain at that moment.) “It keeps us together,” he graciously repeated.
Fast-forward nine years. A passerby might assume that a compact disc entitled “Reformed Church in America: Conversations on Women in Ministry” is skipping.
According to a report of a recent survey conducted by the Commission for Women of the RCA, the plight of female seminarians, ministerial candidates and pastors has improved. Some women, praise the Lord, recounted no sense of discrimination. Women are feeling more and more free not only to participate fully in the life and ministry of the church, but to bring the whole of themselves and their gifts. This certainly deserves celebration.
However, as a legendary New York Yankees catcher once said, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” Unfortunately, we have quite a way to go until the women in ministry debate is over in the RCA.
The same Commission for Women survey reports “a significant portion of women clergy [25%] still experiences instances of exclusion, inequality, and pain. Women are still required to defend their calling and their ordination in the assemblies of the RCA, including on the floor of General Synod, in a way that their male colleagues are not.” The report continues…
Some consistories and classis care committees refuse to recommend female candidates to be taken under care of classis for no reason other than their gender. Female candidates are sometimes subjected to different and harsher classis examinations than their male peers. Their exams and ordinations are delayed when there is no quorum at classis because those opposed to women’s ordination refused to attend the meetings. Members of classis refuse to participate in laying hands on a newly ordained minister. Of course, ordination depends upon a woman finding a call, and many women reported difficulty in finding churches willing to call women ministers. A church has the prerogative to call a minister of its choice, and the conscience clauses allow those opposed to women’s ordination to abstain from participating in it, but the hostility and inequity faced by female candidates and ministers goes beyond the purview of what is allowed by the conscience clauses.
Something has to give. Our present and future female office holders are paying too high of a price. Not only do they and their families bear the burden, but the church suffers as well. When the voices of fifty percent of those whose seats warm the pews are limited, controlled and/or silenced, believers receive a distorted message of the purposes and glory of God.
When General Synod convenes June 21-26, 2012 on the campus on Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, IL the topic of women’s ordination will once again be publicly raised. The Commission for Women’s report makes the recommendation to Synod that the conscience clauses be repealed. The conversation will eerily mirror the one Jeremy and I had years ago across the classroom.
“The conscience clauses keep us together.”
“At what price?”
We have already paid too much. It is time the RCA realizes that the spiritual gifts of its daughters and their very spirits are gifts and creations of God to enliven and empower, not commodities to overlook and dismiss.