Following the papal declaration that women Catholic priests may never come to reality, Nigeria’s Anglican stand on women bishops, among other concerns, RITA OKONOBOH examines how women’s roles have changed significantly in the Nigerian clerical setting.
Once upon a time, women in the ministry had their roles strictly reserved for support purposes. In some settings, female persons, whether adult or child, were strictly forbidden from the pulpit and were, instead, unconsciously conscripted into being Sunday school teachers, providing marriage counselling advice for younger ladies, making available refreshments for church activities and generally giving assistance where necessary.
Anything as it related to public ministry, involving preaching from the pulpit, was absolutely discouraged. This was the norm for many church settings in Nigeria, exemplified in the early church times, as only very few women are mentioned in the early beginnings of the establishment of Christianity in Nigeria. This practice holds till date.
Fast-forward to centuries later and while much has changed, much is still left to be desired as whether Nigerian female ministers have a chance to become as popular as their Western counterparts, especially in the face of a society that is seemingly patriarchal.
A few days ago, it was reported that Pope Francis declared that women being ordained as priests may be a distant reality. This declaration came in response to a question posed to the Pope while enroute home from Sweden last Tuesday, where the Lutheran Church is headed by a woman.
According to the pope, “the last word was clear and given by John Paul II and this remains.” John Paul was said to have dismissed any insinuations of women being ordained as priests in his 2004 “Apostolic Letter,” which reported reads in part: “the church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all church’s faithful.”
For the Nigerian Catholic lady, such statements may not have real effect as women’s roles are clearly defined. Same goes for other orthodox churches with huge presence in Nigeria, such as the Anglican Communion, Nigerian Baptist Convention (NBC), Methodist Church Nigeria (MCN), among others. Even among members of the Organisation of African Instituted Churches (OAIC), the TEKAN/ECWA and even the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria, there are certain rules guiding women participation in the ministry, in spite of changes on a global scale. However, in spite of these seeming regulations, it would be stating the obvious that women have evolved when it comes to their role in the ministry, with some not even becoming more popular than men in the pulpit, but even going further to found/run full churches successfully.
Tracing the history of when women were first ordained as ministers, Kati Niemelä in her study entitled “Female Clergy as Agents of Religious Change?” noted that “The first women were ordained to ministry as early as in the middle of the 19th century. The denominations which were acting as pioneers in ordaining women into the ministry already before the 20th century include many different denominations with a liberal orientation. The first ordinations of women took place in 1853 in the Congregationalist Church, in 1863 in the Universalists denomination, in 1865 in the Salvation Army and in 1866 in the Methodist Protestant Church. Subsequently, the ordination of women has become accepted in most Protestant churches.”
Challenges of women ministers
Women, by virtue of their nature, are different from their male counterparts in the ministry. As Niemela puts it, “Women are not so clearly attached to traditional dogma, they read the Bible less, but pray more than male clergy. Their attitude towards church work is also more open to society. They consider it important that the church is active in helping people and promoting equality, justice and rights of the minorities and not just proclaiming its message by talk.”
Beyond marriage counselling and other assistant duties, for women to hear the calling to the pulpit, there are many challenges. Archbishop Margaret Benson-Idahosa of the Church of God Mission International, in an interview with a national newspaper, while highlighting the challenges she had faced in the ministry, especially regarding her position as Africa’s first female archbishop, had stated that, “men and women were created by God. God gave both of them authority – not the man alone – to go and dominate and multiply. You can multiply by the Word of God or biologically. It is religion and tradition that relegated the woman. The mind of God is that men and women work together amicably. Before God, there is no difference, but traditionally, we have difference. If a man can fulfill the gift in him from the foundation, why can’t a woman as well? God has called the man and the woman. So, God is not mad at the man preaching and the woman also preaching. If God gives you a vision, He will bring people around to provide for the vision.
“Whatever anyone says, I commit to God because He put me in this position. When my husband died, I had my own agenda. The ministry was not in my agenda. So, when I was put in this position, I cried to God about how timid I was and how male dominated the world was, but God did not answer until I had made up my mind. He said to me: ‘Margaret, I’m not moved by tears or your needs, but by faith. If your faith says yes, I God will not say no.’ I therefore began building my faith. One day, He spoke to me again, saying, ‘If I made the appointment, I will release in you the ability to perform and excel.’ That he has actually done all this while. If you look at the Church of God Mission, you’ll find that I’m not the best preacher. There are some that are firebrands and whose sermons could make the heaven kiss the earth. But God has been gracious to me.”
‘If God can use the man, why not the woman?’
In the opinion of Bishop Isaac Idahosa of God First Ministries International, “the truth is that there are no female Holy Spirits. The same Holy Spirit in a man is what exists in a woman. If God can use the man, why not the woman?”
‘A woman can become GO of RCCG, if God wills’
Pastor Oladele Abiodun Balogun, the Pastor-in-Charge of Region 21 of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), Covenant Sanctuary, Oyo State, had in an interview with TribuneChurch stated that the scripture wasn’t against women performing their responsibilities in the church.
According to him, “in the RCCG, women are in all the positions available. We could even say we need more women. We have female pastors in charge of regions, provinces, zones and areas. However, on the issue of female G.O., God determines that. If that is in God’s plan, it will come to pass. In the RCCG, we have only got two General Overseers so far – the founder and the present G.O. The church is just starting. There is no need to be in a hurry.”
‘Even as a minister, a woman must be submissive to her husband’
Family minister and consultant, and President of Family Booster Ministries, Lagos State and College of Marital Success, Pastor Bisi Adewale, in his advice to women ministers, stated that “when talking about women in ministry, we have situations where God genuinely called them. If God truly called them, by their fruits, we will know. There are examples of women who God has used to win so many souls. When I told my family that God called me into family ministry, they were against it, but now God is proving Himself. If God has called the woman, let her fulfil her ministry. However, she should be submissive to her husband.”
Noting the benefits of women in active ministry, Niemela goes further to state that “Clergywomen put more emphasis on those tasks that can be regarded as ―performance while many of the men think that the church should concentrate mainly on function. Women‘s approach to work can be seen as typically liberal. This can also be seen as a way for the church to maintain an active role in a broad field in society and even become more active. In this sense, the attitude towards church work among clergywomen can also activate de-privatisation on the church.”