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15.05.05 08:07 Age: 7 yrs

Women help to redefine Christian mission

"Women in the church are doing many things, but often hesitate to call it mission these days," German mission theologian Katja Heidemanns told the only seminar dealing specifically with women's issues at the thirteenth Conference on World Mission and Evangelism (CWME) meeting near Athens, Greece, 9-16 May.

Dr Heidemanns said that women have made a huge impact especially in the areas of education, health and pastoral care.

But some women at CWME commented that the macho image of Christian mission has often sidelined the compassion this work embodies. Re-understanding mission as healing and reconciliation therefore involves recovering a proper sense of the church as community and of the place of women within it.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth century women played a large role in the development of cross-cultural mission throughout the world, a historian told Ekklesia. But their contribution has been underplayed in some official accounts of the growth of the churches.

Heather Chappell from Toronto, Ontario, also talked to a number of women at CWME on behalf of the World Council of Churches. She works as stewardship and mission education programme assistant for the Presbyterian Church in Canada.

Jacinta Maingi, from Kenya, has been involved for 22 years in counselling those living with HIV/AIDS. She views the church as a healing space, a hospital for those who are physically, mentally and spiritually sick and wounded. "Christ came to those in need," she says. "And we must do the same."

Nilda Castro of the Philippines ministers to migrant people through the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People. She believes that the only way to bring about change is through love. "Not just any kind of love," she explains. "Rather, the love that is a reflection of God. This is a love that makes us ready to die on the cross for one another."

Castro feels that women are particularly predisposed to this type of sacrificial love through their connection to childbearing and motherhood. But other women at the world mission conference are keen to stress that this does not mean being forced into ‘traditional roles' by male run institutions.

"Biology is not destiny," a seminary professor declared to Ekklesia. "In the company of Jesus Christ we discover the God's image in us does not just affirm where we have come from and what we are. It offers the possibility of transformation in the relations of the community and the chance to become what we never dreamed of before. This is especially important for women."

"All of us, male and female, young and old, are called to proclaim the good news to all people," says the Rev Dr Hyacinth Ione Boothe, who teaches at the United Theological College of the West Indies in Jamaica. She feels that women must be themselves, and not try to imitate men.

But Boothe stresses that women do need to be involved in all areas of the church life. This can be difficult in churches where the full ministry of women is still not recognized or encouraged.

When questioned about the lack of topics specifically related to women, the conference organizers pointed out that women's voices have been heard strongly through the worship, plenaries and workshops.

But one of the conference ‘listening group', a feminist theologian from Korea, highlighted what she called the "andocentric" terminology at the assembly, and also the dominance of Euro-American languages.

The issue is a difficult one for the World Council of Churches. Orthodox leaders and others take a very different view of what some call "politically correct" language, especially inclusive language about God. One of the conference draft documents angered them by referring to the Holy Spirit as "she".

Other Christians argue strongly that employing a variety of images and pronouns is important, because it reflects the diversity of God's creation and questions the easy sanctioning of male dominance in society.

The lack of official focus on women at the world mission conference has disappointed some participants. Janet Plenart, Executive Director of International Ministries for the Mennonite Church in Canada, feels that much could have been gained by allowing for more specific focus on women's concerns.

As women work together to redefine the understanding of mission, they have a great opportunity to bring a new dimension to the church's concept of itself, according Ms Plenart and others.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia