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Reform Magazine | June 13, 2024

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A good question: Are the sexes equal in church? - Reform Magazine

A good question: Are the sexes equal in church?

One question, four answers

‘We still need pioneers’

Constance Coltman was a pioneer of women’s ordination. The book Constance: Pioneer, pastor, preacher grew out of a gathering of global pioneers to mark the centenary of her ordination.

It was good to celebrate, but – hang on! When the Revd Mia Smith, Chaplain of Somerville College, where Constance initially studied, gave the centenary homily in the College Chapel, she said: ‘I found myself becoming angry. One hundred years? But 2,000 years ago Jesus ordained a woman, Mary Magdalene, as an apostle – one who is sent to tell – to go and tell others about the risen Christ.’

At the global gathering, we heard from people of Orthodox and Roman Catholic backgrounds, where the ordination of women to the priesthood is still a distant dream.

But even where churches are technically open to women’s ordained leadership, they often reflect, rather than challenging, the prejudices of a patriarchal world. In Switzerland, although women were ordained in 1918, as late as 2014 church leaders were expressing fears about the ‘feminisation’ of the church…

Janet Wootton is a retired Congregational minister and the editor of Constance: Pioneer, Pastor, Preacher published by the United Reformed Church. It is available from


‘We are still far from mutual respect’

See a photograph of the central platform in Westminster Central Hall, when the uniting assembly of the United Reformed Church took place in 1972, and you can easily spot most of the women by their hats. Just a handful of female figures made it onto the stage among the black cassocks of the ordained men that day. You might have been forgiven for wondering whether the recognition of women as ordained ministers, more than 50 years earlier, had altered the public face Congregationalism in these islands at all.

Things look different now, at least on the face of things. You can’t attend General Assembly without encountering many gifted and significant women, lay and ordained. There are no roles within the URC which being female debars you from, and our Equal Opportunities and Diversity Policy Statement reads well.

But there’s a gap between our rhetoric and reality. True, the number of women who are ministers of Word and Sacrament and Church-Related Community Workers (CRCW) increases yearly. We are approaching equal numbers of women and men in pastoral charge, and there are more active women CRCWs than men. On the other hand, the denomination is still far from embodying mutual respect between women and men at all levels of church life…

Kirsty Thorpe is Minister of Wilmslow United Reformed Church, Cheshire, and former Moderator of the URC General Assembly

‘This is an urgent issue’

From the early church onwards, baptism has been understood as the rite of initiation into the Church. Any kind of human body can be baptised. Women are full members of the church, redeemed alongside men through the saving work of Jesus Christ. So, there is an equality in salvation. However, this equality of salvation has not been understood as an equality of status. God has been predominantly referred to in male pronouns and images, implying that the divine image is more fully represented by men. The masculinity of Jesus and the 12 disciples has justified the limiting of leadership roles to men. It is only in recent history that my Church, the Church of England, has changed, opening first lay ministries and then, gradually, ordained ministries to women. Deacons from 1987, priests from 1994, bishops 2014. Now all ministries in the Church are open, regardless of gender.

At the same time, the Church of England made it clear that those faithful members of the Church, including clergy, who believe certain roles must be reserved for men could continue to discriminate against women. This position is a minority in the Church, but a minority that we are called to protect and enable to flourish. It is expressed in terms of Church order or in the language of complementarianism, which sees women’s subordination as a sign of difference, not of inequality…

Emma Percy is Chaplain of Trinity College, Oxford, and Chair of Women and the Church


‘Zambian women resist patriarchy’

Women in an African context are considered as weaker vessels and tools for men. This is the kind of community where I personally come from.

This gender inequality is transferred to the Church. There are more women in the Church than men, but mostly in positions that do not influence Church policy. One church I pastor has 1,554 members, of whom 1,122 are women and 332 are men; 70% in leadership are men. Women think leadership is for men, and they are taught to be quiet among men.

The United Church of Zambia came into union on 1 January 1965. The Church accepts the ordination of women, although at first it was not easy. The first woman was ordained in 1976. I was the fifth to be ordained, in 1990. Although the Church opened the door to women’s ordination, not many women came forward, for fear of male dominance and that they would not be accepted by members of the Church. There are 61 female ministers working in the Church today. When I applied for training, I doubted whether I would be accepted by any congregation. At theological college, my male fellow students would ask why I was there, and yet they knew. In my class, there were 12 men and two ladies…

Ellen Nachali Mulenga is a minister in the United Church of Zambia. This article is an edited extract from her contribution to Constance: Pioneer, Pastor, Preacher edited by Janet Wootton (United Reformed Church, 2021)

These are extracts from an article published in the June 2021 edition of Reform

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  1. Peter Hollander

    The article ignores Scripture which sets men a role in society – whether in the human family or in the family of God that is the church – which is to take responsibility for what goes on and be the head to which, in love, women submit.

    Genesis 3:16, Ephesians chapter 5, 1 Corinthians chapter 11, 1 Peter chapter 3 and 1 Timothy chapter 3 cannot be ignored simply because it doesn’t fit into today’s secular world view.

    Submitting to the lordship of Jesus involves accepting all Holy Spirit has revealed to mankind in the Bible and not cherry picking or ignoring bits you dislike. God made the rules for living and just because in the last 100 years some people have decided that they think they know better than God as to what is good for society, doesn’t make God’s Truth wrong or able to be changed. We can see the result of secularisation of society with flexible ever changing values, and it isn’t good for families or the church.

    The URC has over decades now passed resolutions on matters of faith and conduct in the church that are not Holy Spirit inspired but people pleasing measures to mislead the weak minded and to affirm those who seek to justify themselves before men instead of before God.

    Repentance is needed before it is too late.

    • Jemma Jones

      You need to look into this much more thoroughly instead of trotting out the usual, sadly unthinking, view that is so easy to adopt but in which you wrong your fellow humans. Advocates of the restrictive views you mention could perhaps look into themselves with honesty, in order to discern their real motives for insisting on male supremacy.

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