No to women bishops? We don’t even have women priests!

Today I grieve alongside many friends in England who are saddened over the Church of England’s vote to no women bishops. I can’t even explain why I’m feeling so sad over something happening so far away. Perhaps because it was a stint in England that helped me discover how special the Anglican church was. Or perhaps because there was one particular communion service led by a woman priest that suddenly brought the entire liturgy to life for me. Or maybe I was gripped by the contrast between the almost-national outpouring of indignation over the no vote to women bishops in England and the deafening silence on the issue of women clergy in the Province on Southeast Asia.

It is not something talked about in this part of the world. Many years ago, my pastor asked the bishop then on his views on the ordination of women during his ordination interview. He almost jeopardised his own ordination. The bishop didn’t want some wildcard coming into the old boys’ club. My pastor finally got the go-ahead to get ordained at the last minute, only after high-ranking reverends convinced the bishop that my pastor is not a maverick. The women in ministry here also don’t speak up because they feel they can serve God in whichever role they are in. Fair enough.

But the situation is exacerbated when it comes to the mission field, where the Anglican church in Southeast Asia has a policy/strategy of getting male clergy to plant and lead the church. There are two ways of getting male clergy: send in a foreigner or raise up a Thai local.

When you send in a foreigner, it takes at least three years for the person to be able to actually preach in Thai. Some have been here for years and still speak broken Thai. I don’t want to stereotype, but men generally don’t seem to do as well in language as women. Plus most of these male clergy come with young babies and children who need their time and attention too. And I do believe that family should come first before ministry.

Now compare this situation to the single woman who’s dedicated her life to serving God. She doesn’t have many distractions and she’s focused fully on the ministry. I’m not devaluing men clergy missionaries, I’m just pointing out all the lost opportunities for church growth in Thailand because we have to wait for a male clergy to come first when there are already so many willing and able women on the field.

Let’s look at the second option of raising up local male clergy. It is doable but extremely difficult. Women outnumber men at least 4 to 1 in churches here. Whittle that down further to those who actually respond to God’s calling, you have a pathetically small pool to choose  from. And that person will still have to go through seminary before he can be ordained.

With such a small pool to choose from, you can sometimes end up with a dud. For example, you might end up having a priest who only talks to people that he likes and still boasts that that’s the way he is (so much for being a shepherd), allows his children to run riot (managing his household?), posts inappropriate comments on social media (above reproach?), can’t even be bothered to attend the church prayer meetings. The list goes on. Will this problem be solved with having women priests? Possibly. Simply because there’s a bigger pool to choose from, and you’re not forced into having to ordain the only man that has gone through seminary, despite him not even meeting the basic qualifications to tend to the sheep.

And this strategy of having a male clergy spearhead a work can actually backfire. In many cases, the work has been started by the women. They hold the relationships with the people in that fledgling church plant. Once the numbers start growing, the powers that be will have to parachute a man in to “lead” the work. It could be someone who’s just about to finish seminary and is a candidate for ordination. So this person is expected to go in, “understudy” for a bit and take over, and he has to lead a group of people who are loyal to the woman who started the ministry. That’s not a nice position to be in. And we’ve lost an “ordainable” man because he just couldn’t fit in. So the woman continues with the ministry and warm the seat until the next man comes along.

Next, I would like to touch on the uncomfortable subject of money although I suppose it pertains more to missionaries than local staff. You see, as the children of the male clergy grow older, they eventually have to go back to study at their home country. In some cases, the male clergy returns to the home country to be with the family and continue to commute to the field regularly because there aren’t enough priests. This could entail staying in the field for three weeks and staying home for a week, which works out to flying every month. Go figure the math, even though budget airlines can make travelling cheaper.

Let me emphasize again that I believe being with the family is important and there’s a role for both the married clergy and the single woman in ministry.

But money is where the glass ceiling really is. The Anglican church, like any monolith corporation, has a pecking order. Depending on where you are on that ladder, the salary and benefits vary quite greatly, with a marked difference between clergy and non-clergy. A petty example would be if you were a clergy missionary, you get a car as part of the benefits, you might also get a bigger rental allowance. If you were a non-clergy missionary (man or woman) and you need a car, you might have to buy one yourself or pray that God will provide one. But the problem is because a woman cannot be ordained, she will never be able to have a car and petrol allowance as part of her package. “Sorry you can’t have a car, you’re not a man.” Such blatant injustice is what irks me so badly.

I have a good friend here who’s been ordained as a Buddhist monk. We used to have long conversations on the ordination of women in the Buddhist and Anglican circles. When she felt the call to be ordained – not as a nun in white robes as most would do – but as a monk in saffron robes, she knew she was going against convention and tradition. But she found an abbot who is brave enough to go against the majority and has been quietly ordaining women monks. Currently there are at least 15 women monks in Thailand.

So to my friends who are disappointed over the synod’s decision today, do take heart that almost three-quarters had backed the vote and that there are people brave enough to stand up for you. Take heart that you have advocates in high echelons like Rowan Williams and Justin Welby. I had to choke back a tear when the outgoing Archbishop was asked for his message to women who were thinking of leaving the ministry following the vote, he said:

“I would say first of all that I can well understand that feeling of rejection and unhappiness and deep perhaps disillusion with the institutional Church that many women may be feeling.

I would also say it is still your Church and your voice matters and always will be heard and it is important therefore not to give up.

It is easy for me to say that, I don’t have to carry it in the same deeply personal way that these women particularly will but I still want to say it is your Church, not mine and not Synod’s.”

Such genuine empathy. I now know why I’m sad. Unlike you, my friends, we have no advocates here. No one stands up for us. Our voice will not be heard. The silence continues.

The weakest link

Being the competitive creature that I am, I’ve always played to win. Not that I’ve always won, but I will never put myself in a situation where there’s a possibility that I will come in last. I’ve been known to not study for a subject that I’m certain I will fail in, just so that I can say it’s because I didn’t study, instead of having studied and still failed. Some people call it pride; I call it plain stupidity.

Yet my appetite for new experiences sometimes puts me on a collision course with my competitive streak. Afterall, one can’t be good at everything. So when a friend invited me to be part of a band to play in a celebrity-studded Christian concert before an audience of some 3000 people, I jumped at the chance. Classic example of fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

My friend has never heard me play but assumed that I could. I, on the other hand, mistakenly thought that I could probably manage the keyboard since the piano does the heavy-lifting and no one really hears the keyboard anyway.

The first rehearsal turned everything on its head and my friend must have thought he’s made a most terrible mistake. I couldn’t play, especially when measured against everyone else in the band. Everyone else is a professional musician – producer, songwriter, arranger…. I am the only amateur. And not even a good one at that.

I had six weeks to learn how to use a program called MainStage for its sound patches, transcribe the keyboard parts from 28 songs, and commit them to memory. This was on top of my very full-time job, plus my very full-time volunteer work. Oh and it probably didn’t help that my memory’s like a sieve with huge holes.

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Tools of the trade

I was ready to give up because I hated being the weakest link. I didn’t like being the only one who couldn’t get the chords right and the one that the entire band had to wait for while someone helped me fix the reverb or delay on my sound patches because I was so clueless.

But I abhorred giving up too, perhaps only slightly more than being the “loser”, so I buckled down and worked my butt off. I practised daily if I could, and I tried to find time to memorise the chords at every chance (though I must say that driving and recalling chords don’t go very well together). I even put my practice before the latest Grey’s Anatomy episode – that was how serious I was!

Having to confront my own ineptness at every rehearsal is both frustrating and painful, but it’s taught me to be a kinder person. I hope I will always remember to be patient and encouraging – much like how the other band members have been to me – to those who struggle in areas that I excel in.

It’s one week to the concert now, and I’ve only just started telling friends that I’m involved in it, simply because I live in constant resignation that I will be voted out of the band. The last time I checked, I’m still playing. So this is my tongue-in-cheek prayer:

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.

Your concert come, your will be done at the hall as in heaven

Give me this day my daily chord

Forgive me my wrong notes

As I forgive my fingers that betray me

Lead me not into forgetfulness

But deliver me from all nerves.

For yours is the music, the rhythm and the patches

Forever and ever

Amen