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.