Wesley and Women in Ministry
Every once in a while you learn something in seminary.
We are making our way(somewhat slowly as opposed to other classes) through Sondra Matthaei’s Making Disciples: Faith Formation in the Wesleyan Tradition in my Forming Disciples in the Wesleyan Tradition class. I was kidding when I said earlier that it is only every once in a while that you learn something, because that seems like all that I am doing, but I like this class in particular because it deals with some of the practicality of parish ministry and the future of the United Methodist Church in particular. In my mind, it’s a different type of learning.
I grew up in a Baptist tradition in a church body that seemingly(to me a least) supported women in ministerial roles more than most Baptist Churches do. I never had a woman pastor, but I would have been in support if the question had ever arisen. I never made the distinguishment [please see commentary below based on the word “distinction”] between who should and shouldn’t be in a pastoral role. Especially based on gender.
The chapter that I was reading dealt with…who, according to Wesley, shall teach? Matthaei went through several different ideas that Wesley laid down for how things in the church ought to be taught. I particularly liked the emphasis that was put on lay leadership because I feel like it is often a perception of the UMC that lay and diaconal leadership have little power because of some of the stipulations put on the church by the ordination process (for instance, the celebration of marriage ceremonies, sharing and blessing of the Eucharist, baptism, etc…more on my perception of this perception in a later post).
What I like so much about Wesley is that he was so right in so many ways.
Here is the kicker, I got to the section that described Wesley’s perception of women in the role of preaching. Matthaei had already spoken about the role of the women in some of their practices with the poor, and had spoken highly of them. However, Wesley here had some hesitancy when it came to women in a role that would require them to preach. It took seeing the fruits of women preaching to point out that perhaps God was working inside of this. Matthaei even goes so far to point out that Charles Wesley was “clearly opposed to the increasing leadership of women.”
If you didn’t know this already, like myself, it may be a bit shocking because the UMC these days is a bit ahead of the game in the American Church and there seems to be a strong leaning to return to our Wesleyan roots. With that though, there has never been talk, that I have heard, in removing women from their role in the church. This would seem absurd!
To make it a bit less shocking, it is necessary to look at the Wesleys’ and their thought process. Many may not know that John simply wanted to reinvigorate the church by building disciples who were growing toward holiness in their love of God and neighbor. After my studies, I dont think that it was his intention to create a new church. Many SHOULD know that Wesley never officially left the Anglican Church (though I am sure that many would have liked him to) and so did not consent to the ordination of women. However, it seems to me that the only reason that Wesley did not formally consent was because of his torn views between the traditional view and the new view that women could contribute significantly in their preaching to the teaching of the church.
Here is what I get: Wesley considered function over form to be necessary. Paul Chilcote puts it this way, “When the normal pastoral system fails to bear fruit, God raises up messengers to do what must be done.” Matthaei states that “Since Wesley relied heavily on the criteria of fruits of the Spirit, he could not deny the evidence of God’s work in women called to preach.”. Wesley would later use the word “barbarity” when speaking of a method of not allowing women to preach.
To me, the most intriguing part of the UMC is the lack of this mentality. Often times, the church in general, does what is “traditional” rather than what is “effective”. If something is failing us, should we not reevaluate what that is and come to grips with a way to fix it? And I’m not talking about worship music style either. In Wesley’s denomination, it was absurd to assume that a woman could preach, and yet he saw the light that God was working through them and that all people are to use their God given gifts. This would include women.
What is it in today’s world that the UMC is doing that is more form over function? Where is God working, bearing fruit, and showing us that we are ignoring? When we finally see the fruits of God’s work in human labor, will it be enough? Will it be too late? Does this have anything to do with the significant loss of numbers inside of the UM church over the past 20 to 30 years? What are we doing wrong?