Thursday, 2 December 2010

Obeying the Spirit?

Why have denominations in the Holiness tradition been ordaining women for so much longer than in other Christian traditions?

That's a question asked in a recent article in the CBE journal, Priscilla Papers.

I was surprised to read that in the Church of the Nazarene (in the USA), in 1908 women made up 13% of ordained ministers. Yes, that's 13% of ordained ministers more than 100 years ago!

So how could this be? It was not because that denomination and others like it were being fashionable, or were influenced by feminism - a word which was not of course even invented then.

It was because denominations which emphasised the role of the Spirit in the Christian life took the Bible at face value when they read in Joel and Acts: 'In the last days, God says, I will pour out my spirit on all people. Your..daughters will prophecy.'

This was an arguement made popular in the mid nineteenth century by Phoebe Palmer (who influenced Catherine Booth, among others). Palmer (pictured here) wrote a 400 page book, The Promise of the Father, which talked of how the sending of the Spirit at Pentecost inaugurated a new era, as the Spirit had been poured out equally on men and women.

According to the CBE article, 3 things made women's ordination more acceptable in the Holiness traditions: a preference for leadership based on prophetic authority, an encouragement for all people to give public testimony at church gatherings, and flexible church structures.

As I continue to hear about able women being told that women's leadership is 'not biblical' I'm intrigued by this different take on Scripture from these 'back to the New Testament' denominations. Apparently, if women did not testify to God in their worship, they were being disobedient to the Spirit and to Scripture! And as they gained experience, and their churches were open to women preaching the gospel, women could be 'called'. Ordination was then an affirmation of the Holy Spirit's choice.

Perhaps some denominations need a bit more obedience to the Spirit. Or is that too much of a radical thought!