To ordain or not to ordain: Place of women in the church

Saturday June 10 2017

New priests and women lay leaders of the Anglican Church of Kenya Diocese of Maseno North during their ordination by Bishop Simon Oketch at Maraba ACK Parish in Kakamega Town. PHOTO | FILE

New priests and women lay leaders of the Anglican Church of Kenya Diocese of Maseno North during their ordination by Bishop Simon Oketch at Maraba ACK Parish in Kakamega Town. PHOTO | FILE 

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Few religious topics excite as much passion as women’s role in the Church – more so as ordained ministers. No wonder when the Daily Nation recently published an opinion article lamenting women’s near exclusion from the funeral programme of Reverend John Gatu – the former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA) who died last month at the age of 92 – it stirred debate on a topic with deeply-rooted historical and socio-cultural underpinnings. It was not lost on observers that Rev Gatu was at the forefront of enhancing the role of women in church leadership.

Indeed, Rev Gatu is to the PCEA what Bishop Henry Okullu was to the Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK) – which was previously known as the Church of the Province of Kenya (CPK). Bishop Okullu, who died in 1999, beat his colleagues to it when, as prelate of the Maseno South Diocese, he ordained Mrs Lucia Okuthe as deacon in 1980. She became a priest in 1982.

In ordaining Mrs Okuthe, Bishop Okullu was way ahead of the mother church, the Church of England.

Rev Kamau M Thairu – a Presbyterian minister just as was Rev Gatu – was the first to defend the hierarchy and its hogging of space at the church patriarch’s funeral. While describing the article as “insightful and calls us into reflection”, he proceeded to argue that the absence of women in the liturgy was not by design.

“Is it evidence that the place in ministry of women is not appreciated?” he asked.

And, perhaps without knowing that he was opening a can of worms, the minister pointed at the PCEA “governance structure” as responsible for women’s exclusion from Rev Gatu’s funeral programme.

“We must appreciate that only a few (read ‘men’) have the opportunity to participate publicly. The absence of a lady minister reading the tributes, is it an issue of lack of gender mainstreaming or logistics of the service? Dorothy’s (in reference to this writer’s opinion article) writeup is insightful but her evaluation of the women’s place in the ministry based on this one event is not correct.”

Not many women in church leadership – ordained and non-ordained – agree with the line of defence from their male counterparts such as Rev Thairu. And they have a blow-by-blow account of biases against womenfolk throughout the ages.

Dr Lydia Mwaniki, the director of Theology, Family Life and Gender Justice at the All Africa Conference of Churches on Nairobi’s Waiyaki Way, says she “couldn’t help whispering to my colleagues how puzzled I was by the invisibility of women ministers” during Rev Gatu’s funeral. Quite ironical, she said, for a man who was “not only the voice of the voiceless, but also (gave) the voiceless space to speak for themselves.”

Dr Nyambura Njoroge was the first Presbyterian woman to be ordained minister by the PCEA in 1982 at the Bahati Martyrs Church. She was a beneficiary of Rev Gatu’s revolutionary mindset that saw him instigate a push towards women’s ordination, starting with their admission for theological studies.

In his autobiography, Fan into Flame, which was launched last December, Rev Gatu described her ordination on September 5, 1982, as “one of the highlights in my pastoral career”.


As of 2014, women accounted for 72 out of 550 ordained ministers in the PCEA or one ordained woman for every six clergymen.

Unfair as this might seem, it is far ahead of the Catholic Church, which is unlikely to ordain a woman priest any time soon. Only last November, Pope Francis was quoted by The Guardian, a British newspaper, as reaffirming Pope John Paul II’s position in a May 1994 letter to Catholic bishops that priestly ordination was for “men alone”. Their point, which has been cited ad infinitum by opponents of women’s ordination, is that Christ’s 12 apostles were all men – an argument Dr Njoroge contests.

In an interview with Lifestyle, Dr Njoroge, who works for the Geneva-based World Council of Churches (WCC), describes the view as simplistic.

Priestly ministry, she argues, is “everyone’s baptismal God-given right.” Dr Njoroge cites Ghanaian theologian Mercy Amba Oduyoye, who puts it thus: “Whatever God endows to boys in baptism, God also endows to girls equally. Our common baptism is the base for the possibility of women’s ordination. In baptism we have all been made one with Christ and we can all be sent out equally”.

Jesus may have chosen 12 men, but he chose a woman to announce his resurrection without which there would be no church. Jesus, the theologian adds, had lengthy conversations with the Samaritan woman, with Mary and Martha, and a woman ministered to him by washing his feet.

“We should not box Jesus with the 12 men. Throughout the gospels, women were fully part of his ministry and discipleship.”

Earlier last year, the Pope hinted at a possibility of creating a commission to study the issue of ordaining women as deacons — a move some saw as opening the way for ordination. The suggestion attributed to the National Catholic Reporter was described as off-the-cuff in an audience of hundreds of nuns. Sceptics were quick to point out that it was easier said than done.

However, the Catholic Church once ordained women as deacons — until gender bias steeped in a patriarchal mindset placed a roadblock in their way.

First millennium

In a letter to The Guardian, Cathy Wattebot refuted the claim that the sacrament of Holy Orders in the Catholic Church was always confined to men. The claim contradicted a 1974 study by Fr Cipriano Vagaggini, who found that women were ordained as deacons “throughout the first millennium and beyond”.

Quoting a study by Professor Gary Macy of Santa Clara University, she revealed “the shocking” fact that “the gradual decline in the office of women deacons in the early centuries of the second millennium was prejudicial male attitudes to menstruation. She quoted 12th-century canonist Theodore Balsamon, who had written that “the monthly affliction banished (women) from the divine and holy sanctuary”.

Ms Njeri Kang’ethe, an advocate of the High Court of Kenya and a law lecturer at a local Christian university, says: “Marginalisation of women, lay or clergy, in matters ecclesial is not a problem of the Presbyterian Church only. It is a universal iniquity, symptomatic of a social institution whose structures, systems, organs and power arrangements are inherently highly patriarchal.”

She notes that in this order of things, a just God can never sit easy.

“The Church must, therefore, return to her source – the radical feminist of all time, Jesus Christ the Son of Mary. The Founder and Finisher of the Faith who broke every social, economic, cultural, political, historical, religious and gender barrier, to include those who the world would easily exclude or discard,” says Ms Kang’ethe.

Speaking from Berlin, Germany, Prof Esther Mombo, a lecturer at St Paul’s University, Limuru, and the institution’s former deputy vice-chancellor in charge of academic affairs, spoke of “experiencing other forms of patriarchy” such that, even with ordination, women “are still used as flowers”.

Stating women were invisible in leadership, Prof Mombo says that even at her university, theological education was still not easily accessible to women.


The academic trained the spotlight on systemic structures that are used to divide women’s leadership. “What we worked hard to obtain now is used against us and women are the ones who have been used to kill it.”

Addressing the subject of women’s ordination, the professor notes that marriage was still a major issue with aspiring women being asked, “where is your husband?”

“The politics of selection for training and for posting is deep as most women have no political knowledge to understand that it is not being nice or being married. Those who have the political will are dismissed as feminists. So (to be) the flowers in patriarchy is an easier option,” say Prof Mombo.  

She also alludes to women who have had to sacrifice their ministerial calling for the sake of ecumenism – an allusion to the Catholic Church’s firm “No” to women’s ordination.

Prof Mombo rejects the notion that ordaining women should relegate them to the role of “flowering the church”. She calls for a critical analysis of the church structures that deny ordination to women perceived as not fitting into a patriarchal mould “with all the class trappings”.

“Across the churches,” she says, “Women gatekeepers are not helping the women. The fuzziness of being ‘good’ women will not help the cause.”

Saying she is not against marriage and family life, Prof Mombo nonetheless deplores the hypocrisy among many women clergy, which, she says, “will not help ordination or change of situation” bedevilled by patriarchal divide-and-rule tactics. While recognising the Gatus, Henry Okullus, David Gitaris – in reference to prominent church leaders – and others who have contributed to women’s ordination, she laments the invisibility of women, which she describes as “so loud”. 

Similarly, Rev Pauline Njiru of the WCC office in Nairobi says a Moravian church leader had wondered how her husband survives when she travels on duty – a clear indication of bias against women in the ministry. Rev Njiru was ordained an Anglican priest by Bishop Gitari in 1992.

Gender consultant and disability activist Salome Muigai is not impressed by the doublespeak surrounding the women in priesthood discourse. Referring to a woman lawyer’s thanksgiving service she recently attended, she expresses surprise at the presiding pastor’s statement that it was imperative “to make room for women in all sectors not only because it was constitutional, but more importantly because it is the will of God”. He said it was God Himself who said, “It is not good for man to be alone”. To Ms Muigai, the surprise was that the pastor did not qualify his statement by saying “except in Parliament or the Vatican”.

Lauding Rev Gatu for hearing the voice of God and courageously implementing it, Ms Muigai prays that the Church will lead from the front the call for implementation of the two-thirds gender rule. 

Kenya has been unable to implement the constitutional requirement that one gender should not occupy more than two-thirds of positions in public institutions despite a Bill being presented to Parliament several times. Relegation of women in the ordained ministry is, therefore, symptomatic of a deeper socio-cultural malaise.

Dr Njoroge blames women ministers’ relegation on the fact that the church is a social institution. Even though it is supposed to faithfully follow Christ Jesus, its handling of women reflects the societal norms that treat women as second-class citizens. That is why, she says, the Gender Bill could not pass in Parliament, “and the assumption is that the one-third can only be women …”

“Patriarchy is deeply entrenched in all the structures and institutions starting with the family. Even though many Christians teach the headship of Christ in the Church and home (remember those words that hang in our homes when growing up ‘Christ is the Head of this House...’)? This is Paul’s teaching, not Jesus’.”