Embodiment of Power, Self and Identity: Weaving My Story of Ordination in History

[1] What a joy it was to see women marching, (no, dancing down the aisle, it was!) during the celebration of 50-40-10 of Women’s Ordination in the ELCA. The joy was simply contagious. Even watching the women process down the aisle, from remote, I could not help but shed tears of joy at this visible symbolic achievement of rolling away yet another ‘Stone from the mouth of the Tomb’ of (ecclesial) Patriarchy. In a while, I shall unpack the nuanced experiences of denial of equal access to power, position, and participation in ministry and ministerial challenges. At this moment of celebration, celebrate we will, to affirm the collective strength, faith, joy and power of women that was palpable. In their dancing steps, the women shooed away the boogey woogies that were consciously, unconsciously spun in the past, about Women’s Bodies not being strong (enough), right (enough), good (enough), pure (enough), capable (enough) – of reflecting, experiencing God’s presence, promise, and the image of God! The dancing stoles of green were like trees clapping, the “thud” steps seemed to announce the arrival of the moment in history: Women claiming their right to Self, Power and Identity as image bearers of God. Even those in wheelchairs danced, their exuberant hearts challenging the able-bodied to redefine the meaning of ‘Embodiment of Power, Self and Identity’ according to the life-goal that Jesus himself set: (John 10: 10) Life in Abundance for All. Regardless.

[2] A celebration moment, Yes! A celebration of 50, 40, and 10! Even if our hearts are rightfully overwhelmed with joy, we cannot forget the fact that it took that long for the patriarchal church to realize, recognize that women were denied their right to equal participation in ministry. We cannot forget either, that women of color came ten years after, or that the ordination of LGBT people was permitted just ten years ago. Signs of gender justice does not happen all at the same time. Just as patriarchy needs racism, classism, casteism, sexism, heterosexism to prevail as a consolidate power, there is also a collusion of powers to protect and preserve systems of power at all costs so that those who benefit from the system are hesitant to share that power with those who are deliberately “othered” and where differential value is construed, imagined in order to deny some the right to be equal partners in ministry. Patriarchy is always a web of power and a web of relationships that gets intensified with aspects of color/race/identity/power issues interwoven with the question of gender. It is important for us to get the intersectionality highlighted early enough in the article so that we can peel off layers of patriarchy and power at the same time.

[3] For example, one cannot miss the “typical” patriarchal note of consolidation of consensus and consent of patriarchy, in theory and practice, anywhere, as long as it had the same goal: keep women alienated from their rightful place, participation and power in ministry. May I connect the dots of the pattern of practices of patriarchy (wherever, whenever, however, whatever) that have been so common, that it was brushed aside as normal, normative and ideal, to be a “good church.” Very often, questions about women’s ordination would begin with “What does the Bible say? What does Paul say?” If some chose “culture” as the first instrument to defend non-ordination of women, it often became a popular topic for theological debate in a class room situation. In this light, I was told, “I wouldn’t advise you to take that route, Evangeline. You are called by God, for theological education. You can help a lot of women. There are so many women out there who need to hear the good news that they can serve God in so many ways!

[4] Let me weave my personal “I” story of ordination, into this larger history of women’s ordination. I joined the United Theological College, Bangalore in 1983 as a fresh Science graduate from Bangalore University. My dad told his eight children that education did not stop with a college degree, but that we should all go ahead and complete at least a primary theology degree (A BD which is equivalent to M.Div in the United States). The children could negotiate between a degree in Science or Commerce, but not about whether to do Theology. (I still remember those days when my sister and I felt we had to tell Dad that we were planning to drop advanced courses in Greek and Hebrew, and my dad’s voice from the other side of the phone was: “Go for languages: You can do it!” We knew what it meant; it was an emphatic-subtle encouragement to not drop the language courses.  I was raised in a Lutheran family, with a father and a grandfather as pastors in a Lutheran church that was a sister/daughter church of the LCMS. Women’s ordination question was a NON-QUESTION. Yet, here was my Dad, encouraging us children to go for theological studies, all eight of us – six daughters and two sons. For Dad, the ordination question was irrelevant. He wanted all the children to be theologically equipped to discern God’s call in each of our lives.

[5] Ordination of women was not a goal, not even one of the goals. He saw the potential of theological education as a tool for empowerment of self and identity. I am amazed at this vision and understanding of the scope of theological education as a tool for gender justice, women’s empowerment, and discovering of new self-identity and so on, when the social location, social experience, education and environment of my Dad was that of a typical patriarchal household with even more conservative patriarchal values. Nonetheless, there was this fundamental Lutheran principle of “Universal Grace” that he absorbed fully, as TRUTH: ETERNAL, NON-NEGOTIABLE TRUTH, that he believed in, fully, and so absolutely, that he depended on this truth, to both lead his life and shape that of his children and all those he came across. (Just in case anyone wonders why I did/ do not speak of my mother is because she died young: 34 years, 8 months, and when my dad was 36 years old!)

[6] When I started my theological education at the United Theological College, out of 21 students enrolled, I was the only woman in the class. I did not think anything was wrong. Dr. Immanuel David who taught me Church History would ask, “Look around: Do you notice any gender issue in this class?” I said “No? What gender issue?” I thought everything was normal. Women did not come for theological education because they probably did not feel called. At least, they probably didn’t have a father who believed in equipping the children with theological education as primary education.

[7] Dad had not waited for theological education to begin when we entered UTC. Preparatory classes already happened from the time we were growing up. The Daily Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer were as regular as daily meals. There was no question of skipping prayers, except on a Sunday when we would have probably had our dose of daily Scripture in the Church. This rigorous upbringing in Lutheran theology, principles and values shaped my faith formation in such a way that Ordination of Women was not a goal. I was encouraged to study the Word of God, with more interest and effort if possible. I made Dad proud when I bagged the outstanding student prize in that class of 21 students.

[8] What surprises me today when I reflect on my dad’s approach of understanding the question of ordination of women is this: When he knew well that his church did not ordain women and thought it had no need of women, he insisted on me applying to the church for a position.  At that time, I asked him,  “But why do I need to apply to the church when I know well what their answer would be?” Dad’s response was, “It is important for you to get their response in black and white.” This I did.

[9] Let me share a few responses of the church leaders at that time. One said, “Evangeline, if you women come into the church and take away our jobs, what will we men do?” (oh? Really?)  Of the three who applied to the church at the same time, two men and I, both male classmates were accepted to join the roster of the church. They said, “Evangeline…. You could be an honorary worker in the church.” All my rewards, awards for best performance in Hebrew, Greek, Sanskrit, the prizes for homiletics and preaching, all of these were not good enough for ordination. I didn’t have the ‘right’ organ to be the right body, to understand right theology, to reflect the right image of God!

[10] I slowly shifted the words of the debate: Let’s talk about non-ordination of women as a theological issue. Non-ordination? Yes. Non-ordination. As one who taught theology and gender studies for more than twenty years in four seminaries, I am happy and proud to state that these experiences, tough though they were, helped in shaping my faith and equipped me with new strength to turn my anger against structural and systemic patriarchy into energy to stand firm in my faith and calling. “Remember: The One who has called you is faithful.” This gave me just enough courage, strength, and confidence to wade through the waters into freedom.

[11] Some of my experiences in the journey towards ordination would help unpack some layers of patriarchy and intersectionality. Patriarchy has been the common, constant virus that has plagued humanity throughout history where herd insensitivity to gender justice is the most plausible response. When I celebrated my 25th birthday in Sweden, I received as a gift, a cassette with the speech of an ordained minister who left the Church saying, “Why did I leave priesthood and ordained ministry? Because God has not called women to be priests.” This was after I articulated in one of my talks that I believed in equal participation of women and men in ministry. The one who gifted me this was surprised that I, a person from the global south, a ‘third world’ country, from a conservative church background should bother about nonstarter issues like women’s ordination. This person thought I should be a woman leader, be a leader of the women, for the women and by the women. I should be safe enough. Patriarchy has the best guardians of patriarchal values in and among the women. But that is a lesson that can help us to unlearn a character and pattern of patriarchy. Not all women can be expected to be sympathizers and critical of patriarchy. It is important to problematize these otherwise legitimized, normal/ normative responses and engage in further and deeper analysis of patriarchy. Just because someone lives in the global north, with comparatively better economic privileges does not mean she has better understanding of patriarchy and what it entails as a system, structure, pattern, practice, and reality.

[12] The road to ordination was long and bumpy. I graduated with a degree in Bachelor of Divinity (M.Div) in 1987 but was not ordained until September 2006. Part of the bumpy ride was because I belonged to the India Evangelical Lutheran Church which was connected to the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.  For twenty long years, I was invited to preach regularly in many churches but not allowed to preach in my church. I could be a Professor of Theology in the seminary, Dean of Doctoral Studies, and hold other high positions and titles but I seemed to lack just that one main criterion for ordination. I didn’t have IT. I did not realize that it is the same organ used to measure how one’s knowledge, faith, spirituality, and ministerial preparedness.

[13] There was an occasion when, out of generosity, I was asked to lead the women’s retreat. The altar had to be closed with a screen and a row of chairs were placed near the pews lest people think I am preaching in the Church! The question I had to ask myself was,  “Would you rather not preach at all because you are not given the space/ place of a pulpit or would you rather preach the Gospel of empowerment to women, from wherever, whichever place/space? After all, your speech is more important than what you aspire for your own identity, power and self!”

[14] How many times, just how many times, and for how long did I have to prove to the patriarchal world, that patriarchal community of women and men, that I was tired, too tired, to make this as my priority, my goal. Ordination? What is ordination? Let me continue my life-journey. Ordination was never going to happen. After all, I was not only raised in the India Evangelical Lutheran Church, I happened to marry my classmate, Sam Rajkumar, who also belonged to the same church, whose grandfather was also a well-known pastor. Now I was doubly, surely bound to the church!

[15] But then it happened. The United Evangelical Lutheran Church amended its constitution that at least one of the four officers of the church should be a woman and I was nominated as the first Vice President of the United Evangelical Lutheran Church in India. An honor. I started my honorary work as a pastor in the Arcot Lutheran Church and the day of my ordination approached.

[16] In one of the board meetings, the President of the IELC said: “She is our member. She cannot be ordained in another church!” For a moment, I was turned into an object that could be talked about as if I did not exist. I was stunned into silence. Some of the challenges that followed included a decision to shame me for this bad decision and to oust my husband from his position as the pastor in the IELC with the declaration saying: The church believes that women’s ordination is a twenty first century gnostic heresy” and that “the pastor, his wife and children should belong to the same church. If the wife is ordained in another tradition, then there is no place for the pastor to continue his service in the church’.

[17] Guess what! I went ahead with my ordination, with the blessing of my father and my husband. Ordination was the new balm that healed my soul. Ordination was the new cloak of empowerment. I believed in the word preached, and the words of the Bishop who affirmed that my calling was from God: to teach, to preach and to administer sacraments. Until then, I could not celebrate communion because I was told the words of institution could not be uttered by a non-ordained person.  There was so much of POWER ascribed to the same that there lingered a hint of threat should anyone try otherwise and risk the wrath of the unknown!

[18] In 2002 – 2006, I served as the President of the Association of Theologically Trained Women of India, with a total membership of about a thousand women at that time. In one of the general assemblies of ATTWI, during the opening worship, there were so many women in their robes and stoles that it was such a pleasant sight to celebrate women’s achievement in equal partnership in ministry. However, during the coffee break, some women shared with me that the newly ordained women had to sign a document with three conditions for ordination: 1. That they will not seek any hike in their salary. 2. That they will not seek separate parishes to work in but be associate/assistant ministers to their husbands. 3. That they will not contest in church elections.  When the meeting resumed, I raised this question of What is Ordination? My critical reflections flowed into the article I wrote in Masihi Sevak, a journal of Christian Ministry in UTC, titled: Ordination, for what purpose?

[19] It is God who calls us – women and men – to ministry. Non-ordination of women is a situation of perpetuation of SIN where love for patriarchal power and practice supersedes love for God and God’s purpose for all in creation. In my long theological journey, I learned over time, that ordination or no ordination, there is no doubt about the call. The journey becomes light, enjoyable and every challenge and pain, worth it when there are more partners and fellow pilgrims who are equally committed to gender justice and are of mutual support and engagement. Without this new consciousness, renewed faith and commitment to Gender justice, the journey becomes tiring. We cannot celebrate ordination of women as a sign of complete victory; rather, it is a step in the right direction. Ordination of women need not be THE end goal for women in ministry. It is yet another barrier that women have learned to cross in their lives. It is something that women and men have to strive for, as a goal for the whole church. If there is any lingering doubt in any congregation about calling women as pastors, there should be wide and happy sharing and promoting of women in ministry, simply because they have to battle against several odds in different places, at the same time.

[20] After serving as professor of theology and gender studies in four prominent seminaries, two in India and two in the United States, I can say that my ordination equipped me in terms of my identity, discovering a new self, a new voice with confidence, and new power to speak. Ordination is much more than addition of the prefix Rev. to my name. I experienced the power of being endowed by the Holy Spirit when the Bishop uttered the words of my CALL. I could not break down and cry during the service. I experienced it as the melting of a load of history of suffering, discrimination, and patriarchy while the spirit filled that space, to newly empower, energize, equip  the person with new life.  This revived life called to say,  “Stand up on your feet and proclaim my Word, speak to the dry bones!” That is my experience of ordination.

[21] The weight of patriarchy is as mythical as it is real. It is mythical because patriarchy is cast and recast in history, all the time. If patriarchal pattern is to divide and rule, create enemies within its own territory, divide women and women, women and men, based on differential valuing of color, ethnicity, sexuality and sexual orientation, it is because it is part of the agenda of patriarchy to keep power within the hands of some. It is not an accident that this power lay with the male, the heterosexual male that idealized priesthood for men [unmarried, as if anything to do with the (female) body and sex was sin]. Patriarchy is imaginatively construed and conspired power that is managed, shared within a group who would allow allegiance to a patriarchal and market God as more primary than the God of life.  To deny women their rightful place in shared ministry of the church is to choose patriarchy over a living God. Non-ordination of women in some churches is a cultural issue, a power issue, an identity issue; it is not a theological issue because God’s affirmation of equality showered on women and men is non-negotiable from the time of creation.

[22] I did not break down and cry at my ordination. I brushed away the tears of joy even as I preached the sermon after my ordination, feeling absolutely equipped, empowered and ecstatic. Now that I am a minister in the ELCA, a pastor of two congregations in Corydon, Indiana, the circle of joy is kind of complete. What was denied as my right to choose a vocation, my dreaming and singing my way in into ministry, was not a bed of roses. The spirit of God helps in turning the every day stumbling blocks into stepping stones, and it is not just my story. God offers it as a story and experience of every person – marginalized because their bodies are labeled as too Dalit, too female, too colored, too strong or too weak. Ruach, the Spirit of God, revives the dry bones and gives new life, new spirit to plod on for justice.

[23] Genesis 1: 26-28 is an eternal gift, truth, and a reality. That God made humankind in God’s image is a non-negotiable gift of grace, REGARDLESS. There is no way, any One or any WE has the power to change, challenge this core gift.  It is a given reality. Women did not wait for ordination to be who they are/were, to be the leaders they are/were. We take this celebration time to pray for equal participation of women and men in ministry. As a whole church, there is a need for a moment of contrition and confession of how the Church had decided to play God and deny women their rightful role and participation in ministry, and using the Bible and the name of God to keep women out. I remember how I enjoyed the moment of the Bishop and fellow pastors, women and men, when they stepped forward to stretch out their hands – women and men pastors – who laid their hands on me. It let me know that I am not alone. It showered a fresh dose of Holy Spirit, empowered by grace, equipped with power to find my voice, speak out with courage and break forth into a song. I thank God for Jennifer Hockenbery’s leadership as the Editor of Journal of Lutheran Ethics who convinced me that I have a story to share. To God be all glory.

Evangeline Anderson-Rajkumar

Evangeline Anderson-Rajkumar is Dean of Doctoral Studies and Non-degree programs and a Professor in the Department of Women’s Studies at United Theological College, Bangalore, India.