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A construction from the bottom up

“There is a pivotal event in the Protestant ecclesial life of Latin American women as regards the theological debates, exegeses and the context of the moment. Thirty-five years have passed and the ordination of women to pastoral ministry in the United Evangelical Lutheran Church in Argentina and Uruguay is a subject that today, reflecting back, has been completely internalized and accepted by the whole Synod”. This is the view held by Pastor Andrea Linquvist. Together with 40 delegates, including both lay people and clerics, she took part in the historic assembly where the conclusion was reached that “There was no impediment to the ordination of women to the ministry of the word and of the sacraments”. “I was a delegate of the La Cruz de Cristo Congregation”, she recalls. “At the meetings the discussions were very frequently supported by the fact that the Sacred Scriptures do not explicitly mention this subject. After various meetings the Commission of which I was a member, together with Pastor Lisando Orlov and many others, formulated a resolution. I was designated to present it to the assembly at which in the end the proposal prevailed”, Linqvist added. “At the outset perhaps a few communities proved to be more reluctant to accepting a woman pastor. However, at that time there were not even many candidates and the resistance, which was in any case to the change rather than to the people, little by little disappeared.

Antonio Berni, “Demonstration” (detail)

The question of female identity and of the role of women in the Church is a subject which has engrossed – and still engrosses – many writers and both lay and religious intellectuals. On a continent ever more pluralist and culturally diverse, in which many different races, religions and lifestyles coexist, visions that are partial become a part of the whole and are integrated instead of being excluded. The Protestant Churches are numerous, autonomous and very different from one another, which is why it is impossible to present a detailed picture of each one of them individually, even if one considers the great traditions – Lutheran, Calvinist, Methodist – as a whole since differences exist within them too. At most one can offer a general vision which inevitably excludes all the special situations and exceptional cases. Over and above numbers, one of the characteristics which marks the distance between the Catholic and the Protestant Churches is that the latter recognizes the exercise by women of all the religious functions and responsibilities within the Church. This means that women may be ordained pastors and may chair the meetings of both men and women pastors for the adoption of organizational decisions. Most of the Evangelical Churches permit women to carry out pastoral activities, attributing equal rights and equal roles to them. This has given rise to an intense debate on the woman’s role as responsible for worship and creates a clear-cut difference from the Catholic Church. Nevertheless the percentage of women pastors in the Latin American countries is very small, unlike what happens in Germany or in Switzerland. A phenomenon of collateral female pastoral activity is seen in the so-called matrimonial pastorships. In this case, ever more frequent, even if it is almost solely in the non-traditional Evangelical Churches, it is said that both spouses share the ministerial mandate. Given that the role of the woman pastor does not always go beyond “the suitable help” of the principal pastor in the traditional models, it is not clear whether this is a female pastoral ordination or merely a “family make-up” of well-known traditional models. I personally consider the latter hypothesis closer to ecclesial reality.

Women have constantly struggled to make a space of equality for themselves in the Protestant universe. This is not only in Europe, where Protestantism has a consolidated and socially rooted history but also in Latin America, where the Protestant presence, with weaker roots in history than Catholicism, is undergoing an extraordinary development. In a little less than two centuries, from a mere handful of socially insignificant believers Latin American Protestantism has become a religious faith that gathers millions of members. From a “strange” belief or one seen as foreign, it has become a firmly consolidated and specific expression of the multiple forms of being Latin American. Among the various ecclesiastical families the Pentecostal Churches are the Evangelical branch with the greatest growth in Latin America, representing 75 per cent of Latin American Protestants. The population today is close to 600 million, of whom 20 per cent are Protestants, in other words about 120 million people.

Young girl students of the Instituto Evangélico Americano de Caseros, Buenos Aires

A common thread in Protestant Latin American women is the vision of the global and the local and of the relationship between them, which has become a common language as part of the perspective of globalization. Putting ourselves on the outside with respect to the global, which involves us but does not give us the possibility of participating or acting within it, leads to greater importance being given to the local, where identities and specific values are reinforced and languages and actions contextualized. For Latin American Protestant women the process has not proved simple; in European Protestant circles women have managed to pull down walls of discrimination and to impose a reinterpretation of the Pauline texts by which, in the past, discrimination against them was justified, thereby excluding women from any ecclesiastical position and deepening theologically the reformed principle of individual freedom, whose premiss, not without a certain resistance, ended by being accepted by the women themselves too. The Argentine Methodist Church was the first Church in South America to choose a woman as bishop. Pastor Nelly Ritchie was ordained in 2001 and exercised her functions until 2009. “The promotion of the Bible is an objective for which Christians can work in close union for the glory of God and for the good of the whole human family”, Methodist Bishop Nelly Ritchie affirmed in 2007, looking Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, straight in the eye; he was accompanied by his Auxiliaries, Bishops Joaquín Sucunza, Eduardo García, Oscar Ojea and Mario Poli, who had taken part in the annual celebration of National Bible Day in the Argentine Central Methodist Church. “How often”, was the regret expressed by Cardinal Bergoglio as he took the floor – we Christians lose the ability to wonder, because we already know everything”, and thus “we lose the capacity for feeling caressed by the tenderness of the word, which is a pure gift, a pure grace”.

The dialogue with Christians of other confessions is one of the threads that link the important role of Protestant women. But in Latin America the challenges of post-modernity have posed the following question: “How should we evangelize in a world of poor people?”. Protestants find poverty a central challenge for faith. And the way in which they respond to this challenge is located at the heart of the message of salvation, regardless of whether or not one belongs to the Church. The Protestant Latin American woman brings to the Church her brief stories, her closeness to people’s daily lives, her capacity for giving meaning to the limited spaces in which it is possible to move and to the reduced horizons in which she can plan. She takes them to the community, to the poor district, to the family in difficulty, giving rapid answers and a feeling of security in the image of a God who is close and accessible to all, in her adaptation to the new conditions of the market, in satisfying the affective and spiritual needs of people in a situation of profound change, seeking to create new identities in order to repair the social fabric. It is a work of faith that is born from someone who is poor: frugality, fasting and abstinence are conditions of oppression in a culture that lives in hunger. It is building from “the bottom up” which configures a common female path of the Churches on a continent which is home to almost half the world’s Catholics and which is the heart of world Pentecostalism.

Marcelo Figueroa

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