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Published Date: August 25, 2021

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Making Space for Women Leaders in the Church of Ireland

Editor’s note: In the third conversation sponsored by CBE and our 2021 conference partners in the UK, Amanda Jackson, director of the Women’s Commission of the World Evangelical Alliance, asked three keynote speakers to consider the impact of patriarchy in Irish churches and the barriers that women face as a result: What place do women have in the churches in Ireland? What are some encouraging and positive anecdotes in this conversation?

The following blog post was adapted from a recording of this conversation over Zoom.

The Speakers:

Avril Heenan is one of only six women who serve on the General Council of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI). She is a finance lawyer and recently completed a Master of Research in Theology at Queens University Belfast, through Union Theological College.

Trevor Morrow is a Presbyterian minister who is committed to the stance of the PCI in Ireland to affirming men and women equally for leadership in the church, which resulted in his publication of Equal to Rule: Leading the Jesus Way.

Ruth Garvey-Williams is editor of Ireland’s Christian magazine, VOX, and serves on the board of several national Christian organizations, including the Evangelical Alliance of Ireland and the Irish Bible Institute.

The Conversation:

Amanda: In 2019 Ruth did extensive research about the experience of women and men in the church in Ireland. Ruth, can you tell us why you wanted to do this research and what some of the key findings were?

Ruth: Ireland was in the headlines recently for a report about mother and baby homes set up for unmarried mothers where they say 9,000 babies died in the 20th century. Ireland has a very difficult history when it comes to women, so we began to talk about the place of women in the church in Ireland. How can women contribute? As I spoke especially to younger women—many of them having difficult experiences within their church context and struggling to find their place and use their gifts to the fullest—we realized we didn’t have evidence. We had stories from different people about their experiences, but we didn’t have hard evidence.

It was time to focus on the experiences of women—what is it like to be a Christian on the island of Ireland? How are you contributing to the church, and what are the attitudes toward women? We included a lot of men, and that was very helpful. We also looked at theological responses—what is the theology behind some of the attitudes and practices in the church?

One of the standout findings is that a huge percentage of women in Ireland have had a positive experience of church, and Christianity has been uplifting and enriching for them. They love their church. They feel valued by their church. These are good things. Up to 60 percent of women feel excited that they’re able to contribute to their church. But under the surface, there have been difficulties, especially for single women. There was also a significant percentage of women struggling to find their place, feeling that they’re not valued, feeling that they are not able to contribute as they would like to.

Over three-quarters (77 percent) said they personally would describe themselves as egalitarian and 15 percent would describe themselves as complementarian. However, when it came to practice, the roles of preaching, teaching, and church leadership were predominantly male. In fact, there was only 1–2 percent of churches where it’s mainly women in those roles.

So, it’s a tiny percentage of women who are contributing in that way within their church. The only areas of church life where there were predominantly women were gendered roles, such as hospitality or children’s ministry. Even though so many people said they believe a woman could contribute in any way she was gifted, on the ground, that is not happening in any of the churches we looked at. That was a challenge and we wanted to know why.

There was a strong reaction from mostly men raising concerns about feminism, raising concerns that women should not be in those roles or that women were not available—that there were no women who were gifted in those roles—which we found quite surprising. Sometimes, I think it had more to do with the status quo. A lot of people, particularly male leaders, have no incentive to make changes. Women, perhaps, are finding it difficult to enter roles that are traditionally male dominated. A number of women said they feel they are limited. Also, they don’t have role models. They would love to be able to contribute more, especially younger women. Incredibly gifted young women are coming through the Irish church with a powerhouse of gifting, but many of them are feeling like, “How can I do this? How can I contribute when I don’t see older women in those roles, and I don’t have anyone to help me navigate into that space?”

Amanda: Avril, have you ever encountered any barriers in the church?

Avril: No, but I am a very strong woman, and it would be a very brave man who would try to put barriers in my place. But I can give a little anecdote from my experience. I am an accredited preacher, but not every pulpit in my denomination would be open to me because there are many men who believe that the ministry of the Word is their preserve. While I could maybe read or do a children’s talk, I know that preaching from a pulpit would not be open to me.

The Presbyterian Church itself is a denomination that ordains women—that is the settled position of the church. Yet we have seen a return to a more conservative approach, and I think one of the biggest influencers is the American church, the PCA. There are badges of orthodoxy that are coming from the US, such as no women in leadership, use of the ESV, use of translations that are not gender neutral and/or may be flawed in many respects. It is a badge of orthodoxy not to support women in leadership.

Amanda: Trevor, as a Presbyterian as well, what do you think are some reasons why the Presbyterian church seems to have pulled back from its previous egalitarian position?

Trevor: We must recognize that in a fallen world the default position will always be men rule over women. That’s what is described in Genesis 3:16, so as part of the new mankind, we need to be vigilant, not just within society but within the church as we see patriarchy expressed.

The Presbyterian Church is an interesting example of what is happening. Until the 1960s or 70s, the Presbyterian Church was pretty orthodox. It was traditional, but it was not distinctively evangelical in terms of having a really high view of the authority of Scripture or an emphasis on the cross being a substitutionary atonement or the importance of conversion. In the 1960s there was the extraordinary influence of InterVarsity, a positive influence because Christian unions at universities in Ireland became enormously large and leadership emerged from that. The problem was that for those who began to have a high view of Scripture, they allied it with the idea that women should not be in leadership.

I can say this with some authority because I was part of that movement. I was the British Chairman of the Theological Students Fellowship, which is the theological wing of InterVarsity. We had quite a powerful team of budding theologians like Tom Wright.

As the Presbyterian Church became more conservative, they assumed excluding women from leadership was a package deal. (Complementarianism was a later development.) Many of our young men students function like Roman Catholics in this area. They have not engaged in exegetical analysis. They do not have a sound theological basis for their convictions. They have accepted the tradition that they received from this “reformed” magisterium. That is the context in which I think the Presbyterian Church created a subculture where women feel uncomfortable to take the office of eldership or go into ministry.

Amanda: Avril, as a woman who describes herself as strong and who has a number of leadership roles in the Presbyterian Church, how do you explain that egalitarianism or using the gifting of women strengthens the church?

Avril: That’s quite a difficult question because we’re dealing with three subsets of people: those who are vehemently opposed because of their high view of Scripture, those who are vividly in favor because of an equally high view of Scripture, and those who are apathetic. I try to ensure I have good mentors from all spectrums of opinion because it is good to listen to each other and to learn from each other. I would describe myself as a conservative evangelical and hold to the tenants of that position, but equally, I am respectful of those who do not see the position of women in the church as I see it. However, I am also keen to engage in a way that allows a sensible debate at a theological level.

Through what I do and through my time at theological college, I had a positive experience, and for women who have not had that, it is very difficult. It’s such a struggle when people are dealing with so much hurt and pain. And then there are women who say to themselves, “Yes, I really want to be encouraged by this, but I am afraid. I’ve heard so many bad things. I don’t want to put myself forward for leadership.”

That’s where I think mentoring comes in. We need role models—lady ministers who have gone through the system, who maybe have had a rough ride, but equally have found a place where they can work well with colleagues and work well in a way that supports what they do.

Amanda: Ruth, do you feel as positive as Avril does that if women have good mentors, role models, and encouragement, they can forge a path?

Ruth: I agree with Avril that when women are supported and encouraged with good role models, with men and women who champion them and support them, they can progress and follow the gifting and calling on their life.

Unfortunately, I think many women in our research have been completely crushed. Younger women feel like the church has closed the door on them, that they’re not able to contribute to their Christian community in the way they are able to contribute within society, and that is heartbreaking. I’m speaking regularly to a number of young women who are just exceptional, and yet they feel like the one place they cannot shine is in the body of Christ. It breaks my heart. I want to find a way to change that.

Amanda: Trevor, what do you say to male leaders about encouraging women?

Trevor: I think the key element is to build the relationships. My own story of how I changed my mind has affected how I relate to the work at large. My stance is not what it once was, and it took quite a long time for me to change. But because I know so clearly where I’ve come from, it affects the manner in which I relate to those who still hold the view that I once held. They are my brothers and sisters in Christ. They are family and, therefore, how I relate to them and how I speak with them is as important as the issues that I’m trying to raise. It’s one of the reasons that I wrote my book, Equal to Rule. It’s only 100 pages, but it’s meant to set out simply and clearly the reason why we believe that the Jesus way is men and women are equal to lead in the body of Christ. I had many reasons for writing it, but one of them was specifically focused on encouraging women. It is a simple, clear statement of why women and men are equal to serve in the leadership of the church, following the pattern of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation.

Amanda: If we’re going to change hearts and minds, we have to be in it for the long term. Where do you see hopefulness about things that can change, or what are some things that have already changed?

Ruth: I’m very excited to say that the group of women who originally inspired our research has continued to meet, and we’ve been discussing how to respond to the findings of the research. We want to see change in a healthy way that brings people together, so we’ve set ourselves three goals. One is to pursue a robust theology that ensures we base all of our answers on the clear, biblical, central place of Scripture, which we all hold to very strongly.

We also want to provide women with mentors who will walk beside them as they fulfill their calling and gifting, as they become what God has created them to be. We’re not saying that all women need to be preachers or pastors. Women are involved in many different spheres of life, and we want to encourage and support them to flourish in the way God created them and to contribute well to the church.

Finally, we have recognized this constant argument, “There are no women.” We know that’s not true. We know there are many gifted women who could contribute to panel discussions like this one or who could contribute to conferences. We want to create a database and promote those women, so if somebody invites one of the few of us who tend to get invited to everything, then we can say we know someone who’s better, and we’re championing one another.

Avril: There’s a program with Presbyterian women called Side by Side that encourages mentoring. It creates opportunities for women to come alongside each other, particularly women who have experience teaching, preaching, and leading, and encourages younger women to explore these areas.

I serve on several committees and boards, and I think that women should grab every opportunity that comes their way with both hands. An Irish mother will always say to her daughter, “Keep yourself humble, and you won’t have far to fall.” That mantra is repeated in an awful lot of homes in Ireland, and I think that girls should be of good and gentle spirit, but equally grab every opportunity with both hands, whether at school, at university, or in business and, in particular, in the church.

Trevor: There’s a long list of things that encourage me. We created a think tank with both complementarians and egalitarians, to bring to the complementarian position the idea that people who have a high view of Scripture and who believe in biblical authority can hold a different view. With the help of CBE, I have produced a list of leading confessional reformed and evangelical scholars in the English-speaking world, partly to counter the view that if you’re biblically faithful, you cannot be egalitarian. Most of the young men who need to be persuaded or women who need to be encouraged often read blogs, so we’re sending them basic materials that will start them on the journey.

In my own denomination, the new principal of the theological college is a card-carrying egalitarian, which gives me enormous pleasure.

Finally, one thing that has really lifted my heart is when I see listed in our church magazine the number of women who are being ordained to the eldership. It increases almost every month so that some months there are more women ordained to the eldership than men.

Amanda: I want to end by quoting something that Trevor wrote, which I think sums up the way we feel about men and women and gifting in the church:

“Men and women should be free to lead but never to the detriment of their manhood or womanhood. They will rule together in collegiality because men need women and women need men. This is how we truly express the image of God.”

Learn more about CBE’s online conference, September 10–11.

More Conversations with CBE’s 2021 Conference Speakers:

Women’s Equality and How Churches Respond to Abuse
What Are the Consequences of Theological Patriarchy?
How Can Churches Encourage Women Leaders?