Viewpoint: Tractors and Hawks

Take note – story published 8 years ago

Last week the Latvian Hawkish Lutheran Church organized a conference of pastors at which, with a large majority of votes, the clergymen decided that no, women may not be pastors.

[Note to readers in English: The word “vanags” in Latvian means “hawk,” and the archbishop of the Latvian Lutheran Church is called Vanags, hence hawk and hawkish.]

What’s more, next year, when the church is holding its synod, the ban is to be enshrined in the church’s constitution so that the issue is completely clear, even though no women have been ordained at all since Janis Vanags took over leadership of the church.

Someone who was at the event told me that one of the pastors who objects to women in that role explained why. When he was a child, you see, this person was walking home from school, apparently the distance was quite long, and tractor drivers who passed him by often stopped, allowed him to climb on the tractor, and took him home so that the child did not have to walk the whole long distance on foot.

One day the person driving the tractor was a woman, and she did not stop. This has allowed this child of God to conclude that women cannot be pastors, because in his experience men gave him a ride, but the woman did not. Apparently, therefore, women are less compassionate.

Somehow I want to hope that this was an apocryphal story, not a true one, but knowing the reactionary attitude that the current Latvian Lutheran Church has toward women (and not only), it would not be a big surprise if one of its black-clad representatives has sucked a reason out of his finger as to why women should not be ordained– because long ago one specific woman treated him badly.

I suspect that perhaps at that time tractor drivers had a rule that “civilians” could not be transported, and so the men were the sinners. I also suspect that the person perhaps simply encountered a grouchy and impolite woman, but should that lead to the conclusion that women cannot be pastors? Oh, come on!

In the World Lutheran Federation, 87% of churches ordinate women, as does the Latvian Evangelical Church outside of Latvia, the archbishop of which, by the way, is a woman called Lauma Zusevica. Vanags’ Lutheran Church in Latvia is accordingly in the strict minority. Apparently that does not bother its leadership, but this is an example of backwardness.

The world, at the end of the day, is a place where progress happens. Progress also happens in churches. Lutherans, I might add, should understand that better than quite a few others, because the foundation for their church, after all, is a very progressive and even revolutionary idea – that the Roman Catholic Church does not have the right to dictate terms throughout the world.

The Protestant Reformation was indeed a progressive process, because at that time the Roman Catholic Church was a terribly corrupt institution which, among other things, peddled “indulgences” to those who wanted to get to heaven, thus clearly ignoring the central message in the Bible – that the mercy of God is universal in nature. Pay money, you’ll get to heaven, don’t pay money, and you’ll end up in hell. Martin Luther objected to that, and that was the start to the Lutheran Church.

This morning I attended a worship service that was presided over by Bishop Jana Jeruma-Grinberga. She has led St Saviour’s Anglican Church in Riga since the legendary pastor Juris Calitis retired. Readers may know that he, too, was opposed by the Hawkish Lutheran Church for very silly reasons.

The sermon today was delivered by the Rev Guntars Reboks. He came to our church from the Faculty of Theology at the University of Latvia. I don’t know what Guntars thinks about the ordination of women, but I suspect that if he had a hawkish mood, he probably would not deliver a sermon at a worship service presided over by a woman.

Our church has fairly long standing relations with the aforementioned faculty, not least because the aforementioned Juris Calitis teaches there. Yesterday there was an interview in the magazine SestDiena with another future theologian, Nils Sakss, who said that it is specifically because of Juris that St Saviour’s has become “something of a faculty church.”

Nils, however, said something else: “Secondly, it is one of very few congregations in Latvia that is not anti-Christian and hostile in its rhetoric.” And more: “Latvia’s Catholics and Lutherans are very anti-Christian and hostile in their communication [..] about people. I believe that people who gather there have problems with their faith in God. They are so insecure in their faith that they think that a few gays can endanger the plans of God. That is very destructive, and it means not relying on what is said in the Good News.”

“A few gays” can be secondary in this case. Precisely the same can be said about female pastors. Yes, the Bible says that women should keep quiet in church, but, as is the case with absolutely everything in Holy Scripture, that is something that can be interpreted in different ways.

Yes, all of the apostles of Jesus were men, but that confirms the patriarchal system that existed at that time. What’s more, those who have read the New Testament know that Jesus had lots of women who were friends. It was women in specific who were the first to visit his tomb, and it was women who were told by an angel that Jesus was alive.

Above all, however, Jesus lived 2,000 and more years ago, and since then humanity has developed in ways of which the saviour and his apostles could not have even dreamed. Before becoming the pastor of our church, Jana was an archbishop in the British Lutheran Church. That is apparently one of those churches that is part of the 87% of Lutheran churches which have no problem with ordaining women.

Since the aforementioned conference of pastors, it has been suggested that if the Hawkish Lutheran Church really does enshrine its biases in the church’s constitution, that may mean the loss of fairly generous support from the church in Northern Germany. That even more points to the small minority to which Vanags and his people belong.

I believe that parallels can be drawn here with the armed forces. There, too, it was long believed that army things are for men and only for men. The first woman in Great Britain to become a general did so only this past summer. In America, the first four-star female general (the highest rank) received her fourth star in 2012, even though the first female brigade general in America’s armed forces was confirmed way back in 1970.

Very recently, two women managed to complete the unimaginably difficult process of training for one of America’s most elite military units, and it was reported that they got no discounts whatsoever just because they were women. Brava to both of them, all the more so because it was not without their presence that American decided that next year women will also be given an opportunity to take part in battle formations. In that sense, the United States is far behind Israel, where women have gone to war for a long time, but better late than never.

The church, for its part, is not a militant institution, or at least it should not be one. There is absolutely no reason why a woman cannot be a pastor, and that equally applies to the institutionally patriarchal Roman Catholic Church. What is it about the work of a pastor that a woman cannot do? Take care of a congregation? Women have always been responsible for hearth and home, after all, they raise children, and they make up the vast majority of schoolteachers and nurses. Those are all care-related areas. Deliver a sermon? Do women not know how to speak? Do they not know how to read to decide on the topic of their sermon? Understand the bible? Where is it written that the Bible can only be understood by men, all the more so if we realize that in historical terms, when churches were almost always run by men, Holy Scripture was interpreted in all kinds of ways, including very peculiar ways?

Things flow and change, and the day will come when the hawkish attitude of the Latvian Lutheran Church also ends. To a certain extent that will be because those who are studying theology at the University of Latvia are attending a university with all that that means.

It is a blessed thing that people from the Faculty of Theology “gravitate” toward St Saviour’s, as Nils Sakss said in the interview, and that is logical because the university does not teach biases and goat-like spite.

Because Nils was very correct about the anti-Christian nature of the churches. There is nothing in the Bible that should cause a situation in which the leaders of the church reject half of the relevant country’s society and, in Latvia’s case, even more. The aforementioned verse about “keeping quiet” in church comes from the age when women sat on one side of the church and men on the other side. Married couples sometimes spoke to one another. That was the need to “keep quiet,” because chatting is not particularly recommended during a worship service.

What the Bible does say is “bring the children to me.” And “love one another.” And “whosoever believes in me shall inherit eternal life.” It does not say “keep the children away from me.” It does not say “love selectively and with limitations.” It does not say “whosoever except for women (or gays, or black people or any other group) will inherit eternal life.”

Beyond Holy Scripture, this is simply a human issue. I can confirm that no one at my church has suffered from the fact that our pastor is a woman. On the contrary, Jana Jeruma-Grinberga is a brilliant and wonderful person, and that is putting it mildly. She is a blessing for us. We hold worship services at the Anglican church at 11:00 AM each Sunday morning. They are held in English, but we also have Latvian worshipers who do not speak much English.

The main thing is that the environment in our church really is open, and it really corresponds to the concept of God’s universal, not limited nature of love. Exactly the same must be said about the ordination of women. The hawkish clergymen are probably not bothered by this, and probably they will amend their constitution next summer. That means that they will be shooting themselves in the foot. God go with them. The world moves forward. Those who oppose it are destined to get stuck in the past. The hawks are barking. The caravan is moving on.

(Views expressed are the author's alone)

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