Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Women in Leadership in the C&MA in Canada: An Up-to-the-Moment History

At its General Assembly this summer my denomination will be returning to another aspect of its long-running discussion on women in leadership: the question of female Senior (or Lead) Pastors. What follows is a summary of historical developments in the Christian & Missionary Alliance on this issue--focusing with more detail on recent years. This has been collected first or second-hand to the best of my knowledge, but if you have corrections or additions please let me knowFor a more detailed version you can see my previous blog post---and for fuller scholarly research and insight on this, please see Alexandra Meek's The Great Debate and Barbara Howe's Forgotten Voices


Late 1800s 

In the early years in both Canada and the U.S., women are involved in all levels of ministry. During this time, however, the movement to become known as the Alliance does not self-identify as a denomination, nor its branches as churches. Woman in leadership are thus not formally known as pastors, ordinands, or elders.


Women are first allowed to vote in Canadian federal elections (albeit not all women).


The Third Annual Conference of the C&MA decides to maintain current practice and not ordain women, instead calling them deaconesses, as is the practice for founder A.B. Simpson south of the border. (See Leslie Andrews paper on Simpson's views on women in ministry here).

Early 1900s 

Many stories about women in leadership in the Canadian C&MA during this period can be found in Barbara Howe's Forgotten Voices. Across the West they are effectively planting and leading congregations, still without official designation as pastors of churches.


C&MA President Harry Turner declares that the Alliance has become a church denomination and should begin self-identifying as such.

The dilemma now is whether to hold to A.B. Simpson's practice (wherein all leadership roles were open to women under the auspices of what we would now call "para-church") or to his ecclesiology (wherein women are unable to hold the office of elder). The latter path is chosen. Women continue to minister in roles available to them, but are recognized as deaconesses rather than elders (for more, see The Great Debate, p 40).

Around this time, Second Wave Feminism begins to arise in Western culture.


Believing it true to the movement's initial impulses, a pastor in Ontario (Ross Ingram) hires female pastors and places women on the elder's board of his church. When asked to remove women from the board he claims that he is acting within denominational precedent and is not in contradiction of Scripture's authority.


The C&MA in Canada (hereafter still just C&MA) becomes autonomous from the U.S., with Melvin Sylvester as its first President. Until this time local churches had been run by an Executive Board (of women and men) and given spiritual oversight by an Elders Board (all men). At this time, however, the two are rolled into one with the determination that the one Elders Board contain only males.


At the C&MA's General Assembly (henceforth GA), a report commissioned in 1982 includes a statement called "The Basic Scriptural Principles of Women in Ministry," which puts forward four recommendations. Two are passed (regarding the licensing of women for various ministry functions) and one is struck down (proposing that there be a list of eligible roles written up).

The remaining recommendation, which proposes that women not be eligible for Elder, District, or National Boards, is referred to committee and the next day narrowly defeated--but not without an exegetical paper being commissioned so that a more informed discussion might take place.

(In the debate that took place there were arguments against women in leadership which drew support from the masculine grammar of eldership texts and which questioned the commitment to Scripture's authority of those College and Seminary professors who had spoken in favour. Correlations with the ordination of homosexuals were drawn, despite the Seminary President arguing against such parallels.)


Two societies are formed within evangelicalism which argue the gender roles question from different perspectives: The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and Christians for Biblical Equality. From here on the two "camps" are increasingly referred to as "complementarian" and "egalitarian". It is not until the turn of the century that the terms "mutuality" and "mutual submission" begin to be widely used to differentiate Christian egalitarianism from its secular counterpart. For more on this see here.


After four years the BOD presents a Statement on women in leadership for acceptance by the GA. Over the course of debate the Statement takes on two new words (indicated in italics below), but otherwise is passed as written. It states
"that in the biblical pattern and in the historical practice of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, Elders in the church have usually been men. The weight of evidence would imply that normally this pattern should continue." 
The matter is considered closed, and any further discussion "counterproductive."

In this year an insertion is also made to the accreditation policy which prohibits women from being Senior Pastors. As it turns out, this is the only place in C&MA policy where such a restriction is made explicit. The change is made without requirement of a vote.


Following GA 1988, in a report in Christian Week, Pastor Douglas Schroeder-Tabah interprets the aforementioned Statement to mean that, should they feel so led, local churches could assign women to their Elders Board.

Upon seeing this, Pastor Peter Ralph of Westside in Regina writes the National Office for clarification, only to learn (from VP Gerald Fowler and President Sylvester) that Schroeder-Tabah's interpretation is valid. Later when the Westside congregation asks if they can have women as Elders, Pastor Ralph assures them they may do so in "good faith". Along with two other churches they end up doing so during this time.


New C&MA President Arnold Cook finds Schroeder-Tabah's interpretation of the prior ruling to be incorrect, and asks these churches to remove the women from their Elders Boards. Two comply, but Westside does not, defending its course of action as proper.


At GA in Regina, a woman named Jean Daly is nominated to the BOD (an aspect of the 1984 deferral that had not been dealt with in the 1988 statement). In lieu of clear polity on the matter, then BOD chairman Keith Taylor looks for consistency with general practice. Some debate takes place, and before a vote occurs the nominee in question withdraws her name.


As it relates to women in leadership, five motions are presented, and all but one carries. From here on women will be allowed to serve on National and District Boards and will be able to administer the ordinances. Following this vote (which passed by 60%), Miriam Charter is elected (with 75% of the vote) as the first woman to serve on the C&MA's governing board since its early years.

The motion regarding female eldership is referred to the next GA.


After consulting another commissioned paper on the question of female eldership, the BOD suggests that a consensus may not be reachable despite long arguments from many angles, and seeks to make it possible for churches to decide locally if they will have women as Elders. There is some debate about a motion to ensure Boards still have a majority of men, but this does not carry, and the Constitution is finally amended to say: "The local church may by a 2/3 majority choose to have women on their Board of Elders."


The BOD and the District Superintendents adopt a new licensing policy (formerly "accreditation"), and it does not carry over language restricting women from being Senior Pastors. (Later, at GA 2012, it becomes widely recognized that this had been the only place where such a restriction was explicit. In 2013 President David Hearn issues an apology for this apparent oversight, explaining that both the insertion and removal of this clause "should have been processed more thoroughly with our Alliance family of churches.")


A motion brought to GA by the BOD asks for the manual's "Statement on Women in Ministry" to be rescinded, due to its discontinuity with the 2000 decision to allow women as elders. However, a motion is carried to postpone this discussion indefinitely so as not to detract from the "Kingdom business" at hand (namely the church planting initiatives being put forward).


GA is held outside Canada for the first time (in Turkey) and the tabled motion is not brought up again (other than in round-table discussions). Sometime after this the Statement on Women in Ministry had been removed from the C&MA website (albeit not from polity), with the explanation:
"The BOD of the C&MA in Canada has ruled that the Position Statement “The Role of Women in Ministry” is inconsistent with legislation adopted by General Assembly (specifically, the Local Church Constitution). Consequently the Board has directed that the statement be removed from the website until such time as the General Assembly considers it appropriate to engage in a full discussion and debate on the issue." (In 2014 the Manual adds that this is "under review" by the BOD).
(Although this is within the BOD's empowerment and responsibility, on an online forum opened up to discuss such issues there is an objection to the removal of the Statement because it appears to be a means of further deferral for the sake of status quo. Later, at GA 2012 there are complaints from those who favour the Statement and object to its un-discussed removal. In 2013 the President issues an apology for this.)


President Franklin Pyles releases three papers which were commissioned to explore whether there is anything in the C&MA's theology or practice of ordination which makes it gender specific. The 2011 District Conferences host round table discussion of the matter, revealing a wide spectrum of opinion and a good deal of variance not only on gender roles but also on the nature and merits of ordination. An online forum is also opened up for licensed workers to discuss the papers, but interaction is sparse and lacks direction.

(The exegetical paper explicitly set out to cover previously uncovered ground, looking primarily at the gospels. Later, at GA 2012, the papers are called biased by some who would have preferred arguments for each theological position. In 2013 there is an apology for this.)

Spring 2012 

In the lead-up to General Assembly, after some investigation the BOD determines that, as it stands, nothing in the polity restricts women either from ordination or from the senior pastorate (despite the use of the word "man" in the ordination policy as well as the remaining restriction of females from eldership in most congregations). In preparation for GA the BOD explains this determination in a series of videos and statements (copies of which can be shared upon request).

Summer 2012 

After considerable back and forth in both the preparatory Legislative Committee sessions and then also on the floor of Assembly, at GA 2012 in Winnipeg the delegates vote 380-281 (57%) to change the wording of the ordination policy from “men” to “persons,” thus ensuring that women may indeed now be ordained. (Chris Smith gives a full report of the proceedings here).

In the final moments of Assembly, after the tabling of several items of business for lack of time, a new motion is brought to the floor, amended a few times, and carried. It asks that the question of women as senior pastors be brought to the next GA.

After GA, a statement is released which clarifies that, generally speaking, ordination "does not grant the right to exercise authority over others, nor is it required for individuals to [supervise sacraments or] to preach or teach the word. Rather, ordination is the public confirmation and affirmation of an individual’s skills, gifts and calling to vocational ministry." It is unclear whether everyone voting at GA viewed ordination in this way (in fact, round table discussions showed a variety of opinion on the matter), but the clarification means that ordination simply applies to already existing ministries.

Fall 2012

After hearing concerns from the constituency, a letter is sent out by President David Hearn which makes three apologies (as mentioned above): The first relates to the removal of the Statement on Women in Ministry from the website in 2009, the second relates to what were over-reaching alterations of the licensing policy in 1988 and 2007, and the third relates to the alleged bias of papers released in 2011.

The letter also suggests that the ordination decision will be implemented carefully in the months to come, and to that end it reveals three significant decisions: The first is that the motion to discuss female senior pastors in 2014 calls for a moratorium on any such appointments until that time, and the second is that those women whose ministry predates 2012 will have the option whether or not to pursue ordination.

The third decision is that those men or women for whom ordination is a matter of conscience will be allowed decline the conferral of ordination after the requirements have been met. (At some of the 2013 District Conferences it is then indicated that local churches may be allowed to decline an ordination service as well.)

Finally, the President's letter reveals that "in the coming months, [he will] be establishing a task force to sort out the separate question of whether women can be Senior Pastors." The details surrounding this "task force" are that it will "bring together those representing complementarian and egalitarian perspectives to design a pathway to see both groups valued and affirmed under the theological umbrella of biblical unity and to assist our family of churches in managing the tension such unity may require."


Thirteen years after the vote to allow it, an estimated 10-15% of C&MA churches have moved to include women in eldership. Fifty-four years after the recognition of C&MA "branches" as "churches", the first ordinations of women begin to take place (a list can be seen here).

In 2013 President Hearn strikes up "The Commission on Biblical Unity in the Midst of Theological Diversity" (a.k.a. Unity Commission), which is a group of eight diversely-perspectived C&MA workers led by Rev. Sunder Krishnan who are assigned to carry out the tasks outlined in the President's letter above.


The results of the Unity Commission's (UC) deliberations are released (please view them for yourself here).

In sum, the UC plans to begin the business sessions of GA 2014 with a "solemn assembly" meant to bring us together in a renewed spirit of repentance and humility in Christ. As it regards C&MA policy, the UC recommends:
"That General Assembly affirm that each local church has freedom to call the Senior Pastor of its choice who has been approved by the District Superintendent and that any wording in the Manual, including the wording of the Local Church Constitution, which restricts or may appear to restrict that freedom be amended."
This will be under consideration at General Assembly in Ottawa this July 2-6 (see other details here). It remains to be seen what else might transpire, but we do know that Assembly business will begin with the Lord's Supper and a call to penitent faithfulness as denomination united in Christ.


Please note that my interest here is to promote an informed perspective as it relates to ongoing denominational discussions. Please feel free to share, ask questions, or prompt elaborations. May God be with us as we carry this conversation forward in Christ.


Jim Hathaway said...

Who is in this committee involving Egalitarian and Complementarian representatives that was mentioned by President Hearn?

Jim Hathaway said...

Also, shouldn't the GA vote be calculated as all percentages are? i.e, 380/total votes= 380/ 381 +280= 57%. It is important to remember this narrow majority as it is less than the normal majority needed for major decisions (typically 66%). It is a very small majority for such a divisive issue.

Jim Hathaway said...

Hi Jon,
In the interests of historical accuracy could you please correct your stats for the GA Ordination of Women vote in 2012?. It is very important that people understand that 7% is a slim majority on a very divisive issue. It would be misleading to let people think that there is a 25% majority when there was not. 43% of our brothers and sisters were upset and discouraged by the decision.

Jon Coutts said...

Not sure which committee you are talking about.

Thanks for catching that horrible math.

The only decisions that require 2/3 vote are the General Bylaws and the District and Local Church Constitution.

Jon Coutts said...

Jim, once again I apologize for the incorrect numbers in the original version. If you want to discuss the relevance of the % points, or the reason why you'd be upset and discouraged, I'd be happy to discuss either of those things.

In the case of the former, I think total consensus would be ideal, and an overwhelming majority preferable, but also believe that the 14% swing was significant enough to be a clear decision, given the decision-making system we agreed to submit ourselves to together as an Assembly.

In the case of the latter, I quite honestly don't understand the upset and discouragement.