Panel Addresses Role of Women in the Church

by Justin Schnebelen


“I’m a woman in the Church—and no one can take that away from me.”


These were the words of Ejuma Adoga, one of the female Church leaders highlighted in the April 2nd Campus Ministry event, “Women in the Church.” Held in Stokes Hall, upwards of 60 woman huddled in the cramped classroom, crouching against the walls and sitting amidst the makeshift rows. The men present could be counted on two hands. Prof. M. Shawn Copeland of the theology department; Emily Egan, campus minister for retreats; and Kelly Hughes, campus minister and program director for Appalachia Volunteers, joined Adoga on the panel.


Copeland, who describes professorship as fundamental to the “lifelong project of mediating the will of God,” spoke early on about the history of women’s role in the Church. To her, women in the Gospels take up the role of providing the momentous “testimonies of faith. They report that Christ has risen,” she said. “They are witnesses to the resurrection. Where’s the other half?”


Though acknowledging the role of women deacons, Copeland remarked that women were “either eliminated or rendered servants” amidst what she described as a shift away from the Hebrew thought world, a thought world which believed the woman’s body to be sacred.


“We became suspicious of the body,” she charged. But, as she asserted, “The body is good, even if, culturally, we don’t believe it.”


Copeland also noted the “distancing of the institutional Church from the church,” a moment in which she criticized the Church’s “reliance” on hierarchy.


“Women want to make a contribution,” she insisted, “But the hierarchy trips them up.”


The defining moment of the night came just after when the panel was presented was asked why, exactly, women are not allowed to be priests. It was met by a blaring silence.


Emily Egan, who began the night by detailing the “creative tension” between the Church she loves dearly and the institutional Church which has frequently frustrated her, reiterated some of the Church’s traditional reasonings before responding, “It’s hard to turn a ship.”


In responding to the next question concerning what full liberation would look like for women in the Church, Adoga called for a vision where “women are equally as visible.” As the conversation moved into addressing the Church’s conception of sexuality, Adoga lamented the immense shame women often feel. Recalling her sexual education courses, she remembered with deep frustration the lessons being addressed specifically for her female classmates.


Egan, recalling her own sex-ed experience, shared a story of her teacher instructing each girl to chew a piece of gum and offer it to a male classmate. All of them declined.


“I found this demeaning,” she said, and for 13-year old girls, she found it fostered an unhealthy view of sexuality.


Kelly Hughes, spoke about her “ongoing discovery of lay, female leadership” and affinity for the image of the Pieta (the image of Mary holding the body of Jesus) as message of strength and hope for women in the Church. She also stressed the “beautiful capacity for relationship” present in everyone’s sexuality.


The night was colored by frustrated questions from the audience, each seemingly too difficult to respond to.


One woman asked, “What can I actively do instead of just waiting around for some old bishop to decide to finally be on our side?” Another wondered, “What can we actually do?”


One student even expressed that she couldn’t imagine sending her future daughter to a Catholic school. It would be too painful for her.


Egan cited a recent event in March when the entire editorial board of Women Church World, the women’s magazine of the Vatican, resigned when a male Vatican representative attempted to make edits to a story detailing clerical abuse of nuns. In considering this and the swathe of issues for women in the Church and whether or not change is imminent, Egan responded somberly, “Maybe we aren’t ready yet.”


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