Holy Mother: Women and Religion (Reportage) (Copyright ©2008)

SHE Caribbean, November 2008

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For the Caribbean woman, religion has always been a pervasive influence. Often the basis of determining the rules of female appearance and conduct in our Christian dominated society, organized religion has in many ways, shaped women’s perspectives of themselves and their roles at home and in the community, which ranges from oppressive, degrading her status, to empowering, valuing her self-worth.

The Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA) reveals that although religious diversity exists here in the Caribbean, Christianity is by far the most dominant. Out of a total population of 24 723 406, about 83.10% belong to a Christian faith where Catholicism is the most popular (59.23%), followed by Protestantism (24.85%). It’s also important to note that Hinduism is widely practiced, especially in Trinidad, where 279 515 (1.17%) inhabitants are Hindus.

For decades, Caribbean women have turned to religion for a myriad of reasons and at very different points in their lives. Though they may come from dissimilar backgrounds and hold differing principles these women have a main goal in common: the need to belong to a religious group and to experience spiritual freedom as a West Indian woman.

Brenda, born into a Protestant family, found herself searching for God’s comfort at one of the lowest points in her life. In her late forties, the end of her twelve year marriage had led to the breakdown of her spiritual existence, and she was desperate to pray with a congregation and to find spiritual balance. Consequently, she was drawn to the Catholic Church where she felt connected to God and much safer than she’d ever been. Six years later, Brenda, now a devout Catholic, serves as a counselor in the church. Brenda joins a large group of Caribbean women who say that their faith is a crucial part of their feminine identity. Many may question Brenda’s decision to join the Roman Catholic Church, especially when some Conservative Protestants consider Catholics to be non-Christians and to be treated as lost souls. On the other hand, the Catholic Church sees the fragmentation of Christianity into thousands of faiths as a sin, and through baptism welcomes those who want to become members.

In Dominica, Roman Catholics account for approximately 77% of the population and according to the 2001 Population and Housing Census of Dominica, the total female population in the Roman Catholic Church is 21 466, compared to 10 436 Protestants.

Generally, Caribbean women who are actively involved in the church are closely linked with other women providing support to each other and are therefore usually happier. They organize church events, clean and decorate, teach bible lessons, sing in the church choir and as a result of spending time with other women, identify with those who go through similar struggles as well as celebrate the blessings of living a devout life.

Though it may be true that the vast majority of West Indian women have a desire to be closer to God, many are restricted in their attendance and participation in church. It’s becoming more common for those at the bottom end of the economic ladder to be stigmatized, and feel socially isolated from their own communities which they’ve known all their lives. These women feel unwelcome in neighborhood churches due to their inadequate lifestyles, living with an unmarried partner, or even having children out of wedlock, a common phenomenon in the region. Many are unable to participate in services or church related events due lack of time, where single mothers have to go to work, or even care for their young children, as no outside help is available. If you hold conversation with the majority of women in these instances they will admit that they do not necessarily reject the notion of worship. On the contrary they engage in private religious practices at home alone, or with their young children.

Meanwhile, a growing number of West Indian women regard organized religion as deceptive and prefer to stay away from the church.

Born into a Catholic family of eight, Sonja a single mother of one attended Mass on a regular basis, at a very early age, and completed four of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church, including Baptism, Holy Eucharist and Confirmation. For Sonja’s family, especially her grandparents, attending service was something you never questioned. It was an obligation. For a long time, Sonja doubted the beliefs of her religion, and the older she got the further away she was driven from the church, for she did not agree with its values and practices. Unlike many of her peers, Sonja did not want to passively ‘belong’ to the Catholic Church and so began her journey of spiritual self-discovery- a decision which proved to be a real wake-up call.

Ever since she could remember, Sonja had always found difficulty in understanding the need for Mary or the Saints to intercede on her behalf, during prayers. Instead, she feels that prayer should be addressed directly to God, and not to the Saints. Also, during repentance, Sonja does not believe in having a human intercessor such as a priest, as according to her “confessions are a very personal matter.” She now claims that the moment she decided to follow a more personal spiritual path, the more morally aware she became. Now, seventeen years later, Sonja says, “I have never regretted the decision I made, because my faith is much stronger than that of before.”

When women like Sonja say that they are uncomfortable with the idea of confiding in a priest or pastor, I sometimes wonder if the main issue here is the fact that they cannot relate to a male religious leader, as they would a female.

In general, there is a great need for influential female leaders in religions that are created by males, and continue to be controlled by them. Ten years ago female pastors from the United Methodist Church in the United States felt it necessary to come together to discuss a wide range of issues that arise from providing leadership in areas where no women have been before. Reverend Elizabeth Lopez Spence explained the fundamental difference between female pastors and male senior pastors: “[As women], we have to be different. We bring a relational aspect into the local church that men would not normally bring.” She continued by saying, “If women pastors can begin to model something different, a sense of healing and wholeness may be brought to the denomination which desperately needs it.”

For the past century, a large number of Protestant churches are moving closer to the feminist agenda. According to the US Census, in 1910, 685 women were identified as clergy. In 1920 the number increased to 1787, and by 1950, there were 6824 clergywomen. Today, more and more women are serving as pastors and clergywomen in mainstream denominations. The result is an interactive, collaborative and democratic leadership style which is much more conducive to staff motivation, creativity and productivity within the church and the wider community.

Meanwhile, the Church of England’s move to accept women bishops has caused a real stir among traditionalist supporters of male-only bishops. Disagreement on women’s roles have for years been tolerated within the worldwide Anglican Communion, a 77 million-member family of churches with roots traced to the Church of England. Although more than a dozen of the 38 national Anglican churches worldwide have authorized women to serve as bishops, only four have elected a woman on the job. In the United Kingdom, officials representing the Church of England say it is unlikely that there will be a consecrated female bishop before 2014. So far, the Church of England has ordained women as priests, but has not allowed them to serve as bishops.

Some contend that in religion, women are not dominated, but rather valued, however they are very rarely given prominent roles because men want to protect them and allow them to grow unscathed.

As far as men and women’s role in the church is concerned, the Bible clearly points in one direction. The Bible teaches that man is to be the spiritual head of the family, and women should be supportive, and not hold positions of authority in the church (Titus: 3-5). It is widely argued that it’s not because women are inferior or less intelligent, by any means, as women are allowed to teach other women and children.

A study on Islam in the Caribbean by Larry Luxner shows that there are over 400 000 Muslims scattered across the Caribbean islands, including, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada and Jamaica. Guyana is said to have the largest concentration of 120 000, followed by Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago with 100 000. The latter has 85 mosques, the highest number in the Western Hemisphere.

In traditional patriarchal religions like Judaism, Islam and Christianity, women’s roles tend to be limited to that of mother, wife and daughter. They are expected to be silent bystanders supporting their male counterparts, and so, it appears that men of these religious denominations fail to acknowledge the partiality of dated texts and recognize a need for adaptation. Instead, they are so comfortable in their high-powered positions that they are quite happy to continue the male-dominated ‘tradition’.

While ancient societies and cultures set up religion in such ways that there is very little feminine leadership, the Scriptures hail the few women who were exalted such as Queen Esther, Deborah and Miriam. These were exemplary women who were leaders in their time and who were respected by men.

Today, there are many objections to women serving as pastors or bishops, however, it must be taken into consideration that men and women are both equal in value, and that women are just as vital as men in developing a well-rounded and balanced ministry. Besides, much of the ministry of the church depends on women, as there are many areas that are fitting for women, and that only they can do well.

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