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Guatemala Presbyterians Vote to Ordain Women
PCUSA NEWS <email@example.com>
27 Jun 1998 14:54:03
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Guatemala Presbyterians Vote to Ordain Women
by Alexa Smith
QUETZALTENANGO, Guatemala- With no visible opposition, the National
Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Guatemala (NEPCG) voted to ordain women
May 29 during it's National Synod meeting here.
That vote enables the NEPCG to join the Nazarenes and the Quakers in
stepping outside accepted evangelical orthodoxy in Guatemala by officially
opening the door for women to be ordained. Women comprise about 70 percent
of the NEPGC's membership.
Following a one-year church-wide study of the biblical and theological
issues surrounding women's ordination that was mandated during last year's
National Synod, only three of the denomination's 15 presbyteries - Central,
Norte and Sur Occidente - voted against women's ordination. The
presbytery's ballots were mailed to the National Synod, with at least one
form failing to arrive.
No opposition came from the eight indigenous-language, or Mayan,
presbyteries, where a number of women - some of whom were present for the
plenary vote -- are already ordained as elders and a few are working as lay
Opposition came - and some insist will continue to come -- from among
the seven Ladino presbyteries (though four voted yes), whose membership
includes a mix of Mayans who've adapted more to the wider culture and
descendants of the Spanish conquerors of Mayan Central America.
Because Central and Sur-Occidente are among the largest presbyteries in
the church, some church leaders are calling for flexibility in how the new
-- and fairly quickly mandated -- constitutional clause gets implemented
until the denomination is able to build more consensus on the issue.
"We give thanks to God because we believe now that we've come to the
end of a long road," said Sonia Gonzalez de Gomez, an advocate for women's
ordination addressing the Synod gathering just after the vote. "The wrong
that has been in the church has been corrected, said Gonzalez, who was
surrounded by representatives from the Mayan and Ladino women's groups and
women mission personnel from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). "And [we
may] move ahead ... in the work of service," added Gonzalez who intends to
pursue a seminary education when she retires soon from schoolteaching.
Unofficial estimates from Guatemalan Presbyterians indicate that more
than 12 women are already ordained as elders in Presbyterian churches, most
in more traditional Mayan settings but a few in others. Women are also
serving in some churches as liturgists and preachers in weekday services or
in women's gatherings. About 10 women - all from non-indigenous
presbyteries - have completed the seminary study necessary for the
pastorate, but only a few are expected to pursue parish ministry soon,
including one reportedly from Central Presbytery.
"We are not ordaining women just because we can," said Elder Catarina
Morales, a Mayan womens' activist who has argued that the NEPCG ought to
ordain women as a pastoral act, in recognition of the ministries they do.
"We want to ordain them because they're called ... the church and
presbyteries need to recognize and be aware of women's ministries."
That kind of matter-of-factness typified the unanimous Mayan vote.
Kaqchiquel Presbytery's Josephina Martinez, who pastors six rural
communities that her deceased husband, Lucio, once served, said prior to
the vote: "I'd love to see them ordain women. But I'm going to go on
working whether they do or they don't."
Such nonchalance was definitely not the perspective of ordination
advocates in the non-indigenous-language presbyteries, where women are less
likely to hold any officially sanctioned office and are most likely to meet
solid opposition -- either vocal or silent -- if they try to do so.
"It looks contradictory," said Ester de Sanchez, president of the
Women's Synodical, the Ladino women's group and a member of Central
Presbytery, speaking of one sector of the Ladino population. "These are
the women who drive, who have money and who have servants to watch the
The organization's former president, Carmelina de Aldana, agreed. "But
we're going to continue studying at the church-level, both men and women,
to garner more consensus and support. Not all the women are prepared. The
object [now] is to further prepare them," she said.
"The Mayan women," Aldana added, "will really be the ones to take
advantage of this positive vote. In the [eight] Mayan presbyteries,
[women] are more likely to be ordained."
Non-indigenous and Mayan women intend to establish a joint committee of
ordained women to exchange information and to share support while the
church is in the midst of this political and theological transition. The
next step, according to Aldana, is to begin educating youth so that the
next generation of leaders is more open.
Guatemalans describe the church as one of the strongest holdouts in
society in terms of official participation of women. As Gonzalez - whose
presbytery, Norte, also voted no -- puts it: "It is acceptable here for
women to preach. No problem. It is very common. But the thought of being
ordained -- officiating at weddings, communions, baptisms -- that's another
Ecclesiastical opposition to women's ordination, Guatemalans say, is
rooted often in literalistic biblical interpretations and strongly
predetermined roles for women and men in the church that are reinforced by
the traditional culture. As one pastor who voted no, explains: "I am not
against the work of women ... they are doing God's work. But if you read
the bible - from Genesis to Revelation - there are literally no texts to
support this [ordination] ... There are unordained ministries of women."
The Central American Mission and the Primitive Methodists, two of the
historic churches, and televised neopentecostal preachers soundly condemn -
some would say vilify - the ordination of women. Even though Nazarene
missionaries permitted women's ordinations when the first churches were
established in Guatemala, it is generally accepted that it is not easy for
those women to get jobs. Even ordained Pentecostal women seldom move up in
The change has come quickly for Guatemala's Presbyterians. Ordination
for women was not even an issue in the NEPCG until 1992. Mayan women first
raised the question with the Synod and were denied a hearing because they
were not an official church organization. The official women's
organization, the Synodical, resubmitted the petition the next year, though
a commission to study the issue was not formed until 1996.
The recommendation to ordain women went out to presbyteries in 1997,
complete with study materials. That's a schedule many church leaders
consider too rapid for members -- and some clergy -- to integrate the
changed theological understanding and the almost total cultural
"This is going to take a long time ... [for] people to recognize the
ministries of women," said Judith Castaneda of the Protestant Center for
Pastoral Studies in Central America (CEDEPCA), an ecumenical organization
in Guatemala City. "The society has changed in terms of women's
participation: in government, in universities. But the church has not.
"The important thing is: this national church got to this decision,"
she said, stressing that the change was initiated, studied by and voted on
by Guatemalans themselves who now need to, in her opinion, spread news
about the vote to the other historic evangelical churches and even to their
own churches' sessions who may not yet know about it.
Elder Gilo Mendez - an attorney who is the NEPCG's legal consultant
and the chair of the 1996 commission to study the ordination of women -
believes the opposition in presbyteries that voted no is strong, even if it
is in some cases silent. Though he is not anticipating judicial cases
immediately, he believes they are possible in the long-run if presbyteries
that voted no continue to deny ordination to women, prompting appeals to
"Our decision on the national level is that the national church accepts
the ordination of women. It is constitutional. Any church can do it," he
said. But Mendez says that he is urging all parties in this debate to
"seek equilibrium" and to avoid what could be potential for schism and to
One of the ways division has been avoided in the past is by permitting
local option within presbyteries on particularly divisive issues - an
interpretation that some pastors, such as longtime advocate for women's
ordination the Rev. Moises Colop, believes is appropriate in this case.
Others say churches within the opposing presbyteries who want to do so may
ordain women as elders but not as pastors, since clergy ordinations require
"For change to be good, it takes time. It is better to do it slowly.
We don't want to cause a rupture," said the NEPCG's former moderator Gadiel
Gomez who is hoping that two more years of study on the biblical and
theological rationale for ordaining women will achieve more consensus.
"But [change] shouldn't be so slow that women are frustrated who want to
work and help the church ... or those who are working against it [are able
to] frustrate the movement ... The majority of the church voted [for
For some, like Juliana Say -- a Mayan women who spoke on the Assembly
floor after the vote was tallied -- Synod approval is miracle enough for
now. "We have been marginalized as women and as indigenous for forever,"
she told the Synod. "When this question [of ordination] came up, I began
to have hope ... thank you."
Central and Sur Occidente Presbyteries are in partnership with two
PC(USA) presbyteries: Peace River and Western North Carolina,
respectively. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Presbyterian Women's Thank
Offering contributed funding for education about the ordination of women in
the Guatemalan church.
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