The impact of Christian women on African society was the focus of Dr. Esther Mombo's closing lecture, titled "We see them and hear them...but has it made a difference?" at a conference on women's ordination hosted by the University of Manchester's Lincoln Theological Institute July 12-14.
Mombo, dean of St. Paul's United Theological Seminary in Limuru, Kenya, acknowledged that the present church leadership is extremely vocal on issues of sexuality, but insisted that for women in Africa that is not a priority.
"The priority is for life," she said. "We are not having the discussions that we see in public, such as human sexuality, but discussions of life and death issues."
One of the world's largest continents, Africa accounts for about 14 percent of the total population and boasts vast ethnic and cultural diversity, but some countries are roiled with conflict, and HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases continue to pose life-size challenges.
Recent statistics suggest that 42 million people in the world are living HIV/AIDS, with 25.8 million of those cases in Africa. "Although Africa has 14 percent of the world's population, it has 62 percent of the world's HIV/AIDS cases," Mombo said.
For women in Africa, the problem is with heterosexuality not homosexuality, she said. "It is the heterosexuals who will rape small children in the hope that [such a myth] will rid them of HIV/AIDS."
Women's ordination in Africa plays a vital role in helping to overcome gender inequality, poverty, violence and HIV/AIDS, Mombo explained, as "it provides an important place for women to contribute to the wellbeing of people in society."
African Christianity, she said, has created its own unique flavor of religion and has assumed a more charismatic character. It tends to be described as conservative, especially in light of its proactive evangelistic mission, but has long been presented as vital and growing. The 12 Anglican provinces in Africa account for almost two thirds of the world's 77 million Anglicans.
"When you look at the ordinary Christians, they have an incredible faith just as if God is walking with them," Mombo said. "They never let go even when death is wiping them out ... Because Jesus saves!"
Mombo explained that women have been ordained in Africa for nearly two centuries, "but it is not uniform, just like Africa is not uniform," she said. "One side of a country may ordain women when another does not."
In addition to the practices, policies and leadership of the church, the ordination of women in Africa has been affected by its history of colonialism and conflict. Education and female literacy levels have also played a significant part.
Offering a historical account of the ordination of women during the time that missionaries were delivering Christianity to Africa, Mombo said, "Mission Christianity, which began in North Africa, was always fourfold, through evangelism, education, health and industrial training. Through this framework the missionaries found a way of liberating women in what they saw as oppressions."
The Anglican-run Mothers' Union, the Presbyterian Church's Women's Guild, and other denominational women's organizations, have consistently been the backbone of the church, Mombo added, as they are the groups that carry the social welfare banner.
The 1950s and 60s in Africa saw the liberation struggles that brought independence to both the churches and countries, and women began to receive the education that prepared them for roles in business and the government.
"The church lagged behind in terms of women's leadership because of its historical context and women weren't given the education to prepare them to become church leaders," she said. "The churches at the time would also say no to women's ordination because of theological reasons," a more common one being that Jesus never appointed a woman as one of his disciples.
Through ecumenical initiatives, the churches began to address the ordination of women. The All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC) began discussions on the subject in 1963 when a consultation in Kampala, Uganda, welcomed a conversation on the place of women in the church. The World Council of Churches held a consultation in 1970 that had an impact on the African churches.
A further AACC meeting in 1974 resolved to urge the formation of an advisory committee of men and women to draw a program for the inclusion of women in society, and in 1980, another conference called for equal rights for women in the church and for them to be ordained into full pastoral ministry.
Before the 1978 Lambeth Conference -- the once-a-decade meeting of Anglican bishops -- a number of African Anglican provinces were already discussing the ordination of women.
In Uganda in 1974, the issues were raised at the provincial synod. One of the bishops asked why the province couldn't wait until the Church of England had made a decision on women's ordination. According to Mombo, one bishop replied, "if you wait for the Church of England, you'll wait until doomsday."
In 1975, some Kenyan bishops brought a motion to their Provincial Synod, which affirmed the principle of women's ordination. It was decided that any possible candidates should undergo theological training and that there should be further consultation with the House of Bishops before any ordinations took place.
In 1979, one Ugandan bishop ordained a group of women as deacons and four years later, ordained three as priests.
Today, six of the 38 Anglican provinces do not allow women's diaconal, priestly or Episcopal ordination. They are Central Africa, Jerusalem & Middle East, Melanesia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea and South East Asia.
"The women pioneers' story is a mixed bag," Mombo said. "Some of them left ministry because the church was not ready for them, some have continued to study and work and to serve the churches today."
She noted that, in terms of members, they may be small, "but the disciples of Jesus were small in number yet they turned the world upside down."