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The Challenge and Urgency of Gender Inclusion in Theological Education: Reflections from Latin America.

A Challenge for Theological Education and Ecumenical Formation

As an initiative of the World Council of Churches (WCC), the Ecumenical Decade of the Churches in Solidarity with Women from 1988 to 1998 had among its objectives training women so that they could oppose the oppressive structures that existed in their countries and their churches; asserting the decisive contributions of women within their churches and communities; and training churches to eradicate racism, sexism, and classism and to abandon discriminatory practices against women. Twenty years after the end of the Decade, however, gender studies in programmes of theological training remains unfinished business in Latin America and the Caribbean, a region marked by ethnic and religious pluralism.

There is thus an urgent need to offer an academic theological education that does not encourage conformism and that is committed to promoting equality for social actors. Its educational methodology needs to "foster a critical conscience that allows the demystification of an ideology behind the reality that marginalizes and oppresses women and seeks paths of transformative action." (1) At its basis is the conviction that the theological formation that the church needs today demands "assuming the category of gender in the teaching--learning process which implies recognizing that women experience life differently from men, leading them to develop different ways of thinking." (2) This conception has to be informed
by an interdisciplinary perspective that allows tor the development of
an integrated vision that asserts the value of gender, especially the
role of women as a historical subject with the capacity to question and
transform society... Having said this, we believe that it is imperative
to allow women to be empowered to express themselves from their own
perspective and way of thinking. In addition, we should question the
leadership styles in churches and promote new, more communitarian,
merciful and humane models. (3)


It we start from this assumption, then ecumenical theological education is called to include and to widen gender perspectives in its educational programmes. In this way, the importance of women's ministry in the church will be better recognized, which is imperative in the face of the predominant patriarchal culture. Theological work undertaken by men and women together will embrace life--the fundamental Christian and human criterion of any theology that claims for itself a Christian nature.

According to Elsa Tamez, "in the present structures of churches women feel limited; they cannot develop their gifts in the different ministries... these structures are so strong that it seems that there is no room for their full development. (4) In this sense, Esther Mombo has noted that "engendered theological education stresses conceptuality, dialogue, openness, grace and willingness to learn and discern God's will and truth in every context."(5)

Examples of Current Progress and Challenges

Theological Community of Mexico

This community has been an open and equitable space for learning from its beginning; first, in theology for women; and then, in reflection on theology from the perspective of women.

A first programme, the diploma course on women's studies, ran from 1995 to 1998, coordinated by Pastor Rebeca Montemayor. Following this experience, the female perspective was specifically included as a transversal axis in the various courses of the degree in theology. In 2011, the diploma course was opened up again so that the gender perspective would be within the Theological Community. Thus the diploma on gender emerged, directed by Laura Manrique, PhD. In 2014, the programme was revised and redesigned. It is now entitled the diploma of critical studies on gender, coordinated by Marilu Rojas, PhD; new theological options have been included, such as queer theology and an interrelationship paradigm. Since 2018, besides being a process for postgraduate studies, this diploma course has become an introductory course for a master's in critical gender studies, starting in January 2019.

This path has been a gradual process of growth and inclusion of the topic from the standpoint of theology, but also as an interdisciplinary way. All the staff--women and men--have taken institutional decisions, academic as well as administrative, and accepted the challenge to commit themselves within a patriarchal (kyriarcal) system that must be deconstructed to forge fairer and more equitable relationships in the field of theological reflection.

Faculdades EST, Sao Leopoldo, Brazil

The programme of gender and religion of the Faculdades EST (Escuela Superior de Teologia) is heir to the Feminist Theology Group created in 1990 and implemented in 1991, when they hired a professor who would be specifically responsible for this task. Later, in 1999, the Centre for Gender Research was created as a branch of the Feminist Theology Group in the postgraduate and research areas.

A programme of gender and religion was organized in 2008 to enhance research and take into account the contextual changes inside and outside the institution. Financial difficulties led to a reduction of the activities of the programme; however, a new structure was organized in 2013 with the task of promoting various activities and including a proposal to bring together the production of knowledge in this area.

A new stage of the programme of gender and religion was opened in 2014 with the support of the Church of Sweden. Thus an inter-institutional space was created around a set of structures and actions on issues of gender and religion in the various sectors, courses, and activities of the Faculdades EST by establishing relations with other state institutions, churches and religions, social movements and organizations of civil society, and administrators and managers of public policies. All this favoured the emergence of a coordinating space for the struggles of women in theology in a particular way from an interdisciplinary perspective, encompassing a wide and diverse social intertwining, including race, ethnicity, social class, sexuality, multiple generations, and people with disabilities.

Likewise, gender theories were included as instruments of analysis and critique of social inequalities as of well as cooperation and dialogue with different social sectors, taking into account the need for building fair and equal social relationships: what we today call "gender justice."

Methodist University of Sao Paulo, Brazil

In this university there are no gender or feminist theology courses at the faculty of theology. These courses are offered as part of the postgraduate programme of sciences of religion annexed to the university. This programme created the Group of Theological Studies of Women in Latin America (NETMAL, according to its acronym in Spanish) in 1989. In 2004, this group became the Group of Studies on Gender and Religion, called Mandragora-NETMAL. An academic journal, Mandragora, has been published since 1994. The faculty of theology of Methodist University has the Otilia Chavez Centre, which opened in 1990. This centre undertakes pastoral work with women from the Methodist Church by means of training courses and meetings of reflection and study.

Evangelical Theological Seminary in Matanzas, Cuba

In 1998, a gender and theology course was included as part of the curriculum of the seminary, after which the influence of Latin American feminist theology of liberation and gender studies began to be felt. All students, men and women, began to take this course as an important element of their ecumenical training.

During this time, three women theologians began to work as professors at the Evangelical Theological Seminary, offering courses that are still held today on gender and theology, anthropology, Christology, and pastoral psychology with a new vision of the theory and praxis of systematic theology, ecclesiology, power and authority, and pastoral development of inclusive communities.

As time went by, some male professors began to include the gender perspective in their courses, also referencing contemporary bibliographies of women Bible specialists and feminist theologians of liberation. These studies have been increasingly included in a transversal way in the curricula of the bachelor's, licence, and master's courses in theology as well as in extension courses in Bible studies, theology, and outreach for the training of the laity in Cuban churches.

In the Caribbean there are tensions between faith and culture. In the case of Cuba, it is difficult for the majority of churches to see the presence of God in the Cuban religions of African origin. Ecumenical training needs to include interreligious dialogues in educational processes to develop a deeper understanding of the meaning of the search for a world community.

Aware of this religiosity in the country, the Matanzas seminary will open the Higher Ecumenical Institute of Sciences of Religions in Havana, whose curriculum will include a course on gender and religion.

Latin American Biblical University, San Jose, Costa Rica

Organized by Susana Strachan, this theological institution was created in 1923 as a biblical school for women. In 1974, theological studies with an emphasis on gender began with a seminar, "Women in Biblical Thought," organized by the department of Bible and theology.

In 1979, the then Latin American Biblical Seminary (Seminario Biblico Latinoamericano [SBL]) worked with the WGC study programme on the Community of Women and Men in the Church in the organization of a seminar on theology from women's perspective, held in October 1979 in Mexico City. A course entitled "Pastoral Work of Women" began in 1984; it was offered not only in the Biblical Seminary of Costa Rica but in seminaries in seven other countries in Latin America. The course "The Theology of Women in Central America" was included in the curriculum of the seminary in 1987; two years later, the course began to deal with violence against women and the analysis of masculine and feminine identities.

From 1979 to 1984, the inclusion of gender and religion in the courses of this institution produced fundamental changes in the orientation of the curricula. Another significant development was the inclusion of issues related to the economic situation of our countries and to violence against women; these topics occupied a central place in the theological learning process of the seminary.

When the SBL became a university, a course of feminist theology was included in the degree courses in theology, as well as the organization of the "Women's Names" project under the direction of the rector, Elsa Tamez, PhD, to honour women who have been silenced in our world. The project included sending names of women along with a dollar as an offering to build a new building in the university. After ten years of the campaign, a million names and a million dollars were collected for the construction of the building, which was named "The Little House of a Million Women."

The gender perspective was included in all courses of the Latin American Biblical University, with the approval of the faculty. The most important change has been the title of the course to "Gender and Identity" since 2005.

The new challenge of the institution at present is a master's in gender and religion, which includes women and men of several churches of the region.

What Happens Now? In Search of New Paths toward the Future

It is good to remember that women theologians have had few institutional spaces to develop our theologies. In the last 20 years, the growth of conservatism and fundamentalism has prevented many churches and educational institutions from opening their doors to feminist Bible specialists and theologians. Women with advanced training, even PhDs, have lost their positions and survive by undertaking other activities. This means that our reflections have not been accepted in the official environment of the churches. The same can be said of many confessional universities where feminist theology is still marginalized.

However, we are still working on the reconstruction of spaces that had been considered lost and that today have been renewed with energy. An example is the recent organization ot TEPALI: a network of women theologians, community leaders, and faith activists centred in the Latin American Biblical University of San Jose, Costa Rica. This network is creating regional teams in the Caribbean, Brazil, South America, and the Andean countries, continuing the work of the Association of Theologians founded in 1990 with the support of the programme of theological education of the WCC.

Undoubtedly, a multidimensional, transcultural, and transreligious awakening is necessary in our theological institutions. When Christians begin to understand global affairs, a new type of credible theology can emerge. Thus, we have to analyze how women and men can minister to the people of God in wide, plural, and intercultural contexts.

In the future, the value of the recovery of human dignity in our liberating process will have to be included. The emphasis on the dignity of human beings is irreconcilable with any commercialization or violence of human beings. Human life is treated as a commodity when its value is conditioned by other values which cannot be accepted by our faith and theological principles.

This is a time of kairos, a time to reflect on the mistakes of the past and critically commit ourselves with love to making a plan to let us share a different future. To this end we propose:

1. Continuing research on gender justice in theological institutions with the support of the associations of theological education that the WCC has helped organize and has supported for several decades: the Associacao de Seminarios Teologicos Evangelicos, from Brazil; the Association of Seminaries and Theological Institutions of the Southern Cone; the Latin American Association of Institutions of Theological Education; the Caribbean Association of Theological Schools; and the Latin American and Caribbean Community of Ecumenical Theological Education.

2. Acknowledging and consulting the alternative centres of theological education that women have created successfully in Latin America and the Caribbean, such as the Colectivo "ConSpirando" and the Centre "Diego de Medellin" in Chile, the Cell of Theological Studies on Women in Latin America in Brazil, the network of women theologians, community leaders, and faith activists (TEPALI), and the Christian Institute on Gender in Cuba.

3. Supporting, broadcasting, and promoting, through the WCC's women's programme, the publication of the Revista de Interpretation Biblica Latinoamericana (RIBLA), which constitutes one of the best resources for Latin American theologians to make known their biblical interpretation.

4. Organizing seminars in Latin America and the Caribbean like those sponsored by the Pan African Women's Ecumenical Empowerment Network (WCC-PAWEEN), in order to give greater visibility to black women theologies of out-continent, with their vision of engagement and action. Likewise, promoting the Thursdays in Black campaign, an initiative of the WCC to dress in black every Thursday to raise awareness about violence against women and children.

5. Continuing the analysis on human sexuality, since more often than not people are divided in our churches due to the different views they have, and promoting discussion on this issue.

6. Celebrating, at the end of 2019, a meeting of Latin American and Caribbean women theologians and biblical specialists to listen to their stories on the institutional violence they are suffering and to seek together new forms of inclusion of gender justice in our churches and theological institutions.

Evidently, each context in Latin America is different, as is the reflection and activism from the different feminisms. The construction of "community feminism" is different from "Latin American theological feminism," "black feminism," or "Indigenous nations' feminism." However, we believe that we must begin with processes of institutional awareness to achieve transformations that start from the inclusion of the topic in the curricula of seminaries, in addition to programmes specially designed to approach the topic in depth.

There is still an urgent need for the revision and proper analysis of curricula, so that they respond to the development of ministries and gifts of people trained in centres of theological education, who in turn will commit themselves to solidarity with other women and men.

The Rev. Dr Ofelia Ortega is a member of the Presbyterian-Reformed Church of Cuba. From 1985 to 1988 she was a professor at the Bossey Ecumenical Institute in Switzerland before serving as executive secretary for theological education at the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Geneva until 1997. She was WCC president for Latin America and the Caribbean from 2006 to 2013.

(1) Luis Eduardo Cantero, "Educacion teologica y genero: desafio a las instiuiciones teologicas latinoamericanas evangelicas," Teologia y cultura 9:14 (November 2012), 145.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Ibid., 146.

(4) Elsa Tamez, Comunidades de mujeres y hombres en iglesia (San Jose: SEBILA, 1981), 38.

(5) Esther Mombo, "The Role of Reformation: Traditions and Churches for (Transformative) Education in African Contexts," in Documentation R-E-T. International Twin Consultation Reformation--Education--Transformation, Sao Leopoldo, Brazil, 2015; Halle, Germany, 2016, ed. Stephen Brown et al. (Hamburg: Evangelisches Missionswerk in Deutschiand, 2018), 40.

DOI: 10.1111/erev.12422
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Author:Ortega, Ofelia
Publication:The Ecumenical Review
Geographic Code:0LATI
Date:Jan 1, 2019
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