It has been more than a century and a half since the Presbyterian Church was first established in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills and today, it stands as one of the biggest Christian denominations in Meghalaya. From the onset, the Church has been known for its contribution in the fields of health and education, apart from other charitable initiatives like orphanages and relief programs. So yes, the Church has done much for the social good and in fact, one could even agree that it has been instrumental in showering a certain amount of “development” on the region. Yet, there is one avenue which has historically been overlooked as an important goal of the Church, that being gender equality.
Not keeping in line with the reformist principle on which the Church was founded in sixteenth century Europe, the Presbyterian Church in Khasi and Jaintia Hills is one of the few which has rigidly stood against reorganization which would work towards an inclusion of women elders and pastors. As far as my knowledge goes, there is no universal Presbyterian doctrine which states that the ordination of women and their election as church elders is entirely forbidden. The first ordination of a woman minister took place in the Nolin Presbytery of Cumberland Presbyterian Church, USA as early as 1889. Other denominations like the Society of Friends (Quakers) and the Unitarian Church had moved even faster and started ordaining women in early nineteenth century. The Church’s Book of Government (2012-2013) states that the issue of ordination comes under the section “Rights Reserved to a Particular Church,” giving individual churches the freedom to elect their own officers and elders. Thus, the question of women’s inclusion is strictly dependent on the verdict of a particular church, not one guided by an overarching Presbyterian law. Moreover, the language which describes the qualifications of a person to become a Church elder or pastor is completely gender-neutral. The incorporation of masculine terms like “Rangbah Balang” and “U Tymmen Basan” is one specific to the Presbyterian Church in Khasi and Jaintia Hills. Further, the “Rangbah Balang” or Member of the Congregation Committee is a person elected from amongst the Communicant Members (Riew Dkhot) of the Church. Despite the fact that the Communicant Members are both male and female, there is yet a strict election of only male members.
The absence or non-recognition of gender equality within the structure of the church is therefore a decision of the KJP Synods alone. The plight of women theology scholars in the state is distressing to say the least. A theology degree, whether graduate, post-graduate or doctoral, does not have the same value for men and women in this context; while the road to pastorage is smoothly paved for men, it is completely non-existent for women. It has been a trend for the KJP Synods to allot the posts of counsellors and other “assistant” (not to mention low-paying) ranks to female theologians, who unlike their male counterparts, have to be politely content with any non-pastoral position their congregation deems fit for them. Some righteous members of the Church may state that no matter the post, what women theologians do is still the “work of God” and hence they should not feel less important; I do not disagree with this argument but if the Church really believes that all posts are equal in the eyes of God then why not appoint male theologians as counsellors as well instead of ordaining them?
There is no basis for the exclusion of women from the pivotal structures of the Church, intellectual or otherwise. In fact, many of the female theology scholars I have spoken to have stated that they have performed better academically than their male classmates. One of them even established that she is currently put through a process of “de-learning,” and that her long academic engagement in theology is close to becoming redundant. She also narrated instances of having been a frequent victim of bureaucratic manipulation within the Church simply because of her sex; incidents of cancellation of posts and mysterious loss of documents are a few examples. Another interviewee maintains that although women theologians from the state have approached the KJP Synods with the issue of women’s ordination, they were repeatedly silenced, with their letters being rejected. She also contended that this issue is only considered respectable and significant enough to be discussed in seminars and conferences, not within the governing premises of the Church. Interestingly, as another female theologian clarified, congregations in urban locations like Shillong and Jowai are the more faithful followers of patriarchal doctrine. These have avidly contested against the election of women elders and the ordination of women pastors, unlike those in the rural areas, particularly the congregations in Nongjri, Rangthong and Pariong, which have accepted women as Members of the Congregation Committee. She modestly laughed saying that people in villages unfailingly call her “pastor.”
The lack of women elders and pastors in the Presbyterian Church in Khasi and Jaintia Hills is an anachronistic malignancy more importantly because it puts women completely outside the decision-making processes. It is symptomatic of a socio-cultural disease (as reflected in the structure of the Khasi dorbars), which sees women as inadequate creatures, unfit for juridical and administrative work. The exclusion of women (and their opinions) from the governing body of the Church is a non-recognition of half the congregation, proving the point that it continues to be an institution which stands on principles of inequity and injustice. Further, the refusal to ordain female theologians is indicative of a patriarchal smugness, which fears de-stabilization on literally hearing a woman “speak.” However, it would be wrong to assume that the rejection of female pastorage comes only from men. As many of my interviewees confessed, the challenge to their demands also comes from women members of the Church, including the women’s wings (ki Seng Kynthei). Some also say that it is quite impossible to see the women’s wings as platforms, on which the issue of women’s integration would be discussed because majority of the women members are satisfied with the status quo. Thus, there is an internalized patriarchal attitude even among women which could mould them into becoming stumbling blocks in other women’s paths.
The women’s wings of the Church perform functions like counselling, visiting households of members of the congregation and the like. Most of their work seems to be circumscribed to the domestic kind, particularly when it culminates in their exclusive supervision over the food department during huge church events. This is not to condemn what the women’s wings do; in fact, their contributions are of fundamental importance to the Church and society in general. The problem here is not their engagement in such activities but their restriction to them, and the absence of male participation in the same. Moreover, unlike the pastors, members of the women’s wings act completely out of charity, not earning a single penny for whatever work they do. Of course, most of the members who I had met were content with the lack of payment and seemed rather offended that I even asked whether they get financial support for the various programmes they are handling. Yes, the “work of God” is not something to be priced but if such a disenfranchisement is limited to only one section of the congregation by virtue of their sex, then there is something really flawed in the system.
Several may consider this issue minor and hence less pressing but it is precisely its perceived marginality that demands our attention. If we refuse to accept such discriminatory regimes in other spaces, public or private, why should we sit back and accept such forms of gender-based injustices in our dear Church? Let us confront the fact that it is an institution which needs restructuring and that the sexist elements intrinsic to its organization need to be expelled; if not, women would continue to be subordinates, or as the Bible would say, “ribs” of their “Adams” and hardly free and independent beings of themselves.