Monday 6 March 201708:31 am
For the first time historically, the male monopoly over the clergy in Eastern Christian churches has been shattered. Roula Sleiman has become the first female bishop in the Middle East, in an ordination ceremony at the Evangelical Church in Tripoli, Lebanon, which falls under the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon. This marks the first such step in the various churches and synods of the Middle East. Never has a woman assumed such a role, the highest in the Evangelical Church, which does not have a clerical hierarchy. Unlike the Catholic and Orthodox churches, the Evangelical Church is governed only by an administrative hierarchy. “I feel a great responsibility. To begin with, I am a woman, which means I have the burden of having to make double the effort in order to have my work recognized. Secondly, as the first in my position, I am drawing out a path for the female bishops who will follow me,” Sleiman said in her first speech after her ordination. Bishop Sleiman began her journey to the clergy by studying theology. She later obtaining a preaching certificate, and in 2008, she was appointed as an elder of the Tripoli church. In this capacity, she undertook the same tasks as a bishop, with the exception of the two sacraments of the Evangelical Church: baptism and holy communion. Finally, upon the request of the other elders, Sleiman was ordained as a priest at the helm of the Evangelical Church in Tripoli. “The decision was not imposed from above,” she says, explaining that it came from elders after a referendum of the church’s flock, in which there was unanimous consensus over the selection of Sleiman. Further, her ordination came nine years after a written request that the elders sent to the synod. Thus, the acceptance came to seal her long years of clerical service, during which she expended all her energy catering to the affairs of the church in Tripoli. “This is the path of an honest, devoted servant who has lovingly given to this church. Your guardianship of the church was characterized by a sense of motherhood (which is superior to manhood) that was sufficient to bring together its children. It was a quiet guardianship, free of any commition. Today, we do not ordain you as an elder. Rather, we conclude that phase to make you an equal to your bishop colleagues in your service to the Word and the Sacraments, as well as all the rights and duties dictated by this service. It is an act of love and justice. It would not have happened without the conviction, embracement, and request of the church of Tripoli. History will record that this was the first church to request a female to be its elder, and the first to request the ordination of a woman,” said Bishop Joseph Qassab, General Secretary of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon, during the ordination sermon at mass. The importance of the event is not simply due to the progression of the position of women in the church, it is also linked to the significance of the location itself; Tripoli. “Roula Sleiman’s ordination in Tripoli opens up new ideological possibilities,” says Orthodox cleric George Massouh. “In an area in which both Islamist and Christian fundamentalism have intensified, practicing liberalism is not only necessary, it is crucial,” he continues. The words spoken during the mass were akin to an apology; an apology for a history mired by unequal practices. “From Tertullian to Augustine, even the forefathers of the church oppressed women. Where does one begin today? From defending our just practices?” Bishop Joseph Qassab questions. The ordination of Roula Sleiman is not the first of a women in the Evangelical Church internationally. Such a tradition has existed for almost two centuries in European and American Evangelical churches. However, Orthodoxy and Catholicism have held fast to their exclusivism, and along with them, so have the Eastern churches. “There is no theological hindrance to ordaining female bishops in the Orthodox Church,” says Father George Massouh, head of the Center for Christian Muslim Studies at the University of Balamand. “When discussing the position of the Orthodox Church in Lebanon, one must take a pause with regards to the tradition that the Evangelical Church has taken in terms of ordaining female ministers. This tradition has existed in Evangelical Churches around the world for years. Its absence from Eastern churches was due to social customs. As for the Orthodox Church, it has no such tradition, whether in Lebanon or anywhere else in the world,” Father Massouh explains. For his part, Father Joseph Farah, of the Maronite Diocese in Tripoli, affirms that “the issue is ultimately a question of customs. And customs change.” He pointed out that it is likely that the Catholic Church will ordain a female minister soon, particularly as Pope Francis has hinted more than once of more effective female participation in the church, pointing to certain tasks that they should undertake tasks equal to men. Father Farah explains that the lack of female presence in religious centers does not indicate the Catholic Church’s belittlement of the role of women, whether in theology or in practice. He further affirms the constant renewal of the personal status laws in the church to achieve equality between the sexes. Nonetheless, Father Massouh still points to the existence of certain superior practices toward women.