Three women pastors from Iceland were part of a group of 14 (12 pastors and 2 spouses) on Wartburg’s campus this past week for the Center for Global Theologies Icelandic Pastors Academy. They led and participated in many presentations. Midweek, Rev. Halldóra Þorvarðardóttir, Rev. Hulda Hrönn M. Helgadóttir, and Rev. Jóhanna Sigmarsdóttir led a lunch-time discussion on women in ministry, saying that women were always a part of the history of the church.
Hulda shared some background saying that many women were mentioned in the early letters of the church. She told a story of visiting a very old church building where many images were of women: angels depicted as women; Mary the Mother of Jesus; and female leaders of the church. Women held positions of prominence before the Church of Rome was built and a patriarchal influence became the norm. When did women vanish from the forefront of the church? This is uncertain; however in 1974 women started to return to leadership in Iceland and the first woman was ordained.
How have women’s roles changed in the church of Iceland? Today there are sixty women pastors in Iceland; approximately 40% of the pastors of the Lutheran Church in Iceland are women. Iceland has recently ordained their first woman bishop, Reverand Agnes Sigurðardóttir.
There was not a theological argument against women belonging in the church, but it was difficult because it was a male dominated field, said the Icelandic women. However, women saw it as natural to want to become ordained priests.
Halldora, a Dean of the Church of Iceland advised: “Be who you are. Don’t think about being a man or a woman, but be yourself. She said it is good to have women in leadership. It does however change the cooperative leadership. Women are not afraid to admit that they don’t know everything. Men don’t show their vulnerability; they need to look strong and can’t look fragile or they will appear weak. Men think of their roles differently.”
At the lunch meeting many men as well as women participated in the discussion. Both the women and men from Iceland agreed that there has been a change in the last decade. Women are now senior pastors and with a woman as Bishop, things will continue to change. They said, “This is the first time in history that we heard the Bishop talk about the weaknesses of a Bishop, maybe because she doesn’t have a ‘power struggle.’ There is no history behind her.” It is too early to judge if this will change the church of Iceland; however they are on a new path.
Where was the turning point for women in Iceland? They all agreed it came with the first women president of the country, elected in 1980. June 19th was designated as Women’s Day with women gathering in the streets to support women’s equality.
Halldora lifted up that equality is for both genders not just the women. “We need to remember that this is not about women taking over, but sharing in the roles of leadership. Equality will become a non-issue when we do not have to think, talk or do anything about it. Respect is the beginning of equality.”