I. Introduction

If someone dreams alone,
then it remains only a dream.
If many dream together,
Then this is the beginning,
the beginning of a new reality.
Dream our Dream.

(Author unknown)

Ecclesia of women in Asia was ideologically conceived in such a dream at a Conference of Asian theologians at Pune, India in November, 2001. Exactly a year later this dream sees the beginning of a new reality through the birthing of EWA, which has brought together about 55 women theologians from 17 Asian Countries. We also have in our midst the esteemed presence of Prof Lieve Troch, who has been specially invited to be the feedback‑listener of EWA. She is quite a global theologian with rich and varied theological experiences. We also have four women theologians representing the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA) and two from the Asian Women Resource Centre (AWRC).

As mentioned in our earlier commumications, the faculty of Theology of JnanaDeepa Vidyapeeth (JDV), The Pontifical Institute of Philosophy and Religion, Pune, India had invited 40 theologians from Asia to reflect on the synodal document “Ecclesia in Asia”. Its, aim was to re‑think and revision what it means to be Church in the differing and diverse contexts of Asia. Significant at the conference was the presence of only four women participants of which two were from JDV and the other two were Annette, representing Missio and Mal Thanh of Vietnam

This does not suggest that the unequal women representation was deliberate. I was on the organizing committee and I recall how difficult it was to identify or contact Catholic women theologians from Asia. The experience of the near invisibility of woman at the Asian conference in India, undoubtedly reveals the stark reality that Asian Catholic women theologians are either not known or they are small in number. It also reflects the larger reality of the Church in the world. While we cannot deny that women’s thought and contribution have suffered from historical forgetfulness and the patriarchal Church structure dissuades women in leadership roles, I do not intend to comment on these issues now

More importantly, we need to explore why we, as Catholic Asian women theologians have not played our role to increase our visibility, to make our voice heard, our name known, and to claim our rightful place and space in the Church. Furthermore, Asian theologies are often associated with male theologians and Asian Feminist theology with our protestant sister‑theologians like Chung Hyun Khung, Aruna Gnanadasan, Kwok Pul Lan, the late Sun Al Lee‑Park, etc. The birthing of EWA has brought to light the existence of almost 50 Asian Catholic Women theologians present here and many more whom we could not invite due to financial constraints.

II What is EWA: Its name, aim, and dream

The idea of bringing together Catholic women theologians in Asia was christened “Ecclesia of Women in Asia” on the day of its conception. The inspiring source is no other than Karl Rahner’s discussion on the indispensability of women for new tasks in the Church: “In view of the undeniable complexity of human, social and cultural factors in the midst of which the life of women in the Church and the world has necessarily to be lived today, …. woman is presented with fresh problems to solve for the world. These can be solved by woman herself and in her own way, and not in any direct or adequate sense, by directives issued by the authorities of the Church and in her preaching.” Rahner further asserts that “‘the Church which both can and must perform this task of providing a concrete model, the constructive pattern of life which is necessary for woman in the present age, is not, in any direct sense, the Church of officialdom as such, but rather the Church of women themselves.” (Theological Investigations Vol. VIII, 1971, pp. 86, 88).

This prophetic statement resonates with Pope John XXVII’s thinking in his encyclical of 1963 Pacem in Terris where he plants a time bomb within the Catholic Church with his bold reference to the rights of women: “Since women are becoming ever more conscious of their human dignity, they will not tolerate being treated as inanimate objects or mere instruments, but claim, both in domestic and in public life, the rights and duties that befit a human person.” With the vision and farsightedness of John XXXIII, Vatican 11 sought to free the Church of its exclusivist and hierarchal image by affirming the basic equality of all (LG 9‑181. It eradicates as incompatible with God’s design “every type of discrimination whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, colour, social condition, language or religion (GS 29), for by divine institution the Church is ordered and governed with a wonderful diversity (Rom. 12:4‑5, LG 13) where all are “one in Christ Jesus” (LG 32 cf Col. 3:11).

Closer home, the Asian Synodal document of 1999 “Ecclesia in Asia” voiced special concern for women, whose situation remains a serious problem in Asia and called attention to “the awakening of women’s consciousness to their dignity and rights: as one of the most significant signs of the times” (EA 34). EA acknowledges that the contributions of women have all too often been undervalued or ignored, and this has resulted in a spiritual impoverishment of humanity. It encourages a clearer appreciation of the importance of the feminine dimension in all things human (EA 34). It upholds women’s dignity and freedom more visibly and effectively by encouraging their role in the Church, including their intellectual life and recognizes women’s special charisms that could be absorbed for a wider participation of women in the life and mission of the Church (EA 45).

Against this backdrop of a certain openness found in the thinking of the Church Magisterium, the name “Ecclesia of Women in Asia” expresses the desire of women to enter the mainstream Church as fully responsible ecclesial participants and partners in the life of the Church. EWA seeks to bring to consciousness that women are Church and always have been Church. Now do not be put off with all the references made to the Magisterium. It is definitely not to use it as our starting point for theologizing as Asian women. Besides, we are also aware that the teachings of the Church on women are oftentimes ambiguous and inconsistent.

The sub-theme of EWA “Voices of the Silenced” is open-ended. It enables women theologians to re-name Asian women’s spiritual powers, to redefine our collective struggle of doing theology and re-construct the distinctive nature of our emancipatory theological reflection. To this effect, Dale Spender, the Australian feminist scholar, in her book Women of Ideas (And “at Men Have done to Them) states that the absence of women’s voices and their invisibility in intellectual history is fundamental to the hegemony of patriarchal power in the academy. Elisabeth Fiorenza also forcefully pleads with feminists ” to discover and re-create with hard intellectual labour a critical feminist systemic analysis of patriarchy” and may I add, to explore and re-articulate with hard intellectual labour the hidden and lost treasures of the Asian women’s world: her experiences, songs, stones, struggles, longings, visions and dreams. By constructing a cartography of the struggles and search for our own theological voice, we seek to prevent the erasure of women’s intellectual work from history. EWA is not so much interested in creating a reverse order of hegemony as in articulating a theology of the Church of women in Asia in order to reformulate an Asian ecclesiology that will include the forgotten partners in the Church. EWA is a forum that empowers, enables and entrusts the women‑Church to birth an alternate model of being Church in Asia, viz. an ecclesia of equal discipleship in Asia.

III. Aim of EWA

EWA alms to bring together Catholic women “doing theology” in Asia. This includes all those engaged in theological endeavours ‑ academic theologians as well as those women promoting theology at grassroots situations, for Feminist theology is not just an intellectual exercise or a disembodied reflection of Christian faith. It is also rooted in lived experiences and struggles, visions and dreams, and hopes and fears of Asian women. EWA hopes to bridge the non-academic women and academic women ‘doing theology’ and synergize the grassroots experiences and intellectual work in order to evolve a relational Feminist hermeneutics of Asia.

EWA provides space to Catholic women to break from their silenced and obscured destiny, have their voices heard, and thoughts and reflections articulated, for I think there is no Christian denomination that is as patriarchal as the Catholic Church. EWA hopes that the efforts of Asian Catholic women will be seen and heard in the male controlled and male directed Church and society of Asia. It invites Catholic women theologians to pool in their power and potential to evolve a theology that is distinctively feminine, Asian and Catholic.

IV. A Briefing on the Programme:

The starting point of an Asian Feminist theology is a systemic exploration and reflection on our experiences as Church of women in pluri-cultural and pluri-;religious context of Asia. This will include hermeneutic questions in the light of the praxis of women within the. complex web of Asian realities for “in the long run history will not be changed by those who give new answers but by those who make new ways of questioning possible”, states J.A.T.. Robinson. In the presentation of each Asian country context on the first day, we shall attempt to situate the position of women in the society and Church of Asia, and identify the common, different and distinct elements that both unite and separate the women of this vast continent. This will also require of us to identify our particularity as Catholic women theologians of Asia. Our particularity lies in our common colonial Christian heritage with its package of Christian and magisterial traditions that are highly patriarchal and western in nature. Consequently, every Catholic Asian woman is twice subjugated: by her own larger home context that is patriarchally stigmatized and by the patriarchal imperial Church planted in Asia. We will have to use this as a vantage point to assess the position of women in the ecclesial context within the Asian scenario.

By and large, the context presentations will enable us to found a base on which a feminist theology that is specific to the society and Church of Asia can be constructed. Within this framework of grassroots Asian context‑connectedness, we shall raise questions and set forth to reflect theologically with an Asian woman’s heart and mind, challenging androcentric theologies and history, and deep seated gender prejudices and stereotypes embedded in systems and structures. Werner Heisenberg has correctly argued that a system founded on a certain basic conceptual notion allows only those kinds of questions that are in keeping with its conceptual basis. This implies that the Church looks different from the standpoint of women as when it is done from the male perspective.

The presentations will also hopefully strengthen a connectedness among Catholic Asian women theologians that is bonding, growth-promoting and empowering for “when every text is seen as inter‑textual, every culture is interconnected and every religion interdependent, the task is seen not as one of contradictions but of seeing connections and links”, writes R. S. Sugitherajah, an Asian theologian.

V. Paper Presentations

The overwhelming and diverse response to our “Call for Papers” has obliged us to categories the papers in six groups: Women and Bible, Women and violence, Women and Church Structure, Women and eco-feminism, Women and spirituality and Women and other religions. The voices of the silenced expressed in this diversity of topics is an indication that the domain of EWA is open and wide and must be dealt with from an inter-disciplinary approach.

Women and Bible

The Bible has been one of the most misused books against women. The silence, invisibility and trivialization of the role and experience of women within the Bible are misread as divine principle rather than recognizing it as the work of men written in an ethos of patriarchy. The image of women as the ‘weaker vessel’ ‘created for the sake of man’, as ‘Inferior’, ‘temptress, ‘gateway to hell’, etc. is misinterpreted as deigned by the Creator rather than recognizing her as a being created in the image and likeness of God. Consequently, not only are women silenced but also the biblical notion of gender equality remains hidden within the pages of Scriptures.

Women and Violence

Violence against women cuts across all barriers of class, creed, caste, race and region. A woman is identified in terms of her body, which stands at the centre of all experiences of violence. In this regard, the Asian Synod voiced special concern for women in Asia, where discrimination and violence against women is often found in the home, in the workplace and even within the legal system (EA 34). Noteworthy to observe is that no mention of the discrimination, injustice, and abuse of women within the Church is made in the document.

Women and Church Structure

Does the Church structure lend itself to be supportive of the place and role of women in the life and governance of the Church? Is the Church of Asia women‑friendly? Is the Church, the Body of Christ, in solidarity with women through participatory opportunities and through enabling and empowering women for full and creative leadership responsibilities. These are some questions that perhaps need to be considered especially in view of the Synodal document that states, “the Church should be a participatory Church in which no one feels excluded, and judged the wider participation of women in the life and mission of the Church in Asia to be an especially pressing need” (EA 45).

Women and Spirituality

Ecclesia in Asia encourages us to seek a profound understanding of the elements of spirituality and prayer akin to the Asian soul. It also made clear that spirituality and life style must be sensitive to the religious and cultural heritage of the people. In this regard, spirituality for us Asian women must be an emmanuel experience, a God-with-women experience. This implies exploring women’s unique experience of God in the realities of our life and discovering our unique relationship with the divine. It also implies demythologizing a package of concepts, images and beliefs of God that is a product of a patriarchal culture and tradition. It is discovering the feminine and human face of God as revealed in women’s experiences. This unique God-with-women experience would inspire us to break forth into creative “Magnificats’, into songs of praise and pain, of deep longings and fulfillment, of our search and struggles, of beauty and wonder, of daring and dynamism that come forth from the wellsprings of our womanhood.

Women and eco‑feminism

There is a natural nexus between women and nature. Nature is the embodiment of the female principle. Sallie Mc Fague’s rich metaphor of the world as the “Body of God”, is a matter of grave concern when this ‘Body’ is raped and destroyed for selfish interests. Eco‑feminism affirms the principle of concern for life in all its forms. Life is sacred and the world is a sacrament. In the human quest for meaning in life, women and nature nurture and promote life from within, allowing life to blossom and grow according to the true purpose of creation.

Women and other religions

Inter‑religious dialogue is not only a way of fostering mutual knowledge and enrichment but also a means of unearthing all that is dehumanizing and oppressive, specially to women. The on-going major issues of the global economic system and the feminization of poverty, the escalating violence against exploitation of women’s work force remain issues that we as Ecclesia of women need to battle against and push for solutions with our sisters of other faiths.

Within this framework of multiplicity of issues we will present papers, engage in discussions and bring out some constructive points that will contribute towards our dream project, namely, to evolve an Asian Feminist Theology.

Feed back‑listener:

Having heard the country presentations, theological papers and group reports on the first two days, Professor Lieve Troch, the listener of EWA will give us a feedback on her observations. Each of us should also feel free to bring in our contributions and voice out any important movements, stirrings and enlightenment that we receive as individuals or in group-interactions. Remember, each one of us is a resource person of EWA as well. Hence any contribution from you will enable us to articulate better the process of evolving an Asian Feminist Theology.

VI. EWA’s Dream

EWA is a ground‑breaking event for the Catholic women theologians of Asia. I think this is the first time ever that Catholic women theologians representing such a wide Asian coverage have come together. The challenge is a very creative one. We hope EWA will embody the very best in feminist scholarship and sisterhood. EWA calls on women theologians to engage in theological talk, reflection and writing. Let us harness our power as Asian women theologians to serve as catalysts to create a network for Asian women doing theology. We hope EWA will eventually be able to build networks across the globe and enable Asian feminist theology to become an important part of the global feminist theological symphony.

The initiating committee would like to hand over its baby to you. We helped in its conception, experienced the pangs and joys of birthing it, but now we would like to gift EWA to its proper owners, namely, each one of you. It was never our intention of parenting EWA. We got this started in the name of every Asian Catholic woman theologian ‑ those present here, those unable to be with us, and those still unidentified.

We would want you to own EWA and take the responsibility to water this sapling and watch for new shoots of life. We will also have to be vigilant for weeds that inhibit its growth and for thistles that may choke the life out of EWA resulting in its premature death. Your ownership can be concretely expressed by selecting a steering committee to see to the running of EWA these days. It will be good to have a representative from each region. The steering team will have the task of an overseer: to listen and observe, to capture anything eventful taking place, to evaluate the day’s happenings, suggest improvement, if need be, and see to the smooth running of the programme.

Another important expression of ownership of EWA is the formation of a Continuity Committee, which will be taken up on the last day. This committee will comprise of coordinators of EWA, a treasurer, and maybe a secretary. Suggestions are welcome. The last day is crucial for we have to continue dreaming dreams for EWA. We do not have any set agenda but we would like to dedicate the whole day to explore issues, which have arisen in the first 3 days and to decide on how we should proceed from here. In a way, we hope we can formulate some sort of structure that will enable EWA to become an effective and relevant force in the Church of Asia.

As communicated to you earlier, we will be publishing those papers that have a certain academic scholarship either through ISPCK in India or Orbis Publishers. Hence we need an editorial team as well. It is our ardent desire to publish a Journal on a regular basis to enable Asian women to give expression to their theological reflections. An Asian Feminist Journal would be a constructive contribution to Asian and global theology.

Before I close, a word about our financial status. EWA was conceived penniless! Through the generosity of Catholic funding organizations like the CCFD of Paris, the Institution of Missiology of Missio, Germany and the Swiss Lenten Campaign Fund that have shown a keen interest in our project to promote Asian Women’s theology, we have had the joy of witnessing the birth of EWA.

May EWA’s dream continue to grow as new pathways and new visions intertwine to meet the changing and challenging needs of Asian women. The dream will then be dreamed and not alone.

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