Rola Sleiman made history. She now carries the title of ‘Reverend’ of the Presbyterian Church, the first woman to be ordained in a Middle Eastern Church on February 26, 2017 in Tripoli, Lebanon. Her ordination was “an act of love and justice”, those present at the ceremony heard in the sermon, and her comment to journalists after the ceremony was “Christ’s justice has been finally fulfilled”.
Rola had shown signs of cautious optimism in 2012 about her ordination: “It is not something that I dream of day and night. Whatever happens, I will not be discouraged.” But she tells me that she never imagined this day would come. She was very (pleasantly) surprised with the result of the Synod’s vote of 23-1 in favor of her ordination.
The historic nature of the event was not evident at first sight. She says “it’s not a big deal. I was serving my Church and I will continue serving.”
Indeed, she had already been serving as a licensed preacher and, since 2008, as pastor of the Church and was able to perform all the functions except for the two sacraments (baptism and communion). She was able to officiate marriages and funerals, but in practice, there was always an ordained male pastor present during these ceremonies.
So what’s the big deal?
The fact that Rola, as a woman, now has spiritual authority over her congregation comprised of men and women is extraordinary. Previously, a male ordained pastor had to be present with her during the sacraments, marriages, and funerals. The historic nature of her ordination lies precisely in this apparently minor fact that she is now able to perform these tasks in her own person. She no longer needs a male pastor by her side.
It may be difficult to comprehend the significance of this ‘spiritual’ detail at a time when debate around women’s empowerment and gender equality is centered on politics, the workplace, and the criminal justice system. Indeed, some may ask, what does the spiritual realm of priests and sacraments have to do with women’s rights?
In short, it’s a question of authority, and her assuming ‘spiritual authority’ takes on a special meaning in a Lebanese (and Arab) context where women are, as Human Rights Watch put it, “unequal and unprotected”.
Rola herself is cognizant that she lives in a patriarchal society and understands that hers is an important mission to set an example for young girls and women to follow in her path.
Her ordination is doubly significant in a context where women are assumed to be of an inferior status to men when it comes to certain functions: theologically (priesthood reserved to men only), politically (vast underrepresentation of women in local and national politics), and legally (discrimination in law).
In the life of the Church, women are considered to be important, from the exalted status of Mary and female saints in Catholicism and the Orthodox Church, to the fact that Jesus chose to reveal himself after his resurrection to a woman.
Furthermore, Churches in Lebanon who do not ordain women will point to the status of the Theotokos (Mother of God) who in the Orthodox tradition is “more honorable than the cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim”, and in Catholicism is considered “after her Son, exalted by divine grace above all angels and men.”
Still, when we get down to the day-to-day business of running the Church, it is only men who hold power and authority based on the Catholic and Orthodox Churches’ interpretation of Scriptures and their adherence to Holy Tradition.
For the Catholic Church, Pope Francis has considered the matter of female ordination to be closed, referring to John Paul II’s 1992 Apostolic Letter where it was affirmed that priestly ordination “has in the Catholic Church from the beginning always been reserved to men alone.”
While these Churches do not understand the notion of priesthood as a matter of “rights”, Rola’s ordination has a highly symbolic significance in Lebanon whereby it touches on the thorny issue of “tradition”, “rights”, and “cultural relativism”.
Indeed, arguments of tradition and cultural relativism are used to deny women and minorities human rights that should be universal, Human Rights Watch had noted in its 2013 World Report in relation to the Arab world.
At the end of the day, Rola’s ordination may be marginal to the cynical eye. The Presbyterian Church is a minority in Lebanon and her ordination remains an exception rather than the norm and will never be replicated in the context of the larger Catholic, Orthodox, or Coptic Churches in the region.
But none of this casts a shadow over the historic moment that took place on February 26. Her ordination is a welcome move that will hopefully have a positive impact on the hearts and minds of Churchgoers and Lebanese citizens who are not used to seeing a woman in power, be it spiritual or temporal.
Ultimately for Rola, she kept insisting to me that it all boils down to God’s love saying, “Christ is love, and love does not distinguish between men and women.”
When I asked her how she viewed her ordination in the context of a country rampant with discrimination and with an active civil society fighting for women’s rights, she responded with a question: “If the Church discriminates against women, what should we expect of the state?”
And who would disagree that this message of equality and non-discrimination is exactly what Lebanon and the Arab world needs, regardless whether it comes in religious or non-religious language.