The Feminist Priest

Reverend Rajkumar uses the pulpit to challenge patriarchal pre-conceptions of Christianity
Theology
REDISCOVERING GOD Reverend Dr Evangeline Anderson Rajkumar delivers a sermon at the All Saints Church in Bangalore (Photo: RISHI CHOWDHURY)

“Who is the first witness to the risen Lord Jesus?” The answer is unanimous: “Mary Magdalene.” The priest then asks the to turn to the ‘First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians’, Chapter 15: Verses 3–5, and read aloud the list of witnesses who had seen Jesus resurrected.

Mary Magdalene’s name does not figure either as the first witness or as any of the ‘five hundred brothers’ mentioned next; the first experience of seeing the risen Lord is ascribed by Paul to Peter.

After giving the students some time to get over this initial shock, the priest asks them to respond to the absence of Mary Magdalene in Paul’s account in the Bible. “What happened to her name?” asks the priest, “Can we ignore this as something unimportant?”

“Perhaps Paul did not like women, or the socio-political context of the time was extremely patriarchal, and so Peter took the place of Mary,” guess the male students. “What’s so unusual about it? Women generally do not expect (or get) rewards for their labour or contribution, which is taken for granted,” shrug the female students.

Reverend Dr Evangeline Anderson Rajkumar, however, wants them to think long and hard about it. As Dean of Doctoral Studies and Research Programmes at the United Theological College (UTC) in Bangalore, she is a professor of feminist theology, and the above interaction—as she recounts it—is how a lesson sometimes begins.

An ordained minister in the Arcot Lutheran Church and an associate pastor at the Gershom Congregation, Dr Evangeline approaches the Bible in a way male priests rarely do, if ever. And in doing so, she often has to critique, even dismiss, the very role of the Church—which, according to her, places itself between God and women, often to the latter’s harm. To counter its influence, she adopts plainspeak: “Jesus Christ was a male, a Jew, and a Rabbi, but he showed The Way through his life. He broke the stereotypes of his day for women and men in terms of gender roles or in ministry. Jesus had women and men disciples. Women are in no way inferior to men in God’s eyes.”

To understand God, she preaches, one must see injustice clearly for what it is—injustice. She identifies herself as a Dalit feminist, and speaks in her Sunday sermons of discrimination against Dalits, women, tribals and the underprivileged in general. To support their struggles is but a form of worship. “The Bible is one of the most used and also misused/abused books we’ve ever had in history,” she says. While the Holy Book is well recognised as “a witness to a loving God, who has created, redeemed and sustains this world out of love”, it is also misused “when exclusive claims of salvation, justification of self-righteous positions, and discrimination against fellow human beings on the basis of class, race, caste and gender are upheld as ‘Biblical’.” South Africa’s Apartheid regime, she points out, once justified its oppression of Blacks on the dubious claim that the Bible supports slavery.

In her teens, Evangeline had wanted to be a lawyer. It was her father who was keen that all his children study religion. Safe in the expectation of poor marks in her BSc final examination, she promised him she would pursue theology if she got a first class. “It was highly improbable for me, but to my surprise, it happened. I scored a high first class, and then I had no option but to take the call.” She opted for theology, and was taken aback both by patriarchal interpretations of the Bible and how these were institutionally being perpetuated.

This was not an overnight conclusion, though. It took its time forming. In 1983, during an interview for admission to a Bachelor of Divinity course at UTC, she evoked laughter when she said she’d perhaps like to return to the college as a teacher after the completion of her course. (Today, she has, but back in those days women theology graduates could join the staff only as ‘women workers’ whose job was to conduct Bible studies without any pay; similarly qualified men could be probationary pastors.)

Anyhow, Evangeline was the only girl in a divinity class of 21. At first, “I hardly felt any difference with my classmates. I was from a patriarchal family, like any other girl child. Hence, I could not even identify the nuances of gender discrimination around me.” Growing up, her father had been a strict disciplinarian, her mother having passed away in her early childhood. “My father was a man of tremendous faith, which was his only source of strength in rearing eight children in the absence of their mother. I did not even realise that the strict military discipline at home was an expression of patriarchy. I took it as normal. I never knew that girls have the right to a life like that of boys. My brother enjoyed more freedom than I did, but I thought I didn’t need freedom.”

It was after the course ended that her “fire” of feminism erupted: when she applied for a job at her church, the India Evangelical Lutheran Church (IELC), a confessional Lutheran denomination with significant presence in South India. Despite being the UTC class topper, she was turned down. The role of a woman worker was all her own church could offer. “It was an eye-opener,” she recalls, “I realised it does not matter how academically excellent you are, you have no place in the church if you are a woman.” So she did a Master’s course at the Theological Seminary in Madurai, and then applied to UTC. Instead of laughter this time, she got a teacher’s job. Now, having done a PhD as well (from Serampore University in West Bengal), Dr Evangeline takes regular classes as a professor in feminist theology and hermeneutics.

Priesthood had to wait till 2006, when the United Evangelical Lutheran Church in India (UELCI)—with the Arcot Lutheran Church being one of 11 churches under its umbrella—made a constitutional amendment to let women into their ministry. “Till that time, all office bearers were men,” says Dr Evangeline, “Thus I was chosen as the first vice-president of the church.”

Dr Evangeline’s former church, the IELC, was so infuriated by this heretical turn of events, as it saw it, that it even raised questions over the right of her husband—ordained earlier by it—to continue as a priest there. It also issued a proclamation against women in religious roles of authority. “It was very humiliating and hurtful. The declaration openly says ‘women’s ordination is unbiblical and unwarranted and it is nothing but a 21st century Gnostic heresy’.”

As a priest, Dr Evangeline stands out. She even solemnises weddings as a feminist. “Usually, the bride is given to the groom in marriage by her father. In my church, I insist that both parents do the same, together.” Thus encouraged, mothers—especially widows—who tended to shy away from such ceremonies have started coming forth to participate. To her, this is how it should always have been.

“The first disciples of Jesus were in fact women, and they were undeniably those who remained with him till the end. Jesus allowed himself to be challenged in his faith by a Syro-Phoenician woman. Though Jesus himself stood for the ministry and discipleship of equals, [the prevalent] patriarchy succeeded in pushing women to the periphery of the church and society. For centuries, men have never felt the need to listen to women and women’s perspectives. Theologies constructed within this framework have passed the rule that theology by males, Whites, the rich and privileged, or the West can be called ‘theology’, whereas theologies that take [into account] the experiences of women, Dalits, tribals, indigenous people, Blacks or Indians, are only adjunct theologies.” It’s the voice of Dr Evangeline, feminist theologian, Dalit rights activist, Lutheran priest. And at her Sunday sermons, you are as likely to hear of Posco’s threat to tribals in Odisha as the patriarchy’s raw deal to women everywhere.