Rev. Monika Zuber leading worship in a Methodist church in Ełk, Poland. 

Photograph from Monika Zuber’s private archive

Clergywoman: still a scandalous profession

March 28, 2024

In Poland, where 71.3 percent of people are Catholic, the word “clergy” usually invokes the image of Catholic priests, all of whom are men. When in May 2022, nine Polish women were ordained as Lutheran priests for the first time, they became famous; all major Polish media outlets reported on the event. A female Evangelical Methodist pastor who serves in a small village in northeastern Poland, Rev. Monika Zuber, is a feminist celebrity, as she frequently shares her perspectives on social justice issues on social and in traditional media. There are also Polish clergywomen outside of Poland, including Rev. Julia Meason, who serves in a Presbyterian parish on the Orkney Islands, and the first female Polish bishop, Paulina Hławiczka-Trotman of the Lutheran Church of Great Britain. As an ordained minister of the American Baptist Churches USA, serving as a co-associate regional minister in the Metro Chicago region, I am also in this category. (The Baptist Christian Church of the Republic of Poland is theologically conservative and so there are no female Baptist ministers there. I may be the only Polish Baptist female minister in the world.)

For most Poles, the mere fact of women’s ministry is one shocker. Many female ministry leaders’ views on social issues are another. Last January, Rev. Monika Zuber was interviewed on TVP Info, a Polish state TV channel. (Under the previous government, Polish state media was associated with far-right views of the party in power, Law and Justice, and the socially conservative ethics of the Catholic Church. After the last election, the state media changed its course, welcoming progressive guests.) The interviewer asked Rev. Zuber about her perspective on birth control and morning-after pills. “Evangelical [Methodist] ethics of my Church and all evangelical traditions is clear: for us, contraception is a medical achievement that helps in family planning,” she responded. “It’s a great development for reproductive rights. For us, women’s rights are human rights and they are central for evangelical ethics.” Her affirmation of the morning-after pill in that interview was even more unbelievable. One online commenter wrote: “A cool clergywoman. She makes you want to convert to her faith if they have such modern and enlightened pastors.” For the viewers who were used to hearing only ultra-conservative views on state media channels, this interview was a symbolic earthquake. It made headlines.

When Rev. Julia Meason from Orkney was interviewed for Gazeta Wyborcza, one of the largest Polish dailies, she was pictured wearing a rainbow stole. The article, subtitled “I invite LGBT couples from Poland,” referenced the fact that same-sex couples in Poland cannot formalize their relationships (which the new government promised to rectify, following a ruling of the European Court of Human Rights that the lack of any form of legal recognition and protection for same-sex couples in Poland breaches the European Convention on Human Rights.) Even if civil partnerships are instituted in Poland, same-sex couples will not be able to have a religious ceremony in Poland, although there is a debate about blessing same-sex civil partnerships in the Evangelical Methodist Church in Poland. Rev. Meason said: “I will be delighted to marry same-sex couples from Poland, and it does not matter if they belong to the Catholic Church. God is the same everywhere, and the God we believe in will definitely bless their love.”

Female clergy in Poland are subversive by the mere fact of their existence.

While this increased spotlight on Polish female clergy and their spiritual commitments really is a cultural revolution, there are still only a handful of us, and discrimination against female clergy still exists. In those Protestant churches where the pastor is selected by the congregation, it may still take a while for people to get used to the idea of calling a female pastor. (For the Polish Lutheran church, the main argument against female ordination until 2022 was the fear that maternity leaves would destabilize parish life.)

In Protestant seminaries in Poland, the prejudice against women’s ordination, sometimes reaching the levels of misogyny, has been extraordinary. Bishop Hławiczka-Trotman recalls being told by faculty at the Christian Theological Academy in Warsaw: “You ought to be preparing for marriage, not waving your breasts at the pulpit.” Upon ordination, a Lutheran bishop questioned her single status and offered her a position of a church sexton. Unexpectedly, she became a military chaplain in the Polish army. She was ordained in 2014 in Great Britain, eight years before the Polish Lutheran church allowed women’s ordination. Her election as a bishop in the Lutheran Church of Great Britain took place in 2023. Despite her emigration, she remained committed to supporting her female colleagues in Poland. During the campaign for women’s ordination in the Lutheran Church of Poland, she and others were accused of being “angry.” “Sure, we were angry,” she recalls. “Very possible that we were angry; if you have lived in frustration for many years, you may become angry.”

Ecumenical settings in which non-women-ordaining denominations participate may create difficult situations. Rev. Wiktoria Matloch, one of the nine recently ordained female Lutheran priests, was asked to leave an ecumenical prayer service for International Holocaust Remembrance Day in January 2023 after priests from the Polish Autocephalous Orthodox Church refused to pray with her, citing regulations of their church that prohibit female ordination. The incident illustrates perfectly what Magdalena Środa, a Polish feminist activist and scholar, meant when she said, “In this profession, a woman is not just an exception; she’s a scandal.”

“The Church is created for and by people. Some would say I am too human-centric, that Protestant churches at large are too human-centric. But who, if not God, was human-centric in the first place?” concludes Hławiczka-Trotman.

Female clergy in Poland are subversive by the mere fact of their existence. They are always the exception to the rule, or indeed, a scandal, which means that much more work remains to be done to break through the stained-glass ceiling. But for now, they are making Polish history.

Rev. Dr. Anna Piela is an ordained American Baptist Churches USA minister. She is associate editor, The Christian Citizen, senior writer, American Baptist Home Mission Societies and co-associate regional minister for White and Multicultural Churches, ABC Metro Chicago. A Polish immigrant and a scholar of religion, she holds a doctorate in Women’s Studies from the University of York, UK. Her second book, Wearing the Niqab: Muslim Women in the UK and the US, was published in 2021.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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