The Ruth Epting fund is named after the founder of EFECW. Ruth Epting had a vision of a reconciled and peaceful Europe, and a boundless desire to empower women and nurture their talents.
The fund is for women to give and receive to ensure the future of the forum. We need to make sure that women, especially those new to ecumenical engagement, can share in the experiences of the forum and that all countries are adequately represented when decisions are made. Many are prevented by the lack of finances and the inability to raise money in the economic climate of their own countries.
A Portrait of Ruth Epting
I was born in 1919 in Basel/Switzerland where my father was working in the house of the Basel mission. I grew up in this compound, went to primary school there, then went to the Gymnasium and matriculated in 1938. I encountered difficulties in my youth. My father was German living in Switzerland and my mother was Swiss, born in India. They had worked together in Ghana, which was where they met.
After my matriculation I had to look what to do. I would have liked to become a nurse or a teacher and to go to the mission field, but this was impossible. With my German nationality I could not take any state examination in Switzerland. My three brothers were already living in Germany. Two were theologians and lived during the time of National Socialism as members of the Confessional Church. My father did not want me to study, as his view was that women should marry. Then I asked a refugee from Germany: do you know a seminary where women can study minor theology? She gave me an address in Berlin, the Burckhardthaus/center of the YWCA. I was accepted into the heart of the confessional church, of which Niemöller was a prominent advocate. There I was drawn into all the conflicts of the national socialist situation in Germany. Our teachers were pastors who did not accept the official German church set up by the National Socialists and had been expelled by their own congregations. Later, after the war, those pastors became bishops.
We were living Christianity in a very difficult time. You had to decide which values were important for you. The questions permeated Bible study, church history, even prayer, for those who were in the concentration camps. We learnt to trust in god, and not only get an education. It could mean that your life was in danger. The SS occasionally infiltrated the group, as a spy. Some pastors were imprisoned. I was there from 1939 to 1941. There were also some women pastors teaching us.So I realized that this was not an impossibility. One of them was Anna Paulsen, one of the first woman theologians in Germany. She provided an example and gave me the assurance that I was not on the wrong path.After the outbreak of the war I could not go back to Switzerland, though we were allowed to get a visa to see my family for Christmas in 1940. In 1941, after my examination, I managed go back to Switzerland.
Ruth_Epting_2My mother was very sick (she died soon after the war)., so I was looking after my mother and the household. I studied Greek at home, in the hope I could study theology later. My youngest brother, a pastor, was taken into the German army, though he did not swear the oath of allegiance to Hitler. He died in Russia in 1941. After this my father said: maybe you have to study theology in his place.
I started theology in 1942 in Basel, which was very well known at the time, since Karl Barth was there, having been expelled from Germany because of his opposition to National Socialism. Swiss colleagues did not realise this; their only concern was with the situation in Switzerland, that nothing should happen there. I could not speak of my past in Berlin, as they would not understand. I finished in 1946, as the only woman in my year throughout the course. I had no problems with my male colleagues, just that I could not speak about Berlin. This had an impact on my life: to be a theologian with heart and personality, not only with my head. I had known life or death situations and so was aware of the essential things in life. In 1946 I finished my studies.
During my ordination training my mother was very ill. and I could not go to another city to take up a charge as I had to look after her. I cared for her and had the responsibility for a household of six persons with a little help.beside my practical work in a congregation of Basel.
Father said, ‘I will never come under your preaching’. But then he did come to hear me preach, the first time and every time after that. He did not stand in my way any more.
Ruth_Epting_3During the war I had been the contact person for the YWCA in Geneva and the centre in Berlin. After the death of my mother, the director of the German YWCA, wrote: Now you have time to help us. I could have worked in Basel in community work (not fully accepted, as this was not possible for women). My president said: When you are called you should go. So I was the only travelling secretary of the Burckhardhaus from 1948/49 till 1953 My job was to build up a central house in the Western part of Germany, for youth work in the three occupied sections of Germany. In 1947 I gained Swiss nationality, so I could go from one section to the other with my Swiss visa (valid for 4 months). I could visit and reanimate groups, youth secretaries and bishops to ask them for help. In 1952/53 I worked in the refugee camps for foreign refugees in Germany, mainly from Eastern Europe. After a year I had to go back because my father was dying. I did not what work I should do. I was not allowed to be elected by a public vote in a congregation because I was a woman, in 1953 when I came home (this was changed in 1957). So I had no work. The very moment when I clearly said that I was not going back to Germany, I got a call from the Psychiatric clinic in Basel to be a pastor until they could find a man. As I had had to face so many difficult situations in Germany, I came home exhausted. I needed clarification, and I started to study psychology. C.G. Jung was very little known in those days. I studied psychology in the C.G.Jung institute. This included practical work in the University hospital. There I took part in the doctors’ meetings at which they talked about their patients. I could see how they did it, and knew that it what I had done during my six years in Germany was not so wrong. My attitude in working was that I had an understanding of the situation of the people I worked with, an empathy, through listening. This was rather new in theology of that time.
In 1953 I became president of the YWCA in Switzerland. After only eighteen months I was called to a pastorate in a congregation without my having sought the appointment. So I went. It was wonderful! They wanted me to stay even though I could not yet be elected, until there was a change of constitution in Basel. I worked for this with other women theologians and with the Board of the Church in Basel. We women had to push it. We had to be celibate, said the churches. For the next generation this was impossible. In 1957 the new constitution of the Church, which allowed celibate women to be elected, was accepted by a vote of the men. There was as yet no women’s suffrage in state elections. Women were allowed to vote and be elected in the Church long before women’s suffrage in the canton. It was only in 1971 that women got the right to vote throughout Switzerland.
Ruth_Epting_4In 1959 one of my male colleagues went to Bern, and my congregation pushed for me to be elected. However, there was a woman colleague who had been working as assistant for more than twenty years in another congregation. Her congregation was very patriarchal. I said I do not accept election if she is not elected as well. By 1960, a third congregation had followed suit, so by October 1960 there were all together three congregations in the Swiss Reformed Church in Basel that had elected women pastors for the first time. After five years it was possible in each Reformed Church except Bern and Zurich, which were state Churches and had to wait until women’s suffrage came through in 1972. In the Basel Church women had been allowed to vote since 1918. Those first women had held meetings and supported each other, and therefore it was easier to go forward in Basel. In the following years I asked the Church, why the idea of women in leadership was so strange.I was encouraged to study the question with many groups in the whole Church and I noticed that this was not only a theological but also a psychological and social question. I realized that I had to write a book and to study our position thoroughly. I carried out the studies between 1966-1969 and the book Für die Freiheit frei – Der Weg der Frau in Kirche und Gesellschaft (Free for Freedom – The Way of a Woman in Church and Society, Zürich: TVZ 1972) was published in 1972.
Ruth_Epting_5I was seventeen years in this congregation, including 2 years as a stop gap in Cameroon training pastors for the Presbyterian church of Cameroon. There the same questions arose: how can the Basel church send a woman? The Cameroon men did not accept me: Paul says women have to be silent in Church, they said (I Cor. 14.24), and wanted to know what I thought about it. After three weeks I encountered no more problems, through discussion and argument. After me they accepted a Cameroon woman who was trained in Paris, and now they have women studying theology and working in their churches. After two years I went back to Switzerland, to my congregation. It was not so easy for women then. Now there are plenty of women.
In 1974, I got a full time job in the Basel Mission House where I had been a member of the executive committee since 1961. I was secretary for women’s work in three continents: Asia, Latin America and Africa. I trained candidates for mission, and had the task of changing the institute for missionaries, which had been empty for some years. Since 1950, missionaries had had to study at Universities in order to help in the teaching of indigenous poeple in the Theological Colleges, which were established as the churches were growing and became independent. My task was to develop a centre for encounter between people of third and first worlds. This was only among protestant churches. It was exciting but not easy.
Our director was linked to the WCC as an executive member. The WCC was in financial difficulties. He said, if you need our help I can give you my people. Therefore I was immediately asked to help in preparing women for the meeting in Nairobi. This was the first time that women could speak in a WCC conference. I was not in Nairobi because our director had already been elected. At that time Brigalia Bam, a refugee from South Africa, held the post of secretary for the cooperation of men and women in the WCC.
After Nairobi Brigalia Bam asked me whether I could moderate the consultation of European women to be held in 1978 in Brussels. Following Vatican II Catholic women (Catherina Halkes among them) had invited Madeleine Barot and other women from the WCC, from all parts of Europe to the Women's ecumenical liaison group (WELG). They had meetings together during and after the Vaticanum. WELG was disbanded by Rome in 1972. The argument was that women could join in Lay groups and that they did not need a special network.
Ruth_Epting_6Catherina Halkes pushed within the WCC that they should take the initiative to form a network for women from all confessions. The women’s desk was already there, but there were no catholic women yet. She also pushed for a gathering of European women. At the Consultation in Brussels in 1978, we elected women from all over Europe: from German speaking and Benelux countries, Central and Eastern, Northern and Southern Europe and Great Britain, plus one catholic woman, Jacky Stuyt. The aim was to find out how to form a movement for women in Europe. Jacky went to Rome. Rome said that a women’s council would be impossible and dangerous. So Rome proposed to call it a Forum. We made a thorough exploration of how to bring about such a co-operative women’s organisation.
It took us some four years to draw up a constitution according to Swiss law, under which I was elected convenor. We held a pre-conference in 1981, and in 1982 we proposed the founding of the Ecumenical Forum of European Christian Women (EFECW). By 1986 I was already drawing my pension, so I wanted to give up the responsibility. Instead, they made me an honorary president which meant that I should help in the continuation of the work as long as I was able!
Looking back, where are we now?
We started by getting to know each other. We shared the idea of being interconfessional, which was not easy. Europe had been torn into pieces by all the wounds of the war and by the Iron Curtain. At first we worked in the geographical regions, but the crucial moment for the Forum came in 1990 in York, following the opening of the former Soviet borders. The Eastern women felt that they were not taken seriously. They wanted to have a president from each confession, and this was agreed at the York assembly.
The next assembly was in Hungary, which was difficult for the Russian women as nobody wanted to speak Russian. This problem has now been resolved by making English the official language of the Forum. The animosity against Russian has decreased. There has been good co-operation in recent years.
There have been differences in religious situations, with secularisation in the West and revival in the East. I hope we in the West can learn from the East, and that our faith can help in difficult political situations. Maybe we have to re-evaluate our faith, to regain a lively faith, not only rational, but lived. We need to win our younger generation back. On the other side, what can East learn from West? The West has knowledge and empowerment. There is a difference in timing. The women’s movement in the West started several decades ago. A Russian woman asked me once, ‘How do you understand your freedom?’ For her, freedom is limited to a small world. She wanted to show her people what it could be, what Christian freedom could be, an inner freedom, depending on God and not on people. We have had to fight for outer freedom, but if you are not grounded it is difficult. To become grounded is a gift. You may find it when you seek it, by entering more deeply into your own religion, through meditation. I have never had the opportunity to live only for my faith as nuns do in monasteries, though I have sometimes thought about making that choice. But finally I have always been involved in the world, being politically active, intermingling church and society matters. Realising that the power in our faith is empowerment in a spiritual sense.
Ruth gave this interview during a CC meeting in March 2008 in Chisinau/Moldova to Martina Heinrichs.
Translation by Janet Wotton.
Also published in FIER, Dutch feminist-theologean journal, summer 2008.
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