The year 1976 was a watershed year in the history of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa (MCSA). The landmark decision of the 1972 Conference to have women ordained into the full ministry of the church was given effect with the ordination of Constance M. Oosthuizen to ministry in that year.

It was clearly an injustice that women, who form more than half of the church and who actually make the church what it is, should be excluded from ordained ministry on some dubious ground completely at odds with the welcoming arms of Christ.

In 2016, while the MCSA was celebrating 40 years since this milestone, the student body at SMMS was making history by electing Noeleen Maquena, of Port Elizabeth West Circuit (Grahamstown District), as the first female Chairperson of the Seminarian Executive Council (SEC).

Nominated by a male seminarian and voted by a largely male student body to lead them for a year, Maquena says it has been such an amazing privilege and honour to have been elected in such a significant year in the history of the MCSA, and to be a participant in the making of history.

Now as the time approaches to hand over the button to a new leadership, Maquena reflects on her term as student leader, what it means for gender equality and shares her views about gender issues at SMMS and in the MCSA.

“The fact that I was nominated by a male seminarian and voted into office by a largely male student body shows that our male colleagues respect the leadership abilities of women and they seem to have embraced the progressive journey of accepting female leaders,” Maquena says.

She said she had been cautioned that she would be discriminated against because she is a woman and so was not sure what to expect. However she says she has been getting overwhelming support from all quarters and most importantly, from her team which she says is very reliable and committed, and made it possible for her to lead to the best of her ability.

Maquena said although a lot of progress has been made in the MCSA in bridging the gender divide since the ordination of Oosthuizen, a lot of work still needs to be done to create a church in which discrimination on the grounds of gender becomes a thing of the past.

Maquena, who has worked in the private sector for two decades, expressed disappointment at the slow pace at which women are responding to God’s call to ordained ministry and to senior leadership positions in the church.

She said, “Although the church has a ‘40/40/20’ system, but looking through the Connexion, there is still a lot of work to be done. We have so many capable women and it is so sad that they are not being used to grow our church. We note the role of Purity Malinga as the first woman bishop and we want to encourage other women to step into leadership positions.

“I think the one thing that would definitely make a difference is if more women come forward and take their stand against patriarchy and inequality. Women have been silenced by fear and feeling inadequate to perform certain duties. This has slowed down the pace of women coming into leadership positions.”

Happily married to Jerome for 23 years, the mother of two says she derives her strength to pursue her calling from the support of her family.

She said, “I have a very supportive husband and he has played a pivotal role in my journey so far. He believes that I have been called into the ministry and he will, when time comes, move with me wherever the church sends me. My children are very supportive as well, even though the transition was not an easy one for the family.”

Maquena says although she has been in the children and youth ministries for a couple of years, her passion is in working with the elderly. “I have found that older people are lonely, hurt, bitter, feel abandoned and yearn for some attention. Some even feel that God has abandoned them. I enjoy spending time with them and see how their eyes come to life again when they tell their stories and reminisce about the distant past,” she says.

Having been at the seminary for two years, she says she has had some great moments. “My highlight has been the Further Education and Mission (FEM) placement at a local hospital. It really helped me overcame my Nosocomephobia (fear of hospitals). Another experience has been in the garden, growing my own vegetables and eating them. The Nzondolelo experience – where students go to a rural circuit for a couple of days, stay in people’s home, eat what they eat and sleep where they sleep – was absolutely a once in a lifetime experience that taught me that humility is the key to people’s hearts. Above all, my proudest moment was when I had to congratulate the graduates on behalf of the students as the SEC Chairperson.”