For the first time, a woman has been appointed Moderator of the Company of Pastors in Geneva - one of the most influential posts in the Protestant Church. Isabelle Graesslé says she intends to use her position to make the church more receptive to the needs of society.
Graesslé, who describes herself as a rebel, is a well-known feminist theologian who hopes to have a modernising influence on the church. "The church needs to be shaken. I don't want to abandon tradition, but we constantly need to question it," she explains.
The post of Moderator of the Company of Pastors and Deacons was created in 1541 by Jean Calvin, and occupied by the great reformer himself.
"My friends tell me that Calvin will be turning in his grave, not because I'm a woman, but because I'm a Lutheran," Graesslé told swissinfo. She says such spiritual divisions are today only really of importance to theologians, and of little concern to lay people.
Rites of passage
The Company of Pastors and Deacons is the theological and spiritual authority of the Protestant Church. One of its main roles is to constantly interpret the gospel in the context of modern life, and to provide guidance to the Synod on these issues.
"Concepts like salvation and redemption no longer mean anything to ordinary people," Graesslé explains. "We must find new interpretations of these existential concepts.
"But as well as this internal task, Graesslé believes she has an external role to play, especially in light of the fact that congregation numbers are falling.
"If we are not reaching the people with our message, it's because we no longer listen. We must be more attentive," she says, adding that pastors need to "immerse themselves in society".
She speaks of the church needing to go through a "rites of passage" to allow it to continue fulfilling its role, and her almost completed second thesis is on this very subject.
Graesslé's appointment is hugely symbolic for women in the church. The first female minister was ordained in Geneva as long ago as 1928, but she was excluded from the Company of Pastors and Deacons until 1946.
Protestant women's movement
A third of all members of the Company are now women, but it has taken until the beginning of the 21st century for one of them to become what Graesslé calls "the pastor's pastor".
"If I am in this position today, it is only because there have been women in the Protestant Church who have dared to say they wanted to be pastors," the Strasbourg-born theologian says.
Graesslé, 42, was part of a movement of Protestant women called Fuchsia, which was created some five years ago to respond to what they regarded as a male-biased reorganisation of the church. One of their key demands was that a woman be appointed Moderator.
Graesslé has been head of the Protestant Studies Centre in Geneva for the past ten years. She teaches at the Universities of Geneva and Lausanne.
by Roy Probert