Friday, July 22, 2005

the priesting of women as justice and why protestants shouldn't have a say in the debate, etc.

As sometimes happens when my own comments become book-length, this one has become a post unto itself. It is in response to Rob's comment in my previous polemic against some comments of the Bishop of Southwark. Now I will duck and cover.

Two things.

The main thing is an ecclesiological point: The reason I believe women should / can not be priests is that it is an enormous theological innovation, i.e. it is a practice that has never (ever), as far as anyone knows, been received and accepted by the Universal Church. It has, on the other hand, been tried before (e.g. among early Gnostic sects), and whenever it has been tried, it has in every instance been condemned and forbidden. In short, there is in the Tradition absolutely no justificatory precedent for the priesting of women, and on the other hand there is has been considerable thought given to the subject by the Episcopacy over the centuries, and they always concluded in the negative, that is, until 1976 or whenever it was. Maybe the Philadelphia Eleven (or whatever) were, in fact, prophetic. But I just don't see it. I mean, the ecclesiological and theological circumstances of those "ordinations" don't seem to me to fit the bill for true prophetic witness. E.g. enormous divisiveness ensued, thousands of people left ECUSA over it (our numbers have declined steadily ever since), it dealt a devastating blow to the potential for unity with Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox, etc etc, and it has been an occasion, indeed, for what I would call little persecutions all over ECUSA. (A seminarian friend of mine, for example, was told by his dean that he "had to" receive from women, against his conscience.)

The second point is that, yes, I think the Protestant understanding of ministry is impoverished. When I said that "protestants don't get a say" I only meant that the point I am interested in is whether women can be PRIESTS. (Most) Protestants don't claim to have a sacrificing priesthood anyway, so to admit them to a discussion of whether women can be priests is a little unfair to them, i.e. they are speaking a different language when they speak of the ordained ministry. As I've said before, I've got nothing against women being protestant ministers. Or rather, I'm happy to let protestants address that question. I'm not really that interested.

In short, when someone asks "Can women be priests?" I would say "No." If they then asked "Why?" I would say "Because the Church says so, and has said so consistently and universally for nearly 2000 years" [i.e. point 1 above]. If my interlocutor then pressed me, "But WHY has the Church said so?" I would then say, first of all, "It doesn't matter WHY the Church says so, it is sufficient for us that the Church has, in fact, said so. Our job (as members of the Church) is to obey, to conform to the Apostolic Discipline which the heirs of the Apostles, the Bishops, have consistently laid down for us on this question." I would then add, "Theologians have given various answers to the question of why the Church has said what She has said on the subject." I would then refer my interlocutor to the works of Aquinas, Bonaventure, Durandus, Duns Scotus, Hildegaard of Bingen, Edith Stein, and the encyclicals Inter Insigniores and (especially) Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, and maybe St. Chrysostom's treatise on the priesthood.

The arguments I most often have heard in favor of the priesting of women are arguments invoking justice. Here are some not-atypical comments from the Episcopal Women’s Caucus, concerning the Anglican Mission in America’s lengthy study on the question of women priests. (The AMiA's document can be found here.)

The Board of the Episcopal Women's Caucus (EWC) has read the much-anticipated 142-page report from the Anglican Mission in America (AMiA) on the Ordination of Women and responds with sadness and chagrin to the AMiA's October 31, 2003 announcement of their policy on women's ordination.

How unfortunate, indeed, for Archbishops Kolini of Rwanda and Chung of Southeast Asia, sponsors of the AMiA, to "provide guidance to ordain properly qualified and called women as deacons but not as priests or bishops." In a missionary evangelical movement like AMiA, it seems to us an insult to the Body of Christ to claim to be open to the Spirit in the fullness of that Body's vocational life, and yet deny that same fullness in the spiritual and vocational life of women.

However, what seems truly bizarre to us is their decision that "the two women who had already been ordained priests and had affiliated with the AMiA, will be permitted to continue their ministry as priests, serving on staff where called. However, women who seek affiliation with the AMiA, from this point on, who are already ordained as priests, will be asked to serve as deacons."

One small step for man, two giant steps backward for women -- and the theology of ordination.

It is the prayer of Jesus that, "We all may be one." It is the firm belief of the Episcopal Women's Caucus that as long as the cause of unity is carried on the backs of women, or any others not in power, the mission of Christ in the world will not be fulfilled.

First of all, note that the letter is full of assertions, but woefully short on argument or on any kind of justification for their assertions. If an ecclesial body does not ordain women, that body is guilty of denying a “fullness in the spiritual and vocational life of women”, and not ordaining women means that an ecclesial body is not truly “open to the Spirit”.

But, for Catholic Christians, the chief manifestation of the Holy Spirit is in the Apostolic ministry of the Episcopacy of the Universal Church (cf. John 20). Why, given the choice, would I side with a subset of an obscure branch (really a twig) of the Universal Church, rather than with the overwhelming and consistent witness of the Universal Church herself? And how are we meant to test the spirits, to see if they are of God in this new scheme? Is the Episcopal Women’s Caucus the new arbiter of true inspiration? Is the Episcopal Women’s Caucus assuming a magisterial function?

And why is it “bizarre” to permit the two women already serving as priests in AMiA to continue to do so? It seems to me just largesse and graciousness, and a provisional measure in the interests thereof. There’s nothing “bizarre” about it.

The most telling bit of the letter, though, (and this again is typical in my experience) is that the correctness of a theology of ordination depends (apparently solely) on the question of whether that theology permits the admission of women to the priesthood. We are meant to believe that it all comes down, in the final analysis, to questions of power. The Church is not doing God’s will unless it is “empowering” people. Nevermind that this notion of “power” seems incredibly impoverished as a Christian notion of power (cf. Philipians 2 and 1 Corinthians 1.18). The idea that access to the priesthood is a way to empowerment manifests, frankly, a rather debased and primitive clericalism.

The point of the Cross is that what seems to earthly eyes like power is really slavery, and that what seems to earthly eyes like slavery is really power. Thus in the catholic Tradition, the pope is called servus servorum dei – slave of the slaves of God -- and likewise the humblest of our fellowship are counted as the greatest saints. To agitate for the priesting of women because women are thereby thought to be empowered is, it seems to me, to debase the priesthood as it was given us by our Lord and as the Catholic Church has consistently and universally preserved it. It is not to lift up the cause of women, but rather radically to reduce the doctrine of the priesthood.


Father Nelson said...

Axios, Axios, Axios!

J-Tron said...

Did Hildegard really make arguments against women entering the priesthood? I've never seen that. But I've never seen a lot of things. Please point me in the direction of that, if you would be so kind.

JA and I had an interesting conversation about this the other day. He accused me of essentially the same thing that you accuse the Episcopal Women's Caucus of, namely of making women's entry into the ordained ministry a "justice" issue. I suppose in some ways it is a justice issue, in that it is unjust to supress or alter the will of God, whether that be in the form of denying women with a call to serve or in the form of altering the traditional view of the nature of priesthood unduly.

But justice is not what I think you're concerned about, if I may be so bold as to interpret. Stop me if I'm wrong, but it seems like what you see as the problem is the notion of a priesthood built on social equality rather than on servanthood and sacrifice. That is an understandable concern. And I share it. My endorsement of women in the ordained ministry has relatively little to do with social equality. It has to do with a theological understanding of the priesthood that cannot be reduced to gender any more than it can be reduced to most other physical traits (hair and eye color, ethnicity, blood type, etc). But I am not concerned that the ordained ministry become "gender balanced" for instance. I am concerned that those who are called to serve by God are given the chance to discern that call and are shepherded by the Church appropriately. If that means that the priesthood is 90% male and 10% female because that's how God calls it, that's fine with me. The opposite would also be fine. It's not my choice to make. God chooses servants. God calls. We have only to answer. The Church helps us to discern that call, to make sure we aren't hearing ghosts or being misdirected.

Now, this is not to say that the relative place of women in society is not part of the equation. After all, you can rightly point to the fact that there were not women serving as priests or bishops for a very, very long time. Is this because there were no women called? Possibly. I don't know. But for the most part nobody even bothered to ask the question because the ordained ministry was associated with social and political power, something that women were not even meant to contemplate. This sort of power differential grew into a gross distortion over time, eventually leading to the tragedy of the Reformation and a thousand little sects ready to throw out the baby with the bathwater. The Anglican Church, in my opinion, avoided some of these pitfalls by grounding itself in the earliest theology of the Church and the scriptures while at the same time not denying the important role of the Universal Church. As a "twig" we may have little influence over how the Universal Church operates. Certainly we would need something on the lines of an ecumenical council to change core dogmas of the Christian faith, such as the understanding of the Trinity or Christ's divine and human natures. That is not possible in today's world. But clearly, from the Anglican standpoint, other matters of doctrine are fair game, even if they cause irritation to our Roman brethren. We shouldn't purposely do things to create such irritation, but we should not reject our own discernment of truth as a body simply because it might make another body which already considers us anathema uncomfortable. Otherwise we'd have to deny that there was ever a rationale for Anglican Reformation in the first place, in which case there'd be very little reason for us to continue the charade that we are part of the true Church.

Did the Episcopal Church operate correctly in the process of repealing bars to women's ordination? Mostly, but with some unfortunate derisions. The 11 who broke with the General Convention and became ordained did so unnecessarilly and without proper respect for the place of the larger Church in discernment. But the theological justification for removing the bars to women's ordination is present in the documents that lead up to General Convention, 1976, and in other provinces of the Communion as well. And while I think that you present your dissent respectfully, I have to say that I've yet to see much of an argument against women's ordination that is theologically based. As I've said, the argument that other folks don't do it, or haven't done it, just doesn't cut it. You mentioned "Ordinatio Sacerdotalis" as one argument made by the Roman Catholic Church in recent years. I've read that document several times, as it often gets referenced in this sort of discussion. Its central argument, that women cannot be priests because Jesus did not call women, is demonstrably false. Its secondary argument, that women cannot be priests because they stand in persona Christae and Christ was clearly a man, raises all sorts of other fundamental questions about the nature of priesthood based on what we know of Christ. Can non-Jews be priests? What about the non-circumcised? How about folks with lighter skin? Or of a different height? Or who don't speak Aramaic? It just descends into madness at a certain point. Perhaps there is something different about the nature of the difference between men and women. But, if so, John Paul fails to make the point.

And, now that my comments have also become booklength, I will draw to a close. Let me only add that I think it is unfortunate that your friend was forced to accept the Eucharist from a woman when he could not in conscience. No one should ever be forced to eat at the Lord's Table.

grace and peace,


J-Tron said...

As I re-read these things, I always feel like I've scrambled together my words indiscernibly. When I said...

"This sort of power differential grew into a gross distortion over time, eventually leading to the tragedy of the Reformation and a thousand little sects ready to throw out the baby with the bathwater. The Anglican Church, in my opinion, avoided some of these pitfalls by grounding itself in the earliest theology of the Church and the scriptures while at the same time not denying the important role of the Universal Church."

I was talking there in general terms about the effects of power, not about women's ordination or power differentials between men and women specifically. I do not claim that the Reformation was caused by gender inequality.

Adam said...

This is quite good. Thanks.

father wb said...

Thank you, thank you. No, really.... Thank you.

JT --

Yes, Hildegard was adamantly opposed to the ordination of women. (She also vehemently denounced homosexuality, and was a champion of clerical celibacy. She also only allowed the nobility to join her monasteries.)

I believe its all to be found in the Scivias. I am told, though, that Matthew Fox leaves such things out of his renditions. Check out the Paulist Press translation.

About my argument against the ordination of women: I think its entirely theologically based, that is, if you think that the doctrine of the Church is theological, as I do. My opposition to the ordination of women is entirely rooted in my ecclesiology and pneumatology. That is, I take the dogmas of the Church, and the Holy Tradition in general, to be the products of (the real) openness to the Holy Spirit.

Lastly, to be honest, JT, I don't think we're that far apart on most issues (even this one). I think my ecclesiology is "higher" (more papist) than yours, but if it weren't for that, I reckon I would agree with you about women's ordination. (Perhaps your ecclesiology is more Anglican than mine.)

Lastly-prime: Ordinatio Sacerdotalis doesn't argue that Jesus didn't call women, full-stop. It argues that Jesus did not call women *as apostles*, which is true. Obviously he called Martha, the various Mary's, etc., and their ministry was in some ways more exalted than that of the Apostles (they were the first graced with bearing witness to the Resurrection, to understanding what Jesus was about, etc.). But there were twelve apostles, all men. (He also called other men, though not as Apostles: cf. the "many of his disciples" of John 6.66.) Ord.Sac. argues, further, that our Lord's choice of twelve male apostles (and no female apostles) was a free and sovereign choice, that he was entirely unconstrained in that choice by, for example, his cultural surround. But since the Christian priesthood is an apostolic ministry, ergo, etc.

Lastly-double-prime: I agree with you that society and the Church has been unduly, and unjustly, "patriarchal" in the past. Or maybe, rather, that it has unduly and unjustly exercised its godly patriarchy, to the detriment of godly women, called to serve in various ways. One wonders, for example, for every Hildegard or Julian, how many godly and talented women there were who nevertheless were never given a voice precisely and only because they were women. And I think the Church is culpable for never encouraging and developing more active outlets for women with vocations within the institutional Church.

J-Tron said...

Would you include Paul as an apostle?

father wb said...

Yes, in a way.

But the opacity of the identities and roles of Andronicus and Junia in Romans 16.7 is notorious. For example, St. Chrysostom, recognizing that Junia was indeed a woman (along with Origen), was nevertheless by no means a supporter of the ordination of women to the presbyterate or episcopate.

Moreover, that St. Paul was saying that they were apostles is not clear to me. He says that they are "episemos en tois apostolois", literally that they bore a special mark among the apostles. Could this not mean that they were well known among the Apostles, i.e. well-known TO the apostles?

Also, its altogether possible that Junia was the wife of Andronicus, and therefore got the honorific classification "apostle" (much in the way that wives of priests are called "priestess" among some in the Christian East).

I tend to think, though, that Paul was in fact calling Junia an apostle in her own right. But Paul was not using "apostle" in the way that the Church later came to understand the term -- i.e. in the sense of "the Twelve". As he applied the term to himself, he meant that he had seen the risen Lord and had begun to preach (as in 1 Corinthians 9.1). In this sense, there were loads of "apostles", among whom, it stands to reason, were many women -- that is, since the risen Lord appeared to over five hundred at once (1 Corinthians 15).

So, about anachronism: there are multiple senses, then, of the term "apostle". Paul used it in a loose-ish way, but the Church came to use it in a more technical way, as applicable only really to the Twelve (and I suppose to Paul). And the more technical sense emerged (and was received) partly as a component of a developing doctrine of ordained ministry.

Again, its all about ecclesiology: the doctrinal authority that binds us most directly is the authority of the Church's magisterium. (Anglicanism is woefully inadequate on providing for an orderly expression of magisterial functioning, thus all the problems we've got now, thus also the Windsor reports ecclesiological recommendations.) We are read Paul, therefore, through the Magisterium, since the Magisterium is literally about teaching (magister= teacher). And in this case, this isn't to abandon some Anglican principle of scripture interpreting scripture, or some such thing, the techinical distinctions between different senses of "apostle" is well within the plain meaning of scripture: Matthew 10.2 refers to and lists "the Twelve Apostles", yet Paul obviously uses the term more loosely (and recall that Matthew was probably written later than most of the Pauline corpus).

And again, in answer to the question of how it is that priests can be gentiles, yet not women (given that Jesus was both a Jew and a man), its because the Church has not received the fact of Jesus's judaism in such a way that it entail the exclusion of gentiles from the Christian priesthood. And this understanding -- like the understanding of the priesthood as all male -- is universal and consistent; it goes right back to the apostolic times (Ignatius of Antioch was a gentile, as was Polycarp).


Petra said...

What I miss a bit in your post is a reference to the incarnational dimension of the priesthood. The priest confects the sacraments, after all, in persona Christi, embodying Christ, the Bridegroom of the Church. This is why - answering j-tron's argument about physical traits - I would say that the sex of the person is important, while skin color, hair color, age etc. aren't. (See also the parallel to religious folk art from, say, Africa, where Mary and the baby Jesus are often depicted with dark skin - but of course never as a person of the other sex...)

And I also miss in these discussions a reference to the obvious Old Testament parallel, where God chose the males of the tribe of Levi to serve as His priests. This was fully His sovereign choice - and no-one complained that people from the other tribes of Israel could not become priests...

J-Tron said...

Well, continuing to beat a dead horse (come on bessy!)....

The reference to Junia as an apostle in Paul is compelling. And I have trouble seeing how he could be referring to her as anything other than an apostle, whatever he understood that to mean. Also interesting are the numerous other places where Paul addresses women who are acting as leaders in the Church. I think those passages enrich and add to the debate. But they are not the only pieces, nor necessarilly the most compelling in relation to this question specifically as Paul does not speak directly to the sacrificial nature of the work of priesthood (nor, indeed, does scripture as a whole unless interpreted cumulatively).

But Paul's understanding of himself as an apostle, and the Church's long standing acceptance of that, is important. Because Paul defines for us what an apostle is. Not just someone who has seen the Risen Lord, as obviously that would include a tremendous number of people, but someone who has seen the Risen Lord and also been charged to minister. This probably also included a large number, but not everyone. It's also consistent with the gospel notion of the calling and sending of apostles and disciples.

Paul certainly saw himself as being as valid an apostle as Peter or James. There are indications that he performed sacraments himself, though none to point to him being ordained by anyone but the Risen Lord. If the Church accepts Paul, it accepts that there were others besides the 12 who are the root of our ordained ministry. This makes more sense to me than grounding everything on the 12 who seem to hold a special place rhetorically more than they do otherwise. After all, the lists of the 12 are inconsistent with one another. And while a couple of the 12 are seen playing important parts in the gospel narrative (Peter, Andrew, the sons of Zebedee, and of course Judas... perhaps Philip later on, if you think Acts is talking about the same guy...), most of them are just mentioned to fill out the list (anyone have any inspiring scripture to share involving the apostle Thaddeus? Or maybe involving the other Judas?). In the beginning of Acts we see Judas Iscariot's place among the 12 being filled and then never heard from again. Do the 12 hold a special place? Undoubtedly. Do we have a clue what it is? Not really. But exegetically speaking, the 12 are connected with the 12 tribes, creating a literary continuity. Has the Church made a determination that the 12 are uniquely the root of all ordained ministry, ruling all others (including Paul) out? No. Perhaps they played some special role in the organization of the early Church, the same way that archbishops and metropolitans would later. But that's all highly speculative. Unless we want to become Mormons and claim that there are 12 living apostles in our own time, the maleness of the 12 doesn't seem to me to be extraordinarilly relevant.

You mention that the Church accepted gentiles into its ranks and its ministry quickly. This shoots down any other argument for similarities between Jesus and the ordained ministry that must be maintained. But I think that makes the point rather brilliantly. The Church rather quickly did away with the notion that one had to resemble Jesus in every way to be ordained. There is no ontological difference between a Jew and a non-Jew. Black folks and white folks don't have different and incompatible souls. Left handed and right handed alike share in the charisms of the Spirit. Paul tells us that in Christ, 'there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no man or woman.' Women and men are saved, one in the same. We are not different species from one another. Ordaining a woman is not like ordaining a turnip.

Yes, I see the ecclesiological difference. The Church says so isn't good enough for me, mostly because I don't think the Church has really said so. Some institutional bodies have said so. Some individuals have said so. But institutions made of people can err. Humans, frought with sin and bias, can make mistakes. And of course, I am always open to the possibility that I am making one right now. I don't believe that the Church can sin, but I sure as heck believe that individuals and groups can.

Perhaps ordaining women is not a good idea. I think it is, but that's because I believe that there are many women who have a call. But maybe that's a mistake. Maybe women who believe they have a call to priesthood really have a call to something else. If so, the job of the Church is to help women discern their call, the same way the Church should be helping all Christians find their vocation. But even if it turns out that God has not called any women, even if from this day forward not a single new woman was ordained, the argument that those already ordained are simply dressed up as priests, that one can no more ordain a woman than ordain a potato, is impossible to maintain against scripture (not to mention biology, psychology, and Church history). Papal bulls saying otherwise do not make it so, anymore than Leo's bull that Anglican orders are invalid suddenly made every Anglican priest incapable of celebrating the Eucharist.

And now, I suddenly have the strong desire to make a turnip and potato stew.

grace and peace,


father wb said...


Right. I agree with you. (Though I could be wrong.) But again, the reason WE can't ordain women is because the Church forbids it. Why does the Church forbid it? Well, that's a different question. I guess the answer is probably all that incarnational stuff: men and women are images of Christ and the Church qua Bridegroom and Bride, etc. etc.


"You mention that the Church accepted gentiles into its ranks and its ministry quickly. This shoots down any other argument for similarities between Jesus and the ordained ministry that must be maintained. But I think that makes the point rather brilliantly."

But despite accepting gentiles into the ranks of its presbyters and bishops, the Church did not accept women (even thought there were women priests among the gentiles -- i.e. in the mystery cults which supposedly influenced Christianity early on). And its not as though it never occurred to anyone: there were gnostic sects that did ordain women and the Catholic Church said "no, we don't do that."

Hi-oh, Dead Bessy, away!

But I firmly agree with you that the Church has suffered from its failure to foster women leadership, and part of the exciting thing about the post Vatican II RC world is the number of university-trained women with full time vocations within the Church. This is indisputably a Biblical / Apostolic model. I think the RC's ought to look into having women deacons. That probably won't happen during our lifetime, but I think it would be good.

J-Tron said...

Now that's rather curious. Why would you support women in the diaconate? After all, isn't there the same tradition of the Church that keeps women out of that position?

father wb said...

Well, I think the women deacons mentioned in Paul (and Acts?) were more or less equivalents of the men deacons (according to Raymond Brown, whom I trust in almost all matters New Testament), even though NT deacons were rather different (I presume) from modern deacons. Moreover, the there seem to have been women deacons in ensuing centuries. Tertullian mentions them, as do the Apostolic Constitutions, the Didascalia, etc.

I'm not sure that "deaconesses" should be understood as the the same thing as a male deacon. I think some people (who know more about it than I do) think that deaconesses were related to (or the same thing as) the order of widows attested to, e.g. by Tertullian, and in the councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon. The point, though, is that the Apostolic Church had orders for women, as did the Church in the next few centuries. And these aren't gnostic sects I'm talking about. And some of these orders for women within the Catholic Church were called "deacons" (or "deaconesses"). Its unclear exactly what that meant, but whatever it meant, we ought to have that.

St. Macrina, sister of St. Gregory of Nyssa, was a deaconess. Whatever she was, there should be a corresponding order for women, in my view. That would probably help the RC Church. (And Anglicanism, but I tend to think we're probably beyond helping institutionally.) St. Apollonia (patron of dentists) was a deaconess. The virgin-martyr St. Justina was made a deaconess by St. Cyprian.

Anyway, I'm not clear what exactly these saints were, but whatever it was, that's what we ought to have.