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.
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.
Posted by gwb at 12:10 AM