Tuesday, June 20, 2006

on why i am not pursuing ordination (with generous congratulations to the world's first woman primate)

The elevation of Jefferts Schori has rekindled questions surrounding the ostensive ordination of women. The following is from MM, one of the smartest and and most devout women I've ever known, at Theology of the Body.

I consecrated my life to Jesus Christ when I was about three. I study theology. I start ministries and spend a lot of time figuring out how to better serve the Body of Christ. I preach. I evangelize. I am usually bursting at the seams with annoying evangelical zeal. I officiated at a marriage as a laywoman last fall; and this past weekend, I donned a cassock to assist at another friend's wedding. "You look GREAT in vestments," some ECUSA friends told me with a wink and a nudge. I was honored beyond words by their loaded statement. But I will never be a priest.

The ordination of women, celebrated yesterday by the [Episcopal Church's] decision to promote Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori of Nevada as its presiding bishop on Sunday, making her the first woman to lead a church in the worldwide Anglican Communion, apparently enacts themes of "liberation" and "revolution" and "inclusion" familiar in Christ's renewal of the world; but the ordination of women and the installation of Bishop Katherine does not ring with the faithful tradition of the Church because it does not, in fact, accord with the actual enactment of Jesus.

The Church has, until the past century, always held that despite great and immediate need, no one might presume to take up the task of laboring in the Lord's fields without actually being sent by the Lord of the Harvest Himself. Christ fulfilled His own command and prayer that workers might be send among His people by selecting and sending twelve particular men and their deliberately ordained successors to continue His work in the world. The Church has long held that her authority to ordain her clergy is purely derivative from the enactment of Christ Himself in sending twelve particular men to be His apostles; as such, the Church simply posesses no authority to ordain women. Certainly women are pastorally skilled, intellectually and emotionally capable; certainly they posess every dignity and God-given right held in common with men; certainly the Church might ordain them on account of such capacities. But the Church, founded on historial realities bounded by particularity, simply does not have that option. The Church is bound, for better or for worse, to follow the example of her Lord, who chose twelve men to be His apostles.

Yes, this "limitation" has caused me some personl grief within the Tradition that is not mine to revise or re-create. But honestly, I'm not that worked up about the sacredotal impulse that so often provokes people to run to serve at the alter, as though the apostolate of all believers and the mediation of Christ's life into the world were not the privilege of every baptized.

I remember Mary. The archetypal woman in the life of our Lord and in the life of His Church was not made an apostle. Yet she is the one who definitively presents God to humanity in her own flesh so that He might take take us into His very life. Our Lord may have charged the male Peter with the care of His flock and the keys to His Kingdom, but He entered Mary's very body. It is Mary whose heart is so united with His as to be "pierced" with His. It is Mary who enjoins our Lord's first public act of service for His people. It is Mary who then commands servants in His name. And it is Mary, singled out among the twelve at Pentecost, who stands for womankind at the formation of the Church- more intimate with their Lord then they, more powerful than they, more honored than they- and yet, not an apostle. Mother of the Church, yes; bishop, no.

The Church has a Mother; and in Mary's motherhood, all women can comprehend the immediacy of God's calling to their innermost being, and the extent of their capacity to gift their very selves for His Church, and can rest in the profundity of this vocation.


Justine said...

Your thoughts about the role of Mary in relation to the Church are beautifully put and indeed her role does supersede any role any individual priest could hope to have. All the same, I am not sure I find your reasoning sound for why women should not be ordained. It is true that Christ selected 12 men to be his disciples (perhaps symbolic of replacing the 12 tribes of Israel) but why do we attach so much importance to the fact that they were men. They were also all Palestinian, Jewish, and Aramaic-speaking. Since Jesus himself drew no attention to the fact that his disciples were men, I am not sure that there is any significance other than cultural and practical ones: it was unheard of for Jewish women to leave their homes, travel alone, and speak in public. Many of the 12 disciples needed to do all these very things.

father wb said...

"...I am not sure that there is any significance..."

Well, that's why its not up to us as individuals, nor as little factions, to decide what is and what is not germane about the Incarnation to our particularity. That's what the Tradition is for. And on this point it is unanimous (or "catholic" if you prefer). Or at least, up until 1976 it was unanimous / catholic. At that point, a tiny little sect decided to depart from the clear and consistent teaching of the Universal Church. (To say nothing of St. Paul.)

Justine said...

Agreed. As a Catholic I respect the Tradition, but if this is the best answer to this issue I can obtain I am going to remain dissatisfied.

Yes we can turn to the teachings of St. Paul:

"There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." - Cor. 3:28

Also the earliest churches were not public buildings but house-churches in which there is much historical evidence that women often had a leadership role. (There is an excellent book written on this topic "A Woman's Place: House Churches in the Early Church" by Osiek and MacDonald.)

Sorry to explode this issue on Ms. Schori's page, but I've been frustrated after years of not getting a good answer on this issue. I'm no rebel here trying to make waves. If there is some higher reason here of God's surely there must be some discernable logic that mankind can perceive. Afterall gender is a matter of our humanity and surely we can discern the logic in maintaining this tradition in perpetuity if there be one.

father wb said...


I didn't mean to imply that I thought you were some kind of theological maverick. Apologies.

Anyway, with regard to Galatians 3.28, St. Paul is talking about out putting-on of Christ in the sacrament of Baptism. That is, in baptism there is neither male nor female, et alia. The context is important:

"...for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

Paul is clearly speaking of our equality in salvation through the sacrament of Baptism. That is, he is speaking of our equality in being undifferentiatededly (to coin a word) initiated into the Body of Christ. He is not speaking of our functioning within the Body, nor is he implying that there is not differentiation when it comes to how different members function.

Indeed Paul very clearly rules out a theology of Holy Order that does not cognizant of difference. In Ephesians 4 Paul says that there are many different roles and ministries for different kinds of people within the Body. He admits that his is a provisional reality, to be dispensed with in the eschaton, "until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ." And in 1 Corinthians 12, Paul again explicitly says that though there is one Lord, one Body, one Christ, there are nevertheless a variety and multiplicity of ministries and gifts.

Now, none of this from Paul doesn't add up to "women can't be priests," I admit. (Though there are other passages in Paul that, I believe do.)

There are essentially two levels of questions to ask with regard to the ordination of women. The first is "Why can women not be priested." The answer to that is "Because that has been the clear and consistent judgment of the universal Church, at every time and in every place that the question has been considered." But then there is another question (which I think you, Justine, are asking here): "But why has the Church said that?" And the answer to THAT question is rather more complicated, opaque, and probably less satisfactory. It is, for better or worse, a gender-essentialist answer. God created men and women as distinct and complimentary sacramental realities. Thus the union of a man and a woman for life is an icon of the eternal union in fidelity of Christ and his bride, the Church. This union was consummated by Christ's sacrifice on the cross. The Vulgate even uses this language, as I never get tired of pointing out. Christ's last words from the cross in John are "Consummatum est." It is consummated. And the sacrament of Holy Order, like the sacrament of marriage, is iconographic of this sacrifice. Priests offer the holy sacrifice, the holy "consummation" of Christ's perfect oblation "in his person" -- "in persona Christi." And insofar as the priest is imaging Christ-the-Bridegroom, the Church has always said that the proper matter of this sacramental iconography is, in part, a man. It is tempting to say that "matter doesn't matter" (so to speak). But the Church has always resisted this gnosticizing tendency, insisting that matter DOES matter. Just as we need bread and wine for the Eucharist and flowing water for Baptism, so we need a man for Holy Orders.

This is how the Church has ever made sense of the scriptural narrative of man and woman, beginning with Genesis, and right through the Song of Solomon, the Wedding at Cana, and Ephesians 5. And this is how the Church has ever explained our Lord's own gender, and his choice of twelve men to be his apostles.

Now this, of course, does not mean that women are thereby barred from ministry, full stop. It simply means that one very specific ministry within the Body is reserved for men. But we know from the new testament (and as you mention) women did, in fact, have prominent leadership roles within the Church. And I believe that one of the material conditions that made possible the disasters in the EPiscopal Church, which really began with the ordination of women in the 70's, was the Church's very real failure to provide an official avenue for women to minister and lead in the Church. There were exceptions, as there always are. The Diocese of Georgia, for example, in the late 19th and early 20th century had an order of deaconesses (one of whom was black -- unheard of at that time and in that place). But the exceptions were few and far between.

Lastly, some scholars detect something like a nascent order of women religious in, for example, Acts 9. 1 Corinthians 7, and 1 Timothy 5. So there is scriptural precedent for women functioning and ministering in an official capacity within the Church. The survival well into the first millenium of deaconesses (e.g. Saint Macrina).

I've droned on far longer than I meant to. It is time for supper.

Justine said...

Thank you Fr. Wb for your insights. I have heard some of this reasoning before, but not as explained so well as you have just explained it. I have read John Paul II's Theology of the Body (only Part I admittedly) and I do accept a mystical as well as a material difference between men and women.

I too have often argued that women indeed can serve in the Church (Catholic) and often emphasize the numbers of women missionaries and nuns whose role is often under-appreciated. There is leadership and then there is leadership. A woman may not be a priest, bishop, or pope in the Catholic church, but there is leadership of a different kind. There are women theologians and mystics and there are women such as Mother Theresa. If she isn't an example of a woman in a leadership position, I don't know what is.

I guess I will learn to make peace with this issue. It is difficult though to explain all this to someone on the outside of faith (something I often find myself in the position of doing.)

Thanks for your help though.

father wb said...


Thank you for your thoughts. I hope I really was helpful. I understand completely your sentiment that it is difficult to translate the Church's reasoning into a form "understanded of the people" outside the Church (as the Preface to the Book of Common Prayer put it in the 16th century). Lord is it difficult!

A final thought: I think there has been a kind of bloated clericalism that has afflicted the Church in the West for some time, whereby the roles of those in Holy Orders are inflated as to their importance, and I think that attitude -- the often sanctimonious attitude of priests and (especially) bishops, that they are so incredibly important -- has added fuel to the fire of those who really want the ordination of women.

The truth is, the clergy need to internalize our Lord's teaching in Mark 9.35: "If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all." Priests really are here to serve, equip, and empower the laity to go out into the world and do the work of the gospel, to spread the good news. That's the Church's REAL and really important work, and its done by the laity -- and that's the sense in which all the baptized, both men and women, are priests, the sense meant by Saint Peter (1 Peter 2.9) when he calls all the baptized "a royal priesthood," because they have put on Christ (Galatians 3.27), which includes putting on his kingship and his priesthood. Priests and bishops, in the ministerial / sacramental sense, are only there to support THAT priestly work, the priestly work of all the baptized. And priests and bishops need to come to terms with that fact.