logo

Pathways to women’s ordination

logo

If it be asked of me why I affirm women’s ordination I’m afraid my answer must turn first of all to my history and not to a revelation. I was raised Pentecostal, and in most Pentecostal churches, continuing the Holiness legacy, women are and have been ordained. (Indeed, it is worth adding, they have been doing so for much longer than The Episcopal Church. The reason it is worth noting is because it shows that WO is not simply a matter, then, of “liberalism” run amuck. In fact, if it is true that decline and WO are directly tied together, as they are according to a few declension narratives, then we must ask, considering the spectacular growth of the Pentecostal churches, whether this is actually a sustainable story.) So this was never an “issue” for me. It was simply a natural part of church life. Moreover I have seen the manifest fruits of this practice.

Neither was my interest piqued when I was confirmed in TEC. Here too WO seems to be something that is taken for granted.

What finally got me interested in the discussion was my growing care for ecumenism. Only after this spark was lit did I come to understand how important this is not only among other catholic churches, but among other Anglican provinces as well. That it is so controversial rather surprised me. Little by little I began to see that part of the reason at least that WO is resisted is because of the thin theological language often behind it. The language of “equality” and “inclusion” abounds, maybe there are even sometimes passing nods to Galatians, but over all support can only seem to a “majority world” perspective yet another Western ideological intrusion — a perspective fueled not on traditional theological resources but rather on the supposedly universal anthropology of “right” (one not founded on humans being created in God’s image but founded instead on the alienated ego who must be asserted and protected by the secular state).

Therefore, as I hinted in the last post, if WO is to get off the ground elsewhere it has got to be addressed with more traditional resources.

To that end allow me to propose a few avenues that I feel are meet to be explored.

- A good look at the book of Hebrews is in order. In Hebrews Christ’s priesthood has two interrelated characteristics. The first is that he took on flesh. He had to be made like his adelphoi in all things in order to save them (Heb 2). This is his earthly priesthood. The second is that his is a priesthood of Melchizedek, who had neither mother or father, neither beginning of days nor end of days… This is his heavenly priesthood which he has forever as the Word of the Father. Of his earthly priesthood it is only said that he took on flesh, not “male flesh,” though obviously he was male. But it goes beyond this. Clearly Jesus’s adelphoi include all of humanity, both male female. Hebrews says that what is important in Jesus’s work lies in his taking “flesh and blood” and “being lower than the angels,” ie- being human. Both of those apply to both genders. He must “be like his adelphoi, who are the “seed of Abraham,” thus he became like the female seed as well to whatever extent he had to be in order to save them. Perhaps it would be simpler to say that he took on human nature and that this is the earthly foundation of his priesthood, “nature” being a well thought out category. None of this is meant to detract from the fact that Jesus is male, but only to point out that the ontological natural foundation of his priestly work is not dependent on his maleness. And it goes without saying that his eternal priesthood is not related to his gender. Moreover his priesthood is one that is not according to law, and the levitical priesthood can’t be understood only as an arbitrary and voluntaristic cultic law for Israel only. This diminishes the place Israel occupies in the economy of salvation. Even if it was mediated through angels, it pointed to the natural law in its fallenness.

- A good look at St. Paul’s charismatic ecclesiology is in order as well. For St. Paul, Christ’s Body is no longer known to us kata sarkon,”according to the flesh.” His Body is at least dual in the following senses, 1) In that Jesus of Nazareth is ascended to God and continually makes the priestly offering of the whole cosmos, ie – his Church, to God by the Spirit, and 2) in that since Christ’s Body is both the historical and concrete body transfigured by the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, and his Body the Church, then that “part” of his body to which we the Church belong is a pneumatalogically constituted body, being saved by the Spirit in water baptism.

Therefore both females and males constitute the actual body of Christ and may then offer all the Church’s life and labor to the Lord in the Eucharist as Christ’s offering.

We often run into problems with the overhistorization of Christ so prevalent in modern Protestant theology post-Barth when we are distracted by Jesus’s flesh. Christ’s body is not to be identified in its entirety with Jesus of Nazareth as he existed in 1st century Israel. This style of theology falls prey quite often to the charges of Graham Ward:

“The predispositions and assumptions that situate either [contemporary] historian or theologian become evident … in the way the Christological investigation in the wake of the Enlightenment develops categories that reflect the turn to the human subject that grounded Enlightenment thinking. Christ becomes a figure to be treated in terms of personhood, modern views of what constitute human nature, and notions of identity.” – Christ and Culture

Women and men, then, are the Body of Christ and when a priest offers the Church in the Eucharist, he does so “according to the Spirit,” that is, as a member of the Church. Yet since he is united with Christ in one and the same way a woman is united, that is spiritually in baptism, then the same ontological union exists between Christ and a man and Christ and a woman.

This union being the same, we are called to understand the Church as having many giftings of the Spirit. So women who by the power of the Spirit are gifted to do what a priest does have the call of the Spirit on them and also have the foundation necessary to fulfill it.

 

For fear an already long post is going long, I’d like to suggest these are two of the more important Scriptural themes to develop. There are many others as well but these seem to me two of the most important. The careful reader will notice I did not mention Galatians 3:28. Not because I don’t think it relevant, it is. Yet more often than not this passage is sloughed off. “Yes, yes, yes, there isn’t ‘male or female’ before God in the Church, but there are still ‘natural’ places for men and women…” This is an utterly insufficient “argument” and would need to be undone in a larger treatment.

 

- Finally, for this post anyway, we need to be doing away with grand universal statements that “Tradition” is completely against WO. This is, simply put, not true. The ways into the Tradition, it is true, will be indirect and rarely entirely mainstream. But they are there. From medieval exegesis of the priest standing in as the Blessed Virgin in the Eucharist, to historical considerations of the development of the priesthood, to inconsistencies with the tradition. For example, there are three primary ways of delineating modes of Christ’s ministry; Prophet, Priest, and King.

In the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy in Acts, and explicitly in other places in Acts, women are given the gift of prophecy. Furthermore, we now have even in the Roman Catholic Church, women who are Doctors of the Church. If “prophecy” is the communication of the Word of God, then it is pretty clear that women are able to perform this ministry of Christ’s without respect to sex. Nobody is making the argument that because Jesus was male, prophets must be male. (It is to be wondered why they cannot even preach)

Queens too have been accepted as legitimate to exercise the royal ministry of Christ. They even have by right the papally bestowed title of Defender of the Faith in England. Nobody is making the case that because Jesus was male, those who exercise royal, political, and legislative authority must be male. So why is it that priesthood in particular is limited to men because Jesus was male?

The point being not to stand against tradition, but to work with and through it to make new connections. It’s not like the tradition doesn’t grow and develop!

I hope that these several sections at least point to fresh possibilities, ones that are non-revisionist in character and which are theologically “serious.”

4 Responses to “Pathways to women’s ordination”

  1. Tony -

    I enjoyed this essay immensely, particularly the discussion from Hebrews and St. Paul. Are you familiar with the work of Nonna Verna Harrison? She talks a bit about this sort of thing in the Cappadocians.

    Your last points about feminine imagery in the Eucharistic celebration are interesting. Admittedly, I am not familiar with images of the Blessed Virgin officiating at the Eucharist; can you give some sources?

    As for the question of a queen being defender of the faith, I assume you are referring to Bloody Mary? I certainly think that the line of thought which you intimate – that Anglican monarchy provides sources for thinking about women’s ordination – is completely cool and well worth pursuing (as you might imagine). I am unclear, however, if Elizabeth ever saw herself in a priestly role. Certainly Charles I saw himself that way, and in 17th c. England there were arguments about whether or not the king had the right to consecrate the elements. In the Anglo-Saxon period, kings did so at their consecration, but the practice died out in England (although, to my understanding, it continued in France up through the French Revolution). This set of issues – the priestly nature of monarchy and the priestly role of a queen (if it existed) – might be worth pursuing.

    Yet, at the same time, none of this addresses the issue of reception. One can write an essay in support of women’s ministry in the church which works out of traditional sources. You have begun doing so. However, at the same time, there is still tremendous opposition to this matter in many churches. Admittedly, I am not sure why (perhaps it is due to a fear that allowing women in will lead the Church to a wholesale adoption of third-wave feminism – which has, of course, happened in some places). But the opposition still exists. How does one square the positive theological argument with the ecclesiologically negative view?

    • Tony Hunt says:

      On the priest as a marian figure I haven’t come across the sources yet, though I’m looking into it. I first heard about it in an interview Catherine Pickstock gave, which you can find here.

      And while it actually quite helpful that you point out the monarchy was perceived as having a priestly role as certain points — something I’ll be sure to look more into. Sources? — I wasn’t actually trying to point that out. I was trying to say that women have historically been understood to fill Christ’s “other ministries,” those of prophet and king, without regard to their gender or to Christ’s for that matter.

      And you’re right that this doesn’t address reception. If you recall from the first post I made about WO, I think that that’s an important topic to get to but not one that should be primary. The primary work to do to aid in reception is dogmatic and theological investigation, which is lacking. The idea that somehow I’m doing something with “rights” is to me preposterous. It’s exactly what I’m trying to avoid by doing traditional theological work rather than asserting rights. And if the time ever comes where I’m able to do a longer reflection on this, it would be aimed primarily to bishops for reflection, not to bolster my own authority or assert rights.

      • First, for material on the priestly nature of the monarch, that is an old medieval debate. You might want to start with Chaney’s The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England. He was a student of Ernst Kantorowicz, whose volume The King’s Two Bodies is a classic. If you want more on monarchy I can give you a fairly lengthy bibliography, although it is heavily focused upon England.

        The point about women filling Christ’s other roles is an interesting point! However, John Knox had all sorts of nasty things to say about queens regnant in his wonderfully titled work The First Trumpet Blast against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. Elizabeth’s reign was not without considerable tension, in part due to her original intention to retain the Henrician language of being ‘supreme head’ of the Church of England. And, because she broke with the papacy, and because the papacy considered her a bastard, there were even more controversies added to her being a queen regnant. Gender issues were a big deal in Elizabeth’s reign. Her role in signifying the royal/monarchical aspect of Christ’s ministry was, at points, heavily contested. But your own point is no less interesting to me and offers food for thought.

        Second, I raised the question about ‘rights’ in order to ask whether or not ‘dogmatic and theological investigation’ can proceed without an ecclesiological focus. If such investigation takes place without a clear view of the larger Church, how does one prevent ‘dogmatic and theological investigation’ from being anything other than ‘dogmatic and theological assertion’? The language of rights (which I am not as adverse to as I think you are) is also an assertion made without an ecclesiological view or concern.

  2. Addendum to the above: it cannot be enough to make an argument, for if it is, then it is enough to assert one’s will. Theologians must do more than offer arguments; they must think with and for the wider Church. Otherwise, theology becomes an individualistic exercise, as beholden to a secular ‘democratic’ ethos as the ‘rights’ language so often used to bolster arguments for women’s ordination.

Leave a Reply

logo
logo
Copyright 2012. The Living Church Foundation. Designed by 11th Hour