Monday, July 17, 2006

Priests or "Priestesses"?

It was bound to happen: The Episcopal Church selects a woman to be its Presiding Bishop and the Anglican world goes into yet another tizzy. Is it her gender? Is it that she is a "liberal"? Is it that she is an oceanographer? Is it that she was "fast-tracked"? (I share the concern that she has little parish experience -- as a pastor, anyway).

I have long been perplexed by the fight over the ordination of women to the clergy -- either the presbyterate (the office of pastor) or the episcopate ( the office of bishop). I have tried to understand the issue from both sides, but I'm frankly incapable of seeing it from more than one.

I don't look at it as a "rights" issue. There is no "right" to be ordained. To claim so is completely to misunderstand the ministry of and to word and sacrament. "Rights" is a secular word and concept which has no place in discourse about ecclessiology.

Instead, I look at it as an issue of ecclessiology (theology of the Church). What, who, why, how, where, when is the Church? What is the point of ministry? On what grounds do we make determiniations as to our life together as the Body of Christ?

Along comes Pontifications, where is posted some reflection on C.S. Lewis' article on the ordination of women. You may read it here. Some of you will get very angry reading this post and the replies. (I got confused and miffed myself a couple of times.) But it seems a place to start.

I confess that I do not read much C.S. Lewis because I frankly don't find him very interesting, insightful, or helpful. That may be my problem. But the excerpts (and even the entire essay) set out no intelligible argument except that "[o]nly by wearing the masculine uniform [i.e., only by being male] can (provisionally, and till the Parousia) represent the Lord to the Church: for we are all, corporately and individually, feminine to Him." Now it may be my involvement in the feminism of the 60s and 70s, but I haven't a clue what that means: God is masculine? Well, Jesus was masculine, but the Christ, the Lord of the Church ... ? We are all "feminine"? Well, receptive makes sense -- but in what sense is that "feminine"? Is it all built on the anatomy of sex? Is that ultimately dispositive? If so, did the natural religions get it right -- only with the name of the deity (and perhaps his number) wrong?

I realize that I stray into sarcasm, but my intention is pure. I don't get the argument. (It's sort of cagey of Lewis to argue that rationality is the opponent of this principle of male-only clergy, isn't it? How do you argue with someone who says that disagreement is precisely proof of his rectitute?)

I mean, if Christ can be present in and as bread and wine, why can he not be "represented" in and through a woman? Does not the argument run perilously close to confirming Mary Daley's adage that if God must be male (at least in His representative), the male is god? I absolutely don't deny that Jesus' maleness is historic fact; I wonder whether it is ontologically dispositive of much else (I think). Certainly, it doesn't seem to matter ontologically for ministry. I am apt to criticize the Church for baptizing the social orders of its days, and I am apt to buy that women's leadership in the Church was problematic from the very beginning because of the possibility of confusion with pagan cults, within many of which women "priestesses" held sway. (There is not reason to adopt that designation -- and in the literature, whenever anyone uses it of women ordained into the Christian ministry, it is a a baldfaced attempt to slant the argument with pejorative terms.) But those seem to be prudential, not ontological or even theological, reasons for decisions in the past; they do not dispose of the issue in the present.

I don't want to get into any shouting matches about woman-haters or radical feminists. But if someone can suggest a good read on this issue -- one that is solid in its Biblical and theological foundations -- I'd be happy to receive it.


Jim said...

Well, if they want "male," then they have to have "circumcized Jew born of a virgin in Palestine [who either did or did not flee to Egypt for a part of His early life]."

If they're willing to extend their argument to its unarguable logical conclusion, I'm all with them.

Chip Frontz said...


Warning - very long post-length reply ahead.

This is an excellent post, and the subject is something you have to wrestle with (as one who wishes to conserve the "tradition") as well as I.

I utterly agree with you upon the subject of "rights." This is something that I think + Rowan Williams got exactly correct in his recent reflection to the Anglican Communion - Scripture and Catholic tradition must be the source of any innovations, and the concept of "rights," which really was only invented a couple of hundred years ago, has nothing to do with it. Ironically enough, however, the church of which he is Archbishop may very well find itself, considering the decision they have just made, in the "second" tier of the Anglican Communion, whatever form that turns out to take.

The stuff I've been reading indicates that much of the problem with Schiori is that a) her choice as PB threatens the validity of apostolic orders in ECUSA, if'n there ain't enough males layin' hands - or more likely, b) she voted for Gene Robinson's ordination as bishop and thusly the election sends a signal that TEC has not "repented" for its action in ordaining a person in a homosexual relationship to the episcopacy.

Now, to the main point:

I do not naturally "feel" a problem with ordaining women either. I know too many faithful, orthodox women presbyters (and even a bishop, Carol Hendrix of the Lower Susquehanna Synod) to fall for the lousy argument which I have heard many times that there is something in a female's genetic makeup or spiritual descent from Eve that necessarily makes them heterodox preachers or antinomians.

Moreover, I must confess that I just don't get the idea that a priest must be male in order to represent a male Christ. Part of that is because I am Lutheran. The pastor was never the focal object of my Eucharistic piety, whether formed by childhood experience or mature(?) theological reflection. I am looking to Jesus. That guy, there, the one in the bread and wine.

In seminary (yes, that liberal hippie sem we both went to that used to be confessional and conservative back when you were there) they taught us about the Greek idea that the male was the active principle and the female the passive principle. That seems to be the idea operative here that informs the "bride of Christ" metaphor in Eph 5:21-33 etc. The theory was, the idea gets baptized and voila, no more women priests. Even if I swallow the Greek philosophy, I still don't see why if I have to pretend I'm female during the celebration of the Eucharist, I can't make the added leap of imagining a female presider as male.

Nonetheless, it seems what Lewis and others are saying that it is a really important thing here to differentiate between the sexes and that male and female have far different roles in the economy of salvation. The female archetype is Mary, whose fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum is the epitome of the passive principle. (Constrast this with the beloved image of the "uppity woman," although no one would accuse Mother Teresa of being un-uppity.) The male archetype is Christ. One needs both, but only a male can represent the active principle for the Church, as the one who wins, or woos, the Church. (Again, as a man sexually attracted to women, the notion that I've got to imagine myself as a man who's wooed by another man is a stretch. Maybe the problem has to do with the sexualizing of all male-male relationships - certainly the Frodo-Sam type relationship of a servant to his master doesn't need to be sexual, although queer theorists see it everywhere.)

Either this is true or false. In premodern times, the sexes were differentiated in everything. In postmodern times, we seem to have nearly reached the point where a man will demand the right to bear a child. But this is the point, isn't it? According to the "differentiated" viewpoint, a man can't be anything but a father or a potential father, a woman can't be anything but a mother or a potential mother. A woman can't be anything but a (potential) wife, a man can't be anything but a (potential) husband.

This becomes an issue when we arrive at: a man can't be anything but a priest, a woman can't be anything but a... (?) There is no paired "ordained" function for a woman in a Church with a male-only priesthood that is necessary for the functioning of said church. One could say that mother or nun is necessary, but the Western tradition at least has not prized these roles as "equivalent" or "matched" to a male priesthood. Maybe the "widows" of the New Testament functioned in such a way. I don't think we'll ever really know.

The problem for people like you and me is acute. We like to think of ourselves as "orthodox" and yet have to defend our innovation as something necessary and consonant with Scripture and tradition. We believe in differentiation to a point - only a man can be a husband, a woman a wife. Only a man can be a father, a woman a mother. We wish to retain "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" as the privileged, revealed name of the Trinity. And yet, there is something about these arguments about a male-only priesthood that don't quite yet ring true to us - the argumentation we've heard that women priests will necessarily be heterodox, that we as males necessarily feel emasculated by women priests, etc., etc.

One final point: to the people who say to supporters of male-only ordination "You're telling me that you have to have a penis to represent Jesus" - yup, that's exactly what they're saying. They're saying that "shape matters," "sex matters," because your shape is determinative who you are and what you made for by God. If you are shaped like a woman, you are a woman, and "woman" has a specific content. You're around to be a daughter like Ruth and a mother like Mary, if not in physical fact, at least spiritually, to siblings or nieces or nephews or simply to friends. If you are shaped man, you're supposed to be a man, like Christ or Peter or someone who goes into (spiritual or literal) battle, calls men and women disciples, etc. This is not self-evidently offensive. It's a belief system, and lots of women as well as men hold it with no damage to their self-esteem.

To people whose lungs breathe in the Emersonian air of "determine yourself who you are," this necessarily does not make sense. I myself do not think that you need a penis to preside at the Eucharist. N.T. Wright has said that men and women will function differently as pastors, and that it is a mistake for women to try to be like male pastors or men to be like female pastors. I agree wholeheartedly. I also think there are key issues of male-female differentiation that need to be retained. I just don't know that the office of Word and Sacrament need be one of them.

As for books, probably JP II's Theology of the Body was his attempt to lay out a "differentiated" theology to lead Catholics into the 21st century. I haven't read it, but maybe we both ought to, eh?

Dwight P. said...

Wow, guys; thanks for the affirmation! Jim, I think you're right: Certainly, if the male-exclusive party argues that "apostles" were all male (and I'm not sure that the Traditiion doesn't make some sort of claim that Mary Magdalene was an apostle of sorts), then they certainly must limit it to Semitic males -- no more Bohemians or Icelanders. (Note how, by my reference to my own mixed heritage, manage to link myself to the German Shepherd, Pope Benedict?)

And Chip, what a nice complement (as opposed to compliment) to my statement of the issue. It is important to face the real issues. Somehow LSTG managed to turn out two brothers in the faith with quite similar theological leanings despite the passage of time!


Chris Jones said...


(Warning -- another post-length reply)

The relationship between "feminism" and the question of the priesting of women is this: but for feminism, the notion of the priesting of women would never have come up. The whole question is an intrusion of secular liberal values into the Church. It does not arise from the Gospel itself; there is nothing in the apostolic deposit of faith which makes it imperative (or even makes it an issue).

If that were not true, then surely the issue would have presented itself before the 20th century. If the possibility or the requirement of female priests were implicit in the apostolic deposit of faith, it would most likely have been worked out explicitly long before now. And if it truly were implicit in the deposit of faith, its working-out would be done primarily in terms of the Gospel, not in secular political terms.

But despite the fact that you personally do not see it as a "rights" issue, it is undeniable that the ordination of women has been presented by its proponents as precisely that. The debate has been framed by the secular values and principles of equality and equal rights, and the traditional faith and practice of the Church has been measured by that standard and found wanting.

But Catholic faith and order is not something that we are to measure and judge by our own values; it is something we are given (by God's grace), and which we are called to hand down to the next generation in the Church whole and undefiled, neither adding anything nor taking anything away. It is that Catholic faith and order which is to inform our conscience, by which we are to judge our own personal values (not the other way around).

Now, I do not mean to say that "secular liberal values" are hideous, ungodly, and to be entirely rejected. Those values are, to a large extent, good and true. But they are secondary to the Gospel (and, in the final analysis, derived from the Gospel to the extent that they are good and true). Thus those values are not to be used to judge the Gospel and the Church's tradition -- any more than secular conservative values ought to judge the Gospel and the Church's tradition.

It is not as if the male priesthood is an innovation of the modern "religious right". If it were, it should be rejected. If you look fairly at the history of the question, I think it will be clear that the ordination of women is an innovation of the modern "religious left", inspired by values and intellectual movements outside of the Church.

Dwight P. said...

Chris, if you and Chip think you have offered lengthy responses, watch out for this one.

I am with you on about half of what you said. It is not quite correct, as I understand history, to lay the advocacy of orders for women exclusively at the feet of the twentieth-century "feminist" movement. I think the story is more complex than that, even if we limit the discussion to the so-called historic, liturgical churches.

But I will grant that much -- not all -- of the discussion of the issue is "rights"-related. That is, as I have indicated I believe, unfortunate, wrong-headed, unhelpful, and ultimately self-defeating. But, I also admit, we will have a hard time trying to remove the discussion to other turf.

Still, it does not damn the idea to say that conversation arose because of pressures from philosphies outside the Christian Great Tradition. God has used secular forces to correct his people's misperceptions and misbehaviors: The OT is filled with narratives of such action. So why discourage such considerations now? The pedigree of a notion does not pre-determine its ultimate outcome, any more than the pedigree of a person determines who and what that person will be (despite lots of Biblical suggestion that it does).

I have no problem sticking up for the determinations, practices, and dogmatic utterances of the past when they seem correct -- and I presume that what has been is true, until I am shown something else.

I think this was the Church's struggle with slavery -- something promoted and upheld by as late a Biblical witness as Paul. For all I know Wilberforce was inspired by Enlightenment principles to see in the Bible that the supports for slavery were not what they seemed to be. If it were shown that he helped lead the Church out of its own form of slavery to warped values, misperceptions, and false doctrine because he picked up the idea from some "rights" discourse in his own day, his saintliness on this issue would in no way be diminished. (I speak hypothetically, because I know virtually nothing of the brother of beloved memory.)

If "women's rights" led the Church to a re-examination of a long- and deeply-held position, then "the world" (as Hauerwas uses the term) has returned something of the compliment to the Church. If the Church, then, FOR THE RIGHT REASONS, sees the value in the secular critique, it is her duty to adapt. Such is a reality if we are to avoid "traditionalism" in the name of upholding the Great Tradition.

I have studied the matter as much as I can (I admit that I am lacking in alternate resources), and I am convinced that when my home denomination, the old American Lutheran Church, voted that there was nothing binding in Holy Scripture to bar women from Holy Orders, that denomination was acting faithfully and righteously: The document by which the study commission reported to the Church is not a "modern" secular-influenced thing at at. Consequently, I must uphold and defend the ordination of women as a recognition of the Church that there is nothing constitutionally, theologically, or ontologically deficient about women that would prevent the Church's calling on them for ministry to Word and Sacrament.

Of course, I will fight with every breath and metaphor I can muster any argument that this person or that group is "entitled" to ordination. Such pressing oneself forward reminds me of James and John begging for the right and left chairs beside Jesus in heaven. The very assertion of such a "right" raises virtually insurmountable obstacles to my support for a person or group. They don't get what it is to be church, so they are ill-equipped to be pastors and bishops. (Frankly, this is the problem for me with the dispute over "gay" ordination: Regardless of what I feel about gay people -- and my publications elsewhere should make very clear that I am more than "gay-friendly" -- the Church must grapple with the theological, not the political-social-psychological, issue.

But I think the Lutherans, Calvinists, Anglicans, Methodists, and others are leading the Church in faithfulness. I think it entirely wrong and wrong-headed for the late pope to declare even discussions of the issue out-of-bounds: Give us the arguments, not the decree!

Has any of this made sense?


Chip Frontz said...

Dwight, where in the OT do "secular" forces correct the misperceptions and misbehaviors of God's people?

And I'd like to tease out the implications of the nineteenth-century debate over slavery, if there are any. I have doubts that one can draw any conclusions from it, but I can't articulate my ideas well, so I'll keep them to myself for now.

Chris Jones said...


Has any of this made sense?

Certainly, it makes sense. Yours is a coherent position, but it is still not one that I agree with.

You say I have no problem sticking up for the determinations, practices, and dogmatic utterances of the past when they seem correct; but the last phrase (which I bolded) betrays the fact that while you will (under the right circumstances) "stick up for" the Tradition, you do not, in the final analysis, acknowledge that the Tradition has any authority over you. And I have to ask, by what criteria do you judge whether the Tradition "seems correct"?

You also say If the Church, then, FOR THE RIGHT REASONS, sees the value in the secular critique, it is her duty to adapt. How do we know what are "the right reasons"? That is, of course, another version of the same question.

Your willingness to qualify your loyalty to the Tradition with the phrase when they seem correct seems to me to be the precise opposite of my attitude that Catholic faith and order is not something that we are to measure and judge by our own values; it is something we are given (by God's grace), and which we are called to hand down to the next generation in the Church whole and undefiled.

It occurs to me that, since you probably don't know me (I haven't commented on your weblog before), I should probably clarify that when I use the phrase "Catholic faith and order" I do not mean specifically Roman Catholic. I'm a Missouri-Synod Lutheran (albeit a ridiculously High-Church one).

Dwight P. said...

I knew when I wrote it that I was not being clear about upholding the Tradition and/or changing it "for the right reasons." I'll attempt to make that a little clearer.

Tradition is a living thing, as Pelikan memorably said: "Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living." On that ground, I believe, Tradition can evolve. With changes in the human situation -- evolution of language, changing political forms and dynamics (not to mention the potential completely and irrevocably to destroy the entire planet in one fell swoop -- something not even Cyrus or Nero thought he could do) -- changes must naturally occur in doctrine and practice. Of course, "dogma" remains unchanged and uncontroverted, but even with respect to the dogma/s there has been constant struggle. Sometimes what seems to be radical change is actually RETURN to earlier faithfulness. That's something that we Lutherans certainly should appreciate. (And now with the
Vatican essentially saying that they misunderstood the Reformers and actually agree with their major argument, we seem to have evidence that even in the non-Reformation traditions, this can hold true.)

We change or defend the Tradition based on a variation of that old Bible-interpretation principle, "Scripture interprets Scripture." Well, Tradition interprets Tradition. We never tamper with the Faith from outside, but only from within. And I grant that that is more art -- and controversy -- than science. But it is why theology continues to be a viable enterprise -- more than the old "Handbuch"method, where we just learn the answers and disregard the questions.

The earliest Fathers faced a formidable philosophical milieu and sought to formulate the faith in a way that would both show respect for the milieu and undercut and replace it. (Zizioulas' reconstruction of what the Fathers did was extremely helpful for me on this point.) We Lutherans have a similar history (one which we have not been all that good about upholding, it seems to me).

Luther's insight was considered radical, but we now see that what he advocated, far from a departure from Tradition, was merely a re-statement (perhaps in new garb, but a re-statement nonetheless)of a (not the only) element of the Great Tradition. (We have argued from the Reformers' silence to all kinds of unfaithful departures from that Tradition, but I digress.) That is what it means to confess that we Lutherans are, as Chip and I were taught at Gettysburg, a reforming movement WITHIN the Church catholic -- not THE Church, but not non-Church.

The Tradition is decorated with a lot of dross -- oh, it is gorgeous in its roccoco splendor, but it is yet dross. Much of the teaching on male-female related issues builds on a kind of posited essentialism drawn from the same misunderstanding of personality as affected the teachings on sex (which regarded all the human being present in sperm which needed the female only for the warm and nurturing space of the womb). With advances in understanding, we may reasonably re-examine the Tradition -- from within the Tradition -- to see whether there is more to that Tradition than has heretofore been the case.

That's all I was saying. I was not trying to save and eat cake at the same time.

Dwight P. said...

Chip, I call to stand in the defense of my position the Prophets Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah. The nature of their prophecy was to perceive the winds of secular pressure (the impending dangers of rival empires) and to theologize about them -- that is, to preach! The Exiles themselves were purgatorial, too.

I could go on at some length (and may have to), but I've expended my word allocation for the day on a reply to Chris.


Chris Jones said...


Fair enough.

Your argument that we can deal with the question of women's ordination from within the Tradition, and show that it is permissible (or even required) by arguing from Scripture and Tradition on their own terms, has a lot in common with the position of Father AKM Adam (AKMA). I have been back and forth with Fr Adam (my favorite liberal theologian) on this a time or two, and I will say to you what I have said to him. I concede the possibility that a case for women's ordination could be made on the basis of Scripture in the Tradition, from a clear standpoint of Catholic orthodoxy; but I have never seen such a case actually made. It would be an argument that I could respect, intellectually, whether or not I were actually persuaded by it. But I simply have never seen it attempted, much less accomplished.

Chip Frontz said...

OK Dwight, but Amos et al. were protesting from within the tradition, not mining other traditions for their contributions.

In fact, they said that "secular" forces (perhaps not the precise term) could be used by God as a club, not as a moral corrective in the way you seem to be describing it.

I agree with Rene Girard, who says that a lot of secularism today is particular Christian ethics shorn of their Biblical context and used as a justification of self and judgment of others.

Dwight P. said...


You're right, of course, but I wonder ... . Here my argument may be getting too gossamer to hold up.

What I'm suggesting is this (and it's been a long time since my paper on Amos, so I have no footnotes): The prophets were steeped in, convinced by, and loyal to the Tradition. That made them alert to the "mission" of the People of God -- viz., to be an embodiment of God's will for life on earth. But that meant that they were alert to the world around them outside the community of faith. So when they saw wars between other "nations" and when they heard tales of the massing of mighty forces around and potentially against Israel/Judah, they perked up their ears and they began to read the scriptures for what that might mean. In short, they proleptically followed Karl Barth's advice for preachers -- to preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.

What I try to say is that the prophets were led to contextualize their preaching by events -- secular, such as it was in those days, events -- unfolding around them. It's like looking at the leading economic indicators and trying to figure out what they might say about the strength, not just of the USA, but of the people of Christ.

So, for women's ordination, it was not a matter of adopting a creed, or a philosophical principle, or a point of view of the world outside the Church and using that as the argument for women's ordination. It was, instead, a more sensitive process of hearing of (and maybe even approving) events, evolving philosophy, and the like in the world outside the Church -- and then bringing those thoughts into conversation with the Christian Tradition.

I mean, Barth didn't write "Church Dogmatics" with no reference to developments outside the Church -- quite the contrary, even though it was because he was steeped in the orthodox Christian Tradition that he was able to tease out and identify what was good and what was deleterious in the new "liberal" influences within the Church.