Saturday, 17 November 2012

On Women Priests (the impossibility thereof)

The other day on Twitter (that source of wisdom and truth: vox populi and all that...) someone (Stephen Martin, ‏@stevemukuk ) tweeted:
A female ordained in exactly the same way as a male has a valid and equal ordained ministry. Only threat I see is to a male priests manhood.
I responded, somewhat unkindly, 
Yes, and if you unscrew your belly-button your bottom falls off. #wellknonwnfacts
We tweeted backwards and forwards and my interlocutor said:
 to be honest I don't understand anyone who denies a woman ministry theologically.
ok bit never heard an arguement against that tallies. Gods will be done. Prayer required for all.
He seems a decent and honest chap, so I can only assume he is telling the truth.

Which seemed odd to me, as I am in precisely the opposite place: I don’t understand anyone who does claim ministry for a woman theologically, and have never heard an argument for it which adds up to much.

So I thought I would think out loud about all this here...

The case for Women Priests

As far as I can understand it, the case for Women Priests in Christianity rests on the following:

1 Men and women are equal in God’s creation.
2 An exclusively male priesthood clearly excludes women
3 Such exclusion relegates them to second-class, in denial of #1 above
4 Such exclusion also denies the faithful access to their gifts as pastors
5 Further to #4, many ordained women do the job at least as well as, and in many cases better than, some of their male counterparts
6 The reasons for the exclusion of women in the past are largely an accident of history the result of unjust patriarchal structures and attitudes.
7 There is no theological reason for the exclusion of women
8 The time is right for this historic injustice to be corrected.

The case against

The case against the ordination of Women, as I see it, is as follows:

A As Christians we are bound to follow Christ: he ordained only men
B As Christians, we believe Christ to be God Incarnate, and therefore to have known what He was doing and to have done wisely and justly
C The likelihood of Christ being constrained by the customs of his time is less than the likelihood of our being misled by the sensibilities of our time
D Further to #C, the customs of his time were no accident, but the result of the formation of the Jewish People over the whole period of the Old Testament
E The Church is led by the Holy Spirit, and is (to say the least) unlikely to have been guilty of so grave an error for 20 centuries
F The witness of Christendom endures: the vast majority of Christendom (Roman Catholic and Orthodox) still adhere to the tradition received from the Apostles
G There are strong arguments from authority (both the teaching magisterium of the Church, for those who believe in that) and the teaching authority of Scripture (which I would hope we all believe in) in favour of the traditional understanding
H The job of theology is to seek ever-greater understanding: it is secondary, not primary
I The decision to ordain women has clearly further fragmented Christian denominations and rendered final reconciliation far harder to envisage.

I may well have missed or misunderstood things on either (or both) sides of the debate, and welcome correction.

However, it is interesting to me that the types of argument, the grounds of the discussion as it were, seem different for each side.

As I have had occasion to remark before, I do not know why ordination is reserved to men: there are various theories advanced by different theologians, some of which seem to me to be more plausible than others.  But that does not weaken my belief in the proposition: as I say, theology is secondary.

I can also see many flaws in the arguments for Women’s ordination.  I would refute many of the assumptions behind the propositions listed above, such as 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8...

Finally, for me it comes down to a matter of trust: in whom am I to place my trust?  The example of Our Lord, the Apostles, the Fathers of the Church, the centuries of tradition (including many notable female saints who never claimed a vocation to the priesthood), on the one hand?  Or a fairly small band of people who, genuinely inspired by a zeal for justice, live in a small window of time that happens to coincide with my own life?


I realised that I had not made it clear that this difference in understanding has a very profound implication. From a traditional point of view, the example of Christ and subsequent witness of the Church means not that we should not ordain women, but that we cannot do so.


Sitsio said...

Trying to understand this, I was chatting to Richard Coles on Twitter the other day. he is always good natured and obliging. He basically seemed to me to be saying that it all comes down to Gal 3:28. I had a serious think about what he said and read through the passage in context, as well as various commentaries on it and it really left me with the feeling that it was completely out of context. How bizarre the whole justification seems to be. In Galatians, Paul is not talking about Orders in the Church. Paul is also pretty well known for speaking of women as subservient. Strange then that they would choose this as a proof text. We all know you can prove any point from the Bible if you just pluck bits out of it!

Unknown said...

I think women priests are more of an issue for Catholics because we believe that the priest is acting in the person of Christ during the Eucharist whereas Protestants see the Eucharist as a memorial meal. This means that we can legitimately say that it's OK for them to have women priests but that Catholics simply cannot.

The danger of the obsession with women priests is that it leads to clericalism and often downgrades the role of other believers, ignoring the fact that all are called to a life of holiness.

Ben Trovato said...

Mark, Yes, proof-texting, sola scriptura and the zeitgeist make for a tricky combination!

Mary, I know what you are getting at, but think that one cannot categorise Protestants so neatly. Some certainly think as you describe, but others do not. I think the function of a priest is to offer sacrifice: if they are merely having memorial meals, surely they are led by ministers. Language and meaning are important, and the term women priests is used quite deliberately, I think.

Of course, I don't believe Anglicans have priests at all, male or female: Apostolicae Curae and all that...

Towards the Tiber said...

Ok, so I probably shouldn’t be commenting – I’m currently an Anglo-Catholic so come under Ben’s list of people who don’t actually have real Priests but… ;-P

I occasionally find myself trying to explain the impossibility of a female priesthood, and the biggest barrier I come across is Point 3: the belief that not being ‘allowed’ to be a Priest somehow relegates women to second-class members of the Church. At the root of this is the misconception that because the Priest does things the laity don’t (can’t) do, he is in some way ‘better’ than those who aren’t allowed to ‘run’ the Mass. In this scenario the Church resembles a large corporation with the laity at the bottom, Priests in middle management roles, going all the way up to the Pope as CEO. In that case, having half of your workforce automatically barred from seeking ‘promotion’ is obviously completely unfair.

But of course (and this is the bit which is almost impossible to explain to people who don’t already understand) that’s not how the Church works, and ordination is not promotion. The ‘job’ of a Priest isn’t any such thing, but a vocation given to him by God – in fact, it has always struck me as a crushing responsibility and I am in awe of those people who have the courage to follow that call. Others – including the majority of men – will not be given that vocation, but this does not mean that the vocations they are given are any less worthy in His eyes. But how do you explain that to people who don’t work within the same frame of reference? Trying to explain vocations to people who view the Priesthood as a career is a very difficult task. Culturally, I feel as if we speak a different language.

Ben Trovato said...

T the T

You are wrong on one point - your suggestion that you should not be commenting. You are very welcome, and have added something very useful to the discussion.

I think you are quite right in your analysis of the cultural problem (incidentally, it is one of the reasons why I don't think priests or bishops should retire -= anymore than I could retire from being the father of a family).

One of the traditional titles of the Pope, of course, is servus servorum Dei - the Servant of the Servants of God.

But modern discourse is too often about power and rights, rather than service and calling.

Ben Trovato said...

(And I should point out, it's not MY list of people who don;t have real priests... I wouldn't presume! I merely pass on the teaching I have received...)

Pétrus said...

I agree with Towards the Tiber.

The issue the CofE has is that it regards the priesthood as a job. For them the elevation to the episcopate is a promotion the same as anyone working in "business"

Unfortunately the CofE has lost sight of what it should be focusing on. The Catholic Church is concerned with the salvation of souls - the CofE doesn't know what it should be doing. This was summed up perfectly for me in a recent sermon from ++Canterbury when he said his primary concern was for "the joy of his flock"

OreamnosAmericanus said...

Why is bread and wine the only possible matter for the Eucharist? Or water for baptism?

There is an intrinsic meaning in the creation that the sacramental order completes.

Same with Holy Orders. There must be a natural meaning to the male sex, to masculinity, that makes it the only right matter for priesthood.

The Church, IMHO, seems unwilling to articulate this because the revolution of feminism has made the notion of male and female equality so sacrosanct that it may not be questioned. For the same reason, the notion of male headship in marriage has been reduced to silence except among Evangelicals.

The Chruch cant articulate the why of male-only priesthood because it has bought the culture's very recent fad.

Ben Trovato said...

Yes, male and female He created them.

Note not only the 'male' and 'female, but also the 'He.'

There is something about masculinity that reflects the Godhead (Father, Son and Holy Ghost - all referred to as masculine overwhelmingly in Sacred Scripture).

This is a deep mystery, but that doesn't mean that we should be afraid to acknowledge it, nor to try to discern meaning in it.