Monday, January 18, 2010

Man, woman, and priesthood

A couple of years ago at the Trinity College book sale I managed to acquire a small volume, bearing the ex libris of the chaplain to Royal St George's College, entitled Man, Woman, and Priesthood. (If you're about to Google Book it: it's not the one edited by Monseigneur Leonard, but the other).

Its chapters include contributions from the Church of England, the Episcopal Church USA, the Church of Sweden, Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Judaism. (Jonathan Sacks and Kallistos Ware are among the contributors). In reading them, I began to get the sense that I, were I around in the 70s, might have sympathized or even broadly shared their position. While they don't address my fundamental objection to their argument, they express worry about the use of secular rights-based arguments to support a change in Tradition.

It seems likely, then, that neither group articulated its case well. Proponents were not able to persuade a minority of Anglicans to accept that women in the priesthood and episcopate were an acceptable theological development. (There does not seem to have been any controversy about the diaconate: female deacons can even today be found within such bodies as Forward in Faith and certain Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches, and besides they're in the Bible, which settles it for Anglicans at least)*. These Anglicans were not assuaged by the arguments used at the time. And again today, we find the Church of England on the defensive on women in the episcopate, stuck in a situation considered ecclesiologically incoherent by all parties.

The authors of the book evidently had not been given coherent theological arguments for the opposing position, and that is precisely the language we need to speak when discussing the sacraments. While I'm proud of Canada's human rights laws, I think the ordination of women is justified not because God is bound by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms but because a male ordained ministry is questionable theology, and should be challenged on those grounds. It rests on an assumption of a metaphysically distinct and binary manhood and womanhood. In Ordinatio sacerdotalis, the Ven. John Paul II makes no attempt to reconcile the traditional position with the principle that what was not assumed was not redeemed, which is where any argument for the traditional view needs to begin. The age of this apparent incoherence is not an argument in its favour. The fundamental problem with a male-only ordained ministry is not that it violates the principles of the secular feminist movement; it's the creation of two classes of baptism, the preservation of a sacrament of the Church to those of a wholly arbitrary characteristic. What needs to be given first is a credible explanation of what would constitute a fundamental difference in the esse of all women to that of all men. We need to hear why it is important for ministerial priests to share this particular attribute of the historical Jesus, and what it means to be "female" and coated in a sort of ontological Teflon that ordination-proofs women.

Until we know what that argument would be, we cannot possibly begin to answer it, and we just won't get anywhere with each other, will we?


BillyD said...

Yeah, I think that the framing of women's ordination in "justice" language is a mistake. I wish that we had done things differently here in the 70's; I remember the time, and the perception that the Church was becoming politicized.

Michael said...

I know what it is to find a book that broadens one's perspectives on this. I found the same thing with Women and the Priesthood.

I am still learning and finding myself more and more in tune with an Orthodox understanding of priesthood, yet not yet able to clearly articulate it. When I first read the book, which is a collection of essays and perspectives, it was as part of my exploration of a difference bwteen where I was coming from and where I was going, and I was still very much steeped in where I was coming from. Because of this, I was quite taken aback when one of the contributors wrote of an ecumenical conference at which there was discussion of the possibility of the ordination of women. There were Anglicans of a certain variety present, who presented a very coherent argument from the perspective of the priest acting in persona Christi, and were perplexed when the Orthodox who were present distanced themselves from the argument. It wasn't just because of the implication of a two-tier Baptism (although that is a legitimate concern) but because their argument was based on a conceptualisation of priesthood which, while not directly opposed to that of the Orthodox, was sufficiently different to mean that what they were saying didn't really make sense to their Orthodox interlocutors, much to their chagrin.

It just goes to show that, even among those who at first appear to be saying the same thing, there can be significant disagreement.