Chains that Bond: Creating the Future Church
What Kind of Ecclesiology Will We Need in the Future
by Margaret Brennan, I.H.M.
New Woman, New Church, New Priestly Ministry
Proceedings of the Second Conference on the Ordination of Roman Catholic Women
November 1978, Baltimore, U.S.A. pp 96 -100.
Published on our website with permission of the Women’s Ordination Conference
Margaret Brennan, IHM, is associate professor of pastoral theology at Regis College, Toronto School of Theology and the Spiritual Integration Program, a continuing education program for men and women in ministry. She is past president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) and was also elected a Councillor of the International Union of Superiors General in Home. She has served on a number of national and international committees and commissions including the Ad Hoc Committee on the Status of Women in the Church of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. She is a member of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary of Monroe, Michigan.
The Vietnamese poet Thich Nhat Hahn, Buddhist monk and contemplative, wrote, “… the path of return continues the journey” — and this, for me, is a kind of key to an ecclesiology of the future. It is not the kind of return that attempts to reproduce a place and time within a culture and circumstances long past — but one which asks us to return with our long experience of the centuries to the sources of life from which the Church began its journey and to understand them anew — in their perennial possibility.
When Jesus told Nicodemus that he must be born again, he was not demanding of him an impossible task, nor one that defied the limits of possibility. But I suspect, as Jesus’ paradoxical questions often do, that he caused his interrogator to deal with the answer at a deeper level while remaining in the present — and that the question itself contained the seed of the answer.
This afternoon then, I would like to consider this question proposed to us in four points — journeying from the past to the present — and suggesting, posing, some considerations for the future which are questions as well.
The first indispensable element in any ecclesiology, it seems to me (and one we must never lose sight of), is to recall and restate the mission and ministry of Jesus as found in the Gospels as the ultimate norm of any new shaping of ministry.
Catholic biblical scholarship has made it more and more evident that Jesus’ mission was to establish the divine-human community — to make visible to us the face of God. He did this very concretely through ministry. Reconciliation, healing, teaching, closing the gaps, lifting the burdens of oppression — is the meaning of that ministry. In that action He is telling us Who God is— the tender, loving, compassionate Father and Mother of human persons called to the same life, holiness, and personal dignity. That mission is the ultimate norm of all ministry.
Of equal importance is the conclusion of redaction criticism— namely, that the healing word and action of Jesus, his mission and ministry, was etched onto the human faith experiences of the early Christian communities in particular, culturally determined and differentiated situations.
The Gospels themselves, with their differing theologies, emerging from the shared faith experience of the believing communities, lead to the conclusion that the preaching of Jesus existed concretely — and was mediated through the human reflected faith-experience. This fact, therefore, legitimates human experience as a source of on-going revelation.
It is evident from New Testament literature that the Resurrection faith, as shared in the early Christian communities became more or less structured. The earliest Christian communities were less structured and governed more directly by the authority of the apostles (eyewitness of the Resurrection), by the experience of the Spirit and the charismata (the gifts in the community). Later-early Christian communities were structured more by authority moving more directly toward what we call Church Order (due to cultural differentiation, heresy, etc.) Still later, this authority assumed the structure of episkopos/presby-ter— and in time with the controlling of ministries by the hierarchy, an unfortunate gap or separation between clergy and laity developed.
Church Order, that is, the organization of ministries in the community is important and indispensable. But it is crucial to realize that Church Order is post-Jesus, historically constituted, and is in no way absolute — that is, of exclusively divine revelation. Church Order was the creation of the believing community to respond practically to its actual needs in its effort to live out the mission and ministry of Jesus — as handed on (that is, the apostolic tradition). Therefore, there must always be flexibility in the organization of Church ministries in order to meet continuing and new, practical demands of the Christian communities’ efforts to live the mission and ministry of Jesus as handed on.
The first two points converge toward a third consideration — bringing Church Order to a contemporary consideration.
Might it not be that an ecclesiology of the future needs to be open to a total reconsideration of Church Order because of entirely new needs, entirely new cultural experiences and awarenesses and the actual knowledge we have today of cultural differentiation? This new knowledge is of such a nature that it does not permit us any longer to ignore or avoid or be complacent with present Church Order as the one which best serves the mission and ministry of Jesus. Women, and more to the point still, the laity, must be a part of this re-ordering of Church structure.
Therefore, Church Order, that is, the organization of Church ministries and their expression, must be adapted to meet actual, changing, cultural differences and must include the laity who are also called to share responsibility for the continuing discovery and actualizing of the mission and ministry of Jesus.
It is evident that there are many ramifications of such a radical change in Church ordering according to cultural differentiation. One such ramification might concern what we mean by ordination.
It might well be that ordination itself — as an element of Church Order — must be re-thought, loosened perhaps from its present status as corner-stone, spinal cord, or central element of Church Order, and made more flexible in form to meet new needs, new situations, the facticity of cultural differentiation, of global awareness.
The New Testament itself shows great diversity in this regard, that is, over those ministries that had authority in the Community. Today, for example, we might ask whether or not there should be any permanent ordination based on an ontological theology of orders.
Maybe there should be new forms of commissioning according to new tasks — to be exercised for a specific time, in a specific community — and only after the gifts have been tested in the community (e.g., lay-leaders in communities to be designated as the President of the Eucharist for a particular time and need). Within such a refashioning — a revisioning— obviously, women have a central place — following from gifts such as building up the community, etc. Ministry should increasingly become a mutuality, a partnering, a complementarity of gifts in expressing and actualizing the mission and ministry of Jesus.
Therefore, ordination, commissioning to ministry, as an important and indispensable part of Church Order, must also be rethought in terms of new needs, new cultural differentiation — and, include those whom the community recognizes and calls as gifted to lead the community in the ritualization of those human graced moments in life in which the human experience of Jesus touches our own in a profound way. Such expression, it would seem, should actualize the complementarity of the whole human family . . . male and female, lay and religious.
In conclusion then—
I would suggest that the ecclesiology we need in the future in order to have a renewed priestly ministry and to include the recognition of Orders for women’s ministerial call,
1. must renew its belief and understanding that the shared faith experience of the Christian community is a source of on-going revelation.
2. must have a new face, contour, texture — due to cultural differentiation — becoming even more explicit than it is now, due to entirely new pastoral needs — ethnic, racial, third and fourth worlds, etc. Such an ecclesiology, it would seem,
1. calls for a new Church Order — one possible in the best sense of the tradition.
2. calls for a stronger local church autonomy in which the role of the laity (including women) be given greater responsibility, full recognition proportionate to cultural awareness.
3. calls for a realization, as westerners, as to how our understanding of Church Order has distorted our understanding of mission and diminished the Church — and needs to give way and to find a whole new set of symbols which express our reality.
In the cover story of the October 30th issue of Time magazine, Joseph Malula, the Black Cardinal from Zaire was described, on the eve of the conclave, as looking dejectedly at the Vatican vista outside the window of his room. “All that,” he was quoted as saying, “all that imperial paraphernalia — all that isolation of the Pope — all that medieval remoteness and inheritance that makes Europeans think that the Church is only Western. All that tightness that makes them fail to understand that young countries like mine want something different. They want simplicity. They want Jesus Christ. All that, all that must change…”
And the reporter concluded the article with the final statement which is also a question — and one perhaps that holds the seed and promise of answers yet to be sought out. “Fifty hours later,” he wrote, “Karol Wojtyla stepped into the fisherman’s shoes and, in incalculable ways, perhaps the change has begun.”
To look back once more at the journey from which we have come . . . from where we have been … to where we are … to where we hope to be.
We have experienced an ecclesiology which developed out of a patriarchal world view . . . and the ministry which reflected it has not encouraged a complementary relationship between men and women . . . nor one between men and men or women and women.
The price paid for the preservation and continuation of the hierarchical male order was a negation — if any at all—of a theology of sexuality.
As has been pointed out many times these days, the hierarchical model has called forth a ministry that is unreflective of a gospel which images God’s relationship with men and women as covenant partners — as God in partnership with humanity in reconciling the world to Himself.
It is this hope, voiced so clearly by Saint Paul in the Second letter to the Corinthians that continues to call us forth to courageous action.
“Christ has entrusted to us the good
news that they (men and women) are
reconciled. So we are ambassadors for Christ;
it is as though God were appealing through
us, and the appeal that we make in Christ’s
name is: be reconciled to God.”
2 Cor. 5:19-20
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