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Ecumenism and the Lack Thereof by Arlene Anderson Swidler from 'Women Priests'

Ecumenism and the Lack Thereof

by Arlene Anderson Swidler

from Women Priests, Arlene Swidler & Leonard Swidler (eds.), Paulist Press 1977, pp. 65-69.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

Arlene Anderson Swidler took a B.A. at Marquette University and M.A.’s in English from the University of Wisconsin and Theology from Villanova University. Co-founder of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies,she is the author of Woman in a Man’s Church and was at the time editor of Sistercelebrations.

The Commentary on this Declaration is somewhat less oblique than the Declaration itself in its reference to the ecumenical problems involved in the ordination of women. It opens, "The question of the admission of women to the ministerial priesthood seems to have arisen in a general way about 1958, after the decision by the Swedish Lutheran Church in September of that year to admit women to the pastoral office."(1)

The distinction between that 1958 decision and the earlier admission of women to ministry in various other church groups is standard. Haye van der Meer, for example, summarizes what he considers the primary reason for reconsidering the question in the Catholic Church by saying, "There are now, at least in the Scandinavian churches, women on whom the bishops have imposed hands and upon whom the Mass vestments have been conferred. That means that now, even among Christians who make the same efforts as we do to deal with the full tradition of their churches . . . the opinion prevails that the female priestly office does not contradict the essence of Christianity."(2)

The assertion that the question of women in the ministerial priesthood arose in (or about) 1958, however, is quite misleading. It assumes, as does the Declaration itself,(3) that such a "question" can be directed to the Catholic Church solely by ecclesiastical decisions, never by either the findings of individual scholars or the reflections of officially constituted church commissions.

In reality, the question arose in the Anglican Church decades earlier. Canon C.C. Raven favored the ordination of women in his book Women and Holy Orders published in 1928. Ordination of women - first as deaconesses, later as priests - has been on the agendas of Lambeth Conferences since 1920.(4) Naturally Episcopalians are displeased when their decision to ordain women is treated in Roman circles as facile and unconsidered. The ecumenical officer of the Episcopal Church in this country, Peter Day, responded with some asperity to an anonymous Vatican description of the decision to ordain women as simply the result of a head count: “The question of diaconate for women is now under discussion in the Roman Catholic Church among theologians of the highest repute. This was where the Episcopal Church began its deliberations in 1871.”(5)

Ignoring these early discussions within the Anglican communion (though that church itself took the findings of its official commissions quite seriously) seems to suggest once again that the question of the ordination of women is unrelated to research and theological reflection. This impression is confirmed by the Declaration's statement that because the problem is ecumenical, the Catholic Church must make its thinking on the matter known .(6) There is no hint that the Declaration is simply a laying out of a present position as a basis for dialogue either within or without the Catholic Church.

A second unfortunate attitude - one characterized by the Lutheran publication Forum Letter as "of particular offense to Lutherans"(7) - assumes that the Swedish Lutheran ordination of women in 1958 raises no "strictly theological problem" inasmuch as Lutherans have rejected the sacrament of Orders.(8) The assumption that it is only when confronting sacramental issues that Christians concern themselves deeply with tradition and the teachings of the Gospel must sound strange indeed to all our Christian sisters and brothers who have observed the inordinate amount of theologizing and sermonizing Catholics have devoted to Mary the Mother of Jesus over the centuries.

In the following sentence the Commentary is simply inaccurate: the Anglican ordinations in 1971 are not the first within communities that claim apostolic succession, for the Church of Sweden has retained episcopacy and the apostolic succession since pre-Reformation times.(9)

The next paragraph of the Commentary states that the ordination of what have come to be known as the Philadelphia Eleven was "afterwards declared invalid by the House of Bishops." The women ordinands in that case had neither the permission of the Bishop of Pennsylvania, in whose diocese the ordinations occurred, nor the approval of their own diocesan authorities; the ordinations seem clearly to have been canonically irregular. However, they cannot be said to have been declared invalid - or even canonically irregular - by the House of Bishops simply because the bishops had no such power. This meeting was neither an ecclesiastical court nor a legislative session. In fact, if the House of Bishops had authority to legislate without the concurrence of the House of Deputies its own 1972 vote favoring the ordination of women to the priesthood could have settled the matter then and there.

The August 1974 issue was clearly the matter of the breaking of collegiality on the part of the ordaining bishops rather than any theological question of the capability of women for Holy Orders. In addition, the bishops were merely expressing their opinion, as the opening of the relevant paragraph makes clear: “Further, we express our conviction that the necessary conditions for valid ordination to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church were not fulfilled....”(10)

Prior to the voting, the Bishop of West Missouri, speaking from notes, is reported to have told the assembly, in the words of others present, that “contemporary ecumenical discussion tends simply to define as valid that which is duly recognized by a communion of the Church,(11) as well as argued that the ordinations were invalid on traditional grounds because of a defect in the intention of the officiating bishops.” Admittedly the situation was both confusing and confused. Nevertheless, it is inaccurate to say that the House of Bishops declared the Philadelphia ordinations invalid.

In summary, the unwary might assume from the Commentary that a) the Church of Sweden's decision to ordain women is irrelevant to our proceedings because Lutherans don't take all this very seriously; b) the Episcopalians rather rushed into the whole thing; c) ordinations which don't fulfill the requirements of church canons are not ordinations at all. Each of these impressions would strengthen the over-all effect of the Vatican Declaration on the average reader. At the same time these inaccuracies have alienated members of the Lutheran and Episcopalian Churches, who, along with the Orthodox, must be the partners in future dialogue on the question.

The point must also be made that, although the ecumenical dimensions of the changing role of women have been pointed out often enough,(12) the Catholic Church has shown little interest in dialogue on the subject.

In this country the Catholic Church has participated in eight bilateral consultations, all founded in the 1960s and all but one, the Southern Baptist-Catholic consultation, still active. The participation of women in these dialogue teams has been only token despite a good deal of urging and correspondence from American Catholic women.(13) Of the three consultations which involve other “liturgical” churches, two - the Orthodox-Roman Catholic Consultation and the Lutheran-Catholic Consultation - have never had any women members from either side.

The Roman Catholic-Presbyterian Consultation Group produced several statements concerning women in 1970 and 1971.(14) A committee of the Catholic Theological Society of America, chaired by Avery Dulles, SJ, in reviewing the work of all the bilaterals up to 1972, called these statements on the status of women “a sincere and promising fruit of courageous ecumenical dialogue” and recommended that other bilateral consultations take advantage of the statements, which “provide an excellent example of how this important and delicate matter can be forthrightly and prudently handled.”(15)

However, only the Anglican-Roman Catholic Consultation, lately augmented with its first female participants, has since taken up the question of ordination of women. In a special meeting in June of 1975 it formulated a statement which stressed, among other things, the gravity of the question: “. . . problems relating to the doctrine of God, of the Incarnation, and Redemption are at least indirectly involved in its solution, so that any decision, whether for or against the ordination of women, will in fact require the Church to explain or develop its essential tradition in an unprecedented way."(16) In October of the same year it described the ecumenical task as an inquiry into whether one church can recognize another amid differences, whether such controverted issues may perhaps represent different manifestations of God's grace.(17)

Unfortunately, the timing of these studies probably restricted the intellectual freedom which leisurely discussion fosters. As the June statement itself pointed out, the ordination question was expected to be proposed at the Episcopal General Convention the following year; the time for initiating a shared searching and reflection was long past. Once the Episcopal Church has integrated women priests into its structures and experiences, dialogue can begin again, but it will be of a different order. The opportunity to move forward together has been lost.


1. Commentary, par. 1.

2. Haye van der Meer, SJ, Women Priests in the Catholic Church? trans. A. and L. Swidler (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1973), pp. 6-7.

3. Declaration, par. 4. The Declaration states here that the “initiative” of “admitting women to the pastoral office on a par with men” “constitutes an ecumenical problem.”

4. A helpful chronology of relevant documents and actions in the Anglican Communion can be found in Emily C. Hewitt and Suzanne R. Hiatt, Women Priests: Yes or No? (New York: Seabury, 1973), pp. 102-104.

5. Peter Day, Letter to the Editor, Ecumenical Trends, Vol. 6, No. 2 (February, 1977), p. 28.

6. Declaration, par. 4.

7. “That Vatican Declaration,” Forum Letter, Vol. 6, No. 4 (April 18, 1977), p. 5.

8. Commentary, par. 2.

9. This is mentioned briefly in John Reumann's “Editor's Introduction” to Krister Stendahl, The Bible and the Role of Women, trans. Emilie T. Sander (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), p. vii. Stendahl, now Dean of Harvard Divinity School, is a member of the Church of Sweden; this study was prepared for the Swedish Church Assembly of 1958. Both the Stendahl essay and the Reumann introduction in this small book are helpful.

10. Harvey H. Guthrie, Jr., Edward G. Harris, and Hays H. Rockwell, “A Personal Report on the Meeting of the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church in Chicago on August 14 and 15, 1974, and Some Reflections on Process and Theology,” (mimeographed, Sept. 3, 1974), p. 4.

11. Ibid., p. 2.

12. Cf., e.g., Arlene Swidler, “An Ecumenical Question: The Status of Women,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Vol. 4, No. I (Winter, 1967), pp. 113-115.

13. An Ad Hoc Committee of the U.S. Section of St. Joan's International Alliance, for example, has corresponded over the years with the president and various staff members of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops as well as a number of bishops chairing bilateral consultations. Responses have varied from sympathetic acknowledgment of clerical clubbiness to an occasional show of hostility, but the proportion of women has not increased.

14. These are most easily accessible in the Journal of Ecumenical Studies: “The Ordination of Women,” part of a longer paper in Vol. 7, No. 3 (Summer, 1970), pp. 686-690; “Women in Church and Society,” in the same issue, pp. 690-91; and “Women in the Church,” in Vol. 9, No. 1 (Winter, 1972), pp. 235-41.

15. Proceedings of the Twenty-Seventh Annual Convention of the CTSA (Bronx: Manhattan College, 1973), pp. 205-6.

16. “ARC Consultation on Ordination of Women,” BCEIA Newsletter, Vol. 4, No. 4 (October, 1975), p. 4.

17. “ARC Statement on the Ordination of Women,” BCEIA Newsletter, Vol. 5, No. 2 (April, 1976), p. 4.

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