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Anatomy and Ministry: Shall Women be priests? by Emily C.Hewitt from 'Women and Orders'

Anatomy and Ministry: Shall Women be priests? (1)

by Emily C.Hewitt

from Women and Orders, pp 39-55, edited by Robert J.Heyer. Paulist Press, 1974.

THE debate about opening the priesthood to women has intensified in recent months as the Episcopal Church moves toward a vote on the issue at its triennial convention in Louisville, Kentucky, September 29-October 11, 1973. In 1970, Episcopalians voted by a narrow margin to maintain an all-male priesthood, but decided at the same convention to open the diaconate to women on an equal basis with men. There are many dimensions to the debate: ecumenical, sociological, psychological, practical, theological. This article will review and critique theological objections offered against the ordination of women in the Episcopal Church.

The theological objections to women priests can, I believe, be reduced to two types. The first type draws a circle around the priesthood and gives reasons why the priesthood must be a male role. The second type draws a circle around woman and explains why her “proper” role excludes her from the priesthood. The first type of argument-emphasis on the importance of a male priesthood-is the more fashionable one in the Episcopal Church today, perhaps because its proponents are spared the ticklish task of defining woman’s role in all respects.

The First Circle: A Male Priesthood

The most recent book opposing the ordination of women as priests is the work of Rev. George Rutler of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania. Rutler’s objections to women priests do not have to do with their pastoral or administrative ability. He goes so far as to say that such tasks are among those things that “women have often done far better [than men].”(2) Nor do Rutler’s objections have to do with such practical matters as the family responsibilities traditionally carried by women.

What Rutler objects to is a woman in the sacramental role, especially a woman in the priestly role at the celebration of the Eucharist. He says:

Quite simply . . . the priest is an instrument of God when he consecrates, or creates; the significance of his maleness in this instrumentality is that it is a symbol of the seminal initiative of God. The instrument and the symbol become one: the priest consecrates at the head of the people because God has singled him out in his maleness to be Christ for the people, the summation of the naked man before his mother at Golgotha and the whitely robed man before the harlot in the Garden: Sex and Eucharist are together; the priest with an “identity crisis” will most usually be the priest who does not understand that his central job is to be a man at the altar.(3)

The importance of an all-male priesthood has been underscored by many other writers. Perhaps the most widely circulated of the recent statements was made by the Rt. Rev. C. Kilmer Myers, Episcopal Bishop of California, in October of 1971. Myers said, in part:

A priest is a “god symbol” whether he likes it or not. In the imagery of both the Old and New Testaments God is represented in masculine imagery. The Father begets the Son. This is essential to the givingness of the Christian faith and to tamper with this imagery is to change that Faith into something else.

Of course, this does not mean God is a male. The biblical language is the language of analogy. It is imperfect even as all human imagery of God must be imperfect. Nevertheless, it has meaning. The male image about God pertains to the divine initiative in creation. Initiative is, in itself, a male rather than a female attribute . . . .

The priest acts as the commissioned agent of Christ. His priesthood partakes of Christ’s priesthood, which is generative, initiating, giving. The generative function is plainly a masculine kind of imagery, making priesthood a masculine conception.(4)

Another statement which has national circulation included these remarks:

The essential matter of the Sacrament of Holy Orders is a male human being. Any attempt to change this would mean that, although the words are repeated, an ordination is not effected.

The male has the initiative in creation. The act of blessing, which is the fundamental priestly act, is creative. To say “Bless us” is the . . . prerogative of any minister, but to stretch out a hand and say “Bless this” is to initiate a creation. In this the male priest reflects the creative activity of God the Father . . . .(5)

Another twist was given to the argument by an article published by a priest of the Diocese of New York:

Being a Jew, being a Palestinian, being a first century man - all these are what we might call, in the language of Aristotelian metaphysics, the “accidents” of Christ’s humanity; but his being a man rather than a woman is of the “substance” of his humanity. He could have been a twentieth-century Chinese and been, cultural differences notwithstanding, much the same person he was; but he could not have been a woman without having been a different sort of personality altogether.

It is our belief that the priestly ministry of the church (the episcopate and the presbyterate) are indissolubly linked to the person of the incarnate Christ . . . . The priest presides at the altar and says what Christ said, does what Christ did; there is a very profound sense in which, at that moment and in that ministry, he is Christ. And Christ was a man.

This fact is reinforced by the additional fact that Jesus chose only men for his Apostles (and they chose only men as their successors) .(6)

I find two principal assertions that undergird the claim for an all-male priesthood:

First: That God, acting as God the Creator, is exercising “male” qualities: initiative, generative power, and the like; and that a priest, in the sacramental acts, exercises creative, initiating powers that are distinctly masculine and analogous to God’s creative, initiating capabilities.

Second: That the Incarnation in a male human being, Jesus of Nazareth, taken together with the selection by Jesus of a circle of Twelve male followers, sets an unbreakable precedent for the priestly ministry in the Church.

But hearing these statements and accepting them as valid are two different things.

The first assertion rests on the claim that we can identify certain spheres of God’s activity as “male,” such as initiative and creative and generative power. This claim should immediately be suspect for its anthropomorphism, or more properly, its andromorphism. As Voltaire once put it, “God has made man in his own image and man has retaliated.” But we believe that the God revealed in Scripture cannot be contained by anthropomorphic or andromorphic images. Writing in the March, 1973 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Dr. Phyllis Trible, Professor of Old Testament at Andover Newton Theological School, points out:

Israel repudiated the idea of sexuality in God. Unlike fertility Gods, Yahweh is neither male nor female, neither he nor she. Consequently, modern assertions that God is masculine, even when they are qualified, are misleading and detrimental, if not altogether inaccurate. Cultural and grammatical limitations (the use of masculine pronouns for God) need not limit theological understanding. As Creator and Lord, Yahweh embraces and transcends both sexes.(7)

In fact the Anglican Articles of Religion provide a warning signal to those who would seek God’s male qualities in some designated sphere of his activity. The Articles state, “There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions . . . .” Or, as the book of Deuteronomy (6:4) puts it, “The Lord our God is one Lord.”

To reject an anthropomorphic conception of God is also to reject assertions about the nature of the priesthood which are based on that conception. If God cannot be said to be “male” in some designated sphere of activity, this rules out the possibility of drawing an analogy between some of God’s “masculine” actions and the priestly functions.

Even when its basis in divine analogy is removed, there are still other problems with the statement that the priest shows forth “masculine” attributes such as initiative and creative power. The obvious difficulty is the assumption that such attributes are to be associated exclusively with men. Such a claim does not sit well in a world which knows women as writers, artists, and heads-of-state.

Less obvious, but at least as important, is the assumption that these attributes should be associated with the functions of the priest in the sacramental acts. In the “Agreed Statement on Eucharistic Doctrine,” developed by the Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission in 1971, one does not find an emphasis on the role of the priest in the eucharistic celebration. According to that document, the presiding minister’s activity seems to be not so much that of initiator or creator, but of vehicle for divine action. It is through the activity of the Holy Spirit that “the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. . . , so that in communion we eat the flesh of Christ and drink his blood. The Lord who thus comes to his people in the power of the Holy Spirit is the Lord of Glory.”

This should be compared, for example, with Rutler’s assertion that “the priest consecrates at the head of the people because God has singled him out in his maleness to be Christ for the people. . .” Not only does the priest not have power on his own to consecrate, the priest is not, finally, Christ for his people. The priest is the one who presides, but Christ is present for the people not in the person of the priest but in the “earthly bread and wine become the heavenly manna and the new wine.”

The second assertion supporting an all-male chauvinist priesthood rests on the fact that the Incarnation took place in a male person, Jesus of Nazareth, who, with his circle of twelve male disciples, sets an unbreakable precedent for the priestly ministry of the Church. This argument has become perhaps more insistent in the months since the publication of Leonard Swidler’s article “Jesus Was A Feminist.” Since Jesus does not seem to qualify as a male chauvinist why did he choose only men for the Twelve?

This argument about the sex of Jesus and the Twelve is deceptive. It appears to take with utmost seriousness the historical circumstances of the Incarnation, but it ignores some very important historical realities, specifically the fact that Jesus’ earthly ministry occurred in continuity with God’s work for and among the people of Israel. Jesus, Christians believe, was the Messiah anticipated by the Jews. If we see Jesus this way, we will take seriously not only his maleness but also his Jewishness, his Davidic ancestry, and his status as a freeman rather than slave. We will regard all these attributes of Jesus not as accidents, but as having theological significance. Not only did Jesus initiate a new age in the relations between God and his people, he also fulfilled the Law. The Messiah was to be David’s royal son: a Jewish freeman. Gentiles held no theological status in Israel, and the position of slaves and women, although it varied somewhat during the history of Israel, was never equal to that of men.(8) None of these could qualify to fulfill the Law.

The appointment of the Twelve should also be understood in the context of Jewish religious thought of the first century. The Twelve are symbolic of the twelve tribes of Israel and serve as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy of the restoration of Israel. Jesus gathered the Twelve in order symbolically to reunite the scattered tribes. And according to Jewish theology, those chosen to represent the twelve tribes would have to be Jewish men.

Urban Holmes, Dean of the School of Theology of the University of the South, has elaborated on the significance of the Twelve this way:

The fact that Jesus did appoint the Twelve (which is probably a historically accurate record) would have nothing to do with the establishment of an institutional Church as we know it, but would be an eschatological sign in anticipation of the fulfillment of Israel in the Kingdom that was about to come, the Twelve not functioning as apostles (Matt. 19:28; Luke 22:30) but symbolizing the Twelve Tribes of Israel on the Day of the Lord.(9)

The more we take seriously the theological significance of the sex, race, and ancestry of Jesus or the Twelve, the less such attributes look like requirements for Christian priesthood. The personal characteristics of Jesus and the Twelve are significant for the fulfillment of Messianic prophecy made under the old covenant between God and Israel. But they are not therefore determinative for the nature of ministry in the Church, which came into being after the resurrection.

Of course the universal implications of Jesus’ death and resurrection were not immediately apparent to his followers. It took time for them to understand that the Gospel was for Gentiles as well as for Jews. The controversy between those who saw Christianity as a Jewish sect, open only to the circumcised, and those like Paul, who insisted that salvation in Christ was for all people, echoes through the Book of Acts and the Epistles. The early Christians slowly began to realize that in the Church the old theological distinctions between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, were broken down. Membership in the body of Christ was open to all people, transcending the divisions that had existed under the law. So it is no less a sign of the reconciling work of God that Gentile men can minister in Christ’s name than it is for women to do so.

The Second Circle: Woman’s Role

We have examined so far the arguments which try to draw a circle around the priesthood as a male role, thereby excluding women. The second type of woman, thereby ruling out the priesthood. Usually, the circle encloses woman in a subordinate role, but occasionally it is argued that this role is merely “different," not unequal.

Opponents who choose to argue for the subordination of women to men often draw on 1 Corinthians 14:33-35: “As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for woman to speak in church."

In this passage, Paul is invoking the story of the fall to argue that woman should have a subordinate role in church life. According to Genesis 3:16, one of the consequences of the fall was the subordinate place of woman: “Your desire shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you.” Yet the same Paul who instructs women to be “subordinate, as even the law says,” also asserts that “in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor man of woman,” (1 Corinthians 11:11-12) and in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Opponents of women in the priesthood are not, by and large, willing to take seriously the problem posed by these contradictions. They would like to accept both the message of Galatians 3:28 and the message that women are subordinate “as even the law says.” Their way out of this dilemma is sometimes to suggest that the message of Galatians 3:28 does not apply to life in this world, but only to life “at the end of time.” They would argue that yes, we are all equal before God, but in this age we are still bound by the conditions that resulted from the fall. One writer dismisses the Galatians passage this way: “(Paul’s) remark is clearly intended as eschatologicalhaving to do with ‘the last days’- when ‘God wilt be all in all.’ In other words, the Galatians passage is irrelevant to the (ordination of women).”(10) The author goes on to challenge those who want the priesthood opened to women to state their criteria for preferring the Galatians passage to 1 Corinthians 14:34 as a guideline for the churches today.(11)

In fact, there are good reasons for preferring Galatians 3:28 (“you are all one in Christ”) to 1Corinthians 14:34 (“be subordinate”) as the embodiment of the central message of the Gospel. In the first place, Galatians 3:28 is found in a theological discourse in which Paul is discussing the saving work of Christ; 1Corinthians 14:34, on the other hand, gives a set of practical directions for maintaining church order. Between the two, we should probably assume that the passage which is basically “theological” in character has more long-term importance and relevance for the Church(12)

Galatians 3:28 has special theological importance because it is describing the order of things in the kingdom, “in Christ.”(13) When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we say, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” . What we are asking is that God work to establish the order of the kingdom on earth, here and now. (14) We do not ask God to put off his saving work until some “last days” that are always at the other end of the rainbow. We do not know exactly what God’s kingdom will be like, but the New Testament gives us some glimpses and one of those glimpses is in Galatians 3:28. We know about the kingdom through our life “in Christ.” And “in Christ” there is “neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female.”

The theological importance of the Galatians passage is underscored by the fact that it speaks of a new order which reverses the effects of the fall.(15) In Romans 5:18 Paul says, “Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men.” The subordination of women to men was one of the effects of the fall, as we know from Genesis 3:16. In Christ’s death and resurrection we are freed from bondage to the sinful conditions of existence that obtained under the fall. If Paul had never written Galatians 3:28, we would be compelled to affirm its principles on the basis of what we know of Christ’s work from the rest of the New Testament.

But even if women are equal, the argument continues, God intends women and men to fill separate roles in the life of Christ’s Church. The unhappy history of the “separate but equal” doctrine in certain branches of our civil life has been no deterrent to its use in various guises by those who oppose the ordination of women priests. One English scholar remarked: “If women are incapable of receiving Holy Orders, it cannot be just because they are, in the vulgar sense of the word, subordinate to men, but because of the particular way in which masculinity and femininity are involved in the whole dispensation of redemption.”(16)

There are, then, different spheres for the ministry of men and women. Woman is urged to follow Christ, but by a particular route. She has distinctive functions in building Christ’s kingdom and she should look to Mary, the mother of Jesus, and other prominent Bible women for models for her life. Above all, her role in building the kingdom is associated with her ministry as Christian wife and mother.

According to one opponent of the ordination of women to the priesthood, woman’s role flows directly from her biological potential for motherhood:

The femininity of woman is clearly marked out by her bodily functions. By nature she is destined for a different life from the man’s. However much she tries to avoid this (and the modern methods of avoiding it are many and full of dangers), she can never really escape it. For every normal woman is a potential mother . . (17)

By contrast, the same writer states, “every man . . . is a potential priest.”(18)

The implications of woman’s role as Christian wife and mother have been described in a widely quoted essay by the Rt. Rev. Kenneth E. Kirk, the late Anglican Bishop of Oxford. In his view, “The sex-relation once set up must have priority over all other natural relations.”(19) The duties of wife and mother involve the “loving submission”(20) of wife to husband which would be threatened by the ordination of women priests, even if ordained women were celibate. Kirk elaborates on this point:

Even if ordination and matrimony were canonically declared to be mutually incompatible, so that no ordained woman were allowed to marry, and no married women to be ordained, the wife and mother would be severely tempted to arrogate to herself a sexual equality with, if not superiority to, her husband analogous to the position of her ordained unmarried sister; dangerous strains would be introduced into domestic life; and the integrity of the Christian doctrine of the married relationship would be gravely challenged.(21)

The assumptions underlying this view of woman’s role should be examined in the light of the Gospel message of the new life men and women share in Christ. The rule of men over their wives is clearly a result of the fall (Genesis 3:16) and is precisely one of those sinful conditions of human existence from which we have been saved by God’s work for us in Christ.

Bishop Kirk does have a scriptural basis for his assertion of the centrality of woman’s role as mother. He quotes from Genesis 1:28, in which God tells the first human couple, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.”(22) (As this instruction is given by God to both Adam and Eve, one may wonder why fatherhood is not given more emphasis by Bishop Kirk.)

By contrast, we find that Jesus’ teaching warns against preoccupation with family relations. In Matthew 10, we read:

Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be those of his own household. He who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me (Matthew 10:34-38).

Nor does Paul provide support for preoccupation with family relations. In 1 Corinthians 7:7 he writes, “I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.” Paul is referring here to his own personal inclination toward celibacy, but he was accepting of married life for those who chose it. Paul emphasizes the importance not of family life, but of the spiritual aspects of the new life we have in Christ, urging Christians to “earnestly desire the spiritual gifts” (1 Corinthians 14:1).

“Earnestly desire the spiritual gifts.” Are women who seek ordination to the priesthood mistaken to take this piece of Paul’s advice?


1. Sections of this essay are adapted from Women Priests: Yes or No? (New York: The Seabury Press, 1973), Copyright 1973 by Emily C. Hewitt and Suzanne R. Hiatt, and are used with permission.

2. George William Rutler, Priests and Priestesses (Ambler, Pa.: Trinity Press, 1973), p. 62.

3. Rutler, pp. 83-84.

4. C. Kilmer Myers, “Should Women Be Ordained? No,” The Episcopalian, Vol. 137, No. 2 (February, 1972), p. 8.

5. Albert J. DuBois, “Why I Am Against the Ordination of Women,” The Episcopalian, Vol. 137, No. 7 (July, 1972), p. 22.

6. John Paul Boyer, “Some Thoughts on the Ordination of Women,” Avé: A Monthly Bulletin of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, New York City, Vol. XLI, No. 5 (May, 1972), pp. 74-75.

7. Phyllis Trible, “Depatriarchalizing in Biblical Interpretation,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. XLI No. 1 (March 1973), p. 34.

8. Leonard Hodgson, “Theological Objections to the Ordination of Women,” The Expository Times, Vovol. LXXVII, No. 7 (April, 1966), p. 211.

9. Urban T. Holmes, III, The Future Shape of Ministry: A Theological Projection (New York: The Seabury Press, 1971), p. 12.

10. Boyer, p. 73.

11. Ibid.

12. C.W. Atkinson, A Position Paper in Favor of the Ordination of Women to the Priesthood in the Episcopal Church (New York: n.d.), pp. 1-2; Krister Stendahl, The Bible and the Role of Women: A Case Study in Hermeneutics, trans. Emilie T. Sander (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), p. 32.

13. Atkinson, p. 2; Stendahl, p. 40.

14. Krister Stendahl, “Women in the Churches: No Special Pleading,” Soundings, Vol. LIII, No. 4 (Winter, 1970), p. 276.

15. Atkinson, p. 3.

16. E.L. Mascall, Women and the Priesthood of the Church (London: The Church Union, Church Literature Association, n.d.), p. 34.

17. F.C. Blomfield, quoted in M.E. Thrall, The Ordination of Women to the Priesthood: A Study of the Biblical Evidence (London: SCM Press, 1958), p. 102.

18. F.C. Blomfield, quoted in Mascall, p. 27.

19. Kenneth Escott Kirk, Beauty and Bands and Other Papers (Greenwich, Conn.: The Seabury Press, 1957), p. 182.

20. Ibid.

21. Ibid., p. 186. For another view see Derrick Sherwin Bailey, Sexual Relations in Christian Thought (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1959), pp. 260-303.

22. Kirk, p. 181.

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