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Ordination of Women Creates Serious Ecumenical Problems by Jean Corbon

Ordination of Women Creates Serious Ecumenical Problems

Jean Corbon
published in L'Osservatore Romano ( March 1993)

The decision made by the Synod of the Church of England on 11 November 1992 to allow the ordination of women to the priesthood does not come as a surprise to the Orthodox Churches. Such a decision is wholly within the logic of the Lambeth Conference (all the bishops of the Anglican Commission) which on 1 August 1988 had expressed itself with an overwhelming majority in favor of the ordination of women to the episcopate (423 votes in favor, 28 opposed, 19 abstaining).

One month earlier, the Mixed International Commission for theological dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church meeting at Uusi Valamo (Finland) had published its third joint document, entitled The Sacrament of Order in the Sacramental Structure of the Church, with a Particular Reference to the Importance of the Apostolic Succession for the Sanctification and Unity of the People of God.

In no. 32, the official representatives of the two Churches declared: "In the whole history of our Churches women have had a fundamental role witnessed to not only by the most holy Mother of God, but also by the holy women mentioned in the New Testament, by the numerous saints whom we venerate and by so many other women who right up till today have served the Church in numerous ways. Their specific charisms are very important for the building up of the body of Christ, but our Churches remain faithful to the historical and theological tradition according to which only men can be ordained to the priestly ministry" (cf. Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Information Service 68 [1988], 197).

It should be noted that the problem of the ordination of women, which has been posed since 1897, had been discussed in the Lambeth Conferences of 1948 and 1978, and in 1988 about 1,200 women had already been ordained to the priesthood in the various provinces of the Anglican Communion. The solid vote of 1 August 1988 in favor of the ordination of women to the episcopate dangerously shook one of the pillars of the "quadrilateral of Lambeth" on which the unity of the Anglican Communion rests ("the historical episcopate") and for this reason runs the risk of breaking one of its links of communion with the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

Ordination of Women a Serious Ecumenical Problem

It is here that the ecumenical problem underlying the ordination of women is posed: in what pertains to the sacramental structure of the Church (baptism-confirmation, eucharist, and ordained ministry), or in what is essential to the faith handed down by the apostles, can a Church modify this structure on her own authority without compromising her communion with the other Churches of the same apostolic faith?

This is the precise point of the ecumenical problem which the representative of the Patriarch of Constantinople, the Metropolitan of Pergamum, Bishop John Zizioulas, stressed at Lambeth: "The fact that the Orthodox Church is decentralized is well known.... At the present moment a certain change of emphasis has begun to take place in this system that is autocephalous and of synodal practice. It is not a question of moving radically away from tradition, but rather of putting into practice the fundamental principles. The 'many' always have need of the 'one' in order to express themselves. This mystery of the 'one' and the 'many' is profoundly rooted in the theology of the Church, in its christological nature (the aspect of the 'one') and in its pneumatological nature (the aspect of the 'many'). At the institutional level there is an implicit presupposition of a ministry of primacy inherent in all the forms of conciliarity An ecclesiology of communion, an ecclesiology which gives to the 'many' the right to be themselves runs the risk of a 'pneuma-tomonism,' if the ministry of the 'one' does not serve as a counter-balance. Likewise, the ecclesiology of a pyramidal hierarchical structure entails a christonomic tendency which can undermine the cisive role of the Holy Spirit in the life and structure of the Church. We must then find the golden mean, the correct balance between the 'one' and the 'many' and this, I fear, cannot be done unless we first seriously deepen our knowledge in the area of trinitanan theology. The God in whom we believe is 'one' while at the same time being 'many' (three) and is 'many' while at the same time being 'one.'

"The question of central authority in the Church is a question of faith and not only of constitution. A Church which is not capable of speaking with one voice is not the true image of the body of Christ.... A theology which justifies or even (as an Orthodox and perhaps also an Anglican might specify) necessitates an episcopal ministry at the level of the local Church—such a theology makes evident the need for a primacy at the regional and even at the universal level. It would be unfortunate if the Anglican Church were to go in an opposite direction. It would then have to seek a non-institutional type of identity and the result at the ecumenical level would be sad and perhaps even tragic.. .. Far from being an internal matter its unity is a question of vital interest for the whole Church.. . .

Orthodox Acknowledge Missionary Work of Women

"It is no secret to anyone that the Orthodox are officially opposed to any decision of the Anglicans to ordain women to the priesthood, not to speak of the episcopate. . . . When there is such strong controversy the history of the ancient Church teaches us that no decision can be made before the disputed points have been subjected to an in-depth theological debate. ... I think that at the ecumenical level we have not yet begun to treat the question of the ordination of women as a theological problem. Those who are opposed to the ordination of women have thus far advanced only reasons which pertain to the traditional practice, while those in favor are charged by their adversaries with having only sociological reasons. Before such a question is put to a vote it would perhaps be wise and more pertinent to the nature of the problem to debate the question theologically at the ecumenical level. What is therein the nature of priesthood that prohibits the ordination of women?

And what can necessitate the access of women to the priestly ministry, beyond the social reasons which are also serious and important?" (cf. Service Orthodoxe de Presse, 132 [1988], 20-22).

In order to find out where they stood on such questions, a meeting was held at Rhodes from 30 October to 7 November 1988, on the initiative of the ecumenical patriarch, to discuss "the position of woman in the Orthodox Church and the question of the ordination of women." In his message to the members of the congress, His Holiness Patriarch Dimitrios I recalled the fundamental data of the Orthodox tradition: "The growing authority of women in the historical evolution, the Improvement of their social situation, and the recognition of their role in daily life depend on the revolutionary transformation and the institutional reform of the ancient world promoted by Christianity. Our Lord Jesus Christ did not go along with the historical conditions of his time, nor with the social conventions hostile to women. . . . We are certain that the missionary activity of women in the era of Christ and the apostles and also, thereafter, in the earliest Christian communities, was contrary to the customs of the time. . . .

"Following the example of the Lord and of the apostles, the Church in her history throughout the ages has recruited men and women without discrimination. In her struggle for salvation and spiritual perfection, she has never engaged in any kind of discrimination. The Orthodox Church accepts with benevolence the participation of woman in social life where, very often, the feminine element proves to be superior to male activity. This Church, moreover, maintains that the achievements of women are an application of the religious freedom on which any healthy feminist movement should be based.

"Nevertheless, the effort toward equality when pushed beyond its limits creates insurmountable obstacles for the union of Christians, so much desired and sought, and accordingly does not have a place in the Church of Christ. In fact such an effort seeks not only to level the biological differences between the two sexes, but also to extend the feminist claims even to the sphere of the mystery of salvation and the Church, and all this, in particular, with the problem recently raised by the admission of women to the priesthood.

"We would like to hope that the inter-Orthodox congress of Rhodes can contribute positively to clarifying and interpreting the theological reasons why the Orthodox Church believes that the ordination of women is impossible. It is not a matter of mere rhetoric, but of an attitude firmly founded on sacred Tradition and historical reality. Can the Church really have been in error during all these centuries in denying the priesthood to women? Not only was the Church not m error, but she condemned with full consciousness those who advanced such claims. The catholicity of the Church is not only geographical, it traverses time as well. This means that the Church guards that which has been entrusted to her in the course of the centuries. She guards 'that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all'" (cf. Episkepsis, 409 [1988] 5-7).

Eastern Orthodox Share Common Ecclesiological Principles

The participants in this inter-Orthodox theological congress represented all the Orthodox Churches in communion with the Ecumenical See of Constantinople. They included clerics and lay people, monks and nuns, men and women. In its final statement "the congress acknowledges that the Orthodox woman is capable of living the life of the Church fully and of exercising the ecclesial service suitable to her both inside and outside of the Church in diverse forms always of an ecclesial nature, but not priestly. Invested with the dignity and position of deaconess, a most ancient institution of the Orthodox Church, and together with other functions, the Orthodox woman is called today to participate m the Church's mission in sectors such as the apostolate, liturgical service, catechesis, teaching, mission, social service, in addition to her presence and her specific contribution of monasticism" (ibid., 3).

In reading the detailed and reasoned conclusion of this congress, the first in the history of the Orthodox Church, it is impossible not to note the convergence in ecclesiological and sacramental principles which are common to the Eastern Orthodox Churches (Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopian, Syrian of Antioch and of India). In these conclusions one can also note the sincere recognition of the fact that the Christian communities have not always been faithful, in practice, to the principle of the equal dignity of woman and man in the life of the Church. There is a further convergence in the discernment of the motives behind the modern feminist movement which, under the appearance of theological formulations, are often in fact raising socio-cultural questions. This would make it possible to clarify the ambiguity of the Anglican position whose reformed element, as is well known, does not recognize the ordained ministry as sacramental. Finally, one will note the move made by the Congress of Rhodes to restore the female diaconate, without fearing to see in this a first step toward the priesthood, because in this sacrament, and according to the most ancient tradition, the imposition of hands is received "not in view of priesthood, but of ministry" (cf. Lumen Gentium, no. 29 and note 74. The conclusions of the Inter-Orthodox Theological Congress of Rhodes have been published in Episkepsis, 412 [1989], 8-17).


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