Professor of Religion Swarthmore
published in The St Luke's Journal of
Theology Vol XVIII no 4 1975
and reproduced here with the necessary
It was a hot summer evening and three neighbors were gathered on the terrace of a Philadelphia suburban home. Their wives and families were away visiting relatives. Driven by loneliness, their fellowship was more congenial than it might otherwise have been. The owner of the house was a professor of philosophy at the local college, where he had gained a reputation for humorless sobriety. It was not that he lacked a sense of humor, but that he spent so much of his time exposing the fallacies in the wretched arguments of his students and the almost equally wretched arguments of his colleagues that his responses had become automatic. Every discussion, no matter how trivial, was treated as an exercise in logic.
The second member of the group was the young assistant at the local Episcopal Church. He had been out of seminary for only a year or two and so displayed the earnestness which one finds in young men and women who have committed themselves to great undertakings. In addition he was friendly and compassionate, qualities which had not yet been dulled by the endless repetition of events. The world was still very new to him and he was easily flustered by the strange new things which he encountered.
The third member of the little group was a clinical psychologist. In another profession he might have been a passionate believer or a passionate atheist. But as it was, he had come to think that his profession required him to take a neutral stance with his patients regarding ultimate questions and this neutrality had spilled over into his private life. He did not find it easy to shift gears and so he had settled into adopting the same even-handed attitude everywhere. He satisfied his momentary longings for transcendence by indulging a benign interest in those who were ready to discuss their convictions.
The evening had begun with questions about the respective families. Then the discussion followed a meandering course to baseball and thence to the rights of young women to play in the Little League and finally to women's ordination.
"You certainly have been having a time with Women's Lib in the Episcopal Church," remarked the Benign Neutral Psychologist.
"Oh, how I wish you had not brought that subject up," replied the Earnest Cleric. "I have spent all day on it and I am more confused than ever. When I was in seminary, I came to believe that there were no theological objections to women's ordination, but now I am not so sure. This morning at breakfast I was absolutely convinced that the church should ordain women to the priesthood, but I spent the day at a meeting of the clergy where for the first time I really heard the case against women's ordination well presented. I must confess that I am almost persuaded that the conservatives are right."
B.N.P.: "But surely, the arguments boil down to the old male chauvinist arguments. Men are superior and women are inferior and only superior beings ought to be priests, because only they can do the work of the priesthood in the best way."
E.C.: "No, that is not the case at all. One of the male participants pointed out that in his parish the Senior Warden is a woman and that he has not a trace of male superiority in his makeup. He thoroughly approves of women judges, women doctors, even a woman President. It is not the claim that men are superior to women which debars them from the priesthood, but only the fact that they are female and not male."
B.N.P.: "This is a strange position. I cannot see any reason for insisting on a male priesthood if men are not superior to women. What possible reasons could anyone give for such a conclusion? These must be extraordinary reasons indeed."
E.C.: "Before I went to this meeting, 1 had heard their reasons, but I had not realized how formidable they are, particularly when taken together. For example, they point out that Christ called only men to be apostles, that when God became incarnate, he chose a male to take to himself, and also that all the God-chosen symbols for God in the Old and New Testaments are male symbols. In the Bible, God is never spoken of as a She, but always as a He, never as Mother, but always as Father. For all these reasons, they conclude that God is showing us quite clearly that a priest ought to be male."
At this the Sober Logician interrupted, "I do not see how the final step is supposed to follow. I can see how the fact that Jesus called only men to be apostles might be taken as an indication of his intention to allow only males to be ordained in the church, but I do not see how the fact that God became incarnate in a male, or that biblical symbolism for God is always male, leads to the conclusion that only males can be priests. There seems to be a premise missing in the argument. I assume that you can supply the premise since you find the argument so convincing."
E.C.: "I see what you mean. I did leave something out. I left out the fact that part of the role of the priest is to symbolize or represent God and Christ. The priest is in part at least a symbolic person. When he leads the congregation in prayer, he represents the people to God. When he preaches or reads the lessons, he symbolizes God to his people. This second aspect of the symbolic function of priesthood only a male can fulfill because only a male can be an adequate symbol for God. Only a male can adequately symbolize God, since God has chosen only male symbols for himself."
B.N .P.: "That's a very powerful argument. I see now why your church claims to have a different conception of the ministry than do other churches. Other churches do not see their ministers as symbolic persons in quite the same way that yours does. I remember hearing a Presbyterian minister once who said that he.had a functional view of the ministry, i.e., that the clergy were ordained to do certain things, like preaching, teaching, administering the sacraments and so on; but he never mentioned that part of the role was to be a symbol for God. Psychological theory deals a great deal with symbols, and I know from my patients how important symbols are. It is more accurate to say that we human beings live in a world of symbols rather than in the drab world the hard sciences are always telling us about. I must say that I am impressed by your friends. Half the psychic ills of man are the result of disoriented symbols, or rather that men have gotten their symbols so badly disorganized that they are pulled in many different directions. I can only applaud a group of people who take their symbols seriously and try to get them into a coherent pattern. I applaud you for giving so much weight to these arguments."
S.L.: "Your friends have certainly set out a group of reasons for rejecting a priesthood made up of both men and women. But I am not yet convinced that they can reach the conclusion which they wish to reach on that set of premises. What I mean more exactly is that we can be easily blinded by a whole set of reasons coming at us all at once. We get the impression that the argument is conclusive because there are a great many reasons. However, it may be the case that no one of the reasons taken by itself is conclusive, nor even that all taken together will be conclusive. What we need to do is to get clear about the structure of the argument so that we can see whether or not the reasons taken together will lead to the desired end."
E.C.: "I do not see what you mean. Here is a group of reasons and they all seem to point in the same direction. What more is needed?"
S.L.: "I do not suppose that I can adequately explain ahead of time what problems in the argument might turn up. But problems have a way of turning up and we can only see what happens when we take the argument step by step. Where shall we begin? What seems to you to be the most likely place to begin an examination?"
E.C.: "I suppose that we should begin with the fact that Jesus called only men to be among theTwelve. He was a friend of Mary and of Martha, but he did not call them or his mother Mary or Mary Magdalene to be apostles. This clearly is an important fact which must be taken into account whenever we begin a discussion of the ministry."
S.L.: "Are you sure that he only called men?"
E.C.: "I do not understand what you mean. I take it that we are accepting the Scriptural accounts and in these accounts Jesus calls only men to this special discipleship."
S.L.: "You misunderstand what I mean. I was not doubting the biblical evidence. What I was doubting was whether the description of the act 'Jesus called men to be his apostles' is a complete description of the act. Moral philosophers have worried a good deal about how to describe acts, or more exactly they have worried about what constitutes an act. Suppose someone is accused of murder, and he replies: 'I did not do anything which ought to be described as murder; I only pulled the trigger.' Faced with this answer, most of us would conclude that the accused had not given a complete description of the act. He has at least omitted the relevant detail that someone died as a result of his pulling the trigger. So in the matter under discussion, we have to see whether or not all the relevant details of what Jesus did are included in the specification of the act."
B.N.P., pricking up his ears, interjected: "What kind of details do you mean?"
S.L.: "It might be important that Jesus not only called men, but a particular kind of men. As I understand it, among the Twelve were only men of Jewish parentage, who spoke Aramaic and who were of the lower classes. We could probably add a good many other characteristics which would more exactly specify this group. What we need, if we are to proceed, is to find some way of deciding whether or not these details are relevant. If they are, then they ought to be taken into account in deciding who is to be ordained and who is not to be ordained."
B.N.P.: "You philosophers are very sly. I see what you are trying to do. You are trying to show that if the church is to do what Jesus did, then it ought to do everything which Jesus did. But since the church throughout the centuries has already departed from his example in ordaining Gentiles, it might just as well go ahead and ordain women."
S.L.: "You are going ahead much too fast. Just because an issue is raised does not mean that it cannot be resolved. Actually what is raised here is part of a larger issue. We often hear it said that action speaks louder than words. Action probably does speak louder, but not always more clearly than words. Actions so often can have many meanings, i.e., they can be interpreted in several ways. I remember reading the advertisement for a book not too long ago called Body Language. The ad gave the impression that all of our actions are very revealing and that if we all understood this language we should all be able to read each other's minds and thus understand each other better. However, reading further in the ad, I discovered something which I should have known all along. The same action can indicate different internal states. For example, flashing eyes and excitement is sometimes a sign of anger, but sometimes it is a sign of keen interest. To cite a personal example, I once noticed an old gentleman in a restaurant who seemed to be looking at me very intently. However, when I went over to speak to him, I discovered that he had not recognized me, but was lost in thought and had not noticed me at all.
"Thus we need something more than a description of the surface details of an action. We need something which will tell us which of these surface details are relevant so that we can describe the action properly, but we also need something to tell us which of the many possible meanings the act has. If we know what the intention of the act is, if we know what its point is, we often can satisfy both needs. In the matter under consideration, if we know what Jesus's intention was, we can pick out the relevant details and we can say what he meant by this action."
B.N.P.: "I now see what you are driving at. In psychotherapy it is often a matter of getting a patient to see the original intention which lies back of certain compulsive behavior. Sometimes we have repressed the original reason for some of our actions. By bringing alive the memories of the past, we often can discover the original motives for our compulsive behavior. Thus the patien gains new insight into himself and can handle his problems more constructively."
S.L.: "Yes, what I am saying is that if we understood Jesus's intentions when he called the Twelve, we could better sort out the relevant details, i.e., know which ones to include; and we should also be able to say what the significance of the act is for Christians."
At this point E.C. stood up and began to pace about saying, "Now I begin to see the importance of something else which was said today: 'Jesus, it must be assumed, knew what he was doing when he called men. He certainly must have known of the female priests in other religions in the ancient world. If we can presume that Jesus knew of these cults, and there is really no reason to doubt that he did, we have the right to presume that he intentionally decided to call men.' "
S.L.: "Not so fast. You will probably have to trim that remark a bit if you are to be on solid factual ground. It is not at all clear to me that at the time of Jesus any cults in the Near East had female priests. If that is true, Jesus could not have known about them, unless of course in his human mind he was omniscient. But not everyone is willing to grant him omniscience. However, he could easily have known about cults with female religious functionaries. He would only have to have read or heard of the Prophets' teachings to have known of sacramental prostitution. If you are willing to trim your claim to the following: 'Jesus knew of cults in which there were female religious functionaries,' you would be on solid ground. Thus when he called only twelve men, he was acting intentionally, because he knew of the option to call women. If that is what you want to say, I think that your point can be granted."
The psychologist, who rapidly was becoming less neutral and benign, exclaimed: "Let us get on with it. Let's get back to the main point. I can see how one can argue that Christ's act of calling men as his apostles was an intentional act and that therefore at least the calling of men must be included in a proper specification of the act. But how can this conclusion help us to meet the other problem? For we still do not know whether or not we must include other details. Do not we have to say that Jesus also intentionally called those of Jewish parentage, those who spoke only Aramaic and so on? How can it be argued that Jesus did not act intentionally in these regards as well?"
S.L.: "Of course one would have to show that in calling the Twelve Christ did not intend to ordain only Aramaic-speaking Jews. The strongest kind of argument would involve some words of Jesus on this subject. I know of none. One might then appeal to an argument from silence. However, not only are arguments from silence notoriously weak, but in this particular instance an argument from silence concerning the ordination of Aramaic-speaking Jews would be of no help to those who oppose women's ordination. For Jesus does not say anything about not ordaining women, either, nor does he make any comments upon the subject of ordination at all. So we must look in some other quarter to show his intentions.
"Now it is clear that Jesus called into his fellowship both Jews and Gentiles, and from very early times Gentiles were chosen as .apostolic men. Thus since the very early church in the Acts of the Apostles did not understand Christ's actions to restrict the ministry to Jews, we have good reason not to interpret his choice of the Twelve as restrictive in that way. The convictions of the very early church are some indication of Christ's intentions."
E.C.: "I am certainly glad that we have had this conversation. I now feel much better settled in my mind about the issues. A great weight has been lifted from me and I can now sleep with an easy conscience. I see now why you are always so keen about getting clear about the structure of the argument. I see that if we say that the church can only ordain males because this is in accord with the practice of Jesus that assertion is not enough. For if we say that we must imitate Christ, we must know specifically which actions or which part of an action we are to imitate. Thus we have to know the intention of a particular act, for some of the details of the action may be irrelevant. Thus we have to find a reason why Jesus Should have called only men and not Aramaic-speaking Jews. I thank you for showing me that though actions speak louder than words, it is not the action itself which is of first importance, but the intention which lies behind the action."
S.L.: "Oh, but I do not think that you are out of the woods yet. Perhaps we had all better get a drink, and then return to the question. For we have only shown that Jesus acted intentionally when he called the Twelve. We have not shown what his intention was."
E.C.: "Here, I will get the drinks while you explain yourself. I thought that we had already shown what Jesus' intention was when we admitted that he intentionally chose men. What could be clearer? In addition, the very early church did not ordain women. If we are to cite the practice of the early church to clarify Jesus' intentions regarding Gentile ordination, we have every right to cite it to clarify Jesus's intentions regarding women's ordination."
S.L.: "But do you not see that there is a great difference between the two cases? In the first case, Gentiles are ordained. Here an action was taken. In the second case, women are not ordained. Here the early church refrained from action."
E.C.: "I see the difference, but I do not see why it is important. Why cannot we infer intentions both from action and from inaction?"
S.L.: "The difference is important because actions reveal inner states more clearly than do non-actions. Suppose we observe two men standing outside the office cafeteria. One suggests that they both go in to lunch. The second says: 'No, thank you; I am skipping lunch today.' The first man then goes inside and purchases his lunch while the second walks off down the hall. Now from the actions of the first man we can conclude that he is hungry and that he has enough money to buy his lunch. However, from the actions of the second, we do not know whether to conclude that he is not hungry or whether he has not enough money, or both. For any one of these conditions might hold. In addition, he might like the first man be both hungry and have enough money, but be on a diet. From the actions of the first man we can conclude something definite about his intentions and inner states. However, we cannot reach any such conclusions from the actions of the second."
E.C.: "I suppose you are right with regard to the early church. It is one step removed from Jesus. That fact in itself weakens the evidentiary value of its actions. However, have we not already admitted that when Jesus called only men to be apostles he was acting intentionally? Why can we not conclude that he meant only men to be ordained?"
S.L.: "Here the very same problem obtains. It is of course true that Jesus might have had it in mind when he called only men to be apostles to enjoin a universal prohibition against women priests. But he might have intentionally called only men and yet have had quite another motive. For example he might, as Leonard Hodgson suggests, have called only men because it would have been almost impossible for contemporary Jews to have accepted women as religious leaders. Thus his intention might not have been to exclude women from the ministry for all time but merely for the moment to accommodate to Jewish beliefs and practices. That Jesus might have been willing to accommodate himself to his hearers is certainly not a new idea. This principle is sometimes relied upon by those who want to explain why Jesus seems to attribute the Psalms to David, when he might have known that David did not write the Psalms. At least Jesus would know this were he omniscient, a position which some Christians hold. Thus it might well be the case that Jesus intentionally called only men to the ministry because he saw no need at that particular time for a controversy over that particular subject. Perhaps he decided intentionally to leave the issue of women's ordination to later generations."
B.N.P.: "This talk of Jewish attitudes toward women surprises me. I know of Jews who pride themselves upon the fact that women were to be educated along with men in the synagogues. I am surprised to hear you putting forth such notions as part of the argument."
S.L.: "As a matter of fact there is considerable controversy over the education of women in the Torah in early times. Some rabbis forbid the education of women. But this is a side issue to our concern. What is without doubt the case is that there were no women priests in Old Testament times among Jews. There may be several reasons for this stance. One of the most striking is that no one could enter the sacred precincts of the temple who was impure. As far as I have been able to detect from reading Leviticus and the Mishnah, women must have been impure a great deal of the time. They had to purify themselves 7 days from the uncleanness of menstrual blood and they had to purify themselves 33 days when a male child was born and 66 days for a female child. In addition, by the time of the third Temple, the Temple of Herod which Jesus knew, women were not allowed at all into the inner precincts. They were allowed into the court of the women, into which all Israelites were permitted. Beyond that was the court of the men, and beyond that the Court of the priests. Thus there is a strong pressure from Judaism not to accord women any role as official religious functionaries. Jesus might have been temporarily accommodating to these beliefs and practices."
B.N.P.: "This may not be to the point, but I wish I knew more about why menstrual blood was taboo. From the psychological point of view, fear of blood seems to be connected with fear of death. Is this why menstrual blood is thought to be unclean?"
S.L.: "This subject could be the start of a long story. However, a few remarks might be in order here. First, the fear of menstrual blood is very widespread. According to Bettelheim, it is to be found in almost every culture. Second, as far as Leviticus and the Mishnah are concerned, remarks about the impurity of menstrual blood are embedded in a section which deals with other kinds of uncleanness; included among them are corpse uncleanness and the uncleanness resulting from any issue, i.e. any continuous hemorrhage or running sore. Thus it would make sense to couple all of these types of impurity with fear of death. Nonetheless, Mary Douglas in Purity and Danger suggests that these impurity regulations are connected with a fear of the transition from one state to the next. In ancient societies times of transition, birth, puberty, death, etc. are times of special anxiety. Ancient peoples equate order with stability. And in times of transition the order of the universe seems to be threatened. Hence there is the fear that the transition will not be successfully accomplished and that instead of a new stability, chaos will break loose. It may well be the case then that prolonged bleeding or running sores, menstrual blood, abortions and miscarriages are taken to signal breaches in the stability of the cosmos and hence to violate the natural order of things. This hypothesis is intriguing because it is congruent with a great deal that we know from other sources of ancient societies. In sum, order and stability are to be desired. Change and instability are to be feared."
E.C.: "I don't know why we have gotten into this discussion about menstrual blood. Surely in this day and age, no one is so medieval as to be seriously influenced by such archaic attitudes."
S.L.: "Perhaps you and I are not, but I have heard people quote the relevant passages from Leviticus in opposition to women's ordination. Perhaps, should they become clear about the origin of the fear of menstrual blood, their negative attitudes would gradually erode."
B.N .P.: "I suspect that you are entirely too optimistic on that score. Of course, in large part psychotherapy is an attempt to help patients get clear about the origins of their attitudes and thus to dispel the unproductive ones. However, insight has to be achieved by each individual and a treatise, no matter how rational and learned, is unlikely to be of much assistance."
S L : "No doubt you are right. Yet these considerations should at least convince those who do not have a revulsion at the thought of menstrual that they need not concern themselves further with this taboo.
"After this digression, let us return to our subject. We left it that even we might grant that Jesus called only men intentionally, there are two possible intentions which he might have had: 1st to proclaim all time that only men were to be ordained, and 2nd to call only men as temporary expedient, i.e. in order to avoid controversy over a subject might needlessly stand in the way of the propagation of the gospel."
E.C.: "This is a very unsatisfactory development. I thought we had it settled a while ago in favor of the ordination of women and now you have introduced another possibility for Jesus's intention. We must find a way of deciding what his intention was."
S.L.: "As I understand it, your clerical friends have an answer. From you have already said, we can extract a reason why Jesus might have only males and excluded females. According to your account, priests are symbolic persons. A part of the priest's role is to represent God to his people. What your friends argue is that all the divinely approved symbols are male symbols. Christ was a male, whom the priest also symbolizes, and God himself is spoken of with male symbols in the Old Testament, although God himself may be granted to be beyond sexual distinctions. However, since God himself has chosen male symbols and not female ones, and since the priest is to be a symbol for God, only a male can that role. Am I correct thus far in my account of the argument?"
E.C.: "That is very impressive. For what you have just shown is how the argument holds together. You have shown us what the structure of argument is. If we begin the argument with the fact that Christ called men, we must be clear that we have all the relevant parts of his act in description of it. One way to get clear about what is relevant and what is to get clear about Jesus's intentions. In this way we can also get about the meaning of the act. For an act might mean different things, you pointed out that Jesus might have had two intentions, to lay it for all time that men were to be ordained, or to call only men as a temporary expedient. Now you have shown how we can decide which of two might reasonably be taken to have been Jesus's intention. For if role of the priest is in part to be a symbol for God, and since all God-chosen symbols for himself are male symbols, only a male could represent God. As a result women are precluded from the priesthood because they are female and for no other reason."
S.L.: "I am afraid that you and your friends are not out of the woods yet. If the male symbols of God are all divinely chosen, then the argument has considerable weight. However, if they are man-made symbols, then it is not clear that the argument will go through."
E.C.: "According to Christian doctrine, there is one God-chosen symbol at least. God chose a male when he became incarnate."
S.L.: "Yes, but do you not see that you are going to have the same difficulties in interpreting God's intentions as you had when you tried to interpret Christ's when he called only males to be apostles? All the same problems will arise again, and we may have to settle the question as to why God chose to become incarnate in a male by appealing to male symbolism of the Old Testament. But there is another difficulty in appealing to the incarnation as a touchstone. According to Christian doctrine, it is significant that God became man, not that he became male. God became man in order that men might become divine. In order to do this, God assumed a human nature. Of course he had to assume one as exemplified in a particular individual. He had to choose to be incarnate in either a man or a woman. He chose a man. But have we the right to elevate this particular choice into an eternal principle?"
E.C.: "Perhaps we do not have to make it into a principle. Can we not simply say that we continue to do as Christ did out of loyalty to our Master in the same way we continue to celebrate the Eucharist with wheat bread and wine even though we have to recognize that were Christ a German he would have used rye bread and beer?"
S.L.: "You can of course take that line, but let me point out that you will have to face some difficult consequences. Jesus was a Jew who spoke only Aramaic. If we are really to imitate God's chosen symbol, and to imitate those symbols is our only principle, will we not have to ordain only Aramaic-speaking Jews?"
E.C.: "I see where you are going. I see I am forced to play my last card: the symbols for God in the Old Testament are male symbols. I hope that this will be the trump that takes the trick, but I have an uneasy feeling that it will not."
S.L.: "I am afraid that the game is lost once that card is played. Granted that the major symbols for God in the Old and New Testaments are male symbols, we have to ask the question: 'Why is this the case?' I am afraid that the answer will turn out to be that everything which men wanted to say about God was all cast as male roles at that time. Judge, Shepherd, priest and King were all male roles in the ancient world. So it is not very surprising for God to be pictured as a male. The one role which in our time could not be filled by a woman is of course that of Father. God is Father in Jesus's teaching. But we must remember that to call God Father is rare in the literature of ancient Judaism. It used to be thought that to call God Father was one of the innovations brought about by Jesus. We now know that this is not the case. Yet it is nonetheless true that Jesus gave this doctrine a special emphasis. Why did Jesus stress this symbol? It is true that he especially emphasizes the intimate relationship between the children of God and God himself. He wanted to call attention to the fact that God is like a parent to men. But of course in his day only the Father image was congruent with the other images of God: King, Ruler, and Judge. Only the Father and not the Mother was Lord over his own household. Thus it was almost inevitable that the symbol Father should have come into general use as a symbol for God."
B.N.P.: "So it was a male chauvinistic argument all the time. I was right after all at the very beginning of our discussion."
S.L.: "That seems to be the conclusion which we have come to, but it was not obvious at the start that we should come to this conclusion. For at the start, the argument seemed very promising."
W E.C.: "I wonder what my friends will say when I try to explain our discussion to them?"
S.L.: "I do not know what they will say. Perhaps they will be convinced. Perhaps they will come up with a better argument. In any event, I am a little sad. I am sad when my students' promising beginnings do not work out, and I am sad when earnest and intelligent men such as yourself discover that a passionately held conviction is misplaced."
B.N.P.: "I should think that you all would be sad about something else. If you are correct, then it will not be long before you have women priests in your church. It will also not be long before you have women rectors. The emotional adjustment to changes in the symbol structure are often traumatic. Some institutions would not be able to recover from such a change. I am not sure that the church will be able to adjust emotionally to the upheaval that will result. I am not sure that any of us can tell how far-reaching and emotionally destructive these changes will be."
S.L.: "Yes, that prospect makes me very uneasy. It is at moments like these that I begin to doubt that to follow the truth is to follow the way of salvation. But that commitment is too deep-seated for me to change now. Perhaps in the end it will all work out for the best."
As it was now very late, and the three had much to do on the morrow, they bade each other good night and sought "such refeshing sleep as would fit them for the duties of the coming day".
For Further Reading
1. Dubois, Albert J. "Why I am Against the Ordination of Womwn," The Episcopalian 137, no. 7 (July, 1972): 21-23, 30.
2. Hodgson, Leonard. "Theological Objections to the Ordination of Women," The Expository Times. 77, No. 7 (April, 1966):210-213.
3. Myers, C. Kilmer. "Should Women be Ordained? No," The Episcopalian 137, no. 2 (February, 1972): 8-9.
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