For Those Engaged in the Debate: the Pro and Contra from ‘Ordination of Women in Ecumenical Perspective: Workbook for the Church’s Future’ edited by Constance F. Parvey. Faith and Order Paper 105 World Council of Churches, Geneva, 1980

For Those Engaged in the Debate: the Pro and Contra

from Ordination of Women in Ecumenical Perspective:
Workbook for the Church’s Future

edited by Constance F. Parvey
Faith and Order Paper 105
World Council of Churches, Geneva, 1980, pp. 29-38

As mentioned earlier, not all partners are equally involved in the issue. For those churches presently the focus of the discussion, the arguments seem to revolve around the following categories. This sketch of the argumentation is not intended as a commentary, but as a background and resource for those examining the issues. It is based on a survey of the literature of the last twenty, and particularly the last ten years (see bibliography).

At the Louvain meeting of the Faith and Order Commission in 1971, it was stated that for most of the churches the issue of women’s ordination is one of discipline, and not one of doctrine. Yet as the debate continues, seen by the following “pro and contra” found in the literature, ecclesial and cultural issues are all intertwined.

A. Biblical hermeneutics and anthropology

In recent argumentation there is a general appeal to the authority of biblical teaching, but no general agreement on scriptural interpretation with regard to the specific issue of women and priesthood. Two different biblical anthropologies are most frequently put forward.

1. In God’s ordering of women/men relationships, women are subordinate to men.

This argument is based on an appeal to Scripture, with special reference to the second creation story (Gen. 2:18-23). Here Eve is described as being created second in the divine order and her vocation (role and destiny) is to be the “helper” of Adam. Because Adam was created first he, as male, has primacy of place. This view is reinforced by the account of the Fall where Eve is interpreted as the weaker partner and temptress (Gen. 3:1-6) who, as a consequence of her misbehaviour, is given a two-fold punishment: (a) to bear children in pain, and (b) to be ruled over by her hus- band (Gen. 3:16). This dominate/subordinate ordering of women/men relationships, reinforced by the Fall, is cited fre-quently in A. Biblical hermeneutics and anthropologyIsraelite tradition as the prime archetype for women/men relationships, and was taken over and used in the primitive Church. St Paul uses this anthropological model in I Corinthians 11:3-15 with the pastoral teaching that, as woman is a reflector of man, so woman’s task is to “glorify man”. A majority of the Church Fathers supported this view, and it is still nor- mative teaching in some churches both for partners in marriage and for general male/female relationships.

2. In God’s ordering of women/men relationships, women and men are equal partners.

In other churches, the anthropology just outlined is no longer critically considered in that it not only reflects a primitive anthropology that is not usable in the light of modern evidence but, of central importance, it reflects an anthropology of hierarchy and precedence based on an interpretation of events of the Fall (Gen.3). In addition, standing side by side with the Genesis 2 account is that of Genesis 1 where women and men are together created in God’s image and are considered co-inheritors of the creation (Gen. 1:26-31). This equal origin and destiny of partnership of women and men is again taken up in the life and ministry of Jesus and its implications are lived out in how he treated women with unprecedented equality and respect. Among his followers were many women in authority and it was the faithful women that witnessed his death and burial, who were the first to receive the Good News and the first to bear witness of the resurrected Lord to the others. It is further noted that standing in contradiction to St Paul’s anthropological model of I Corinthians 11 is the baptismal theology of Galatians 3:27-28 which Paul also uses and which poses a different model — one that underscores the equality of social relationships for all believers in Christ and affirms the overcoming of limited, specific cultural roles and religious laws as a consequence of membership in the Body of Christ. The churches holding these views argue that not only is there nothing to exclude women from the symbolic function of representing the faith, but they must be included in order to manifest the holistic, corporate character of the redeemed community.

Comment: If Scripture reflects God’s revelation in particular situations, yet is universal, what can the Church learn from the contemporary situation about the nature of God’s Word for our time? How do the past and the present inform each other about God’s plan for humanity both within Scripture itself, spanning many centuries, and in the dialogue between contemporary and biblical experience? Concerning the specific question of male/female anthropology, if Scripture reflects within itself different anthropologies, is there a unifying principle, how is it to be found, and what is the weight of its importance for the issue under debate?

B. Diversity of ministries/priesthood

1. Diversity of ministries

There is growing agreement among the churches of the appropriateness and need for a diversity of ministries, but there is less agreement on the ordering of these ministries. There is growing agreement regarding the equality of gifts for women and men in ministry, but less agreement on this as critical for the interpretation and practice of priesthood.

There is growing concern for more cooperative and collegial models of ministry, involving partnership of women and men, but less agreement regarding its implications for team ministries and for structures of authority in ministry. The focus of the debate is the issue of the representative role of the priest.

2. Priesthood

Among and within those churches for whom the representative role of the priest is normative, there is a difference of opinion as to whether the priest acts primarily “in persona ecclesiae” or “in Persona Christi”. One position argues that the community of the Church, the gathering of the faithful, is the locus of Christ’s presence. Here the priest (1) represents the faith of the Church, and (2) by virtue of his participation in the collegial office of the whole Church, gives expression to the unity of local communities of Christ and thus to the common faith of the Universal Church. Thus, in this position, it is maintained that the priest represents Christ as the Head of the Church, located right in the midst of the community. As such it is further maintained that the priest could be male or female or, more affirmatively stated, that priesthood ought to be both male and female in order to represent more fully the true character of the faithful people.

Others argue that the priest represents solely, or primarily, the “persona Christi”, and is therefore the focus of God’s presence in the community. It is maintained that as Christ represents God the Father, Christ is the Head of the Church, and Christ is male, it follows that the male sex of the priest is deeply symbolic. The priest as male functions as the “icon” of Christ, as the new Adam, to rectify and overcome the work of the Old Adam. It further follows that not only must men fill this role, but only a man, representing Christ (male) who is our Mediator, is able to mediate — on behalf of the people — to God. To admit women’s entrance into this representative role would seriously undermine these ancient symbolic and cosmic structures.

Still others, however, hold that the manner in which the priest represents the “persona Christi” is by representative humanity, and not by masculine sexuality, and therefore it follows that the priest as “persona Christi” is better represented by both women and men rather than by men only.

Comment: Churches are closer to consensus on the need for diversity of ministries and incorporating this into church order, but ministry/priesthood issues are unresolved. Some churches do not maintain a “representative role” for ministry/priesthood. However, among those that do the underlying issues are those surrounding ecclesiology and liturgical piety. The questions are whether the representative of the Church at prayer is primarily “persona Christi” or “persona ecclesiae”. And further, what are the implications for women and men in the Church of these different starting points for the theology and practice of priesthood?

C. The “nature of women” and its implications for the roles of women and men in the Church

1. Women and men are equally gifted

Men and women are given equal talents from God, and therefore they are equally capable and equally endowed with the gifts needed for ministry/priesthood. This point of view presupposes that there are biological differences, but that there is a single human nature and vision of humanity that is shared by women and men.

This perspective affirms the interdependence rather than the complementarity of women and men. It further states that through the centuries of subordinated socialization and fixed roles, women have been hindered from the full development of their gifts. It is argued that women are needed to enrich and expand the masculine captivity of the priesthood in order that the insights and gifts of women and men can be more balanced in the life and mission of the Church.

2. Women are equal, but different

God created male and female with complementary functions and hence different gifts by nature. Each partner has his/her own role. This division of humanity into male and female is God’s design. Symbolically, the male corresponds to God as the Father and the Head of the Church and the woman corresponds to the human Mary, the mother, the protectress of the Church and instrument for its new life. In this schema the role of priesthood is particularly suited for men as the role of motherhood is suited for women. The issue is seen not as one of inequality of women and men, but one of distinctive ontological differences (signified in sexuality), that are fundamental in both creation and salvation.

3. Women and the reproductive cycle

This argumentation has its origins in the Old Testament legal codes which prevented anyone who was unclean for any reason, man or woman, from entering the temple or from performing Priestly acts. Women have been, and in some churches still are, under many more prohibitions relating to their sexual and reproductive cycle. Women were considered unclean during menstruation and after childbirth, and their cleansing rituals were more severe if they had a girl rather than a boy child. These cleanliness codes are still followed today in varying degrees in some churches, and affect liturgical practices around baptism, and eucharist. Out of this background comes the argumentation that it would be inappropriate for a menstruating, married or pregnant woman to preside at the eucharist or lead in worship. Thus, women’s biological identity focused around her childbearing years makes her unsuitable for the pastoral office throughout her entire life.

D. The influence of society and community

The theological implications of personhood and of male/female relationships are influenced by the discoveries of modern research and equality movements, and by modern principles of justice. In addition, attitudes for and against the ordination of women are often connected with other economic, political and sexual attitudes that have an impact on the status and roles of women.

1. Modern science

Biology, psychology, cultural anthropology, history and sociology all lead theology to new reflection about the nature of being human. Already in the nineteenth century questions were being asked about the validity of traditionally accepted assumptions that women are a class complementary to men, and that women and men have social roles based on a two-class system. Male/female identity is also explored today in the context of new life-styles and new social and economic realities of partnership in marriage and work.

2. Justice The equality of status of persons is a basic principle of justice. This principle is hard to maintain in societies where racism, classism and sexism have prevailed. The move to ordain women is argued as an important part of realizing this justice right in the centre of the Christian tradition reawakening the vision of women and men as co-heirs in God’s household, cutting across barriers of sex, race and class. Here, ordination of women is seen as a necessary development of tradition, part of the revealing, reconciling continuing function of God’s present and coming reign.

3. Community life

A new analysis is being made by women today of patriarchal structures and symbols as they affect theology and Church life. This analysis points out the male dominance, and the consequent minority status of women, both within the theological and liturgical symbol systems of the Church and within its structures. In Church structures masculine power controls the symbols, rites, sacred acts and teaching office. Within this, women are primarily the receivers, responders and implementers of male power and decision-making. Stemming from the women’s movement in the churches, a critical evaluation is taking place of these patriarchal attitudes and structures, finding them no longer acceptable in the search for a fuller community of women and men in the Church.

Comment: Many of the churches are not prepared for this critique and some fear that it will lead to a further secularization of the Church that is fundamentally damaging to Tradition, continuity and the Church’s internal life. For some churches, modern social movements are seen as a secularizing influence, representing claims on the Church which are coming primarily from outside and are not integral to the Church’s theology, spirituality or practice. Other churches see these movements as decisive for the future, aiding the Church to become a sign for a new humanity.

E. Contemporary pastoral practices: matching vocations and needs

1. Pastoral needs

In some parts of the world, the shortage of priests is used as an argument for the ordination of women. This argument acknowledges the fact that women are already undertaking ministerial work. It begins with the practical consideration that women are doing ministry today either by virtue of special commissioning and juridical mandate, or as a charismatic response to local needs. (Here reference is often made to Roman Catholic sisters working in third world situations infrequently visited by a Priest.)

2. Pastoral Practices

In other parts of the world, the impact of the women’s movement has made women more aware of the imprint of the Church’s teaching and pastoral work on them, e.g. the teaching about subordination in marriage, of “equal but different” which has often meant exclusion, etc. In response, there is a reassessing of pastoral theology and pastoral concerns. To help the Church become more of a healing Church for women the gifts of the pastoral ministry need to be enlarged to become more sensitive to women’s needs and more inclusive in the use of their training and expertise.

3. Vocation

In some areas of the world, women are taking new positions of “radical obedience” within the Church. Though some leave the Church in disappointment, others are engaged in the study and teaching of Scripture and Tradition and in new methods of learning. They are entering into the contemporary envisioning and reflection about the nature and future of the Church, contributing their own theological gifts. This is being done largely over against the predominantly patriarchal tradition of authoritative teaching. Where women are not being given new roles, many are simply beginning to assume them. In some churches, women are growing in their influence, using both the freedom and the authority of the prophetic and charismatic gifts given them. This seems more true in those churches where women do not have commissioned or ordained roles. As part of shaping new vocations in ministry, women are identifying new forms of mission as well as responding to evangelical needs expressed by the churches.

F. The tradition: challenge of responsibility and renewal

The Church lives in tension between concepts of authority based on past practice and concepts of authority responsible to contemporary needs. How do Tradition and eschatology relate to this practical ecclesia issue?

1. The Holy Spirit

In the balance between past and future, those who argue for the ordained ministry of women see the ordination of women more on the side on pneumatology than Tradition. The Church is potentia; it requires less looking back and more contact with the presence of the Spirit at work in the world today. The ordination of women is seen as among the essential signs of God’s Spirit at work in renewing the Church.

2. The Tradition

The voice of Tradition is firm. Attemps by heretical groups in the early Church to grant priestly ordination to women were condemned. There is no precedent for the ordination of women, nor a need. Though Tradition is flexible and always capable of renewal, a distinction must be made between creative renewal which is continuous with the Tradition and innovation which is discontinuous. Arguing from Tradition, some churches see the ordination of women not as a sign of God’s good will being implemented, but as a sign of final disobedience.

3. The cultural context

In some parts of the world, the cultural context of the Church is in a state of transition between feudal values and structures of the modern state. In others, the Church has lived longer with the influence of the Enlightenment, modernism and industrialization. Some churches have more in common on women/men issues because they share a common culture than they have with their own sister churches living in other religious, economic and societal circumstances. The context affects the emphasis.

G. Unity: that all may be one

1. The ordination of women threatens the unity of the churches. The argument is that to ordain women threatens, or could lead to, a breakdown in the steps leading to agreement, and particularly to consensus on mutual recognition of ministries.

2. Others argue that any consensus on ministry without the full Participation of women and men together is an act of disunity against humankind.

Summary comment

In the opening review of the “pro and contra” argumentation, the Klingenthal meeting gave primary attention to questions of ministry/priesthood, the influence of societal and cultural movements, the nature of Tradition and questions of Christian unity (points B, D, F and G). This initial exploration provided the background for the next steps. Having experienced some of the real differences that emerge in ecumenical sharing, the task ahead was to discuss expectations and discover new starting points.

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