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The Ordination of Women: A Test Case for Conciliarity by Angela Berlis

The Ordination of Women: A Test Case for Conciliarity

by Angela Berlis

First published in Concilium 1999/3, pp. 77-84. Translated from the German by John Bowden. Republished here with permission of the author and publisher.

This issue of Concilium is concerned with unanswered questions in theology after the Second Vatican Council. The working title for this article was: ‘Women and Ecumenism as Illustrated by the Ordination of Women’. Where is the unanswered question there? Does it lie in the fact that on the one hand an increasing number of churches are ordaining women, not only the churches of the Reformation but also those which explicitly understand themselves as churches of the Catholic tradition, whereas on the other hand very recent official Roman Catholic declarations increasingly state that this course can never be taken? Does it consist in the fact that the ecumenical discussion of this question in the future will increasingly be thrown out of balance: whereas Roman Catholic theologians are obliged to keep out of the discussion and be submissive on questions of the ordination of women as a result of the most recent declarations of the Roman see, other churches no longer see the ordination of women but their non-ordination as a problem? In these circumstances can the ordination of women ever be discussed at all in the future in an ecumenical context? Whereas official Roman Catholic voices regularly state that the ordination of women is an obstacle to ecumenical dialogue, many Roman Catholic laity and theologians welcome the introduction of the ordination of women by other Christian churches. This is clear from the reaction to the priestly ordination of women in the Anglican and Old Catholic churches in recent years. The readiness to accept women into the ministry has settled in the hearts and minds of many Christians in recent decades.

Is the ordination of women a sign of the time? For Giuseppe Ruggieri, signs of the time are processes which enter the general consciousness and lead to a shift of human relations in a messianic direction in a particular era.(1) Signs of the time are infectious and in a particular era take on collective significance. They put continuity in question, mark turning points in history and allow unexpected things to happen. In signs of the time, God’s kingdom becomes present among men and women; they contribute towards the humanization of men and women in the light of the gospel. The church has the task of recognizing the signs of the time at the right moment, interpreting them and discovering in them the message of the gospel for today.

May the question of the ordination of women be connected with signs of our time, in this case specifically with the modern movement for the emancipation of women? Anyone who immediately conjures up the caricature that feminists are now finally storming the last male bastion falls short of the mark. From such a perspective emancipation is too quickly dismissed as a secular movement which is incompatible with a sacramental order. The rediscovery of the biblical category of ‘signs of the time’ as a principle for the theological interpretation of reality is one of the most important results of John XXIII’s reform programme: after Vatican II the words ‘secular’ and ‘worldly’ can no longer be used in their old meanings.(2)

The spirit of Vatican II and the new departure for women

During his time in office Pope John XXIII showed great openness to modern developments in society. The assessment of the movement of the emancipation for women as a ‘sign of the time’ in the encyclical Pacem in Terris (1963) was a hopeful beginning in integrating the question of women as a question for the church. The Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes condemned any form of discrimination on the basis of sex, race, colour of skin, class, language or religion (no. 29). The Council did not accept the demand for equal rights for women in the church and their admission to all offices, which was made in various petitions to it; however, various conciliar declarations proved stimuli to a reform of the position of women in the church.(3) The Council opened doors which were partly closed again under the successors to John XXIII; the conflict was already apparent then in some compromise formulae of the Council. However, the spirit of openness and a new departure for women was unstoppable: the Council ‘spoke with a new voice and with new enthusiasm about discerning the signs of the times’.(4) It is this spirit which in the eyes of other churches really makes Vatican II, which was a Roman Catholic ‘general synod of the bishops and their dioceses allied with the pope’,(5) a kairos in twentieth-century church history.

Since then much has happened within the churches, theology and among women themselves to keep the question of women alive in the church’s consciousness and to contribute towards awareness of it. In the course of this growing awareness the demand for the ordination of women has made itself heard increasingly persistently and loudly in various churches. Far-reaching social changes in the course of this century have contributed to the change in perceived values and careers for women and have resulted in possibilities of real participation by women beyond the ‘classic’ roles assigned to them. The present-day discussion about the ordination of women is to be located in this modern landscape in church and society. The issue is to incorporate and make fruitful the competences and charisms of women by incorporating them into the church’s ordained ministry. The experiences of women are visibly and audibly to enter the ministry of the proclamation of the good news of Christ. Women in the ordained ministry symbolize the change from the woman as an object of preaching to its subject. So it is no coincidence that the present-day debate on the ordination of women often concentrates on the ‘repraesentatio Christi’. It is an important insight, grounded in soteriology, that women can be icons of the Incarnate, since they are redeemed as women. The issue here is the authoritative representation of Christ by women. The discussion in the early church and the Middle Ages about whether women can possess and exercise spiritual authority, which at that time was answered in the negative for the female sex as a whole, is being continued under the conditions of modern society. So the ordination of women has, not least, become the symbol of the question of women in the church generally, because in the meantime the capacity of women to exercise authority is unquestionable in the present-day cultural environment and on the basis of more recent insights of biblical theology.(6) That removes the main traditional argument against the ordination of women. It must rightly be asked on what grounds the conclusions which have been drawn from this argument for centuries continue to be maintained.

For any church which has gone through the discussion over the ordination of women, it has been exhausting and revealing. Statements which are apparently friendly towards women are unmasked as a subtle continuation of subordinationist thinking, which one had believed already to have been superseded; traditional models of perception collided with models for describing the relationship between the sexes which were based more on partnership. More than other topics, the discussion of the ordination of women has taken the churches to the abysses of their own more or less hidden ecclesiastical misogyny and disclosed everyday sexism. At the same time unexpected and untrodden paths which are also offered by the Christian tradition, or paths which had been grown over, have been taken or opened up again. In this way the rediscovery of the Christian tradition of women supplements and corrects one-sidedly androcentric strands of tradition.(7)

The ordination of women as an ecumenical task

It is often said that the ordination of women is a challenge. This word is popular usage in diplomatic ecumenical language. It can serve to disguise the intentions of the speaker, for what represents a ‘provocation’ to some is a problem for others and a task for yet others. A further difficulty is that in practice the meanings exclude one another: anyone who perceives the ordination of women from the aspect of provocation is usually not inclined to undertake the ordination of women as a task. But that is precisely what is necessary today. No church will be able to evade this task in the long run, since in contemporary discussion it is very closely interwoven with the question of women generally.

The ordination of women as a task is generally regarded as a question which can only finally be resolved in the future, and then by an ecumenical council. This argument can be misused to postpone an answer to the question for ever. However, its urgency and relevance already requires it to be discussed today in a way which does justice to our state of theological knowledge and the life of the church in the local communities. A categorical ‘no’ or a ban on discussion will hardly be able to stop the discussion; it merely complicates the situation, since within Roman Catholicism obedience to the magisterium is now also brought into play.(8)

It is probably no coincidence that it is mainly women who put the ordination of women in the sphere of ecumenical tasks which need to be tackled today.(9) For many of them, the ordination of women has become the touchstone for the way in which churches deal with the question of women in the church and the participation and shared responsibility of church members.

Whereas thirty years ago it was still the spokespersons of women’s ordination who had to support their position with arguments, now the burden of proof is with their opponents.(10) For a long time the discussion over the ordination of women has ceased to be a discussion in an academic ivory tower; women’s ordination has become conceivable for many people living today. ‘Become conceivable’: these two words indicate what an enormous change in consciousness has taken place over the capacity of women to hold office in the church. And why should not the ordination of women be capable of integration into any church tradition and essence? In the sphere of practical coexistence and at the level of theological discussion, ecumenical openness during this century has brought the churches closer in a way which is proving fruitful particularly in the question of the ordination of women. As by coming to know one another in ecumenical collaboration men, and to an even greater degree women, share comparable experiences, ‘constellations of solidarity’ have come into being which transcend confessions.(11) They are not to be underestimated. This is becoming clear for example in the ready acceptance of Anglican and Old Catholic women priests as representatives of a Catholic ordained ministry among Roman Catholic men and women. The churches have also borrowed from each other in theological discussions for or against the ordination of women to support their own particular arguments. This happens, for example, in the case of the argument over the repraesentatio Christi in the discussion in Western Catholic churches and the character of the priest as an icon on the Orthodox side, of which there is no evidence as an argument in the discussion in the early church. The same goes for the biblical argument for and against, which was first worked out by the Protestant churches and then taken up and reflected upon again by other churches in which the discussion began at a later stage in time.

Theological reflection on the ordination of women and its subsequent introduction has been fruitful in many respects. That is shown, for example, by the appeal to scripture and tradition in connection with the question whether their testimony is used openly to ward off the question, or tradition is regarded as a ‘river of life’:(12) a process of creative, living translation from which new answers can be given to today’s questions. That the appeal to the Bible alone is not sufficient argument against the ordination of women is evident from the opening up of the ordained ministry to women in the Protestant churches. In 1976 the Papal Biblical Commission also came to the conclusion that biblical grounds alone were insufficient for excluding the ordination of women.(13) Tradition cannot be a closed treasure chest; it is a dowry which only brings riches when it is handed on. A further yield of the discussion over the ordination of women is that it has led to deepened reflection on the significance and exercise of the church’s ministries within the communities.(14) The pneumatological aspect has also gained ground as a supplement to the christocentric basis in the theology of the ministry.

Where some fear that the ordained ministry is losing part of its mystical character as the priestly office, others experience the incorporation of women as an enrichment of the priestly office and a spiritual deepening with which the saving mission of Christ is also expressed in the structure of the ministries. The experience of those churches which see themselves as Catholic and have called women to the ordained ministry is that their Catholicity has been deepened in a special way through the incorporation of ordained women ministers: being Catholic also means being related to all men and women.(15)

To sum up: it can be said that churches which have grappled with the ordination of women have been stimulated to examine critically their theological understanding of themselves as churches.

The ordination of women: a test case for conciliarity

Given such a gain as a consequence of grappling with the ordination of women, the charge that ecumenism will be burdened or hampered by the introduction of the ordination of women is all the more serious. By it women are implicitly being made the scapegoats for a problem which really concerns the churches themselves. Moreover this view takes in only one part of the present-day ecumenical landscape. For in ecumenism as practised in the local churches and in women’s ecumenism, women in the ordained ministry are not seen as an obstacle but more as companions and mediators of a more human church, a church which takes form in a true community of women and men.

In the discussion over the ordination of women in the Old Catholic Churches of the Utrecht Union which has been taking place over the last twenty-five years, the question of decision-making kept arising. Is it possible to introduce the priestly ordination of women despite a contrary practice over nineteen centuries? People were clear that the ordination of women was really a task to be resolved by a truly ecumenical council. However, at present the expectation of such a council is unrealistic. But that does not mean that it is impossible already to practise conciliarity now. There should be ecumenical consultations over questions which are controversial today, consultations which reflect on their sources and the common origin of the churches. The aim of the quest for the common faith which exists beyond the historic frontiers of churches and confessions is to discuss together ‘how the traditions can be developed without losing the common tradition’.(16) This process of conciliar discovery should be understood as an open quest which does not know the answers in advance or fix labels on others like ‘Protestantizing’ or ‘liberalizing’. Thus conciliarity is to be understood as the readiness to join in a shared process of learning, to engage in a search for what binds the churches together in the light of their common origin and for how tradition is realized in the light of present circumstances and demands. It means discussing with one another and sharing insights, anxieties and experiences with one another. Conciliarity means that voices from all the church people are heard, that the silent testimony of theologians condemned to dumbness also finds a hearing. Granted, a conciliarity of this kind would not have any legally binding authority. But does not the discussion over the ordination of women in particular show more than any other the failure of authoritatively prescribed solutions? Unless preceded by a ‘conciliar process’, no authoritative decision on this question is credible, whereas the church authorities gain high moral authority from a conciliar consultation. It is here above all that I see the decisive unanswered question which stood at the head of this article. The way in which the tension between conciliarity and authoritative decision is resolved is decisive both for the further discussion of the question of women within each church and for ecumenical relations between the churches.


1. See his contribution in Concilium (1999), no. 1.

2. Lavinia Byrne, Women at the Altar. The Ordination of Women in the Roman Catholic Church, London 1994, 17: ‘Suddenly the words secular and worldly cannot be used with their old meanings.’

3. Ida Raming, Frauenbewegung and Kirche. Bilanz eines 25jährigen Kampfes fur Gleichberechtigung and Befreiung der Frau seit dem 2. Vatikanischen Konzil, Weinheim 1989, 26-41.

4. Byrne, Woman at the Altar (n. t), 15.

5. Internationale Kirchliche Zeitschrift 60, 1970, 161.

6. Here in particular the affirmation that women are completely in the image of God plays an important role. See Kari Elisabeth Børreson, ‘The Ordination of Women: To Nurture Tradition by Continuing Inculturation’, Studia Theologica 46, 1992, 3-13.

7. Cf. Elisabeth Gössmann, ‘Frauentraditionen im Christentum in ihrer Relevanz für heutige Feministische Theologie and in ihrer kirchlichen Einschätzung’, in E. Hartlieb and C. Methuen (eds), Sources and Resources of Feminist Theologies, ESWTR Yearbook 5, Kampen and Mainz 1997, 72-95.

8. Hedwig Meyer-Wilmes, ‘Zum Dienst ermächtigt. Amtsformen zwischen Tradition and Moderne’, in Marianne Bühler, Brigitte Enzner-Probst, Hedwig Meyer-Wilmes and Hanneliese Steichele, Frauen zwischen Dienst and Amt. Frauenmacht and -ohnmacht in der Kirche, Düsseldorf 1998, 85-114: 88.

9. Anne Jensen, ‘Ist Frauenordination ein ökumenisches Problem? Zu den jüngsten Entwicklungen in den anglikanischen, altkatholischen and Orthodoxen Kirchen’, Internationale Kirchliche Zeitschrift 84, 1994, 210-28; a shorter revised version appeared in Theologische Quartalschrift 173, 1993, 236-41.

10. Ibid., 241.

11. Marianne Heimbach-Steins, ‘Frauenbild and Frauenrolle. Gesellschaftliche und kirchliche Leitideen im Hintergrund der Diskussion um den Diakonat der Frau’, in Peter Hünermann et al. (eds), Diakonat. Ein Amt für Frauen in der Kirche ein frauengerechtes Amt?, Ostfildern 1997, 14-32: 21.

12. Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, The Ministry of Women in the Church, Redondo Beach 1 987, 94.

13. Raming, Frauenbewegung (n.2), 45.

14. Jensen, ‘Frauenordination’ (n.9)., 222.

15. Joachim Vobbe, Geh zu meinen Brüdern. Vom priesterlichen Auftrag der Frauen in der Kirche. Brief des Bischofs an die Gemeinden des Katholischen Bistums der Alt-Katholiken, Bonn 1996, 28.

16. Jan Visser, ‘Die Frage der Frauenordination and die Gemeinschaft der Kirchen’, Internationale Kirchliche Zeitschrift 88, 1998, 329-44: 341. The paper was given in 1996 at the ‘Orthodox - Old Catholic Consultation on the Status of Women in the Church and the Ordination of Women as an Ecumenical Problem’. The papers were edited by Urs von Arx and Anastasios Kallis under the title Bild Christi und Geschlecht (ibid., 67-348). The participants in the consultation arrived at the common conviction ‘that there are no compelling dogmatic and theological reasons why women should not be ordained to the priestly ministry (ibid., 82).

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