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Women Priests? By E. L. Mascall

Women Priests?

By E. L. Mascall
Published by The Church Literature Association
London , 1972. pp. 1-5


1 Preliminaries pp, 1-5
2 The State of the Question pp, 5-11
3 The Difference of the Sexes pp, 11-17
4 A Voice from Protestantism pp, 18-26


In discussing whether women should be ordained to the priesthood or not it will be well, for the sake of clarity, to make some preliminary points.

First of all, it must be recognised that two quite distinct questions are involved, though once their common existence and their mutual distinctness have been accepted it will for the most part be possible to discuss them together. The former is whether it is Possible for women to be priests, the latter is whether it is right and desirable for them to be priests; and unless the former is answered in the affirmative the second cannot arise. This is important, because it is frequently assumed without argument that a woman upon whom the traditional rites of ordination to the priesthood have been performed by a bishop will undoubtedly have become a priest, so that the only questions remaining to be discussed are ethical ones (Is it not unjust to withhold the priesthood from women?) and pastoral ones (Will not women perform the traditional duties and functions of the priesthood just as efficiently as men?).

Secondly-and this is closely connected with the first point-it must be stressed that what we are concerned with is the Catholic priesthood, as that has come down to us in the great episcopal communions of East and West, and not with the various forms of ministry that exist in the Protestant churches and communities. In saying this, one is not adopting an attitude of contempt or unfriendliness to our separated brethren but simply recognising the fact that the Catholic conception of the ministry is different from the Protestant conception, even if the Catholic conception includes the Protestant conception as an element in itself, and even if-as is undoubtedly the case-the Catholic conception is itself undergoing today a great deal of re-examination and development. We shall see later on that on one understanding of the nature of the ministry in Protestantism the ordination of women is no less abhorrent than it is in traditional Catholicism and Orthodoxy. It is indeed doubtful whether there is one basic doctrine of the ministry held throughout Protestantism, of which the views of the different denominations are merely variants. When, for example, the late Paul Tillich wrote: “There are in Protestantism only laymen; the minister is a layman with a special function within the congregation .... He is a nonlayman solely by virtue of his training” ,(1) he was not merely contradicting himself verbally by saying first that a minister is a layman and then that he is not; he was expressing a view of the ministry quite contrary to that of many Protestants, who would hold that what makes a minister is neither his training nor his choice by a congregation but his call by God. The point remains that, on Tillich’s view and no doubt on some other Protestant views as well, there is nothing impossible in a woman becoming a minister, for she is just as capable of undergoing a course of training as a man. I must add that I do not despair, as ecumenical dialogue proceeds, of Catholics and Protestants coming to a common understanding of the Church’s ministry. What I do maintain is that they have not come to it yet, and that discussions about the ordination of women, as of other matters connected with the ministry, frequently reach a condition of frustration through lack of agreement about what the ministry is and sometimes through the lack of any clear conception about the ministry at all

This point can be illustrated by the decision of the established Church of Scotland to open its ministry in principle to women. This was announced by the newspapers, no doubt in accordance with the tenor of the preceding debates in the National Assembly, under such headlines as “Pulpits now open to Women” and “Women now allowed to preach”. Now I do not deny the importance of preaching as a function of the ordained minister nor do I suggest that Presbyterian ministers never celebrate the sacraments, but it will, I think, be clear that the nature of the debate and the grounds of decision are likely to be very different in a church in which sermons are preached every Sunday but the Lord’s Supper is usually celebrated only once a quarter from what they will be in a church in which the Holy Eucharist is celebrated weekly or even daily. In the former case the primary question will be “Should women be commissioned to preach the word of God?”, in the latter it will be “Should (or can) women be ordained to celebrate the Eucharist?”, and it will be well to bear this difference in mind when consulting such statistics as those given in a recent number of Concilium (2) about the practice of various churches in the matter, since it is logically possible to give an affirmative answer to the former question and a negative one to the latter.

It is furthermore important not to misunderstand the suggestions, (in some cases even the demands) emanating from certain Roman Catholic circles for the ordination of women to the priesthood. Some of these rest upon no theological basis at all and are merely typical of a temperamental desire to destroy all the inherited structures of the Church and to assimilate the Catholic religion to the trends and outlooks of the contemporary secularised world. Some of them, however, manifest a praiseworthy wish to give the Church’s life a wider and firmer foundation than that of postTridentine scholasticism. It is important to remember that it is a common practice in the Roman Catholic Church to question the truth of a statement or the legitimacy of a practice in order to elicit the fundamental reasons for the truth or the real grounds of the practice; thus, to give a famous example, St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologise raised without qualms the question whether God exists. In a communion in which nothing is likely to be upset overnight there is a lot to be said for this method; it is well exemplified by the resolution which was submitted by Cardinal Flahiff to the Synod of Bishops in Rome in October, 1971, on behalf of the bishops of Canada, urging the immediate establishment of a mixed commission to study in depth the question of the ministries [sic] of women in the Church.(3) While it was understood that this did not exclude the question of the priesthood (and indeed no comprehensive study could), it was emphasised that there was no desire to prejudge the question or to make recommendations as to time or mode of further action. There is thus no justification for Anglicans to urge such Roman stirrings as providing an example for precipitate imitation, or for saying “Rome is going to ordain women, so let us get in first”. This is not, however, the first case in which the tentative reopening of a question by Roman Catholic bishops or theologians has been taken by over-enthusiastic Anglicans as an invitation to jettison traditional positions of doctrine or practice.

(1). The Protestant Era, ch. xi.

(2) Vol. 4, No. 4 (April, 1968), pp. 82ff.

(3) Tablet, 30 Oct., 1971, p. 1059

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