Responsive image
Nederlands/Vlaams Deutsch Francais English language Spanish language Portuguese language Catalan Chinese Czech Malayalam Finnish Igbo
Japanese Korean Romanian Malay language Norwegian Swedish Polish Swahili Chichewa Tagalog Urdu
The Preacher and the Priest: Two Typologies of Ministry and the Ordination of Women by Rosemary Radford Ruether 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

Appendix I

The Preacher and the Priest: Two Typologies of Ministry and the Ordination of Women

by Rosemary Radford Ruether

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. 67-73

Historically, women appear to have been ordained more easily in those traditions that identify more in terms of the ministry of the Word. There seems to be more resistance to women’s ordination in those traditions which stress sacramental office or priesthood, i.e. Roman Catholic and Orthodox. The Anglicans are still deeply divided on the issue. What connection does this continued resistance have to the symbolic difference between preacher and priest? Is the symbol of preacher somehow more open to women than the symbol of priest and, if so, why?

As we look at the biblical and historical traditions of Judaism and Christianity, we would have to say that any such alleged difference is relatively recent. The Old Testament certainly resists woman as priest, although there is evidence that women as priestesses of the Goddess did serve for considerable periods of time in the first temple (see Raphael Patai, The Hebrew Goddess, pp. 49-50). Woman as priest in the Old Testament context, therefore, is connected with priestess of the rival religion of Asherah. This is undoubtedly an important reason for its repression and still forms an ongoing tradition of resistance to woman as priest. (This, in the popular mind of the Jewish and Christian traditions, is linked to the idea of temple prostitution although, in fact, there were many well established traditions of priestesses of the Goddess who had nothing to do with temple prostitution.)

The rabbinic tradition is the source of the non-priestly ministry or teacher of the Word. The rabbi arises in connection with a new religious assembly, the synagogue, as a gathering to study and preach the Word. This tradition continues in Judaism, when the temple and its priesthood is overthrown. Yet the resistance to woman as rabbi is scarcely less strong than that to woman as priest. Woman is not called to the Torah in traditional rabbinic Judaism. Since many of the festivals are transferred to the home, in a sense she plays priestly roles in the home along with the husband, but the cult of the Word is strictly masculine. Women are firmly shunted to one side to cultivate the home and to send husband and sons to the synagogue to study. They listen to the Word only behind the veil.

When we move to the New Testament we find a contradictory history. Women seem, at first, included in the Christian synagogue. The study of the Word and the disciple-teacher relationship is opened equally to them. They too become local leaders and travelling evangelists. But, by the time we get to the deutro-Pauline writings, they are being firmly put aside. The exclusion is not in terms of priesthood, but in terms of teaching. The model for ministry in I Timothy is basically rabbinic. The bishop and elder are identified essentially as teachers not as priests. Their credentials are established primarily by their reputation as a moral patriarchal head of family. The patriarchal family is the model for this exclusively male leadership of the Church. Even when we move to the late second century, with the doctrine of apostolic succession in Irenaeus and Tertullian, the primary model is rabbinic rather than sacerdotal. Apostolic succession is understood there not as the passing down of sacerdotal power, but as the passing down of a deposit of faith, a teaching tradition.

In the New Testament we cannot speak of the exclusion of women as priests, because this model of ministry does not exist there. Christian ministry is identified in terms of teaching, preaching and prophetic power, not priesthood. Priesthood in the New Testament, as for rabbinic Judaism, still means the temple cultus, so there is no question that Jesus and his followers are non-priests. Insofar as the very symbolism of priest is taken over (as in Hebrews), it is done so as to deny that Jesus has established a new priesthood who are “many in numbers”. Jesus is the High Priest who establishes a priestly people by abolishing a caste of priests.

When the Christian ministry takes the place of the old Roman priesthood, as the clergy of the established religion of the empire, there is a definite reassimilation of the model of ministry to that of temple priesthood. Some of this is found earlier, of course, as early as the writings of Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch. But, with the fourth century establishment of the Church, the concept of the Christian ministry as a new priestly caste becomes dominant. This has the effect of reviving some of the purity taboos against women in the sanctuary of Old Testament priestly law. This caused a further repression of the remnants of the female diaconate. But the repression of woman as public teacher or magister of the Church is equally important. When St Jerome praises Marcella for her skills as a biblical exegete, he is careful to declare that she teaches only in private and not on her own authority, for she would not want to encroach on the apostle’s ban against women as teachers.

In the medieval period, canon law forbids women the priesthood on the grounds of the unfit nature of the female to represent Christ. The scholastic tradition supports this view. But there is more polemic against women as teachers than as priests, perhaps because it was more of a live option. Yet the fact that both queens and abbesses were invested with the juridical authority of bishops shows that women were not always distanced from all sacral office. The fusion of feudal and ecclesiastical structures could modify that exclusion of women from some elements of priestly power. This brief survey indicates, therefore, that in the classical Catholic traditions there does not seem to be a stronger exclusion of women from priestly office than from teaching office. There are, in fact, parallel traditions of exclusion from both. The Reformation did not initially change this situation. The apostolic injunction that “women shall keep silence” was taken by Calvin and Luther as excluding women from preaching office. This exclusion was occasionally modified among some of the left-wing sectarians. For example, Baptist women occupied pulpits in England during the Puritan Civil War in the mid-seventeenth century. The Quakers, from the beginning, defended women’s right to preach.

This left-wing inclusion of women was based on a modification of the traditional ecclesiology of ordination. Instead of the charisma of ordination being passed down through an institutional apostolic succession, the left wing believed in the direct ordination to preach as a gift of the Holy Spirit. Preaching was linked with prophecy, continuing that outpouring of the Holy Spirit of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit is no respecter of social classes or castes, it blows where it lists and endows both the menservants and the maidservants of God with the gifts of prophetic preaching. The Church does not endow the minister with this charisma, but rather recognizes those whom the Spirit has endowed. This charismatic view of preaching office is fundamental to the opening of the pulpit to women that occurred from time to time among left-wing Christian sectarians from the Reformation into the nineteenth century

But this charismatic view did not have a permanent effect. As the sect became more institutionalized, often the pulpit would again be closed to women. A definite change in this traditional exclusion of women came about only when the left-wing charismatic view of ministry was joined with two other developments: (a) liberal theology, and (b) liberal biblical exegesis. Liberal theology christianized the liberal view of Original Nature. Instead of the doctrine of Creation being seen as one of hierarchy and male-headship, liberalism asserted the original equality of all persons, men and women, in the original order of creation. Not nature, but sin, has created patriarchal hierarchy. Salvation in Christ is not an other-worldly salvation, but it intended to transform the present social order towards that new equality in Christ which, also, restores the original order of Nature.

Liberal theology, in turn, relativized the authority of the scriptural passages excluding women from teaching. This exclusion comes to be seen as relative to a certain patriarchal social order that is now being surpassed, rather than an authoritative expression of the intent of Christ.

When the first woman, Antoinette Brown, was ordained in 1853 to the Congregational ministry, her ordination sermon was preached by the Wesleyan Methodist evangelist, Luther Lee. He took as his text Galatians 3:28: “In Christ there is neither male nor female”. But fundamental to his argument in favour of Miss Brown’s ordination was his charismatic view of preaching office. Preaching office is understood as a gift of the Spirit, continuing the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost. Since the Spirit of prophecy was clearly given by Christ at that time to both men and women, the Church has never had any business excluding women from ministry, according to Lee. However, underlying this evangelical view of preaching is also a liberal view of theology and scriptural exegesis. Salvation has to do with the restoration of the equality of the original Creation to the social order.

In the nineteenth century women occupied pulpits in two different contexts: the liberal churches, such as Congregationalists and Unitarians, and the Evangelical and Pentecostal revivals, where the charisma of the Spirit was more important than institutional office. These two traditions have become sharply split in the contemporary churches, with the Evangelical Revivalist churches often espousing an anti-liberal theology and exegesis that insists on male-headship of society. But this was not so in the nineteenth century. At that period Evangelical revivalism often went hand in hand with reform and was close to movements such as abolitionism and feminism. Therefore these two tendencies, (a) charismatic ministry, and (b) liberal theology and exegesis, often met and mingled, reinforcing each other in an openness to woman as preacher.

Today, those churches which reject the ordination of women are not only the traditional Catholic churches, but also the Fundamentalist churches that reject liberal theology and exegesis. I am inclined to regard this second element as more decisive. Although a charismatic view of ministry as prophetic preaching has often opened the pulpit to women in irregular assemblies, no institutional church has formally ordained women unless they have also adopted some version of liberal theology and exegesis. This is equally true of the Catholic traditions. The Anglican and Catholic theologians who accept the ordination of women also accept historical criticism of the Bible and reject a theology of male-headship as the order of Creation, while those who reject women’s ordination. whether Evangelical, Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox, basically reject these changes. Thus the acceptance or rejection of liberal theology and exegesis would seem to be more finally decisive than whether one views the ministry primarily as preacher or as priest.

Yet there still does seem to be a different emotional impact created by the concept of priest that militates more against women than that of preacher. But it is difficult to say if this is really the case necessarily and, if so, why. If one examines the two roles from the point of view of traditional sexual archetypes (understanding these as social constructs), the role of preacher hardly appears more “feminine” that that of priest. In fact, the opposite would seem to be the case. The preacher, as speaker of the Word, is more abstract and cerebral. Traditionally, the symbol of Logos for Word of God has been male and hierarchical in Christian imagery. The Word descends from above the passive body of the people from the high (phallic) pulpit. One speaks of the “seminal” Word, and the attitude of the laity in receiving it is to be one of passive receptivity. All this enforces a highly male symbolism of the preacher.

The priest, on the other hand, mediates the enfleshed Word, the body of Christ. Eucharistic experience has traditionally stimulated nurturing and suckling imagery in Christian piety. The Christ who feeds us with his body is imaged, in long traditions of mysticism and piety, as like a mother feeding us with milk from her breasts. In baptism we enter the womb of Mother Church and are reborn. In the eucharist we are nurtured or fed in the new life of Christ. The popular image of the kneeling saint receiving the blood of Christ squirting from his side, often paralleled with Mary feeding him or her from milk from her breasts, shows how readily eucharistic sacramentality inspires maternal archetypes. The roles of feeding, washing and serving of the priest on the altar suggest more what mothers do than what fathers do. Even the dress of priests is today primarily evocative of femininity rather than masculinity. (Actually, the dress of priests comes from stylized Roman male wear, dressed up under the impact of Baroque upper-class male fashions. But, nevertheless, today this archaic dress appears decidedly unmasculine.

Thus the image of preacher appears more abstract and masculine than of priest as more enfleshed and maternal. It is precisely at this point that we may have the clue to the far more passionate and irrational resistance to women as priests than women as preachers. The woman as preacher abstracts herself into a male role, and so does relatively little to threaten the inherently masculine imagery of the role itself. While woman as priest reveals the enfleshed and maternal imagery of the role and thus much more directly challenges it as a male role. The male, in order to appropriate a maternal sacrality for themselves, must maintain a much more rigid exclusion of women from it than is the case with a masculine sacrality.

It may be that the vehement taboos against women’s “impurity”, as the fence around the sanctuary, are constructed to maintain this male appropriation of maternal sacrality against women. This may have been the deeply buried root of the exclusion of women from priesthood in Israel in the war of the male God and his priests against woman as priestess of the Goddess. The opening of the priesthood to women thus creates for men (usually not so much for women) a return of the repressed. Men feel themselves lapsing back into a childhood dependency on the mother. The whole male transcendence through suppression of the mother and the maternal sacrality is threatened. Thus we may not be able to clarify the right of women to represent Christ equally with men until we sort out the male repression of the mother complex, both as a historical and a personal psychopathology. In any case, we must look to the drive to open the priesthood to women as evoking far more vehement and irrational, even violent, responses than was the history of opening the ministry of the Word to women.

Contents of “Ordination of Women in Ecumenical Perspective” Support our campaign Sitemap Contemporary theologians Join Campaign activities Go back to home page

Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

The Institute is known for issuing academic reports and statements on relevant issues in the Church. These have included scholars' declarations on the need of collegiality in the exercise of church authority, on the ethics of using contraceptives in marriage and the urgency of re-instating the sacramental diaconate of women.

Visit also our websites:Women Deacons, The Body is Sacred and Mystery and Beyond.

You are welcome to use our material. However: maintaining this site costs money. We are a Charity and work mainly with volunteers, but we find it difficult to pay our overheads.

Visitors to our website since January 2014.
Pop-up names are online now.

The number is indicative, but incomplete. For full details click on cross icon at bottom right.

Please, support our campaign
for women priests
Join our Women Priests' Mailing List
for occasional newsletters:
An email will be immediately sent to you
requesting your confirmation.