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
Dialogue: a Starting Point for Partnership in the Church 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

Dialogue: a Starting Point for Partnership in the Church

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. 54-59

The following propositions do not attempt to be a comprehensive statement on the ministry of the Church, either in the New Testament or in its historical development. Rather, they attempt to raise certain points that are often neglected in ecumenical discussions, which put the question of women’s ordination in a new perspective. These six points, stated in the form of questions, may be useful in raising new aspects of the women’s ordination issue in view of growing ecumenical consensus on baptism, eucharist and ministry.

1. The new community of the Church

On the question of women’s ordination, the nature of the Church is an essential starting point. How does the way in which a church tradition describes the nature of the Church affect its views of the possibility of women’s ordination?

All ministry is to be understood in the light of him who came “not to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:45). In describing the nature of the Church, we should not bypass the witness of the historical community around Jesus. Contemporary Christians have recognized anew the radical nature of the fellowship drawn to Jesus. This fellowship broke through traditional social barriers. It included women as well as men in unconventional ways. It included those who were socially despised. It is even said “that prostitutes and tax collectors will go into the Kingdom of God ahead of the conventional religious leaders, scribes and pharisees” (Matt. 21:31).

This sense of a new community is empowered by the resurrection and Pentecost. Paul speaks of those who are in Christ as being “neither Jew nor Greek, not bond nor free, not male nor female; for all are one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28). This text is generally understood to have reflected a baptismal creed of the Church. It reflects the sense of oneness in Christ in a new creation, which is anticipated in the Church.

All Christians belong to the Royal Priesthood (I Pet. 2:9). The Christian is one who has been redeemed from earlier states of dependency and enslavement. We are the offspring of the free woman, not the slave women (Gal. 4:31). We have been freed from the childhood state to become responsible adults (Gal. 3:23-26).

This sense of the Church as a community of equals is not simply a matter of early lack of organization. It contains an enduring insight into the nature of the redeemed humanity in Christ that is a constant source for the renewal of the Church. What is specific to some views of ordained ministry that excludes some baptized Christians, i.e. women, from this ministry? How can this be compatible with the nature of the Church as reflective of oneness in Christ wherein previously justified inequalities are nullified?

2. The Church in ministries

What is the significance of the variety of ministries in the New Testament, shown by current New Testament research, for the understanding of ministry and for the debate on the ordination of women to the ministry?

In the earliest Church there were different gifts and ministries which may serve as paradigms for ministry today, for example, that of prophet or teacher in the local church, or of apostle in the mission of the Church. The paradigms for ministry were linked to various charismata. Women also received the charismata and acted as prophets (Acts 21:9), teachers (Acts 18:26) and missionaries (I Cor. 16:13; Rom. 16:1 ff). (Further research is also needed on the issue of “Junias” Rom. 6:7, and on the distinction between prophesying (propheteuein) and speaking (lalein) in the New Testament: I Cor. 11:15, I Cor. 14:31-35, Gal. 1:6-8).

There are differences in the use of “apostolos” in the epistles of St. Paul and in Acts, where the title “apostolos” is reserved for the Twelve. Some interpret the role of the Twelve as specific and symbolic: they represented the 12 tribes of Israel who were to be gathered in with the coming of the Messiah; they are to sit on the 12 thrones of Israel, judging the tribes of Israel (Matt. 19:28). They had of necessity to be men — no woman could be a patriarch of Israel — as by the same token they had to be Jews. Is it impor-1 tant to distinguish between the unique function of the Twelve and the broader idea of apostleship which existed in the Church from the beginning?

In the early Church a new priesthood developed which was meant to be neither Jewish nor Hellenistic. Some traditions today affirm that development as legitimate; others do not, holding that Christ completed and abolished the priesthood, according to letter to the Hebrews. Is the development of priesthood in some churches an impediment to the ordination of women to the full sacramental ministry in these churches? (1)

The emphasis on the paradigm of teacher likewise contributed’ to the exclusion of women, not only for sociological reasons but also out of a hesitancy to hand over the Holy Scriptures to women. The Jewish custom of male teachers may have influenced this development. Given the new conditions for women today, must not the churches reconsider the teaching ministries of women?

In the New Testament times the “prophet” was an important paradigm for ministry. The early Christians preached the Christ as the fulfilment of the hope of Israel, interpreting the scriptures and the signs of the time. They saw themselves as authorized to do this by the Spirit, quoting for example from Joel (Acts 2). These prophets were both men and women. What relevance has the demise of the role of the prophet for the ministry and for the exclusion of women from the ministry? Some churches have revitalized the prophetic ministry; what impact might this development have on ministry and on participation by women today?

The various churches have given greater emphasis to one or the other of the various paradigms of ministry. Is it possible to achieve a new sense of the wholeness of ministry by reconsidering those paradigms which have fallen into disuse?

3. Apostolic succession and tradition

What is the relation of the understanding of apostolic succession and tradition to the understanding of ministry and to the question of the ordination of women?

The continuity which is designated “apostolic succession” was in the early Church primarily understood to be the handing on of the deposit of faith, though this was tied to ministry insofar as the bishop was seen as the guardian of faith. Apostolic succession can be seen as much broader than simply ministerial succession.

“The fullness of the apostolic succession of the whole Church involves continuity in the permanent characteristics of the Church of the apostles: witness to the apostolic faith, proclamation and fresh interpretation of the apostolic gospel, transmission of ministerial responsibility, sacramental life, community in love, service for the needy, unity among local churches and sharing the gifts which the Lord has given to each.” (2)

If apostolic succession is understood in this wider sense, does this influence our thinking as to whether women can be ordained? The use of Tradition and of Scripture in the Church urgently calls for further study. Scripture and Tradition both belong to a continuing, living transmission process guided by the Spirit in which the Gospel is being brought to fulfilment.(3) How are we then, while not losing continuity with the past, to move into the future?

It must also be said that certain arguments put forward in the past against ordaining women must be called into question. What does our present knowledge of human reproduction and evolution, as well as different anthropologies and sociology, have to say to the question of the ordination of women?

4. Incarnation and priesthood

Is the maleness of the historical Jesus essential to the meaning of the incarnation? Does Christ have to be represented by a male priesthood?

Some argue that the incarnation of God in the male Jesus requires the representation of Christ to be through a male priesthood.

One Orthodox position would speak of priesthood in the following, somewhat different manner. There is only one Priest, Jesus Christ, in the full sense of the word, who (according to the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom) at the same time offers and is offered. In him the Old Testament priesthood finds its fulfilment. The Church is the place where the Holy Spirit works. By the gift of the Holy Spirit the Church participates in the unique priesthood of the Son of God Incarnate. Such is the meaning of the royal priesthood of all believers. But the Church charges certain of its members in whom it discerns such a charisma to actualize in one place here and now the unique priesthood of the God/Man, the very priesthood in which it participates. Such is the meaning of priestly ordination and of the special grace which it confers. The universal priesthood of all believers and the sacramental priesthood both derive from the unique priesthood. The bishop and the priest only actualize, by the grace of the Holy Spirit in time and space, the unique and eternal priesthood of the High Priest.

This argument would continue that, on the basis of biblical anthropology, men and women are different and at the same time one both in accordance with the order of creation and the order of redemption. This unity/diversity can be signified in the reconciled new creation which is beginning in the Church here and now, through the presence at the altar of a man and a woman, both ordained to ministries of equal dignity, though of different symbolic significance. Others would ask yet further, is not this truth of creation and redemption best exemplified when both women and men stand at the altar as priests?

5. The “particular role” of women in the Church

Do women have particular contributions to offer to the life of the Church that are different from or complementary to the contributions of men?

Does the answer to this question, whether yes or no, have any implications for the ordination of women?

In “One Baptism, One Eucharist and a Mutually Recognized Ministry”, p. 45, it is said: “Both men and women need to discover the full meaning of their specific contribution to the ministry of Christ. The Church is entitled to the style of ministry which can be provided by women as well as that which can be provided by men.”

Many agree with the above statement. Others hesitate to use this language of “specific contributions” because they believe it creates certain expectations of women and of men which limit the fulfilment of their potential as persons.

Many say that the Church especially needs the caring, nourishing and nurturing that women have traditionally provided. Some emphasize that these qualities in women will bring a style of leadership to the Church that encourages partnership rather than domination/submission. Others believe that emphasizing these qualities in women leads to assigning them to specialized and/or secondary roles. Another way of addressing this problem may be: Can there be wholeness in the life of the Church and its ministry before both men and women fully contribute and participate in it?

6. Personal vocation and true ministry of the Church

What is the relation between personal vocation and the criteria for ministry applied by the Church?

There is a strong stream in Christianity which bases authority of ministry on the call of God. It is this call, tested as to its authenticity in various ways by the Church, which undergirds the authorization to minister.

Many in this stream of Christianity believe that insofar as the call of God is the foundation of ministry, and God calls whom God chooses, and since we cannot limit the outpouring of God’s gift, basic questions are raised about the obedience of the Church to God if the Church refuses to test the vocations of some who believe themselves to be called to the ordained ministry.


These six propositions, coming out of an ecumenical dialogue, both narrow and intensify the discussion. They are posed, not with the hope of agreement, but with the aim of discerning which issues are central and which are marginal to the work of achieving mutual understanding.


(1) Refers to “The Preacher and the Priest: Two Typologies of Ministry and the Ordination of Women”, by Rosemary Ruether, a paper prepared for the Klingenthal meeting and included as the appendix.

(2) “One Baptism, One Eucharist and a Mutually Recognized Ministry: Three Agreed Statements”, Faith and Order Paper No. 73, 1978, p. 36.

(3) See The Fourth World Conference on Faith and Order, eds P. C. Rodgers and L. Vischer, London, SCM Press, 1964, p. 50ff., and also “Episkope and Episcopate in Ecumenical Perspective”, Faith and Order Paper No. 102, 1980.

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.