Review of: A Theology of Women's Priesthood
by Ali Green, Published by SPCK, London, 2010
Dr Ali Green brings to her insightful study not only her experience of priesthood and various forms of ministry before that, but involvement in ecology, ecumenism and prison chaplaincy which all enrich her vision.
Much of the book is looking at the symbolic meanings of gender and priesthood and how these effect Christian thinking and practice. The symbols we use are part of our "language" of communication , and the patriarchally orientated symbols and metaphors of women in the scripture are deeply sexist and still largely influential today.
The bride and wife in scriptural metaphor is based on the culture of the time it was written, so it reflects the then current subordinate and submissive role of women. Further the female was then associated with whoredom, seen as a danger to men and needing firm control.
Christians today have gone some way today to be liberated from the androcentric mindset and this needs to be developed further by celebrating sexual differentiation and by showing the value of the feminine and that women can mediate the divine. Women becoming priests in the Anglican communion "challenges inculturated assumptions"
and involves new insights into the nature of the divine, the church and priesthood.
In her various chapters on "In the Image of God", "Broken Body, Broken World" and "New Covenant, New Confidence" the author starts with an extract from the standard Anglican eucharistic prayer, linking this central Christian act with various aspects of our relationship with the divine that we need to reinvisage.
Her discussion of the contrast between the way Jesus and his followers treated women in the very early days and the way the community soon turned their back on this, feeling obliged to accommodate themselves with the surrounding culture, seems to me to point to a paradox: church leaders, especially in the RC Church, complain today about Christians being too influenced by the surrounding secularist culture, but never think about the implications of their early forebears turning away from the inclusive teaching of Christ in order to be acceptable to the local attitudes and customs.
The author points out that symbols for the divine in the past have largely been interpreted and developed by intellectual powerful celibate males within an institutional hierarchical church. The traits of women have been devalued, those of men exalted. This sort of language and symbol is "non-redemptive". The narrative of our faith has been built on patriarchal thought processes, whereby "dualistic positions of superiority and subservience, autonomy and dependence accorded to the divine-human relationship have been similarly accorded to the relationship between men and women".
Ali Green has interesting things to say about the fairly recent development of thinking about the Trinity in inclusive and relational terms: the past sidelining of the Holy Spirit is due perhaps to of feminine associations with the concept of wisdom etc. She picks up on Elizabeth Johnson's seminal work (She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theoretical Discourse) looking in the ways the Spirit is mediated to us, such as in loving relationships, birthing and rearing, and befriending in groups and communities. Further, Jurgen Moltman is quoted in his trinitarian understanding of the complete interpenetration of the three persons while at the same time preserving their distinct identities. The feminist theological understanding of the Trinity as loving mutuality has important implications for us -1 recall theologian Sarah Oakley's iconographical studies of the early Church in which the Father figure is enormous, the Christ figure somewhat smaller, and what she called "hunt
the pigeon", a minute dove figure standing for the Spirit is half hidden in the folds of the clothing of the other two figures. A concept of the Trinity which is of loving mutuality and equality can only be imaged in humanity if it does not adopt liturgies and pastoral practices that promote oppression or discrimination against individuals or groups.
One of the author's themes is that of acceptance of sexual differentiation which does not negate the ability to mediate God. By exploring the neglected metaphors of God women can be "affirmed as valid mediators of the divine image". There is a danger in this however, because too much emphasis on the maternal aspects of God can lead to stereotyping woman's selfhood as only being found only in characteristics traditionally associated with women. However, there is much value in exploring God's self revelation through God as birther and nourisher of the Cosmos.
The woman priest has a symbolic value as a leader who is not only a female but also represents both God and the people: it affirms the equality of both men and women in the image of God and the validity of the maternal image of God found in the scriptures. This last may seem obvious but it was not so many decades ago that the Church of Scotland, faced with their own very mild church report on feminine images of God in the Bible was so scandalised thafthey would not endorse it!
The ignoring of sexual difference and the valuing of dominance and hierarchy over mutuality and connectedness has involved the church in patriarchal injustices of exploitation and abuse by the powerful of the weak and vulnerable. The author suggests women priests pose a challenge to the non-inclusive structure and practices of the church. Research into gender differences in working practices has shown that generally women favour collaborative and interactive ways of working. On the whole collaborative processes led by women move more quickly to sharing power and an emphasis on human resources, while those led by men tend to. focus on "positional power and authority and to emphasize rules and regulations and financial resources".
A study of the early years of women being priests in the Anglican Church (Wakeman, ed . "Women Priests: the first years") shows that the idea of collaborative ministry is most readily accepted where women priests are welcomed. Those parishes where the authority of a single male is valued (usually the high or the evangelical end of the church) there is more likely to be opposition both to women's ordination and to a genuinely co- operative style of ministry.
As part of her analysis of the meaning of "the bread we share" she sees the partaking of the Eucharist as involving us in a transformational act actively preparing for the coming of the kingdom and the building up of the body of Christ. This is an inclusive process because we all have responsibility for this. Jesus is the true vine and we are all the branches, and this requires interconnectedness with other people as well as God: we cannot do this in isolation. Human flourishing, rooted in Christ, and based on loving inteirelationships, stands in contrast to the traditional patriarchal concept of salvation which sees humanity as corrupt and sinful and to the individualistic concept of salvation which is inward looking and unconcerned with the wider world.
The author's sections on the Created World puts forward a concept of stewardship that concerns not just the natural world but all humanity, understanding that abuse of the cosmos leads to the most suffering among the least powerful and voiceless, with whom we should be in loving relationship. Our central act of worship, the Eucharist, is "essentially a corporate act, confirms the corporate quality of the Church and of the duty of care towards the earth as part of the redemptive process that reconciles."
In contrast to the long lasting Christian aversion to the body and the material, feminist theologians have shown how rather than seeing the spiritual journey an escape from the body and material, we more fruitfully "make that journey in and through our bodily experience and through the things in the created world". The more tangible and concrete reading of redemption leads us towards the transformative action in the here and now rather than concentrating on a personal anticipation of salvation. The stress is on relationship with the immanent God rather than the transcendent divine.
In acting as agents in breaking God's realm into the present world it becomes clear that God is particularly to be found in the "redemptive process of justice-making".
Male and female priests working together in leadership roles widens the symbolic understanding of the triune God. To work together underlines both diversity and unity and can only image the triune God in an atmosphere of tolerance, respect and loving care: this needs an approach that unites individuals but also values diversity of experience. For this to become the usual practice a "Paradigm shift" is badly needed. This is part of the transformative process.
In considering the meaning of the Eucharist as a sacrifice of thanks and praise Ali Green sees this as the giving of ourselves in anticipation" of the coming kingdom, to bringing life and redemption to a broken world". The sacrifice of Christ evokes our sacrificial actions. When patriarchal ethos reigns the self denial of males does not give up exploitative power over women and the marginalised, but female self denial entailed subservience, suppression and serving male privilege. Above all, women were very largely denied the possibility of developing their full potential. Even today men are characteristically burdened by the sin of pride, while a common sin of women is that of sloth in not developing their potential. The author refers to the sociological point of view held by some that sees the Eucharist in terms of "recognising the power of sacrifice as ritual instrument for upholding lasting male-dominated social order". It is interesting to note the emphasis placed by traditionalists on the Eucharist as sacrifice while the forward-looking place emphasis on it as the meal of the community.
She calls upon William Beer's book ""Women and Sacrifice" which uses anthropology and developmental psychology to examine male violence in blood sacrifice which he sees played out in ritual and social structures "driven by male narcissistic anxiety" that controls and subordinates women. The argument used is complex although interesting and those who want to explore this aspect will find this section of Ali Green's book helpful.
Following on this the author suggests that the priest mediates maternal symbolism, the nurturing with the body and blood of Christ. How appropriate then is that the priests should be women. Further, the celebration of the Eucharist by a woman priest gets away from thinking in terms of death and the violence of sacrifice to move towards a symbolism of birthing and nurturing, gift and flourishing, which reflect the maternal aspect of the divine. The sacrificial element can then be seen in terms of the priestly vocation to obedience, humility and spiritual poverty following the kenosis of Christ. To me it seems that this sort of sacrifice is particularly difficult for men and their often innate desire for power can make it very difficult for them to carry out their priestly ministry effectively.
The presence of a woman priest also challenges the still lingering notion of the impurity of women associated with her blood. I recall that it was only a couple of decades ago when a woman deacon was busy about something in the sanctuary of the Chicago Episcopalian Cathedral, when a packet of sanitary towels slipped from her tote bag parked on a bench. Seeing this a male priest nearby shrieked repeatedly "unclean woman, get off the altar"!
The Churches still mainly operate "according to masculinist principles" that are ignorant of what women in leadership positions can bring to the church, and the prejudices that still hinder their contributions. Much has still to change and it would be very good if male priests could be brought to ponder on the insights of this book and to realise how far their attitudes and principles are distant from the way the very early Jesus movement interacted and valued each other. Until our communities embrace the principles of inclusivity can we be truly reflecting the loving mutuality of the Trinity?
As the book is concentrated on theological understanding of women in ordained priesthood it is not unreasonable that other aspects of priesthood have not been dealt with. In thinking about ordained priesthood, however, one needs to be aware of the other more inclusive form of priesthood - the baptismal priesthood and ministry, to which all the baptised are called. Too little attention is paid to this in some of the major main line churches, which impedes ordained leadership from giving sufficient support to enabling the People of God to develop and use their God-given gifts if the Churches are to become more Christlike.
This is a seminal book which would be a wise guide in our searching for the way forward.
This 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.
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.