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Should Women be Ordained. The Theology of a Protestant Catholic

Should Women be Ordained

from The Theology of a Protestant Catholic by Adrian Hastings, Professor of Theology, Leeds University, Ch.8, pp.91-99. Published in 1990 by SCM Press, London & Trinity Press International, Philadelphia.

Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.

The saying is sure; If any one aspires to the office of bishop, he desires a noble task. Now a bishop must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, sensible, dignified, hospitable, an apt teacher, no drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and no lover of money. He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way; for if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how can he care for God’s Church? (1 Timothy 2.11-3.5)

It is the nature of tradition to constitute a community, any community, in its specific character - its values, rules, selfunderstanding. Without a tradition of its own, and without the cherishing of that tradition, no historic community can exist, let alone survive. Its own tradition is what sets it apart from other communities. Human society is immensely enriched by a multitude of cultural particularities - indeed it would be quite intolerable without them. But each is a matter of tradition. Of its nature a tradition’s quality is to be traditional - that is to say it is cherished, not just or even chiefly on account of hard logic, but because this is the way things have been done here over generations. That is enough. A tradition is adhered to, relished, trusted in, for its own sake, even in its oddities. That is true in general and it is certainly true for the Christian church as for particular churches. The role of tradition in the life of the church is all the more important for its being, for the most part, rather little adverted to. And while there is one bundle of traditions which indubitably goes with being a Methodist, another with being a Quaker or a Jesuit, there are of course a great many traditions which simply go with being a Christian and which take us back to the very earliest age of the church. Some are adverted to in the New Testament writings; others are not. I am thinking, to give just one instance, of the keeping of Sunday.

However, every living tradition does in fact change. It must change if it and the community it supports are to survive. For everything human changes. As the circumstances of society, culture, human self-understanding change, so must the collective tradition of a specific community. In the case of the Christian church this is most particularly true, and it has certainly been the strength of the church that its tradition has in fact been so flexible. Its tradition is not something placed in a glass case, but something continually alive, something being genuinely passed from one generation to another, one person to another, and affected by the passing, and the circumstances of it, so that many cherished items of tradition seemingly ancient enough are in point of hard history latterday inventions. If a tradition is to live it cannot be otherwise.

Yet all change is not equally acceptable. Some alterations are better, some worse. Some may, indeed, be intensely damaging, but how are we to judge of this? It would seem to be by the way changes alter or drop marginal elements of a tradition in order to relate its central core of meaning better to a new society. Of course, this presupposes that every element of a tradition is not equally important, that within a tradition there is some sort of hierarchy of meaning. In very unimportant traditions or insignificant societies this may hardly be so, but the more a society and its traditions is genuinely meaningful, the more elements within the tradition will relate more centrally or more marginally to its principle core of meaning. It may, of course, not be possible to rescue the central core by altering peripheral elements. It may be that a given tradition and society at their very core have ceased in altered circumstances to make basic sense. They can, then, only wither away. But in regard to the Christian tradition, believers must surely hold that this is not so, that - while many things may pass with time and the transformation of culture and human self-understanding-yet there is an absolutely central element of meaning that will always remain supremely relevant. It is, however, obvious enough, both theoretically and from a consideration of Christian history, that this does not include everything in the tradition which has mattered, even greatly mattered, for former generations. Indeed the glory of Christian history has been, on a long view, its amazing adaptability, despite the respect for tradition that has marked it from the start.

Change has taken place again and again, even and especially in areas where most Christians were most reluctant to allow change to take place. And it has been able to do this because Christians have also been continually conscious that they did in fact possess a mechanism which could enable them to do so. They collectively possessed the gift of the Holy Spirit who, it was promised, would lead them into things they did not know at the beginning. Things can be decided, vitally important things, and they can be decided in such a way as to allow what was previously not allowed: ‘It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us’. Besides the basic mechanism, there are the examples of almost infinitely numerous changes from subsequent history. For instance, the speaking or the silencing of women in church, the marriage or non-marriage of bishops. When 1 Timothy insisted on the silence of women it was, almost certainly, reversing accepted earlier Christian practice; and it has, of course, been itself reversed by all the main churches. The church - and very particularly the Roman Catholic Church - has, moreover, insisted that, pace 1 Timothy, women may well find salvation precisely through a vocation which excludes the bearing of children. Then, again, take the marriage of bishops. There can be no doubt that 1 Timothy is here insistent that a bishop should have had a wife and children, yet the church subsequently not only allowed celibate men to be appointed bishops, but actually so far reversed tradition as to insist that only the unmarried could become bishops: foolish as such an insistance surely was.

Not only, then, does tradition alter originally uncertain areas, but even where scriptures might seem to provide a precise norm, this may in fact be reversed. Looked at as a whole, Christian experience demonstrates, not the fixity of precise norms, but an on-going confidence in the Spirit living within the community, which enables new decisions to be taken, new patterns of ministry to be embarked upon. Clearly these new patterns, these changes, are found opportune on account of new social and human circumstances, new exigencies of culture. Paradoxically, the high degree of cultureboundedness characteristic of the early church becomes the best guarantee of the church’s subsequent freedom and even obligation to respond to alterations of culture. Nevertheless, acceptable changes within the tradition, while they must respond to culture, cannot - if they are to be good changes - be simply dictated by culture. Indeed if they are merely culture-controlled, they are fairly sure to be bad changes, if significant at all. The guarantee of their appropriateness must be that they express organically the central core of the tradition within an altered cultural context. The heart of the meaning within the tradition remains, the periphery changes because the old periphery would be a disservice in new circumstances to that heart.

We are faced today with the question whether a woman can, and should, be ordained a priest, a minister of the eucharist, even a bishop. It is clear that in nineteen centuries of Christian tradition this did not happen. It has still not happened within what are by far the two largest Christian communions, the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox (Greek and Russian). It does then constitute a significant change in the tradition, but is that change to be seen as affecting the core or as affecting the periphery of the tradition? To return to our text from 1 Timothy, it stresses that some people are to be judged suitable for the role of a bishop and/or presbyter, some are not, and that this suitability is ultimately a pastoral one. It is a matter of choosing appropriate people to ‘care for God’s church’. Personal desires may be indicators but they are not decisive. What decides is public need not personal vocation. 1 Timothy offers certain specific indicators - sobriety, gentleness, particular sorts of secular experience. As we have seen, these particular guidelines have in fact long been outdated, but if - behind such immediate and multiple indicators - we look for some basic one to separate appointable from unappointable ministers, we can, I think, say safely enough: the priest can and must represent Christ, and in suitable contemporary form. He represents Christ about as fully and as explicitly as anyone can. He has, after all, to say those most mysterious, most creative, most ecclesially and sacramentally central, words of Christ, and to say them in some way in the first person: ‘This is my body’, ‘This is my blood’. The priest does many other pastoral and pedagogical things which lay people do too, but this at least the priest alone does. And it certainly does involve to an intense degree that representation of Christ here and now which is, of course, in a more diffused way a character of all Christian living. But because of the explicitness of the saying of the words of institution and because the saying of them is done in the very centre of the church, upon the Lord’s day, and in the middle of the whole community, you may - if you like - put it this way: the priest is an icon of Christ, his living human symbol.

Here we need to distinguish at once between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. No one is going to argue that the priest must represent the Jesus of history in all his necessary particularity. He is certainly not intended to be some sort of one-man Oberammagau. Jesus was a Jew, of the tribe of Judah, he was unmarried, he spoke Aramaic; he had been a carpenter; he was now unemployed; probably he had a beard. Now none of this - important as all such points maybe for a true historical representation of Jesus-matters at all for a true ministerial representation of Christ. What then is required for the latter, in order to represent the Word of God, incarnate, redeemer of mankind? God became man, et homo factus est. The representative must be what the Word essentially became, he must then be man and man committed to the essential function of God made man, to sharing in the mind and heart of the Saviour in so far as we can at all comprehend that mind and heart. The functionality of Christ was a functionality of salvation, the construction and instruction of a community, saved and to be saved. The representative must share in that community quite evidently. Someone unable to partake of the life of the salvation community could manifestly not represent the saviour to it or within it, but beyond that it is not easy to find the logic in excluding someone fully within the community from the basic capacity to be such a representative.

Only man can be iconic of God made man; only man can be iconic of the saviour of all mankind. But if we said more than this, if we said that the icon must also be a Jew, or unmarried, or poor, or a carpenter, then one is moving disastrously across to the sort of limiting, historic representation we have rejected. Moreover, in limiting those who can represent Christ, one is implicitly limiting his very salvific function and the fullness of participation in the Christlife of those one has thus marginalized. Christ is man, saving man. No less. Not a Jew, saving Jews. Not a third world freedom fighter saving third world freedom fighters. Jews are not excluded. Freedom fighters are not excluded. But every wall of partition is broken down in the community of the saved in consequence of the very nature of the Saviour - that nature which needs must be represented in the eucharistic minister.

Man. Homo. Anthropos. Where does woman come into this? Is womanness alien to the representation of Christ only in the way that Gentileness or marriedness is alien, or instead as being a matter of non-manness? Once we have asked the question in this way, the answer follows obviously enough. A woman is, most certainly, a man and always has been - at least so far as the church is concerned. A woman is ‘Homo’. Greek and Latin have their words for ‘male’ as distinct from ‘female’, but Anthropos and Homo bridge the gender gap. Of course we know that the Word became a male, a vir (in Latin), just as the Word became a Jew; but credally it is not significant. What the creed asserts, in defining the incarnation is that the Word became human, homo, and the church has always recognized woman as homo. ‘Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return’, Memento, homo. So, century after century, the priest declared as he placed the ashes upon the foreheads of the faithful each Ash Wednesday, the foreheads of women no less than the foreheads of men. A male is not that much more of a Homo than a female and of necessity, therefore, the humanity taken by the Word at the incarnation is woman’s humanity exactly as much as it is man’s.

The poverty of some modern European languages (including English and Italian) which lack words to distinguish homo from vir has greatly added to the contemporary confusion. The word ‘man’ has an inherent ambiguity which ‘Homo’ entirely lacks. Incidentally, if we were all Bantu, instead of being modern Western Europeans, we would not fall victim to this particular theologico-linguistic man-trap. Just as Bantu languages do not impute sexuality to the uncreated Word, as we do with ‘Son’, for all speak of the Word as ‘Mwana’ (child), which is used for girls as much as for boys, so they do not impute any sort of sexuality to what the Mwana’ ma Mungu became, Muntu, that wonderful word for a human person, wholly non-sexual. Where in English we speak of ‘the Son of God’ and declare that ‘he’ became ‘man’, with a whole series of words sexually ambiguous or misleading, the Bantu declare their faith far more accurately theologically in terms which wholly avoid at any point the sexual loading.

The interpretation of Homo is in truth at the very heart of the meaning of incarnation and redemption, and the issue is whether God in being incarnationally particularized does or does not mysteriously break through the bonds of any and every limitation thus imposed. If the male/female wall of binary division remains operative, any more than the Jew/Gentile wall of binary division, then not all is assumed, not all is redeemed. The particularizations, including the constrictions of a binary model, must be entered into but only so as to be transcended. In regard to the male/female divide this is especially necessary, but also appropriate, in that a central religious symbolic tradition - and the one adopted by the Hebrew scriptures - saw sky as male, earth female. God in heaven was a male figure giving rain and life to mother earth. So God in heaven could in covenant come to marry humanity on earth, and humanity’s selected representative, Israel. Biblical symbolism implies a divine masculinity, a human femininity. In a very real but only symbolic way, in consequence, full incarnation signifies the male becoming female, while if - in docetic form - God only pretended to ‘become homo’ by ‘descending from heaven’ then the incarnated would remain in reality male only. It would still be a matter of ‘he, he, he’. It is clear that, incarnationally, vis à vis the underlying biblical mythology of God, a female figure would actually represent ‘man’ more profoundly than a male. But in fact any such symbolism, if at all pressed or absolutized, becomes divisive and utterly misleading. God is not male nor humanity female. Male and female are subcategories, of finally limited significance, within the human. When God becomes anthropos they are wholly transcended and need to be seen to be transcended. The argument that a male is needed to represent the Word made flesh is really just a laughable failure of third class theologians to understand either the classical theology of incarnation and redemption or anthropology, the structures and limitations of religious symbolism and, even, the history of Western linguistics.

Let us return at this point to the nature of a living tradition and the way it should respond when faced with a challenge to what may or may not be a marginal element. Without any doubt, the exclusive maleness of the ministerial priesthood has been an element within that tradition. But how central an element has it been? Again and again, as we have seen, parts of a living tradition need to be jettisoned. The criteria for defending or jettisoning something remains its relationship to the core of the tradition. Does it, in new circumstances, continue challengingly to re-express that core, or does it now rather obscure it? Now what we see happening in the last few years is that, in order to justify the practice of excluding women from the ministerial priesthood in circumstances in which the wider surrounding culture no longer tallies with such an exclusion, it has proved necessary to justify it theologically in a way previously never done and in a way which affects a far more central element in the tradition - the understanding of the incarnation. In the principal Vatican Declaration on the non-ordination of women of October 1976, and in plenty of Anglican arguments too, the central argument has been put forward that as God became vir, therefore Christ can only be represented by a vir. ‘We can never ignore that Christ is a man.’ Consequently, ‘in actions in which Christ himself is represented . . . his role must be taken by a man’. Such a shift in both language and meaning at the very heart of christology is not only profoundly untraditional, it is also destructive of the central thread connecting incarnation and redemption: the unity of significant nature between saviour and saved, the breaking down by Christ of every middle wall of partition. It makes part of Christ’s significant human nature something not shared by all the redeemed. To do this is disruptive of the central principle of soteriological christology. To assert that the significant humanity of Christ for the purpose of representation necessarily includes maleness logically makes maleness also a necessary characteristic of the body of Christ, the community of the redeemable and the redeemed. The defenders of the periphery have thus been led to undermine the core.

Inability to accept a change within the order of ministerial structure, an essentially marginal part of tradition, thus not only demonstrates a failure to understand the way any living tradition, but pre-eminently the Christian tradition, functions. I say ‘pre-eminently the Christian tradition’ because here above all we have a community conscious from the beginning that it did not get the whole truth at the start, that the Holy Spirit is precisely there (not only in the first century but also in the twentieth) to lead it to make new decisions which are genuinely new but also reveal themselves as strangely faithful to what was there from the start. But such an inability also provides the absolutely decisive reason for not only allowing but requiring change, the reason that the refusal to change is now being justified in terms which are both disastrously untraditional and totally destructive of the innermost core of the whole tradition: the understanding of God made man. A clinging to the periphery is undermining the core. The central understanding of incarnation and redemption no less, is being destroyed by the opponents, both in Rome and in England, of the ordination of women.

A tradition, to live, like everything else, must also in part die. No true traditionalist will cling to everything traditional. Despite the formal instructions of the letter to Timothy, let women speak in church, let even the unmarried be made bishops but, above all else, let Christ be Muntu and let every muntu, male or female, be seen as potentially an icon of Christ. Amen.

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