The Ordination Of Women – A Living Tradition
by Dr. Dorothea McEwan; see credits
published in Pogranicza Wrazliwosci w Literaturze i Kulturze Dawnej Oraz Wspolczesnie-Konfrontacje, Szczecin, 2-4 June 1997, Poland; here re-published on www.womenpriests.org with permission of the author and the publisher. For the Polish translation, see here.
Introduction, ‘Feminism’, ‘Tradition’ and ‘Theology’
Feminist theology offers an analysis of theology, a critique of theory, thought patterns and of the praxis of religion and a model for doing theology in a transformative way. To illustrate this threefold task I chose as a case in point the topic of the ordination of women to the ministerial priesthood in the RC church.
The ekklesia, the community, founded by Jesus Christ, called to end discrimination between women and men, slaves and free, foes and friends (Gal 3:28), has in its long history become an instrument of exclusion for half of its members. The offices of deacons, priests and bishops are closed to women and are narrowly maintained by men, celibate men. The clerical upper caste denies women access to and exercise of the ordained offices on the basis of one-sided interpretations of ‘tradition’, ‘authority’ and gospel teachings. These, in fact, only show the whole breadth of sociological, pyschological and anthropological arguments of fear, cementing the very discriminations which Jesus Christ wanted to dismantle.
The vision of equality and entitlement has got stuck in rhetoric. Today, women and men want to take part in decision making. They want to safeguard rights and to control their own lives. In the social and political arena this has led to wider social movement, in the theological arena to the emergence of liberation theology, i.e. the fundamental idea that the poor, in the Latin American context, can do theology, can engage in theological reflections which issues in the radical process of participation. They have learnt and understood that personal life decisions cannot be left to outsiders or defined by experts, be they religious, educational, professional etc. In fact, the opposite happens, if decisions are left to ‘experts’: decisions become harmful when the ideas and visions of the people themselves are termed wrong, and the ‘right’ decisions are imposed on them from outside. The text, the gospel, is important, but also the context, the field in which it is sited, lived and taught. And once people understood that decisions taken in Rome or somewhere outside their context are harmful, are not meeting their local needs, these same people have realised that their spiritual needs are no longer met through existing structures.
However, while the liberation theologians were acutely aware of the unjustices done to the people in their care, they did not see that a similar set of injustices were perpetrated by state and church against women. Out of this realisation feminist theology was born.
In order to get a grip on our topic, we need to prepare our tools, we need to define feminism and feminist theology. ‘Feminism sees patriarchy as a multi-layered system of domination, centered in men’s control of women, but including class, race, and generational hierarchies, clericalism, war, and the domination of nature’ (3).Feminism, thus, is an analysis of society from a woman’s point of view, the radical notion, that women are people and not animals, legal minors, beasts of burden. Feminist theology defines women and men as created equal and ‘denounces male domination of women as sin’(4). The task of dismantling the patterns of patriarchal Christianity is to reconstruct a radically different understanding of the key teachings (God, humanity, male and female, sin and fall, Christ and redemption).
Christian Feminists of both sexes are working to root religious experience in the here and now and to place theological insights in the here and now. If one believes in the message of salvation, the faith message of Christianity, then feminism offers a critique of contemporary patriarchal and kyriarchal theology. The task for the hierarchy is not that it is asked to share power, but that it is asked to change its views. If the church as institution cannot reform itself and move with the times,it may, in fact, cease to provide the spiritual leadership and be left behind while the essential church, the church as people, will move on, leaving the old wineskins behind, much as Christianity left Judaism behind.
Feminist theology supplies the tools to make the shift from seeing religion as controlling life or the world to seeing religion as valuing the contribution of each and everyone. Feminism is not about making the world woman-centred, but about bringing the world into balance, offering a way out of age old dualisms and discrimination to inclusion and mutuality.
‘Tradition’, the handing over of tales, beliefs, practices, is a healthy way of incorporating the wisdom of our foremothers into our experiences. It becomes unhealthy when the past is only allowed to live on in one-sided presentations of the past, called ‘truth’, and the present with all its flux and flow is deemed to be disruptive of that which is termed truth. But truth cannot be escaped from, historic facts will come to light, they are facets of the picture which we have to strive to complete. Gustav Mahler famously spoke up against a slavish adherence to tradition by coining the phrase ‘tradition is not the worship of the ashes, but keeping the fire alive’ (5)
Much of what tradition calls ‘theology’ is supposed to happen ‘from the neck up. What characterizes Feminist Theology for me is the inclusion of the rest of our selves and our experiences in the doing of theology….to do theology with our minds and our bodies and our experiences and to build communities that have space for all us’(6). And as women’s historical experience ‘is normative insofar as it judges as partial traditional presentations of “human” experience and adds whole new dimensions to that experience’, women’s experience ‘exposes a patriarchal theology for what it is, half a theology’ with the aim for feminist theology, as expressed by Pamela Dickie Young for ‘making half a theology a whole theology’ (7).
Structure and Development
I come from a misogynist tradition, the tradition of exclusion in the R.C. church. Our problem as women in the churches was the problem of relationship of the church as structure and its development. There it was, the almighty structure, meting out laws and rules and woe to those who broke them. And at the same time there was resistance, non-conformism, dissent, the healthy attitude of posing questions: why do those in power, the structure, want me to behave in a particular way when my own experience tells me that I am right and you are wrong?
The history of resistance, of dissent, of thinking for one self is as old as the history of the church. Only swept under the carpet, or to use a modern word, those who insisted on it were marginalized, were declared heretics, confused, even God-less, heathens, members of sects. Here I have only time to use shorthand expressions – church history was written by the winners. Men and women and children were slaughtered in the Crusades in the 12th and 13th centuries, mostly women were persecuted and burnt in the witch craze in the 16th and 17th centuries, Protestants were expelled from their homesteads in the 17th and 18th centuries and were allowed to emigrate and Jews were annihilated in the wake of antijudaist and antisemitic progroms in the 19th and 20th centuries. The history of the church is also a history in the name of persecution of people who were termed outsiders, others, foes. The mechanism of exclusion is still extant against homosexuals and lesbians who are taught to live in a particular way and in general against women who are told they are not material for priesthood. Those who do not conform have to reckon with punishment. But thanks to the insistence, the stubborn attitude of many women and men borne of experience there is development, even if painfully slow.
The process of metanoia
The technical term of ‘enlightenment shift’, the understanding that the individual determines the structure and not vice versa, this shift, which happened in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries and which freed the human mind from psychological obstacles, in time triggered developments in societies and churches. Vital developments by women in religion are characteristic of late twentieth-century life. Women posed questions, women centred their concerns not only on small segments of their society, but on all of society, women established the notion of feminism, that radical notion, that women share full humanity with men. This notion, first, the awareness of women’s oppression and exploitation in society, at work, within the family, decreed by the churches and secondly, the conscious action by women and men to change this situation, developed the thinking of personhood, of personal value, of the value of personal experience. Not those in authority can and should dictate to others, but authority has to be opened up, has to be newly defined as empowerment, taking power for oneself. Not any longer a dictate to love authority, but to love with authority (8).
This ushered in a fundamental change ‘in understanding replacing the privatized notion of religion with a communal one, rejecting the “power over” model in favor of letting people be religiouos in a variety of ways, and rejoicing in the fact that religious traditions are made up of sisters and brothers who share equally and uniquely in the development of their content’ (9).
Through this enlightenment shift, societies have become more open, more democratic or contributive and accountable. This became a challenge to the churches. Some have accepted this shift, my church has ignored it. In my tradition believers are told that the church is the expression of God’s will, that the theology is fixed and new insights cannot be gained. Furthermore, in my church we women are told that even before we were conceived my church knew that we were not to be ordained into ministerial priesthood. Women experience God’s call, but the church does not allow women to answer the call. Women bake the bread, but cannot break the bread, full access to the priesthood is denied to women simply because we are women. Unlike Christ, who loved everybody, the church does ot love those of us who want to live their call to the priesthood. Nowhere else do women willingly agree to their oppression in any other respect of their life. But women are here on the horn of a dilemma: How can women be active in their churches, when they do not have equal rights? And how can women not be active in their churches, when they love their churches? The answer has to be that women and men are the church; we therefore need an inclusive model of church, not the dichotomy of ordained and non-ordained, a hierarchically stratified model. If the church-as-structure does not accept both women and men, it cannot live and breat fruit and give witness. A holding strategy will no longer do.
Let me quote some examples from history when the church-as-structure saw the necessity to change its views and to move with the faithful, with the times, with the needs of ordinary people: The first is the abolition of slavery. Until the 19th century the Church believed that slavery was a god-given state in society; only reluctantly, in the wake of civil legislation, it accepted the shift in thinking. The second is the scene at the enthronement of every new pope in the Middle Ages. ‘The elders of the Jewish community in Rome had to present him with the Torah, which, being identical with the Pentateuch, he acknowledged with the words “We confirm the Law, but we condemn the Jewish people and their interpretation” (confirmamus sed non consentimus)’ (10). The ceremony occurred for the first time in 1119 and was last performed under Leo X in 1513. In later years it was transferred indoors to shield the Jewish delegates from ill-treatment by the crowd. And the third example: It took the R.C. church until November 1992 to declare that Galileo, the great Italian mathematician, who died in 1642, was right and the church was wrong: the earth is not flat, it is, in fact round. I do not point out these facts, because I want to rubbish the church, I point them out to show that there is development of argument, but painfully slow. And I believe the church has to move faster, much faster.
Manifestations of Misogyny in Societies and Religions
Every form of religion has degraded women, socalled societal norms quoted religious ideas to underpin a variety of measures which were actually hurtful to women: in China the practice of footbinding, in India the practice of suttee, the burning of widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands, in Islamic countries genital mutilation, in Judaism and Christianity a stifling of creativity because the faith systems tells us women who and what we are, notably that we are second-class, sinful and seductive, in need to be ‘kept’ by men. The fact is that sexism, a stereotyping because of sex, ‘is part of the intricate web of oppression in which most of us live, and that having attuned ourselves to it does not make it any less a fact of oppression’ (11) or to speak in the words of Ivan Illich ‘a hitherto unthinkable individual degradation of one half of humanity on socio-biological grounds’ (12).
In the R.C. church we are confronted by teachers teaching the law rather than the gospel, by teachers questioning the personal vocation by reminding those with a vocation that the institution cannot accept such vocations, by the inconsistency that the church’s call is more important to the institution than God’s call. And yet, in the last 25 years, thousands of Catholic women have entered the public ministry of the church. The understanding of what constitutes valid ministry and who qualifies for it has shifted. Women teach and research, women educate the priests to be, yet these same women do not share full participation in the life of the church according to their God-given talents. And yet, this is precisely how feminism in general and feminist theologies in particular understand the direction our church has to take for the church to become inclusive.
But we do not understand by full participation only presence in a system which still despises us. We stand for a different understanding of priesthood and ministry. Ministry as making use of the God given talents of hearing and listening, healing and teaching, feeding and sharing, and priesthood as the community- given-power of enabling, empowering God’s presence amidst us. This is development required from an enfleshed or incarnational faith in its visible structure and its personal action. We had a morality of submission and obedience; this is no longer enough. The feminist vision points to a new morality of justice and equality and the celebration of rich variety.
For the whole discussion of ministries must be a discussion of equality, a situation beyond discrimination. Taken by itself, the question of ordination is not a particular important one. But it serves as prism though which to look at the whole are of relationships, right relationships and leadership and then it becomes the touchstone for the credibility of the church’s rhetoric. Rosemary Radford Ruether put the spotlight on the ordination question not merely by focusing on sociological points of view but by spelling out what is wrong with the papal statement ‘The Dignity and Vocation of Women’ (13) in which Pope John Paul II described women as ‘equal but special’.
The contradiction in this statement goes back to a Declaration by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ‘On the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood’ (14) and Canon Law 1024 ‘only a baptized man (vir) validly receives sacred ordination’. Ruether states: ‘In the teaching of Thomas Aquinas, women were fundamentally unequal in nature. He borrowed the false biology of Aristotle to declare that women were defective or “misbegotten” humans who lacked full normative human nature. For this reason they could not represent human nature in any leadership position in society. Only the male could represent full or normative huaman nature’ (15). ‘Since only men possessed full normative human nature, it followed that Christ had to be male to possess the fullness of humanness. Only men in turn could represent Christ in the priesthood. Thomas’s patriarchal construction of anthropology, christology and priesthood were coherent. Only on the soteriological level did Thomas diverge from this patriarchal construction. In keeping with ancient Christian tradition he assumes that this inequality of women is overcome by the grace of salvation won by Christ. Thus women are included in salvation, despite their incapacity for full humannes.’ (16). Or, in other words: ‘Women are said to be fully equal to men in the image of God and yet incapable of imaging Christ.’ (17)
Why not and why are women incapable of imagining Christ? The traditional view as espoused by the church fathers displayed a contradiction between its creational anthropology and its christology. It used to be that ‘women were presumed to be unequal and fundamentally inferior in nature, but equal in the order of grace’ (18) But as baptized Christians we understand that this disability was washed away, ‘in Christ this inequality had been annulled. In the language of Gal.3.28, in Christ there is neither male nor female’. And, in fact, we see, that in modern secular societies this formula of non-discrimination is accepted. We can no longer speak of anybody’s inequality in nature. Societal experiences simply do no longer subscribe to such an interpretation. But in order to justify the continued exclusion of women from ministry, modern Catholic teaching now accepts women as ‘equal’ in nature, i.e. secular society, ‘but unequal in grace’ (19). The creational image-of-God interpretation includes women, whereas the image-of-Christ interpretation – as put forward in the discussion on ministry – excludes women. This neat theological switch is still the reason for women’s exclusion from formal ministry in the R.C. church (20).
The teaching that the woman is baptized in the image of God, but not the image of Christ, is rejected by many women. Theology means finding a value, the value of communion of the community. ‘To be in the image of God is to be in community. It is not simply a man or a woman who can reflect God, but it is the community in relationship’ (21). This empowers us to overcome individualism and empowers us to live in right relationships.
In their demands for equality women point to the need for right relationships between people and the need for re-imaged relationships. ‘I dream of a church that enables its community to burst the cage bars of oppression and self-hatred and move with winged hope towards a liberated world, a world not off in some distant future, but lived into existence in the now. It is a Church grounded in the wisdom of collective self-empowerment and communal responsibility, committed to the healing of divisions and the honoring of diversity…’ (22) Such a radical new understanding of relationships along the lines of the social teachings of the church is an imaginative way of expressing worship, of ministering to each other, of being a religious agent and thinking ourselves into the present, valuing our experiences and not devaluing them.
Sources from Early Christianity
Many denominations have accepted a female ministry. They point to Joel 3:1-2 which says ‘I will pour out my Spirit on all of you! Your sons and your daughters will prophesy… and I will pour out my Spirit even on your slaves, men and women alike’. Let us explode the notion that the Bible renders female ministry impossible. And let us explode the notion that celibate male priesthood is superior, let us say that it is, at the very least, inadequate for the pastoral needs of the church, of the women and men making up the community.
Our struggle is a long one and we will persist. The role of women in our church was crucial, from the proclamation at the grave of Jesus to today. Let us remember the sentence: Only that is new which has been forgotten. We must not forget the many women who ministered, they showed us the way, into a ministry of equality.
Patricularly on this last argument, we know from research by Professor Giorgio Otranto (23) and Mary Ann Rossi (24) that there were women who celebrated the Eucharist. The American classical scholar Mary Ann Rossi, University of Wisconsin-Madison, has translated and commented upon the research by Professor Otranto who provided ample grounds for reconsidering the role of women in the priesthood of early Christianity He challenged scholars dealing with the problem to question the omission of such evidence, and to search for the reasons for its omission. Otranto’s clues for the reconstruction of a fragmented historical picture are based on a letter from Pope Gelasius I (492-6) to all the bishops of Southern Italy and Sicily. It was concerned with the organisation of the local churches, in particular the clergy. No 26, towards the end of the list of decrees, stated ‘We have heard to our annoyance that divine affairs have come to such a low state that women are encouraged to officiate at the sacred altars, and to take part in all matters imputed to the offices of the male sex, to which they do not belong’ (25).
Further, Otranto uses pictorial evidence from the fresco in the catacombs of Priscilla in Rome, painted in the second century. We see in the Cappella Greca seven people around a table, one blesses the chalice, one the bread and one the fish, the symbol of Jesus Christ. The baskets either side refer to the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves in the desert, so confirming the faith in the more hidden miracle of the Eucharistic communion. One person wears a veil, a married woman or a widow. The others look like women. The figure on the left is definitely not a man, the presiding male priest, but a woman.
Otranto also refers to the 5th century tomb in Bruttium (Calabria) with the inscription ‘sacred to her memory, Leta the presbyter lived 40 years, 8 months, 9 days, for whom her husband set up this tomb’. Because scholars until recently could not accept the possibility of women priests, this has been explained as Leta being the wife of a Presbyter. Apart from the evidence of women priests in the letter by Pope Gelasius, there is no other parallel of a priest husband not referring to himself as a priest in a tomb prepared for his wife (26).
Archaeological evidence is also presented by the mosaic of ‘Theodora Episcopa’, above the east doorway of the Zeno chapel in the Basilica of St. Praxedis in Rome. The mosaic portrays four female heads, the Virgin Mary standing between St. Pudentiana and St. Praxedis, daughters of a Roman family who endowed the first church on the site. The figure on the left, with a square halo, is identified by the inscription ‘Theodora Episcopa’. From evidence of other inscriptions it is clear that she is shown here as one whose financial help went to repair or extend the church. This inscription of ‘episcopa’ has been explained away as meaning a bishop’s wife. However, married women were always specifially designated as such by the use of words such as ‘coniux of’ or ‘gune of’ or ‘sumbios of’ followed by a man’s name. The suggestion that Theodora is a bishop’s wife is particularly inappropriate as her headdress makes it clear she is not married (27)
We have the affirmation in a fourth century document by St. Athanasius, a Doctor of the church. In De Virginitate, he gives directions to a community of virgins. After saying grace at a midday meal, he says ‘If there are two or three virgins with you, let them give thanks over the bread together with you’ and he added that any catechumens present had to leave at this point, as is still done in Greek liturgies today (28). Southern Italy, the area where women priests are attested, was culturally connected with Greek and Byzantine areas where, from the third century onwards, women exercised the diaconate, and at the end of the fourth century women were equated with male clerics, receiving diaconal ordination by the laying on of hands with a ritual involving juridical conditions and precise obligations.
Atto, Bishop of Vercelli (between the 9th and 10th centuries) gave an explanation for the meaning of presbytera and diaconia in the ancient canon. He referred to women receiving holy orders, quoted Phoebe and added that at the Council of Laodicea presbyteral ordination was prohibited for women in canon 11: ‘it is not allowed for those called prebytidas to be appointed to preside in the church’. Prebytidas means presbytera (29). A letter from Firmilian of Cesarea (Mauretania) to Cyprian around 235 in Asia Minor condemns the acticivity of a woman who was attracting a number of believers and who was baptizing and celebrating the eucharist according to the ritual of the church (30).
At the time when Christian belief and practice evolved under many competing cultural influences, not least that of misogyny, the sexist bias of church leaders moved away from egalitarianism of the early house churches (31). The relative freedom which women seemed to enjoy in the earliest church (hosting the meeting, providing for the meeting, leading, presiding over the eucharist), became, in time, tightened and circumscribed. This process started towards the beginning of the second century but was not total – the young communities were very much on their own wherever they met. Hence the existence of groups where women had prominent roles side by side with groups, house churches, were they had no roles. The dynamic behind this was the shift from the early private sphere of the housechurch movement into a more formalized public space, which sociologically problematized the idea of women’s leadership. The theological justification followed and attempted to legitimate a process based on the workings of social conventions. This bias still affects us today. The prohibition on women priests in documents from early church councils make one thing clear: they would not have been issued had the practice not been widespread.
The example of the Church of England
From the history of the women in the ‘Movement for the Ordination of Women’, the British organisation for ordination into the Anglican church, we know the arguments which have been used against women. The argument of the kairos, that time was not ripe or that Christ only ordained men or that tradition has it that there are only male priests. The time is never ripe, Christ did ordain neither men nor women, traditionally there were men and women in priestly roles.
The Anglican situation was in many ways very important to be witnessed by catholic women. The Anglican women said: the kairos is now, let us no longer entertain any talk of unripe time. Why is the time never ripe for us? We have waited, because we have believed that we will be ordained. We have done everything the male hierarchy required from us, in our training, in our studies. It still was not good enough. The men have increased the conditions from one church synod to the next. The men have spoken about solidarity with the poor, the disenfranchised, the disadvantaged, in other countries, but they have not seen those of us in their midst. They said: what might Rome say? although they never asked the same questions when other developments were decided. They have discredited women with all the problems the church enocuntered, they made the women into scapegoats, into obstacles on the way towards a true ecumenical understanding. And yet, we women achieved ordination despite all obstacles (32).
What the Anglican women achieved was truly remarkable. The theologians had to concede that there were no theological reasons which would stand up scrutiny. The research has been done, the catholic women can draw on it. But the way to achieve ordination will be a different one from the Anglican way.
The Church of England is a democratic church, that is, decisions are reached by majority voting. The decision making bodies, called Synods, meet regularly and prepare legislation and vote on it by a show of hands. The Church of England is a state church, that is, it is not a supra-national church like the R.C. church. Decisions taken in one country are not binding on other countries. Each country’s synod has authority in the decision making progress, in fact, the Episcopalian church, the equivalent of the Church of England in the US, voted for women priests in 1974, the Church of England only in 1992.
The R.C. church is international and does not work along democratic decision making processes. The development therefore will be somewhat different, the women campaigning for ordination need to build networks and platforms from which to engage the whole church in dialogue. This is a learning process, which will happen sooner or later in every country. Today it is no longer a question whether or not feminism and with it the ordination of women as justice agendas can be ignored, it is only a question how long they can be ignored. The academic research is done, there are many women with degrees in theology, ready and willing to build the solidarity networks and structures in society and church to help the Good News to reach people, because society is convinced that ‘Priestly People Come in Both Sexes’ (33).
The Practice of Priestly Ministry Today
But ordination into a woman-hating system is counter-productive if the acceptance to ordain women is only grudgingly given, if male bishops and priests can opt out to work with women, if equality is achieved at the expense of excellence. Catholic women are therefore also working on reworking the understanding of priesthood, the priesthood of all believers. Catholic women work towards a transformation of church structures, based on a transformed understanding of women in the creational plan of God. They want to carry the process of enlightenment into the church and they want to end every form of discrimination.
The practice today is widespread again. Women are ministering, are living a tradition of accepting each other as they are, not according to some convoluted notion of femininity and complementarity of sexes, so beloved by the Vatican, but according to their new understanding of equality as human beings, made in the image of God. Women have been accepted as priests in the Anglican tradition, 1957 women or more than 10 % of clergy in the Church of England are women, without them, many parishes would be without priest. The diocese with the largest number of women is Oxford with 101 followed by Southwark and St. Albans. The Bishopf of Ely, whose diocese has the highest population of women in charge of parishes, writes: ‘I am happy to bear testimony to the warmth of the welcome given by many different types of parishes to the ministry of women priests. It is very encouraging to note that in such a short time, there are so many ordained women serving the Church of God and in relatively significant posts. As anticipated, there is a marked enrichment of the life of the Church of England through these developments at every level’ (34).
They have gone beyond the texts, the prescriptions and assumptions, these women and their female and male co-parishioners have gone to meet and make the community. In this way they and we will bring a one-sided tradition into balance again.
The organisations working towards ordination in the R C church are called in the US ‘Women’s Ordination Conference’ (WOC), their journal is ‘New Women-New Church’, in Germany ‘Maria von Magdala’, in The Netherlands ‘Vrouwens’, in Great Britain ‘Catholic Women’s Ordination’, in Ireland ‘Brothers and Sisters in Christ’ or BASIC, in Australia ‘Ordination of Catholic Women’ and ‘Women of the New Covenant’, in New Zealand ‘Catholic Women Knowing Our Place’, in South Africa ‘Women’s Ordination in South Africa’ or WOSA, in Austria ‘Frauenforum Feministische Theologie’. All these organisations are base groups, networks, with their study days, training days, journals, research facilities, campaign volunteers. They started in the 1970s and ever more countries join in a worldwide umbrella organisation called ‘Women’s Ordination World-Wide’ or WOW, as launched at the First European Women’s Synod in Gmunden, Austria, in 1996. The interest in the topic does not decrease, despite the fact that the papal document on this topic ‘Ordination Sacerdotalis’ of 1994 expressly forbade every further discussion of the topic. The letter by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in response to a ‘Dubium’ makes the prohibitions far more dubious and the agenda more and more urgent and not less and less important.
In April 1997, a conference on ‘Diaconate – An Office for Women in the Church’ brought together hundreds of delegates to discuss this first step. The conference was told that some American bishops had started to prepare documents called indults to have the ban on women lifted. What comes through is the wish to go ahead, the feeling of solidarity among men and women who want to see development of our church. They want to be Christians, mature and responsible. They no longer conceive of a division of values, women being called prostitutes, sirens, maenads, witches on the one end of the pole and on the other angels, mothers, sweet souls, pious widows, virgins. A church obsessed with sex, with its interpretation of purity and sin, has produced a socially -induced sexual dysfunction which the church has always regarded as essential in maintaining its power and authority. Some would go so far as to believe that without its ability to manipulate the immense forces of fear and hate engendered by sexual repression, the church would cease to exist. It certainly has to leave behind the sexual teachings with its wrong theology based on a wrong understanding of human physiology.
R.C. women stand for ordination, not subordination. We want ordination into a caring community, not a caste system full of rules and regulations because you only need laws when you are disconnected from yourself. When I talk to women priests in the Anglican church, they say: ‘suddenly it does not feel like enemy territory any more’ (35) (Kath Burns, who, though English, went to the US to be ordained as she did not want to wait for ordination in the UK), ‘I myself am surprised how much it mattered to me that women can now be ordained’ (Hannah Ward), ‘not the winning shaped me, but the twenty year long struggle, which made me go back to the sources, made me query things, made me fearless’ (Anthea), ‘the people of Israel were shaped in the desert, in the experience of strive’ (Kath Burns), ‘we were outsiders and they were in, now we are in and they are outside and whingeing’ (Monica Furlong on the priests who do not wish to work alongside women). Their experiences of suffering have made them into victims, but their experiences of hope have moved them on to become survivors.
And these visions and hopes can be loosely grouped into three areas:
- a, women and men want the social teaching of the church, the ‘Love your neighbour’ command radically enacted, radically, going to the roots, taken up and lived. We see it in the Base communities in Latin America and in experimental worship groups in Great Britain and in many other countries.
- b, women and men use imaginative methods to change their way of participation, their status as religious agents, their understanding of doing theology and being church. It might be language, which is inclusive, it might be action, which is inclusive in the life of the community, it might be a lifestyle.
- c, women and men want to put a history and tradition of misogyny behind them. When the bishops quote the tradition of the R.C. church of not having women priests, they only refer to a tradition of exclusion and woman-hatred, of hurt being done to women, which is a-Christian to the core and the sooner we put it behind us the better. For, if we look closely at ‘tradition’, we know that a number of shifts have occurred. We have to ask the bishops what they mean by ‘tradition’.
The following topics were once condemned by the church, but are no longer condemned:
- freedom of conscience,
- demanding interest on loans,
- bible study,
- mass in the vernacular language,
- worshipping with non-Catholics,
- the crucifix as blasphemous.
And topics which were once accepted by the church but are no longer so:
- all sexual desire is sinful,
- torture and burning of heretics,
- perseceution of Jews,
- married priests,
- women priests,
- the sun revolving round the earth.
Christianity has a vision of making living together possible, the loving pursuit of making right relationships, interacting on a personal and societal level beyond classism, racism and sexism. This is the agenda for the present. We believe as women we can help the church structure to develop and we believe that we as women priests can enhance the lives of our communities in a new understanding of priesthood.
Cardinal Basil Hume of Westminster, London, in responding to the document ‘We Are Church’, specifically stressed that the central substance of faith is deposited in the Creed and in church documents (36). The agenda of the ordination of women to the priesthood, however, has not been prohibited either in the Creed nor in church documents. I take hope from this.
3. Rosemary Radford Ruether ‘Created Second, Sinned First. Women, Redemption, and the Challenge of Christian Feminist Theology’, Conscience, Vol. XVIII, no.1, Spring 1997, Washington DC, p.4).
4. R.R.Ruether, op. cit., p.3.
5. Author’s translation.
6. Paula Kowalke ‘What Can you Expect to Learn in Study/Action’, Women’s Theological Center, Newsletter, Dec. 1989, vol 7, no 4, Boston, p.2.
7. Pamela Dickie Young Feminist Theology/Christian Theology, In Search of Method. Minneapolis: MN Fortress Press, 1990, p. 67.
8. Dorothea McEwan ‘Ich liebe nicht die Autorit@t, ich liebe mit Autorit@t. Die Voll-Macht der feministischen Theologie’, in Frauen und Macht. Dokumentation der 1. Deutschen Frauensynode. Frankfurt am Main: Spener Verlagsbuchhandlung GmbH, 1994, p. 41-48.
9. Mary Hunt ‘Spiral not Schism: Women-Church as Church’, in: Religion and Intellectual Life, Fall 1989, vol VII, no.1, p. 85.
10. Ernst Gombrich The Visual Arts in Vienna Circa 1900 and Reflections on the Jewish Catastrophe, London: The Austrian Cultural Institute, Occasions 1, 1997, p.32, quoting Ferdinand Gregorovius Das Ghetto und die Juden in Rom, 1853, reprinted in Wanderjahre in Italien, Fritz Schulman(ed.), Dresden, 1923, p.286-7.
11. Mercy Oduyoye Reflections from a Third World Woman’s Perspective, quoted in Chun Hyung Kyung Struggle to Be the Sun Again, Introducing Asian Women’s Theology, London: SCM Press, 1991, p. 25.
12. Ivan Illich Gender, London: Boyars, 1983, p. 34.
13. 15 August 1988.
14. 15 October 1976.
15. R.R.Ruether, ‘Women’s Difference and Equal Rights in the Church’ in Anne Carr and Elisabeth Schssler Fiorenza (eds.) The Special Nature of Women?, London: SCM Press, Concilium 1991/6, p.15; cf. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologca, I, 92.
16. R.R.Ruether, op.cit., p. 15.
17. R.R. Ruether, op.cit., p. 13.
18. R.R.Ruether, op.cit., p. 14.
19. R.R.Ruether, op.cit., p. 14.
20. cf. D. McEwan, Review of Anne Carr and Elisabeth Schssler Fiorenza (eds.) The Special Nature of Women?, Concilium 1991/6, in Feminist Theology, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, no 2, January 1993, p. 127-132.
21. Elizabeth Dominguez ‘A Continuing Challenge’ in Virginia Fabella: Mission of Women in the Church in Asia: Role and Position, In God’s Image, Dec. 1985/ Feb. 1986, p. 7.
22. Kari Sandhaas: ‘Of Wings and Webs. Envisioning a Liberated Church and Inclusive Ministry’, in: Daughters of Sarah, Spring 1993, Chicago: Women in Ministry, vol. 19, no.2, p. 32.
23. ‘Note sul sacerdozio femminile’, in Vetera Christianorum, 19, 341-60.
24. ‘Priesthood, Precedent and Prejudice’, Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 7.1:73-94 and ‘Presbytera’ in L. Isherwood and D. McEwan (eds.) An A to Z in Feminist Theology, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996, 186-187. Cf. also the ‘Everyman’ Programme, BBC The Hidden Tradition, 8 Nov.1992, London.
25. A. Thiel, Epistulae Romanorum Pontificum Genuinae, New York, 1974.
26. E Diehl, Inscriptiones Latinae Christianae Veteres, 11-92, Dublin/Zurich, 1970.
27. cf. Dorothy Irvin, ‘The Ministry of Women in the Early Church: The Archeological Evidence’, in Duke Divinity School Review, Spring 1980.
28. Patrologia Graeca, 28, col. 267.
29. Patrologia Latina, 134.114.
30. Ep. 75.10, Corpus Cipreaneo, Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum.
31. cf. Elisabeth Schssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her, London:SCM Press, 1983.
32. cf. Monica Furlong A Dangerous Delight. Women and Power in the Church, London: SPCK, 1991.
33. A message printed on T-shirts, umbrellas, shawls etc. worn at campaign meetings, demonstrations, liturgical celebrations etc. by Church of England and R.C. women.
34. Communication by Caroline W. Landrum to the Feminist Theology List on the Internet, 10 May 1997.
35. Opinions expressed to the author after ordination, in London, 1994.
36. Cardinal Basil Hume, ‘Observations on the Declaration “We Are Church”‘, 28 November 1996, London, letter to ten radical R.C. organisations in the UK.
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