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Women and the Priesthood: Viewing Tradition and Scripture in Light of the Eschaton

“Tradition is not static but dynamic, not stifling but liberating. Orthodoxy is a tool, not an end…I sometimes feel that a traditionalist means one who is effectively ignorant of the tradition in its richness and complexity but who clings, neurotically and fiercely, to the conventions of several decades past.”1

“Conventionality and orthodoxy are completely different matters, and that many who boast the name of Catholic would be surprised and shocked at what the tradition actually involves.”2                                           

“Gender-based spirituality is almost entirely without grounding in the Tradition.”3

Tradition

What else is Christian Tradition if it is not the keeping and cultivation of the eschaton’s first fruits? What else is tradition if not the perpetuation of life transfigured by (and in) the Holy Spirit? Christian tradition is more than the remembrance and reception of the past: it is the living out of the culmination of all things as the Kingdom of God sprouts forth. Tradition is not the history of Christendom as much as it is the recapitulation of the cosmic renewal in Christ. While tradition comes to us by way of history, it is not delimited by it: the keeping of tradition in the present is not a mere appropriation of the past, but also a reception of, and participation in, the future. In it, one is incorporated into the very Body of the Christ who is the culmination of all creation, and of all the ages (“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.”).

Yet, tradition is rarely spoken of in such ways. There seems to be confusion over what Christian tradition actually is, and how it is to be properly appropriated, and recent arguments surrounding the issue of women’s ordination substantiate this point.  Many arguments against the ordination of women to the priesthood often run along the lines of, “It has never been done before; therefore it shouldn’t be done.” The crux of the argument is that women cannot be ordained today because they weren’t ordained yesterday. While it is certainly true that the opening of Holy Orders to women is quite rare in history, is this particular argument a position from the vantage point of tradition or, rather, from the standpoint of history? It seems to risk conflating the two. 

Tradition is not exclusively retrospective. It is, indeed, retrospective, but for the sake of looking forward and anticipating the reality of Christ as Omega. As such, tradition is not simply a safeguarding of what has been, but also the flowering of what will be. History looks backwards, but tradition encapsulates the whole panorama of God’s interaction with human life. This is exemplified in the Eucharistic liturgy; the pinnacle of the people’s work before the throne of God. Where the Eucharistic liturgy’s relationship with tradition was concerned, Hippolytus connected the two. He characterized the Apostolic Tradition as “nothing other than the description of how the liturgy is performed.”4

Given its apostolic derivation, is the Eucharistic liturgy a mere remembrance of what was? Is it not also the living out of the telos of history? Is it merely a memorial of Christ crucified, or is it also a signpost pointing us towards his second coming in glory? “The ‘remembrance’ of which the Lord speaks is most likely to refer to the remembrance of Christ before the throne of God in the Kingdom which is to come. In other words, the eucharistic remembrance is in fact a remembrance, a foreshadowing, a foretaste and a ‘fore-gift’ of Christ’s future Kingdom.”5 Certainly, as Kenneth Leech has said, “To be a Christian at all is to be grafted into a living tradition, the Body of Christ, and that tradition is historically rooted.”6 Yet no one would argue that this historically rooted tradition does not have branches that extend into the eschatological reality of the second Advent. Tradition is the path that leads us through history to that eternal city, the New Jerusalem. Leech himself says that, “orthodoxy is about movement,” and we find ourselves moving towards the Kingdom come. As Metropolitan Zizioulas has argued, the Eucharistic celebration is not simply a recollection of the past but a “remembering of the future.”7 Thus, the Eucharist orients us towards, and helps us to already participate in, the recapitulation of history in the immanent return of Christ. As E.L. Mascall has written, “In the Eucharist there is a real presence of the Last Day. But if the future is present in the Eucharist, so is the past as well; the whole mystery of man’s creation, fall, redemption and restoration is, as it were, focused into one moment of time.”8

As we await the return of Christ, we can expect gradual modifications to the tradition as the Church reacts to its situation in the world, re-calibrating itself towards the New Creation. Thus, tradition is not about seeking to fossilize the ways of the past, but it is about being sanctified in accordance with the future. It is a tradition that deliberately allows itself to be reformed by the telos of the coming Kingdom of Christ. Father Bruno Barnhart spells this concept out well in the work that has been labeled as New Sapiential Theology. His reflections in terms of the vocation of the human person are relevant for our understanding of tradition as well.

“I often say that the human person’s vocation in this world is to introduce newness into the world, or you might say to bring the world towards its conclusion; bring the world towards its end, bring the world towards its Omega in Christ. So that means the possibility actually of something new happening, something new being generated through the human person. And, as I mentioned, we are invited by a new Sapiential theology to identify ourselves not so much with the beginning as with the end.”

Granted, even with a futuristic hope, the human vocation and tradition will not change quickly or easily, nor should they. But we certainly should not understand the human vocation, and the keeping of tradition, as things which limit Christ’s transformative work to the parameters of the past. If we conflate tradition with history, we’re not only saying, “This is what Christ has done in earlier times,” but also effectually saying, “…and this is all that Christ will ever do.” The collapse of tradition into history risks limiting Christ to his past works, making him subservient to what he has already done. Such is a theology of the first Advent, lacking an understanding of the implications of the second. It understands Christ as Alpha, but not as Omega. It treats Christ as someone who merely was, not as someone who will come again. On the other hand, a Eucharistically informed tradition assumes that Christ will continually heal, transform, and surprise us and the world we find ourselves in, as he draws all things ever more fully into his sanctifying grace. Such newness is not the discarding of tradition, but the deepening of it.

Scripture

Since this is the case, perhaps our reaction to women’s ordination and women’s empowerment should be more celebratory than condemnatory. Scripturally speaking, from this author’s perspective, we have no hint of the relegation of women until we read about the fall and its subsequent series of curses in the book of Genesis. Coupled with severe pains in childbirth came the curse of male dominance. “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” Before this point, Adam and Eve were both given a commission to “rule over the earth” and “subdue” it. Prior to the fall, it was not stipulated that certain human beings would rule over other human beings. Genesis 1 and 2 do not give us permission to believe that one sex was meant to rule over the other. Perhaps we can assume that the male is meant to be the authority figure, but this would be nothing more than an assumption. I find it an odd position to hold, however, that Eve would be cursed with subordination to the “rule” of her husband if her husband already held the place of authority in the relationship.

Instead, what we see is that the female was created before the commission to rule over the earth was given, meaning that both the male and female were given the charge. Both sexes were designed to exercise a priestly rule together over the creation and its nonhuman inhabitants. However, because of sin and its consequent curse, Eve and all women after her were subordinated to the rule of men.

Granted, I am assuming a particular interpretation of Scripture, whereby (generally speaking) the differentiation of gender roles is a product of the fall, rather than being something intrinsic to the created order itself. However, even if it could be argued that the rule of men is proper to the created order of things, it would make little difference in terms of the debate about women’s ordination. The headship of men (whether derived in the order of creation or the fall) and the ordination of women are not mutually exclusive, especially if men see it as fitting to exercise their headship after the examples of Christ and God the Father. Saint Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 11:3 that “the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.” 

Does God the Father exercise his headship in a way that excludes his Son from his authority? Is Christ excluded from the Father’s ministry simply because the Father is the “head?” Or, does the Father show the Son all that he does? Doesn’t Christ also say in the Great Commission that “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me”? Who gave it to him if not the Father?

Furthermore, does Christ exercise his headship in such a way that it excludes his Body, the Church, from the authority that has been given to him? Isn’t our ministry Christ’s ministry? Doesn’t he empower the Church through the Holy Spirit to such a degree where they are said to reign with him? If Christ has not shared his authority with his Church, why would Saint Paul tell the Corinthians that “all things are yours?” As the author of The Cloud of Unknowing has said, if you love Jesus, “everything that he has is yours.”9

Regardless of whether or not we see a hierarchy of the sexes and gender roles as being bound up with the order of creation or with the curse that accompanies the fall, it really makes no difference. The Father and the Son show us that headship is only properly exercised if the authority it holds is shared. The Father didn’t exclude the Son from leadership in his ministry, and the Son did not exclude the Church from leadership in his received ministry either. How can we conclude, then, that men are not called to do likewise in their relationship with women? Where do we see the Father suppressing, rather than empowering the Son? Where do we see Jesus suppressing, rather than empowering the Church? The truth is that there is a phenomenal amount of sharing that takes place in the actions of the Trinity that aren’t imitated in the actions of many men. 

Many today are concerned that, if we allow women to be ordained, the line between what it means to be male and female will be blurred. Two important questions need to be raised in response to this understandable concern. First, was the distinction between the Father and the Son blurred whenever the Father shared his authority and ministry with the Son? Secondly, is the distinction between Christ and his Church blurred in the sharing of his ministry? The Trinity and the Incarnation teach us that the sharing of ministry doesn’t lead to ontological conflation. The Father is still the Father, and the Son is still the Son; the male will still be male, and the female will still be female.

Even if we were to view gender roles as being ingrained in the created order, if we were to follow the example of the Trinity in our understanding of headship, it would mean that the male was meant to share the authority given to him with the female. This would be a part of his eschatological purpose. If we don’t see gender roles as ingrained in the created order, but see them as a product of the fall, then part of the recovery of the image of God, for the male, is to reverse the effects of the fall by empowering the female. Both exegetical perspectives lead to the same eschatological conclusion. 

Furthermore, if one couples this Christological and Trinitarian theology of headship together with the reflections on tradition above, one can see the writings of Saint Paul in a bit of a different light. Quite simply, Paul’s prohibitions against women throughout his letters won’t be seen as permanent aspects of the created order, but as transitory restrictions that are meant to be gradually loosened in light of the coming Kingdom. As N.T. Wright has pointed out, Saint Paul’s injunctions to women are pedagogical in nature. Those who have been granted newfound freedom in Christ don’t need to go straight away into teaching and holding offices of authority, especially whenever certain freedoms were withheld for so long (such as exposure to the Scriptures and religious vocational equality).  “Paul is saying…that women must have the space and leisure to study and learn in their own way, not in order that they may muscle in and take over the leadership as in the Artemis-cult, but so that men and women alike can develop whatever gifts of learning, teaching and leadership God is giving them.”10

In other words, there is a “now but not yet” approach to the liberation of women in Paul’s theology. The seeds that have been sown will take time to flourish. Perhaps the ethos of his injunctions are best typified in an attitude expressed by Elisabeth Behr-Sigel.

“Even while she described herself as ‘patiently impatient,’ she did not assume that the gospel would have fully transformed society within a century of Christ’s resurrection, setting the parameters of possibility forever after. Again and again she used the metaphor of the gospel ‘leaven,’ slowly raising and enlightening ancient pagan societies. In her judgement, it has taken 20 centuries for the gospel’s leaven to permeate relationships between men and women. The secular women’s movement is the long-time-in-process outcome of Gal. 3:28…the gospel works in and through history. It takes time.”11

Conclusion

Is women’s ordination a sign that the church has capitulated to secular agendas? This seems to be the default question by too many today. I am not sure why this is. Couldn’t the empowerment of women also mean that the Kingdom is much closer to us than we are ready to realize? Could it not mean that Christ is still transforming the world before our very eyes, but we have yet to acquire the eyes to see? Perhaps, by God’s grace, it means that the effects of the fall are weakening more rapidly than our ability to theologically substantiate such a grace. God once astonished the Apostles by drawing the Gentiles into the fellowship of the Holy Spirit (Acts 11:15-18); perhaps God is shocking us today with how far his equalizing grace extends in his plan for Holy Orders. If one’s orthodoxy is eschatological, and if one’s tradition is properly oriented toward that end, and if one’s theology of headship is Trinitarian, what else would we expect? 


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TJ Humphrey

TJ Humphrey

TJ is a student at Nashotah House Theological Seminary and aspiring to be ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church. He is an avid reader, especially in works that deal with relational ontology, liturgical theology, and the ecclesial life of the Church. For fun, TJ loves to spend time with his family, travel, go backpacking in the mountains, watch a good hockey game, sip on a good bourbon, and geek out with a good theology book.

  • Sounds like your argument could work for the inclusion of gay priests and priestesses, too (I by no means endorse this, btw, just pointing it out). It reflects, actually, an article I recently read that is arguing for the full inclusion of same-sex couples in the Church. I don’t have a bunch of time to explain but you can look into it if you like. Basically all I’m saying is: be careful how you wield the Mind God has given you.

    • TJ Humphrey

      Hi Ben,

      It is difficult to respond to this since I haven’t read the article that you are referring to. I am not sure your point is fair, though. The way the Bible, and the historic traditions of Christianity, address women is different from how they address homosexuals. I have heard the “slippery slope” argument before, but it only works if you conflate the two people groups together (which I don’t see the Scriptures or the historic traditions ever doing). I am not sure how my article can be stretched in such a way to accommodate the very thing you are concerned about. Large portions of my argument would have to be dismissed to come to such a conclusion. I appreciate the encouragement, but am confused by the concern.

      • Hi TJ–
        It’s seems (to me at least) that this connection is latent in your reading of Nyssa’s _On The Making of Man_, ch. 17 (though this isn’t mentioned) coupled with your understanding of its ramification in the Eschaton (neither male nor female in Christ), and this reading of Zizioulas and Tradition (which is a finer point, since you’re right that Tradition isn’t fossilized history). But, essentially, these arguments seem to culminate in a a treatise that (seems) to deny any typology of Christ / Bride.

        “This would be a part of his eschatological purpose. If we don’t see gender roles as ingrained in the created order, but see them as a product of the fall, then part of the recovery of the image of God, for the male, is to reverse the effects of the fall by empowering the female”

        The question isn’t one of authority, necessarily, as it seems you make it.

        • TJ Humphrey

          Hi Ben,

          Sorry, I have never read Gregory of Nyssa. So, that chapter of his book wasnt used to frame my argument because I am unfamiliar with it.

          The only way my argument would deny the Christ/Bride typology is if we distinguished Christ from his Church solely by their differeing roles. The same is true of male and female. I am not saying Christ is not Christ, or that the Church is not the Church, or that males are not male, or the females are not female. In my mind, the sharing of roles does not threaten the otherness of what it means to be male and female. This is evidenced, again, by the fact that Christ shares his ministry with the Church.

          Perhaps I have been unclear. If I have been, I am sorry.

  • TJ Humphrey

    Thanks for reading, and for your thoughts! I anticipated that someone would raise this objection. I thought about addressing the doctrine of “in persona Christi” in the piece, but thought that article itself would imply my stance on this, and aslo imply an alternative way of approaching the doctrine. I am like you, but only in the reverse direction. I have never been convinced of doctrine in such a way that it necessitates an exlcusion of women. I’ve spent too much time reading Elisabeth Behr-Sigel and Sarah Coakley, I guess. I have found their approaches to be the most convincing.

    • TJ Humphrey

      Sorry, I got interrupted and couldnt complete my thought. My wife made waffles, so…priorities. The gist of the arguments that they present are that it is Christ as the true anthropos, not Christ as male (even though his male-ness is in no way excluded), that makes his priestly role in the Eucharist significant. Coakley also focuses on how the priest embodies both the masculine and feminine (representing both Christ and his bride) during different parts of the liturgy. This argument may make more sense in an Anglican context, though. I am not as familiar with the Roman Catholic liturgy.

  • I’d also like to note that CP conducted a Round Table Discussion on this issue: https://conciliarpost.com/theology-spirituality/round-table-women-in-the-church/

  • Thanks for this thought-provoking article, TJ! On the subject of ontological equality between men and women, it is my understanding that Catholic Tradition supports this thoroughly. For example, Saint Augustine: “Whoever is instructed in Catholic doctrine knows that it is only in the body that some are male and some are female, not in the spirit (in which we are all renewed in the image of God) … For as the woman is of the man, so is the man by the woman. But all things are of God. [1 Cor. 11:11–12]” (Against Faustus, 24.2). Although in this tradition there are examples of theologians adopting the anthropology of Aristotle—wherein the male is the active principle of reproduction (seed), while the female is only passive (earth)—Saint Bonaventure sees clearly that this is not correct: “In the primordial state, the male body was such that it would produce seed for the procreation of offspring, with the help of the female sex as an equal co-producer.” (Breviloquium 2.2.10). All of this is to say that, while tradition is complex (here is an excellent article on Augustine’s total views on women: https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B2N1A0LsscjdVGFrN1ZSY3VnUjQ ), I do not quite share the same concern that you do concerning the dangers of being too “backward-looking.”

    Let me also share the primary objection, in my view, to women’s ordination: the historical fact that Christ instituted this sacrament (at the last supper), and that priests who participate in the sacrifice today stand in the person of Christ (who was a man). This is the “in persona Christi” doctrine. I am certainly not against women holding leadership positions in the church. For instance, I think there’s a real chance that we in the West will finally (re)receive deaconesses. But I haven’t found a convincing argument that women should share the specific role of distributing the Eucharist.