I have a very strong opinion on the ordination of women… which is that I am strongly uncertain about it all.
One day, I’m for it, the next, I’m against. I was both disappointed and relieved (in about equal measure) when the Church of England voted against women bishops. As a Catholic, that puts me in a bit of a pickle because the Catholic Church is adamantly against the ordination of women to the priesthood.
And that bugs me. (Rather like something that is clearly bugging this bishop…)
So lately I’ve been reading a lot about this, trying to see what I’m missing. And I think I’ve finally figured it out: I’m missing the beauty of this truth.
I accept that the Apostles were all men and that Christ acted “in a completely free and sovereign manner” (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis) in choosing only men. I accept that the universal Tradition of the Church, both Catholic, Orthodox and until very recently, Protestant, only ordained men. I accept that the priest images Christ to the Church and acts as a spiritual father and shepherd to his flock.
I accept all of this but I don’t love it. I don’t love it like I love the mysteries of the Trinity or marriage or redemption. Those truths I want to roll around in, wallowing in it and sinking deeper and deeper. I want to be caught up in the beauty of that dance and marvel at the elegance and clarity and profundity of it all. I want to see it and taste it and hear it and touch it.
This one, I’d happily do without.
And I think the reason I don’t love it is because it feels so unbalanced. Men and women are equal, but we are not the same. There is a balance, a complementarity, between men and women. We need each other and we need each other precisely as the other. That is a beautiful truth.
In maintaining that only men can be priests, we are saying that there is a specific way that only a man as a man can image God. That, in itself, isn’t an issue for me. Both men and women are created in the image of God and obviously, men show forth God’s image in ways women don’t – and vice versa. Again, beautiful.
But what is bothering me is the lack of symmetry here, the very lack of complementarity.
What is the female equivalent to the priesthood? I don’t mean an equivalent in the sense of doing the same thing, or even something similar, but what is the thing that only women as women can be in a way that complements this priesthood?
Surely if we believe that men and women are equally created in the image of God, equally redeemed and being renewed in the image of Christ and equally endowed with the Holy Spirit, there will be some equality in this, even if it is expressed differently?
The first answer that comes to mind in motherhood. Only women can be mothers. In fact, this is probably the most commonly used counter-point to the all-male priesthood. “Just like men can’t be biological mothers, women can’t be spiritual fathers.”
Mothers and fathers are not interchangeable. Women are not men and, therefore, cannot be priests any more than they can be fathers in the physical sense. If women can step into the role of priest, then it is no longer one of fatherhood. (Jennifer Ferrara)
But that seems an inexact parallel to me.
Firstly, biological motherhood already has a natural male counter-point: biological fatherhood. No one is suggesting – at least I’m not! – that mothers and fathers are interchangeable. But both are necessary and fit together; they complement each other.
But secondly, I would agree that men can be – and are – regarded as “spiritual mothers”. Yesterday, I read St Augustine’s reflection on Christ’s words that, “Whoever hears and fulfils the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and my sister and my mother.” He says that, hard as it is to believe, we can all – male or female – become “spiritual mothers” or “mothers of Christ” in giving birth to Christians who are members of Christ.
“Now you in your turn must draw to the font of baptism as many as you possibly can. You became sons when you were born there yourselves, and now by bringing others to birth in the same way, you have it in your power to become the mothers of Christ. (St Augustine, from the Office of Readings)
But if the male body isn’t an impediment to “spiritual motherhood”, why is the female body an impediment to “spiritual fatherhood”?
Christian Tradition readily accepts that men can, in a way, be feminine. They are after all, members of the Body and Bride of Christ. The Church is feminine to Christ and every human soul is, in a sense, feminine to our Head and Husband, Christ. As Lewis said, “[W]e are all, corporately and individually, feminine to Him.” (Priestesses in the Church)
“But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” (1 Co 11:3)
The result is that we in the bizarre situation that we have men alone representing the Bridegroom while both men and women represent the Bride.
Why is that?
So why is it that the female cannot transcend her femaleness and be, at least in some symbolic sense, male when the male can transcend his maleness and be, at least in some symbolic sense, female?
Why do we find one abhorrent and the other acceptable?
And where exactly can I find the female complement to the male priesthood? Or isn’t there one? And if so, why not?
Maybe I’m asking the wrong questions, maybe I’m misunderstanding the nature of the priesthood as a sacrament, maybe I’m just being plain stubborn. But it is my faith that is asking and it is my faith that is not content until I can see the beauty in this truth.
What am I missing here?
“Therefore do not seek to understand in order to believe, but believe that thou mayest understand; since, except ye believe, ye shall not understand.” (St. Augustine)