As I read the news last night, I discovered that the Protestant Church of England had voted earlier in the week to ordain women as bishops. It does not surprise me. Indeed, one wonders why they waited so long; American Anglicans installed their first gynobishop in A.D. 1989 in Massachusetts. The Anglicans have been ordaining priestesses for generations (and since A.D. 1994 for the Church of England), and I never understood why episcopettes would cause controversy for a sect that ordained priestesses. When you disregard reason and revelation the way that modernist Protestants have, everything is permitted. Why not?
I offer two timely passages on placing women in the Church’s holy orders—one by Anglican C.S. Lewis and the other by Orthodox priest Alexander Schmemann. Here is Lewis’ “Priestesses in the Church?”:
“I should like Balls infinitely better,” said Caroline Bingley, “if they were carried on in a different manner ... It would surely be much more rational if conversation instead of dancing made the order of the day.”
“Much more rational, I dare say,” replied her brother, “but it would not be near so much like a Ball.” We are told that the lady was silenced: yet it could be maintained that Jane Austen has not allowed Bingley to put forward the full strength of his position. He ought to have replied with a distinguo. In one sense, conversation is more rational for conversation may exercise the reason alone, dancing does not. But there is nothing irrational in exercising other powers than our reason. On certain occasions and for certain purposes, the real irrationality is with those who will not do so. The man who would try to break a horse or write a poem or beget a child by pure syllogizing would be an irrational man; though at the same time syllogizing is in itself a more rational activity than the activities demanded by these achievements. It is rational not to reason, or not to limit oneself to reason, in the wrong place; and the more rational a man is, the better he knows this.
These remarks are not intended as a contribution to the criticism of Pride and Prejudice. They came into my head when I heard that the Church of England was being advised to declare women capable of Priests’ Orders. I am, indeed, informed that such a proposal is very unlikely to be seriously considered by the authorities. To take such a revolutionary step at the present moment, to cut ourselves off from the Christian past and to widen the divisions between ourselves and other Churches by establishing an order of priestesses in our midst, would be an almost wanton degree of imprudence. And the Church of England herself would be torn in shreds by the operation. My concern with the proposal is of a more theoretical kind. The question involves something even deeper than a revolution in order.
I have every respect for those who wish women to be priestesses. I think they are sincere and pious and sensible people. Indeed, in a way they are too sensible. That is where my dissent from them resembles Bingley’s dissent from his sister. I am tempted to say that the proposed arrangement would make us much more rational “but not near so much like a Church”.
For at first sight all the rationality (in Caroline Bingley’s sense) is on the side of the innovators. We are short of priests. We have discovered in one profession after another that women can do very well all sorts of things which were once supposed to be in the power of men alone. No one among those who dislike the proposal is maintaining that women are less capable than men of piety, zeal, learning and whatever else seems necessary for the pastoral office. What, then, except prejudice begotten by tradition, forbids us to draw on the huge reserves which could pour into the priesthood if women were here, as in so many other professions, put on the same footing as men? And against this flood of common sense, the opposers (many of them women) can produce at first nothing but an inarticulate distaste, a sense of discomfort which they themselves find it hard to analyse.
That this reaction does not spring from any contempt for women is, I think, plain from history. The Middle Ages carried their reverence for one Woman to a point at which the charge could be plausibly made that the Blessed Virgin became in their eyes almost “a fourth Person of the Trinity”. But never, so far as I know, in all those ages was anything remotely resembling a sacerdotal office attributed to her. All salvation depends on the decision which she made in the words Ecce ancilla; she is united in nine months’ inconceivable intimacy with the eternal Word; she stands at the foot of the cross. But she is absent both from the Last Supper and from the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost. Such is the record of Scripture. Nor can you daff it aside by saying that local and temporary conditions condemned women to silence and private life. There were female preachers. One man had four daughters who all “prophesied”, i.e. preached. There were prophetesses even in Old Testament times. Prophetesses, not priestesses.
At this point the common sensible reformer is apt to ask why, if women can preach, they cannot do all the rest of a priest’s work. This question deepens the discomfort of my side. We begin to feel that what really divides us from our opponents is a difference between the meaning which they and we give to the word “priest”. The more they speak (and speak truly) about the competence of women in administration, their tact and sympathy as advisers, their national talent for “visiting”, the more we feel that the central thing is being forgotten. To us a priest is primarily a representative, a double representative, who represents us to God and God to us. Our very eyes teach us this in church. Sometimes the priest turns his back on us and faces the East - he speaks to God for us: sometimes he faces us and speaks to us for God. We have no objection to a woman doing the first: the whole difficulty is about the second. But why? Why should a woman not in this sense represent God? Certainly not because she is necessarily, or even probably, less holy or less charitable or stupider than a man. In that sense she may be as “God-like” as a man; and a given women much more so than a given man. The sense in which she cannot represent God will perhaps be plainer if we look at the thing the other way round.
Suppose the reformer stops saying that a good woman may be like God and begins saying that God is like a good woman. Suppose he says that we might just as well pray to “Our Mother which art in heaven” as to “Our Father”. Suppose he suggests that the Incarnation might just as well have taken a female as a male form, and the Second Person of the Trinity be as well called the Daughter as the Son. Suppose, finally, that the mystical marriage were reversed, that the Church were the Bridegroom and Christ the Bride. All this, as it seems to me, is involved in the claim that a woman can represent God as a priest does.
Now it is surely the case that if all these supposals were ever carried into effect we should be embarked on a different religion. Goddesses have, of course, been worshipped: many religions have had priestesses. But they are religions quite different in character from Christianity. Common sense, disregarding the discomfort, or even the horror, which the idea of turning all our theological language into the feminine gender arouses in most Christians, will ask “Why not? Since God is in fact not a biological being and has no sex, what can it matter whether we say He or She, Father or Mother, Son or Daughter?”
But Christians think that God Himself has taught us how to speak of Him. To say that it does not matter is to say either that all the masculine imagery is not inspired, is merely human in origin, or else that, though inspired, it is quite arbitrary and unessential. And this is surely intolerable: or, if tolerable, it is an argument not in favour of Christian priestesses but against Christianity. It is also surely based on a shallow view of imagery. Without drawing upon religion, we know from our poetical experience that image and apprehension cleave closer together than common sense is here prepared to admit; that a child who has been taught to pray to a Mother in Heaven would have a religious life radically different from that of a Christian child. And as image and apprehension are in an organic unity, so, for a Christian, are human body and human soul.
The innovators are really implying that sex is something superficial, irrelevant to the spiritual life. To say that men and women are equally eligible for a certain profession is to say that for the purposes of that profession their sex is irrelevant. We are, within that context, treating both as neuters.
As the State grows more like a hive or an ant-hill it needs an increasing number of workers who can be treated as neuters. This may be inevitable for our secular life. But in our Christian life we must return to reality. There we are not homogeneous units, but different and complementary organs of a mystical body. Lady Nunburnholme has claimed that the equality of men and women is a Christian principle. I do not remember the text in scripture nor the Fathers, nor Hooker, nor the Prayer Book which asserts it; but that is not here my point. The point is that unless “equal” means “interchangeable”, equality makes nothing for the priesthood of women. And the kind of equality which implies that the equals are interchangeable (like counters or identical machines) is, among humans, a legal fiction. It may be a useful legal fiction. But in church we turn our back on fictions. One of the ends for which sex was created was to symbolize to us the hidden things of God. One of the functions of human marriage is to express the nature of the union between Christ and the Church. We have no authority to take the living and semitive figures which God has painted on the canvas of our nature and shift them about as if they were mere geometrical figures.
This is what common sense will call “mystical”. Exactly. The Church claims to be the bearer of a revelation. If that claim is false then we want not to make priestesses but to abolish priests. If it is true, then we should expect to find in the Church an element which unbelievers will call irrational and which believers will call supra-rational. There ought to be something in it opaque to our reason though not contrary to it - as the facts of sex and sense on the natural level are opaque. And that is the real issue. The Church of England can remain a church only if she retains this opaque element. If we abandon that, if we retain only what can be justified by standards of prudence and convenience at the bar of enlightened common sense, then we exchange revelation for that old wraith Natural Religion.
It is painful, being a man, to have to assert the privilege, or the burden, which Christianity lays upon my own sex. I am crushingly aware how inadequate most of us are, in our actual and historical individualities, to fill the place prepared for us. But it is an old saying in the army that you salute the uniform not the wearer. Only one wearing the masculine uniform can (provisionally, and till the Parousia) represent the Lord to the Church: for we are all, corporately and individually, feminine to Him. We men may often make very bad priests. That is because we are insufficiently masculine. It is no cure to call in those who are not masculine at all. A given man may make a very bad husband; you cannot mend matters by trying to reverse the roles. He may make a bad male partner in a dance. The cure for that is that men should more diligently attend dancing classes; not that the ballroom should henceforward ignore distinctions of sex and treat all dancers as neuter. That would, of course, be eminently sensible, civilized, and enlightened, but, once more, “not near so much like a Ball”.
And this parallel between the Church and the Ball is not so fanciful as some would think. The Church ought to be more like a Ball than it is like a factory or a political party. Or, to speak more strictly, they are at the circumference and the Church at the Centre and the Ball comes in between. The factory and the political party are artificial creations - “a breath can make them as a breath has made”. In them we are not dealing with human beings in their concrete entirety only with “hands” or voters. I am not of course using “artificial” in any derogatory sense. Such artifices are necessary: but because they are our artifices we are free to shuffle, scrap, and experiment as we please. But the Ball exists to stylize something which is natural and which concerns human beings in their entirety-namely, courtship. We cannot shuffle or tamper so much. With the Church, we are farther in: for there we are dealing with male and female not merely as facts of nature but as the live and awful shadows of realities utterly beyond our control and largely beyond our direct knowledge. Or rather, we are not dealing with them but (as we shall soon learn if we meddle) they are dealing with us.
And Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s letter “On Women’s Ordination”:
When you asked me to outline the Orthodox reaction to the idea of women’s ordination to the priesthood, I thought at first that to do so would not be too difficult. It is not difficult, indeed, simply to state that the Orthodox Church is against women’s priesthood and to enumerate as fully as possible the dogmatical, canonical, and spiritual reasons for that opposition.
On second thought, however, I became convinced that such an answer would be not only useless, but even harmful. Useless, because all such “formal reasons” - scriptural, traditional, canonical - are well known to the advocates of women’s ordination, as is also well known our general ecclesiological stand which, depending on their mood and current priorities, our Western Brothers either hail as Orthodoxy’s “main” ecumenical contribution or dismiss as archaic, narrow-minded, and irrelevant. Harmful, because true formally, this answer would still vitiate the real Orthodox position by reducing it to a theological context and perspective, alien to the Orthodox mind. For the Orthodox Church has never faced this question, it is for us totally extrinsic, a casus irrealis for which we find no basis, no terms of reference in our Tradition, in the very experience of the Church, and for the discussion of which we are therefore simply not prepared.
Such is then my difficulty. I cannot discuss the problem itself because to do so would necessitate the elucidation of our approach - not to women and to priesthood only - but, above all to God in his Triune Life, to Creation, Fall and Redemption, to the Church and the mystery of her life, to the deification of man and the consummation of all things in Christ. Short of all this it would remain incomprehensible, I am sure, why the ordination of women to priesthood is tantamount for us to a radical and irreparable mutilation of the entire faith, the rejection of the whole Scripture, and, needless to say, the end of all “dialogues.” Short of all this my answer will sound like another “conservative” and “traditional” defense of the status quo, of precisely that which many Christians today, having heard it too many times, reject as hypocrisy, lack of openness to God’s will, blindness to the world, etc. Obviously enough those who reject Tradition would not listen once more to an argument ex traditione….
But to what will they listen? Our amazement - and the Orthodox reaction is above all that of amazement - is precisely about the change and, to us, incomprehensible hastiness with which the question of women’s ordination was, first, accepted as an issue, then quickly reduced to the level of a disciplinary “matter” and finally identified as an issue of policy to be dealt with by a vote! In this strange situation all I can do is to try to convey to you this amazement by briefly enumerating its main “components” as I see and understand them.
The first dimension of our amazement can be termed “ecumenical.” The debate on women’s ordination reveals something which we have suspected for a long time but which now is confirmed beyond any doubt: the total truly built-in indifference of the Christian West to anything beyond the sphere of its own problematics, of its own experience. I can only repeat here what I have said before: even the so-called “ecumenical movement,” notwithstanding its claims to the contrary, has always been, and still is, a purely Western phenomenon, based on Western presuppositions and determined by a specifically Western agenda. This is not “pride” or “arrogance.” On the contrary, the Christian West is almost obsessed with a guilt complex and enjoys nothing better than self-criticism and self condemnation. It is rather a total inability to transcend itself, to accept the simple idea that its own experience, problems, thought forms and priorities may not be universal, that they themselves may need to be evaluated and judged in the light of a truly universal, truly “Catholic” experience. Western Christians would almost enthusiastically judge and condemn themselves, but on their own terms, within their own hopelessly “Western” perspective. Thus when they decide—on the basis of their own possibly limited and fragmented, specifically Western, “cultural situation”—that they must “repair” injustices made to women, they plan to do it immediately without even asking what the “others” may think about it, and are sincerely amazed and even saddened by lack, on the part of these “others” of ecumenical spirit, sympathy and comprehension.
Personally, I have often enough criticized the historical limitations of the Orthodox mentality not to have the right to say in all sincerity that to me the debate on women’s ordination seems to be provincial, deeply marked, and even determined by Western self-centeredness and self-sufficiency, by a naive, almost childish, conviction that every “trend” in the Western culture justifies a radical rethinking of the entire Christian tradition. How many such “trends” we have witnessed during the last decades of our troubled century! How many corresponding “theologies”! The difference this time, however, is that one deals in this particular debate not with a passing intellectual and academic “fad” like “death of God,” “secular city,” “celebration of life,” etc.—which, after it has produced a couple of ephemeral best-sellers, simply disappears, but with the threat of an irreversible and irreparable act which, if it becomes reality, will produce a new, and this time, I am convinced, final division among Christians, and will signify, at least for the Orthodox, the end of all dialogues.
It is well known that the advocates of women’s ordination explain the Scriptural and the traditional exclusion of women from ministry by “cultural conditioning.” If Christ did not include women into the Twelve, if the Church for centuries did not include them into priesthood, it is because of “culture” which would have made it impossible and unthinkable then. It is not my purpose to discuss here the theological and exegetical implications of this view as well as its purely historical basis, which incidentally seems to me extremely weak and shaky; what is truly amazing is that while absolutely convinced that they understand past “cultures,” the advocates of women’s ordination seem to be totally unaware of their own cultural “conditioning” of their own surrender to culture.
How else can one explain their readiness to accept what may prove to be a passing phenomenon and what, at any rate, is a phenomenon barely at its beginning (not to speak of the women’s liberation movement, which at present is nothing but search and experimentation) as a sufficient justification for a radical change in the very structure of the Church?
How else, furthermore, are we to explain that this movement is accepted on its own terms, within the perspective of “rights”, “justice,” “equality,” Etc.—all categories whose ability adequately to express the Christian faith and to be applied as such within the Church is, to say the least, questionable?
The sad truth is that the very idea of women’s ordination, as it is presented and discussed today, is the result of too many confusions and reductions. If its root is surrender to “culture”, its pattern of development is shaped by a surrender to “clericalism.” It is indeed almost entirely dominated by the old “clerical” view of the Church and the double “reduction” interest in it. The reduction on the one hand, of the Church to a “power structure,” the reduction on the other hand, of that power structure to clergy. To the alleged “inferiority” of women within the secular power structure, corresponds their “inferiority,” i.e., their exclusion from clergy, within the ecclesiastical power structure. To their “liberation” in the secular society must therefore correspond their “liberation,” i.e., ordination, in the Church.
But the Church simply cannot be reduced to these categories. As long as we try to measure the ineffable mystery of her life by concepts and ideas a priori alien to her very essence, we entirely mutilate her, and her real power, her glory and beauty, and her transcendent truth simply escape us.
That is why in conclusion of this letter I can only confess, without explaining and justifying this confession by my “proofs.” I can confess that the non-ordination of women to priesthood has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with whatever “inferiority” we can invent or imagine. In the essential reality which alone constitutes the content of our faith and shapes the entire life of the Church, in the reality of the Kingdom of God which is perfect communion, perfect knowledge, perfect love, and ultimately the “deification” of man, there is truly “neither male nor female.” More than that, in this reality, of which we are made partakers here and now, we all, men and women, without any distinction, are “Kings and priests,” for it is the essential priesthood of the human nature and vocation that Christ has restored to us.
It is of this priestly life, it is of this ultimate reality, that the Church is both gift and acceptance. And that she may be this, that she may always and everywhere be the gift of the Spirit without any measure or limitations, the Son of God offered himself in a unique sacrifice, and made this unique sacrifice and this unique priesthood the very foundation, indeed the very “form” of the Church.
This priesthood is Christ’s, not ours. None of us, man or woman, has any “right” to it; it is emphatically not one of human vocations, analogous, even if superior, to all others. The priest in the Church is not “another” priest, and the sacrifice he offers is not “another” sacrifice. It is forever and only Christ’s priesthood and Christ’s sacrifice—for, in the words of our Prayers of Offertory, it is “Thou who offerest and Thou who art offered, it is Thou who receivest and Thou who distributest….” And thus the “institutional” priest in the Church has no “ontology” of his own. It exists only to make Christ himself present, to make this unique Priesthood and this unique Sacrifice the source of the Church’s life and the “acquisition” by men of the Holy Spirit. And if the bearer, the icon and the fulfiller of that unique priesthood, is man and not woman, it is because Christ is man and not woman…
Why? This of course is the only important, the only relevant question. The one precisely that no “culture,” no “sociology,” no “history,” and even no “exegesis” can answer. For it can be answered only by theology in the primordial and essential meaning of that word in the Church; as the contemplation and vision of the Truth itself, as communion with the uncreated Divine Light. It is only here, in this purified and restored vision that we might begin to understand why the ineffable mystery of the relationship between God and His Creation, between God and His chosen people, between God and His Church, are “essentially” revealed to us as a nuptial mystery, as fulfillment of a mystical marriage. Why in other terms, Creation itself, the Church herself, man and the world themselves, when contemplated in their ultimate truth and destiny, are revealed to us as Bride, as Woman clothed in sun; why in the very depth of her love and knowledge, of her joy and communion, the Church identifies herself with one Woman, whom she exalts as “more honorable than the Cherubim, and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim.”
Is it this mystery that has to be “understood” by means of our broken and fallen world, which knows and experiences itself only in its brokenness and fragmentation, its tensions and dichotomies and which, as such, is incapable of the ultimate vision? Or is it this vision and this unique experience that must again become to us the “means” of our understanding of the world, the starting point and the very possibility of a truly Divine victory over all that in this world is but human, historical and cultural?
Contemporary man appears to hate the particularity of life. He cannot abide the limitations of nature and circumstance that render individuals male, female, old, young, Chinese, Icelandic, Christian, Hindu, industrious, lazy, smart, dull, neighbor, foreigner, husband, wife, neighbor’s wife, and so on. He refuses to discriminate—that is, to notice reality—and he wants to flatten everything to bare abstract units, whether atoms in physics or autonomous individual wills or selves in politics. How suitable is contemporary man a child of his nominalist forebears! Nominalism began as form of religious piety that wished to respect the omnipotence of God, but it was inherited and celebrated by men who sought to master nature without any inconvenient moral restrictions by natural law. To them, categories of beings are simply conventions upon which men agree. Yet, epistemology quickly becomes unworkable if everything is radically distinct and unique with no pattern or ordering among beings. How much cleaner (and more convenient) it is to affirm only atoms and their interaction. When one reduces everything to matter, then manipulation comes without guilt—technology is simply an advanced level of building blocks. If one can do it, then one may do it. Why not? Why is one arrangement preferable or “better” than another?
Likewise, if we try to salvage humanity from this nihilistic mess—if we attempt Kant’s heraclean effort to found and to safeguard human dignity in a disenchanted levelled world—then we may approach human affairs by positing individual rational agents instead of the messy and murky world of blood, sweat, and tears (of sexes, families, clans, tribes, nations, and civilizations). Like nominalism, this effort seems well intentioned in the beginning, but the reduction of human beings in their diversity to units of will and calculation has served the manipulators well. Why bother with the parochial concerns of these residents or that tribe? Why indulge regressive superstitious attitudes about modesty, sanctity, or taboo? Efficiency, utility, and “rationality” demand otherwise! Why not require travelers to submit to virtual strip searches? Why not demolish a quarter to build an interstate highway? Why not inject women with abortifacients? Why not modify language according to political fads? Why not treat the entire human race as your very own ant colony? And thus you give the masters of Lewis’ Abolition of Man a carte blanche to do what they choose. It is for the good of the abstract calculating self interested will, after all . . . by which a master of nature means “my will.”
What does this have to do with English episcopettes? I think that leftist movements toward “equality” presuppose the reductionist mentality just mentioned, wherein nature is discounted as unimportant and human beings are treated as depersonalized fungible units. The movement to ordain women neuters the human race as it disregards sex as irrelevant—“gender is a social construct.” Indeed, the same spirit disregards everything as irrelevant when it is convenient to do so. To make people into units of will or appetite or calculation is to render them LEGOS for someone else. How ironic it is that Kant’s intellectual progeny would ultimately fail his fundamental moral law—and to such a Mephistophelean degree!