A Serious Post About Women Priests

G.K.Chesterton said it is all well and good to have an open mind, but the only reason to have an open mind, is the same reason we have an open mouth–in order eventually to close it on something solid. So, on this blog, when it comes to the subject of women’s ordination, we are accused of taking a lighthearted–even mocking tone. Perhaps we don’t take the subject (and the women) seriously enough. But if we sometimes send women priests up it is not because we haven’t thought through the subject, but because we have thought it through and come out the other side. I can speak for myself, that I have honestly opened my mind on the subject, and eventually closed it on something solid called ‘the apostolic faith’.

I went through this exciting process firsthand in the 1980′s and early 1990′s as the Church of England debated whether or not to ordain women to the priesthood. I was, at the time, a country vicar on the Isle of Wight. I was in charge of two beautiful old country churches, had an enjoyable and rewarding ministry, a large vicarage house and a young wife and family. I had, from a worldly perspective, everything to lose. My point of view was then, what it had been for some time–to be open minded to new things and to ‘affirm not deny’. This understanding had brought me from a conservative Evangelical mindset to a middle of the road ‘Catholic’ position in the Church of England. I considered myself to be an “Evangelical Charismatic Catholic”–trying to draw the best from all three of these traditions.

Therefore, when faced with the prospect of women priests, although my first instinct was to be opposed, (because I am innately suspicious of innovation in the church) I also determined to listen to both sides of the argument. At theological college in the early 80s the women were already receiving the same education as the men in preparation to be deaconesses (with the unspoken assumption that eventually women’s ordination would go through and they would become priests) The women at college were a mixture just like the men were. Some seemed devout and down to earth and serious about loving God and serving his church. Others seemed egocentric, ambitious and obnoxious. Now they, and many others, were lining up to be ordained as priests.

So as the debate raged on in all levels of the church I listened carefully to both sides. I discovered that those in favor of women’s ordination had good arguments from Scripture and tradition. They wheeled out their psychological experts, their historians, their sociologists, their Bible scholars, their personal stories. They summoned witnesses from the Evangelical, Liberal and Anglo Catholic wings of the Church. Furthermore, I observed their lives. These were good church people. They loved God, read the Bible, went to Church, paid their dues, helped the poor, prayed their prayers and loved the Church. They really honestly and sincerely thought that women priests would be good for the Church and that the Holy Spirit was leading the Church to accept this change.

Then I listened to those who were opposed to women’s ordination. They too had good arguments from Scripture and tradition. They too had a whole panoply of experts and panel of witnesses from each part of the Church. They too were good church people who loved God and his Church and were really, really convinced that the Holy Spirit was definitely not leading the Church to make such an innovation.

So I looked more closely at the arguments in the Church of England for women priests. The main arguments were not Scriptural or traditional, although those arguments were summoned. They could not be the main arguments because, of course, while it may be argued from Scripture and tradition that women priests are permitted, it could never be argued from Scripture and Tradition that they were demanded. 
Instead, the main arguments for women priests were sentimental, political and utilitarian. Sentimental: “Sally is such a nice and good person. How hurtful that she can’t be ordained!” Political: “It’s a question of equal rights. Women should not be denied the role of priest if that is what they feel called to.” Utilitarian: “Sally is such a wonderful preacher and has such a pastor’s heart. She’ll make such a good priest!” While the sentimental, political and utilitarian arguments should be considered, it seemed dangerous that they should be the prevailing arguments, for most anything at all can be argued using those three flexible friends. Instead this dilemma caused me to look for an authority structure which was deeper, older and bigger than such subjectivity.
How does the church make such a decision? The Church of England by now had accepted a synodal form of government. Three houses of Bishops, Clergy and Laity were elected from the Dioceses. Election campaigns were conducted and votes were taken. Was this form of church government found in the Scriptures or in the history of the Catholic Church? No. A conciliar hierarchy was what Scripture and tradition gave us. The elected synod model resulted in unseemly electioneering and ultimate indecision. When those in favor of women’s ordination lost the vote (as they did in the early days) did they say, “Well that is the mind of the church. We’ll live with it.” No. They said, “We’ll have to rally the troops, put in a bit more effort and win the vote next time.” When those opposed eventually lost did they say, “The Holy Spirit has led the church in this new direction let’s get used to it.” No. They said, “We want our own church within a church with no women priests.”

All of this made me ask, “How can such decisions be made in the church without division?” This made me turn again to the authority claims of the Catholic Church. Here was a church that had the breadth of experience and vision to consider the needs of the whole church globally (not just the demands of the church in the developed world) it also had the experience and insight of the ages–considering the traditions and teachings of the church for the last 2,000 years. It was able, if necessary, to run counter to the spirit of the age. However, here also was a method that was consultative and careful and which was able to accept change and adapt where necessary.  Most of all, the Catholics had the Pope. They had an authority structure which had a final say. Love it or hate it, there was a system that was bigger and older than all the petty local argumentation which could come to a conclusion. Rome could speak and that could settle it.

While I sometimes poke fun at women clergy I can accept that many of them make good and faithful Christian ministers. I accept that they do a good job and that they may do a better job than a lot of the men. But these questions are beside the point. Women clergy may be doing a good job in the Protestant churches and good for them. However, they are not Catholic priests or deacons, and when they pretend that they are, and protest against the Catholic Church for not recognizing them, I’m afraid they are not on very strong ground, and that’s when it all becomes…well…I have to admit it…kind of funny.

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06962374096401238994 shadowlands

    'How does the church make such a decision?'I, obviously, am no scholar. But Our Lady still chooses to meet with me.no man, nor his traditional roles, has ever afirmed me, as positively, as my encounter, with Our Lady.Any female christian, with an ambition, I would ask her to tell me, her testimony, of her encounter, with Our Lady.I am so………….. at peace, with my own femininity, wish I'd discovered it years ago. I wouldn't have had to shell out for all of David Cassidy's albums. He was lovely tho, us brits adored him, at the time.By the way and totally off topic, a yank has won masterchef! Check out BBC!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17284905121465747077 Steve

    Ah, good satire, Father. You have a nice way of taking an idea and running with it.For what it's worth: When I called you on your continuous ridicule of women clergy, and labeled you as perhaps "immature" and "insecure," I was really addressing you on the character level, not as the perpetrator of a thought crime deserving arrest and "re-education." (What a phrase, hmm? And the torture and imprisonment that it still connotes — nearly forty years after the fall of Saigon — is a powerful image.) So many on the right (and yes, on the left as well) take great umbrage when a reader challenges a point. "You're advocating political correctness!" we hear. "You would force all to conform to the Accepted Way of Thinking." Not really the case. Just hoping someone as intelligent and witty as you might be able to address women clergy (and other women working in various vocations and professions) in a more charitable, respectful way…at least most of the time. To your credit, you managed to do so in the last paragraph or so of your "Serious Post About Women Priests." Yes, I can imagine you working across denominational lines with a minister who happens to be female, if it meant that the poor in your area would be helped, etc. I just find myself feeling a tad sorry for you, that your first thought upon seeing women clergy seems to be, "They are clowns; they are silly; they must be mocked." Or at least that's the line of thought you usually choose to post on your blog.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17284905121465747077 Steve

    Sorry — comment above was intended for your "Priest Arrested!" post.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03792937108732259684 priest’s wife

    sometimes life is 'unfair' even when it is right- Sally has a preacher's heart- that doesn't mean she should be a priest (Mary the Mother of God wasn't)- I know some infertile women who would make wonderful mothers- should they go through unnatural means to achieve a pregnancy? No…and it is sad, but they find strength in following natural law

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01306017321460701751 Paul Rodden

    However much legislation affirms the homosexual lifestyle, conscience cannot be muted, and homosexuals will continue to feel guilty, apart from those characterised by unfettered hedonistic wantonness.Sadly, I think these women are in a similar boat.Therefore, however much they manage to get the envelope pushed in the direction they want it to go, deep inner spiritual joy will mysteriously evade them, and they'll just keep trying different ways to quell that nagging feeling inside…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14873681229902155435 Brother

    Thanks for the post, Padre.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09627986880884206811 flyingvic

    It seems to me, Father, that there is a world of difference – especially for one whose everyday work is the saving of souls – between 'sending up' women priests and inviting anyone who reads your blog to make uncharitable comments about them.As far as church governance is concerned, the first decision we read of in the Acts of the Apostles was about the replacement for Judas: they prayed and then drew lots. Why does no church do that today? And when a new Pope is elected, (scriptural basis for 'election'?) are you suggesting that there is absolutely no electioneering going on in the College of Cardinals? No rallying the troops and 'let's put some more effort in' after an inconclusive vote? Come on, now! Be serious!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05003640516890793019 Savia

    Vic,The Magisterium consists of twelve people, like the twelve Apostles.The Pope is one among the twelve.So they would certainly pray and draw lots like they did in the early church.In this case, the Pope is selected through Holy Smoke.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12373317560249811006 Fr Longenecker

    Vic, I removed my earlier comment because it was disjointed. My mistake.Actually–the post about women deacons did not invite people to make nasty comments. It was totally open and they could have come up with any collective noun for a women deacons.Why didn't you pitch in and make some?Here's a few suggestions: a blessing, an innovation, a refreshment, a surprise.Also, notice that I started by poking fun at priests by saying the collective noun for a group of priests was 'a nuisance'.I think you're taking it all far too seriously, and that is actually one of my main bugbears with the whole women's ordination movement. The ones I've known have all been so darned serious and self conscious about it all!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09627986880884206811 flyingvic

    The proof of the pudding is in the eating, they say. You began your piece by comparing the women in the picture to a gaggle of geese – and just about everybody took their cue from you. They could have been kind, yes; but they weren't. In the same way you leapt in very quickly to laugh at my joke about the picture with Gregory Peck and the German soldiers – and no-one has criticised me for making it. Or was that just coincidence?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12373317560249811006 Fr Longenecker

    Vic, the fact of the matter is, I thought your joke about the Pope's Nazi youth was a good joke. We should all be able to laugh at ourselves. Nobody criticized you for making the joke because we weren't offended by it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14638075878905614981 Stacy Trasancos

    I appreciated your closing comments. If the Church is to be united we (including women) should not seek to be schismatic.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01306017321460701751 Paul Rodden

    Hi, flyingvicAs I understand it (although I could be wrong), Catholics believe grace builds upon nature, and so, to achieve something, we’re required to do our absolute best, within the bounds of our natural capacities, supplemented by the virtues, and bound by our ethical teaching. So, there’s nothing wrong with electioneering – but within these boundaries.However, many of my Evangelical friends sit for hours in prayer meetings, as if they’re hoping God will take up the baton, whilst they pray. For, if they did anything, it would be considered ‘salvation by works’. (The ones I know really believe this!)I’m sure they think they’re being sincere, but the view of God many of my Evangelical acquaintances have, seems to have more in common with those whacky animations with which the Monty Python shows began.And, it’s as if you see ‘election’ having to be like a huge finger of God coming through the roof of the Sistine Chapel, pointing to God’s preferred candidate, bellowing, ‘IT’S YOU, CARDINAL ENNI MEENI MYNI SANTINI!’. Pure and untainted, without any human intervention.We don’t reject the human. ‘Gloria dei homo vivens’ – the glory of God is in a man fully alive – as Irenaeus put it. We’re not to be ventriloquists dummies, puppets, or something barely alive where the divinity has to take over our bodies to implement His own will, like the Wizard if Oz, or because we’re too busy praying.Many people outside the Church project their low anthropology onto us, because events in the history of the Church would give that impression, mistaking sinful behaviour as reflecting a low anthropology.But, that’s what sin does: it lowers us from human, to beast. It’s a privation of our humanity. The Church merely calls us up and away from that – up to the dignity of men of true virtue and sanctification – through the grace of God.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07215093180074844386 the Egyptian

    so, if we are to take women priests seriously and respectably, can we then respectably say they are seriously deluded

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01306017321460701751 Paul Rodden

    Here's Fr Wade Menezes on EWTN 'Crux of the Matter', just posted in their monthly download series:Only 2 minutes, and straight to the point on the Church and the role of women.http://ewtn.edgeboss.net/download/ewtn/multicast/audio/mp3/crux01.mp3

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09627986880884206811 flyingvic

    Oh, no! You mean, Paul, that the Apostles had NOT been watching Monty Python? Then that means that by first praying and then drawing lots they must all have been Protestants! Alleluia! I'm starting, at long last, to give Tradition its full value! (I love the way Father differentiates between tradition and Tradition, don't you?)Seriously, (and please pardon my bit of fun) I was having a little go at Father by comparing votes in the Church of England's Synodical form of government with the election of a Pope in the College of Cardinals. (Father spoke rather disparagingly of Synodical government, even though in this country it was the Synod of Whitby, for example, that turned the English Church towards the Roman usage rather than the Celtic one. When I comment I do try to keep within the context of the blog rather than to speak, as it were, universally.)Seriously Part Two: how DOES God answer prayer? From your post we might be forgiven for thinking that all Catholics try their absolute best while all Protestants pray and pray and leave it all to God. I do assure you that there is a breadth of understanding and practice across the whole of Christ's church between those two extremes…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01306017321460701751 Paul Rodden

    Hi Vic.Hmmm. Answers to prayer…Well, if we see it as presenting him with a shopping list, then, it's a good question. Or, if it's to do with experiencing something, it'd be a good question, too.However, I suppose it's all linked to how we see providence and ourselves as well. I am meant to be a channel of grace, a conduit, not an endpoint.Your question never arises for me because I probably now have what would be a high view of providence. There are things which are God's will, and there are things He allows, so, as Gerard Manley-Hopkins said:"Father, what you buy me, I like best".I found reading the Catechism on prayer, as well as some excellent prayer manuals, freed me from the neurotic forms I had picked up as an Evangelical, based on the faulty views of God, myself, and His relationship to me, I'd been taught.I ask simply, and then leave it at that.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05269978181247175900 Ioannes

    Father's post is a good and the comments here an interesting discussion. I don't have any objections to women as Baptist or Presbyterian ministers, or even as clergy in the ECUSA though Bishopress Schori is a bit disappointing ;-). But none of those are the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church that Jesus founded on the Rock that is Peter. Just as a man can't be a Catholic nun, a woman can't be a Catholic priest. Period.BTW, God does work wonders among our evangelical and Pentecostal brothers and sisters. Often with just 1 1/2 sacraments (Baptism and Communion as a remembrance only) they do a whole lot more than most Catholics with all 7 sacraments. I'm not denigrating them (besides, my Mom is Pentecostal and she loves Jesus with all her heart). At the same time, that's not how Jesus founded things.No women deacons, priests or bishops. And no men as nuns and sisters. Equality in dignity does not imply equality in function.