Saturday, April 9, 2011

Women and Ordination

I wrote most of this a few days ago, before the double-vision thing made typing such a challenge.  This morning, reading and participating in the RevGals' conversation about preaching tomorrow,  I feel more strongly than ever the depth and breadth of women's voices bursting forth from the pulpit.


The round of reviews of Half the Church and the flurry of controversy in the Catholic community over the U.S. bishops' recent criticism of Dr. Elizabeth Johnson's work have prompted some musings on my part.

The argument in some Protestant denominations against the ordination of women is based upon a couple of verses in which Paul denounces the prospect of women holding teaching authority over men.  This argument conveniently overlooks the women colleagues whom Paul praises and upon whom he placed considerable reliance, even in a culture in which women had no legal standing or social or economic status independent of men. 

The argument in the Roman Catholic church against the ordination of women is based upon the undeniable fact that Jesus was a man and on the metaphorical construct of the church as his bride; how can a woman stand in the place of Jesus?  That one conveniently overlooks the fact that many of Jesus' disciples were women and that women ~ the Woman at the Well and Mary Magdalene ~ were the first evangelists ~ in a culture in which women had no legal standing or social or economic status independent of men. 

The outcomes for me personally:

The Protestant church does feel very male to me.  Most of our historical leaders and theologians have been male.  My seminary felt something like a men's club; it often reminded me of my law firm life a generation ago.  In both situations, women were/are welcomed and encouraged in our endeavors, but the climate was/is a masculine one.  (Despite the fact that half of our seminary students are female.)  In my city, there has been one female senior pastor of a large mainline Protestant church over the past several years ~ and she's just moved away.  A friend recently commented that her United Methodist Church ~ to which I used to belong ~ feels like the 1950s: three white, male pastors in our community that is half African-American and Latino and half women.

All that said, women leaders are welcomed and supported, and I think that in another generation, the landscape for women in the mainline Protestant church will look quite different.

Ironically, the Catholic church often feels very female to me.  With its devotion to Mary, its plethora of women saints, and its still significant population of women religious ~ sisters and nuns,   highly educated women who often hold positions of enormous responsibility in hospitals, colleges and universities, and other institutions ~ the part of the Catholic church visible to me has a welcoming and feminine aspect.  Catholic priests and sisters have been among my strongest supporters  in my quest for ordination and in the recent dramatic personal challenges of my life.  But . . . no ordained women in the RC church.  The M.Div. program at the Catholic local seminary is off limits to women.  ("We can earn a Ph.D. there," one woman told me, "but not an M.Div.  They're afraid we'll want to be priests.")  When I attend a Catholic mass, I am painfully aware that, once we get to the Gospel reading and thereafter, the leadership other than in music is entirely male.  When I see photographs of Catholic ordination ceremonies of  deacons or priests, they look oddly off-kilter to me ~ because there are no women.  In another generation, I am certain, it will all look the same.

The general conversation around these issues tends to focus on issues of justice and discrimination involving women who are called to the ministry or priesthood.  That is certainly a critical discussion.  But increasingly I see the most significant one being justice and care for the people we are called to serve.  The voice missing from ordained leadership is even more significant to those who are not permitted to hear it than to those not permitted to exert it.

I have heard Catholic women friends say that they long to be ministered to by a woman priest. Perhaps more significantly, I have NOT heard Catholic men friends say the same thing.  It has not yet occurred to them that it might be a differently valuable experience to be ministered to by a woman. I know that in certain churches, no one will ever hear an Advent sermon from someone who has experienced pregnancy and childbirth.  No one will hear an Easter sermon from someone who has known the mother's experience of the death of a child.  In a church in which I preached some months ago, a woman came up to me afterward to relate her fears about some female-only health issues for which she was about to undergo testing.  Would she have had the same conversation with an unknown male pastor? 

And I am not talking only about "women's issues," whatever those might be.  I'm talking about all issues. I'm talking about voices missing from conversations, be they about Moses or about Miriam.  I'm talking about bodies missing from leadership roles in sacred encounters, encounters in which babies are baptized or communion is served.

Even my lovely and wonderful 80-year-old Jesuit friend, in response to my pointing out that he would never be ministered to by a female priest, argued that he often seeks the advice and counsel of women colleagues.  "But you will never receive communion, at least not in your own church, from a woman," I said.  I'm fairly certain that it had not occurred to him that he might be missing something.

I've only read one or two of Elizabeth's Johnson's books, as options in the course of a seminary education in which no work by feminist theologians was required.  The present controversy fermented by the Catholic bishops means that I will probably start working my way through all of them soon.  But in the meantime, I can ask, "Would a male theologian have ever conceived (pun perhaps intended) a book entitled She Who Is?" Based on the theological literature published in the nearly 2000 years of Christianity before that book's appearance, I think I am safe in presuming that the answer to that question is "No."

And how much, therefore, have we all lost?  Not merely the women called to ministry as priests and ministers, but all of us, women and men and girls and boys, who have never heard God speaking through the voice of a woman, through the scholarship of a woman, through the experience of a woman?


  1. Robin, what a beautiful post. Thank you. My childhood church does not ordain women. I have often wondered what it would be like for them to hear, for instance, my voice from that pulpit?

  2. I actually have some hope, and am praying hard, that in a generation things will look somewhat different, with the ordination of female RC deacons which will allow them to preach, assist as vested clergy at mass, and lead services of baptism, marriage, etc. The church has long known that there is scriptural and historical precedent for this and that there is no theological reason against it--shown by the failure of this pope and the last to ever forbid it in the course of emphatically forbidding sacerdotal and episcopal ordination. B16 issued a mostly ignored document in December that made a big deal of distinguishing between priests and bishops who represent Christ "the head" (and bridegroom) and deacons who don't. Somewhat ironic to say that the humble servants of church and world don't represent Christ as fully, of course...But the upside is that he was most likely saying it to carve out a theological way by which women could receive holy orders as deacons without risking the slippery slope to priesthood that they witnessed in the 70s in the Anglican communion. It wouldn't be full equality, but a huge step in the right direction.

  3. SB, they have missed a most beautiful articulation of God among us.

  4. Laura, I so hope that you're right!

  5. Robin, thank you for this post and thank you for drawing my attention to it. I have been so preoccupied of late that my blog reading is hit or miss, usually miss. I am so glad to encounter this.

    As you know, I am a Roman Catholic woman and I do struggle with ordination issues of my own and at large.

    There is, as one of my professors (himself a priest of Rome) has noted, no real evidence to support ordaining women. (inset long anxious pause here.) Then he follows with... of course, there is no real evidence to support ordaining men either!

    In this diocese women are very active in every sort of way and the envelope was pushed quite far. These days women have power in every corner, except for on the altar. There are numerous women parish life directors and they are permitted to preach once a month or something like that.

    I get to preach at evening prayer during Advent and Lent, and while grateful, it is not the same. Ironically, I just finished a homiletics course at my Catholic graduate school. *sigh*

    Sorry to go on here, you may be regretting my speaking up! In any case, I do not pursue ordination for numerous reasons, one being that I actually am not ready for my "exodus" moment yet. I am not one, despite my voice, to step out from community with ease, despite injustice.

    Also, I have issues with the Womenpriest movement as it exists. I need to study more. Phyllis Zagano, who is about to publish more work about women in the diaconate (she is the author of Holy Saturday) has contacted me in regard to gathering a group of women who feel called to the diaconate. I will let you know what comes of that.

    Oh gosh, this is so long, but let me just say that Quest for the Living God is an amazing book and that it has been used in two of my grad school classes! The dean of my school is herself a CSJ like Dr. Johnson. It is a great book. The USCCB are being political and trying to make a statement. It backfired.

    Thanks for this post and I am sorry for the length of the comment. I hope you are feeling better!

  6. OK, that is embarrassingly long! Sorry!!

  7. No, it's wonderful Fran, and very informative. Thank you!

  8. I vividly remember the first time I heard a woman preach a sermon from behid a pulpit on a church platform. I was moved to tears for much of the service. I was...about 30. I believe that what is lost is immeasurable. I hope that somday it will be different. I don't know though, espeially in some places/groups. I am feeling very sad about this today.