But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.
-1 Timothy 2:12-14
Since Pope Francis has recently decided to commission a study for ordaining women deacons, there has been considerable questions and discussions raised about the role of women in the church’s ministry. While most of the discussions has been focused on the gender end of the question, that is, about egalitarianism, equal gifts and abilities, etc, etc. there is oddly one angle which has virtually not been explored in much depth: the angle of the nature of the clerical office itself.
I wish in this post to focus on the nature of the ministry end of the question and to postulate some arguments in favour of women’s ordination. But first we will make some brief notes about the history of the debate.
The Tradition of the Argument
The interesting thing about arguments for male only clergy is that the arguments which we have today are pretty much a novelty. While the practice of male only clergy can be said to predominate the Christian tradition, the traditional arguments have more or less died in our time.
As the Anglican theologian William Whitt explains in his article Concerning Women’s Ordination: The Argument “From Tradition” is not the “Traditional” Argument, the traditional argument against woman’s ordination was based on an anthropology which is deemed by many to be unacceptable today, that is, that woman by nature possess a defective or inferior ontology, e.g. being more prone to sin, possessing deficient mental capacities, being more emotional and less rational, etc, etc. Most supporters of male only ordinations today go out of their way however to reject these traditional arguments for a male only priesthood and affirm that the equality of male and female natures, etc, and thereby the woman’s ability to reason and lead, etc.
The most commonly argument made today is based either on a hierarchical ordering as taught by St Paul (for Protestants), that is, that women should be subject to men, or on the idea that the priest celebrates the Eucharist in persona Christi, that is, in the person of Christ, and that the priest must resemble Christ sufficiently, especially in gender, in order to effect the Eucharist (for Roman Catholics).
There are of course major problems with these contemporary arguments. Once it is conceded that woman can lead in other fields, e.g. in political office, in education, commercial corporations, etc, it is hard to see why woman should be denied the ability to lead in Church on the Protestant argument. The in persona Christi argument from the Roman Catholic side seems a bit ad hoc, for if one must resemble Christ in his gender in order to properly effect the Eucharist why not resemble him in his race or place of birth or mother tongue? Why select gender of all other characteristics as the necessary element to give effect to the Eucharist? Furthermore William Whitt has pointed out that historically the Eastern Orthodox have held that the priest acts in persona ecclesiae, that is, in the person of the Church and the Church is female. So if a male priest can represent a feminine Church why not a female priest a male Christ? (The basic idea is that in the Latin Church, the Eucharist is consecrated when the priest re-enact Christ’s words “This is my Body” which turns the bread into the Body of Christ. In the Eastern Church the Eucharist is consecrated when the priest prays, in the person of the Church, the epiclesis which calls the Holy Spirit down upon the bread to turn it into the Body of Christ.)
The problems are compounded further when we consider the new phenomenon of transgenderism today. Technically the Roman Church has no official stance on transgenderism and we can legitimately raise the question as to whether a female to male person can be ordained and vice-versa. What exactly is so special about gender which gives it the power to effect the Eucharist or exercise authority in the Church? Remember, the majority of the Church has more or less given up the premise of linking particular qualities or characteristics with gender, all that is left of gender is quite frankly, the genitals. But if even doctors can tinker with that what is left of the argument based on vague “resemblances” between Christ and maleness?
Some Brief Notes on Gender
The foregoing discussion suggests that we cannot evade the question of substantive gender qualities in assigning church roles by resorting to vagaries of resemblances or hierarchical ordering. There must be something about the gender which justifies their fitness for the roles and not just the primitive fact of the gender.
Therefore before I can get to my discussion proper it would be necessary for me to make some brief notes about gender. The main focus on this post is not about gender and its qualities per se, I mention them to focus my later discussion.
I would like to state outright that I do accept, not only the premise of 1 Timothy 2:12, but the rationale behind it, that a woman should not possess teaching authority over man because of certain intrinsic female qualities which makes them less suited for the role compared to those possessed of masculine qualities. I would recommend this excellent post by Alastair Roberts where he brilliantly presents the case for a masculine priesthood.
Thus, I accept the premise of 1 Timothy 2:12 exactly as it is written, that is, that a woman should not have authority over man. However, the focus of my discussion will be on the nature of the clerical office itself and whether or not it intrinsically possess the functions of authority.
On the Proper Distinction between a Work and an Office
If the clerical office intrinsically gives the holder of it authority over man then prima facie woman cannot be ordained. However I would like to challenge the very idea of a clerical office itself.
The question I would like to pose is, did God will that there be various tasks, work, or functions which needs doing or did God will that there exists various offices and positions? It is normally quite hard to see the distinction between tasks and positions for we often combine them together. The word “job” itself can refer to both a task and a vocation/position, etc. A task is a specific piece of work or a project which ends the moment the task is completed. “Have you finished cleaning the windows?” is a question which can be asked of anyone tasked with the work, not necessary a window cleaner by trade or vocation. A job/office/vocation on the other hand is like a position which one possesses and which is “open-ended” and not bound to a single task or work. “I’ve got a job as an analyst”, job as a position/vocation.
To get a clearer idea, let’s use an example. A state may one day decide that we need a team to handle disaster relief. Now, disaster relief is a task or function. However it does not follow that simply because there exists this task of disaster relief that there would exist the position or office of a disaster relief officer. The state may simply delegate the task to the fire department or the military and thus soldiers and fire fighters by vocation or office will handle the task of disaster relief in times of disasters.
Likewise the New Testament is clear that there are various tasks which needs doing. Teaching, pastoring, leading, administration, serving, works of mercy, etc. These are works willed by God for his Church to do. It does not follow however that God willed the existence of a central office to unite all these tasks into one office. To come back to the analogy used before, to say that someone needs to handle disaster relief is one thing, to create the position of disaster relief officer is another thing.
Now, since I’m pretty low church, I’m a pure functionalist about this. I don’t even think the office of presbyter exists. There are various tasks which needs doing, but the delegation and distribution of the tasks is a matter of human prudence, not divine ordination. There is no divinely willed office of the presbyter or even the diaconate.
Let’s bring this back to woman’s ordination. Now clearly not all who are ordained ministers or presbyters perform the function or do the work of the priest. Some of them simply become church bureaucrats or administrators and never pastor or teach or even run a parish. Thus, the important question for us is simply, who has the job of “ruling” or exercising authority in the church and how is it delegated? If you think about it, only the vicar of the parish and a bishop of a diocese actually possesses the task and function of ruling and exercising authority. Not all priests are vicars nor do all bishops possess a diocese or congregation. Thus whether or not a woman is ordained to the episcopate or presbytery is a matter of indifference as long as they don’t exercise any ruling or teaching authority over men. In fact, we can even have woman bishops who oversees woman. In a charismatic Baptist church I went to, they had woman pastors who only pastored and lead women. That we should have women instructing other women is not unbiblical as can be seen from Titus 2:3-5
The aged women likewise, that they be in behaviour as becometh holiness, not false accusers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things; that they may teach the young women to be sober, to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God be not blasphemed.
Thus one can argue that as long as women are not vicars or diocesan bishops, we can have women elders or bishops.
The Anglican Polity as a Test Case
I will in this section map out my understanding of the ministerial office and gender roles unto the Anglican formularies. I will argue in two stages: (1) The work/function is distinct from the office of priest/bishop. (2) As such canon law can distribute the work/function in such a way that it is consistent with 1 Timothy 2:12.
We first begin with the source of authority in the Anglican Church. Now the following discussion by the late Church of England priest John Richardson will prove rather illuminating:
Authority in the congregation
… according to Article 37, the authority of the magistrate is the monarch’s authority. However, the same principle applies to authority within the Church. The authority of the Church’s officers also derives from the monarch, as we can see in Article 23 Of Ministering in the Congregation.
This takes some unpacking. First, it says,
“IT is not lawful for any man to take upon him the office of publick preaching, or ministering the Sacraments in the Congregation, before he be lawfully called, and sent to execute the same.”
Notice, first of all, what this doesn’t say. It doesn’t say “Only priests have the power to celebrate communion.” The important word here is ‘lawful’ — it may be possible, but it is not lawful to preach and administer the Sacraments unless you have been lawfully called.
But who are we to recognize as lawfully called? The second part of the Article gives this answer:
“And those we ought to judge lawfully called and sent, which be chosen and called to this work by men who have publick authority given unto them in the Congregation, to call and send Ministers into the Lord’s vineyard.”
The lawfully called are those who have been called and sent by people who have been given public authority to call and send.
But who are they? The Articles do not say the bishops. In fact, the words bishop, priest and deacon are remarkably rare in the Articles and entirely absent here, where we might expect to see them.
Note very carefully that the legitimacy of the “office [function] of publick preaching, or ministering in the Sacraments in the Congregation” is derivative of the canons or law enforced by “men who have publick authority”, not derivative of some innate ontological powers of the priesthood or whatever. In England this “men” is the monarch and his representatives, in other parts of the world outside of Christian England it can be some synodical body or whatever.
The joining of the priesthood/episcopate to the office/work of publick preaching, or ministering of the sacraments is purely the product of canonical legislation, not divine ordination. The law itself can directly call and sent people to perform those functions without giving them clerical titles or positions, etc. The Ordinals seems to support this in the clause which reads:
…no man shall be accounted or taken to be a lawful Bishop, Priest, or Deacon, in the Church of England, or suffered to execute any of the said Functions, except he be called, tried, examined, and admitted thereunto, according to the Form hereafter following, or hath had Episcopal Consecration, or Ordination.
Thus to be a “lawful Bishop, Priest, or Deacon” is distinguished from the ability to “execute any of the said Functions” by an “or”, that is to say, no one shall be considered a lawful cleric, or be allowed to performed the functions, etc, distinguishing the clerical office from the functions. And the criteria for determining whether or not a person is a lawful cleric or permitted to perform said function is based on either him being admitted according to the Ordinal, or him possessing episcopal consecration or ordination. Thus, as an alternative to being ordained according to the Form of the Ordinal to be considered a lawful cleric or ability to perform said Functions, one can simply be directly consecrated by the bishop or ordained unto that work. What the ordinal however does not say is, “no one shall be suffered to execute said function unless he be ordained a priest/bishop, etc”.
Therefore, the ability to perform any said ecclesiastical functions in the Church of England is derivative of the canons or law itself, not of the office per se. Those who possess the office can perform said functions by virtue of the stipulations of the law, not intrinsic ontological properties of the office, etc. The law, through the bishop, can appoint or consecrate/ordain anyone to the function or work directly without giving the office. This reading is consistent with the letter of the Anglican standards notwithstanding historical precedent or whatever.
Therefore I would argue that the clerical office is a creature of canon law, not divine ordination. The role, tasks and scope of the Anglican priesthood is derivative of the canons and not of the Scriptures. The fact that priests, for example, could celebrate the Eucharist and not deacons is simply the product of canonical organisation, not divine institution. As such, it would be a simple matter for the canons to clearly identify the positions of authority within Church and ensure that all such positions are filled only by men. The permutations of such are many, for example maybe only Archbishops or Vicars are representatives of authority which must necessarily be lead by men, or the authority in all parishes are derivative of the authority of the diocese bishop and thus only bishops need be male only while there can be women vicars whose authority is derived from the bishop. These are all matters of prudence and pragmatics, the fundamental point is simply that there is no intrinsic link between being ordained to an office and possessing authority.
Conclusion: Female Deacons in the Roman Church?
The tension, as already noted, about modern arguments about male only ordinations or clergy is that they cannot reconcile their restrictions with their egalitarian premises. The sheer fact of gender is not enough to ground the restriction, both the Scriptures and the tradition of the Church grounds the restriction based on the qualities of the gender rather than the sheer fact of the gender.
The concession of the egalitarian premise would mean that technically females can do everything a man can, except celebrate the Eucharist and ordain. For example they can preach, they can baptise, they can run parishes, they can solemnise marriages, etc, etc, etc. So what will be the practical effect of woman’s deacons?
I am reminded of ancient Irish churches which were run and ruled mainly by the monks. The bishops were hidden away in the monastery and were only brought out for ordination. The practical effect of allowing woman deacons is that the woman may practically start running everything and sharing the equal burden of the priesthood. Like the Irish monks, they will start doing everything as much as technically possible except celebrate mass and ordain. The Roman Church after all is a stickler for what is technically correct and so liberal bishops will push for and maximise woman’s involvement to the absolute limit. We’ll see woman in chasuble, formalising marriages, baptising, preaching, teaching, leading parish councils, etc.
Such a “loopholish” and “technically correct” position is however quite untenable, based on it were on an ad hoc reactionary argument about resembling Christ, etc. What we need is a substantive understanding, not only of gender, but also of the ecclesiastical functions ordained by God for his Church, that we might do proper justice to both.