In the 20th century we saw great change in women’s rights: many changes were made for the better of western society, and while there is still work to be done, we have undoubtedly come a long way.
While women’s rights is generally accepted in most areas of life, there’s still one area which causes great controversy: the Church. While many Churches have now accepted the ordination of women into the priesthood, some still stand firm in their belief that priests may only be male.
As a member of the Anglican Communion, I am part of a Church where this matter is most certainly a grey area, causing great controversy: the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, having been written in a time when the ordination of women was out of the question, make no comment on the ordination of women into Christ’s ministerial priesthood. Despite controversy, women have been ordained in the Anglican Communion since the 1970s, with one-in-five priests being female as of 2004.
Despite worldly pressure however, paragraph 1577 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church remains clear on the matter: “only a baptised man validly receives sacred ordination”, and the same paragraph goes onto say how “the Church recognises herself to be bound by this choice made by the Lord himself.”
The Catholic Church makes an important point here: that the decision was not made even by the Church fathers, but by Christ himself. Of course, if it had not been the Lord who made this decision, then there would be valid ground for controversy on the matter, but if Christ really did make this decision for the Church, then who are we to question him? All we need, then, is proof that Christ made this decision.
True, Christ never explicitly said that he doesn’t permit a woman to enter the ministerial priesthood. To look into this further, then, we must look to those whom he did permit to enter: the apostles. When Christ chose the twelve apostles – the first ministerial priests of the new covenant – he chose only men.
OK, so you’ve heard this argument a lot, and I agree that this, on its own, isn’t enough. But let’s look at the response which many people give to this: that this was the norm in society during the time of Jesus. Yes, that’s true: at the time of Jesus the world was entirely patriarchal – women would have had absolutely no position of authority. This, though, is no grounds on which to question why Christ chose twelve men; we can be sure that Christ’s decision was not, in any way, influenced by the society around him, because Christ was never influenced by society. He was only ever influenced by the will of God, and so Christ was therefore radical: if he didn’t like something to do with society, he would go against it. Indeed, we see that in the gospel of St. Mark:
And it came to pass, that he went through the corn fields on the sabbath day; and his disciples began, as they went, to pluck the ears of corn. And the Pharisees said unto him, Behold, why do they on the sabbath day that which is not lawful? And he said unto them, Have ye never read of what David did, when he had need, and was an hungred, he, and they that were with him? How he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and did eat the shewbread, which is not lawful to eat but for the priests, and gave also to them which were with him? And he said unto them, The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath: Therefore the Son of man is Lord of the sabbath.
St. Mark 2:23-28 (KJV)
When Jesus didn’t like the attitude of the Pharisees towards his actions, he didn’t give in and tell his disciples to stop; he didn’t change his divine will according to the will of society. And so we can rest assured that if Jesus would have wanted a woman to be part of his ministerial priesthood – to be one of the twelve apostles – he would never have allowed the patriarchal attitude of society to influence him. Instead, he would have challenged anyone who questioned him, and would have appointed a woman anyway.
So no, women can’t enter the ministerial priesthood, because Jesus didn’t want them to. But one thing must be stressed: the fact that women aren’t called into the ministerial priesthood does not mean they aren’t called into the common priesthood. When Joel was prophesying of the first Pentecost, he made it clear that women would be part of Christ’s common priesthood:
And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions.
Joel 2:28 (KJV)
If sons and daughters – male and female – shall both prophesy, then women within Christ’s holy Church must be called to serve him in the same way that male members of the laity are. Women must still preach the gospel and must still go out and make disciples of all nations, for the Spirit of God has been poured upon both sons and daughters.
There’s one question, though, which must still be answered: what does it matter? What are the implications if a woman is ordained? Is it really such a big deal? Yes. It is.
The Church is commonly defined as a community of believers, which is a fine definition. But what does the community believe in? Most people would answer that we believe in Jesus, which is perfectly true, but they then forget to mention that because of our belief in Jesus as the most perfect son of God, we also believe in Jesus’ will. Not only does the Church merely believe in Jesus’ will, but they must also follow it. And so, if the ordination of women into Christ’s apostolic priesthood is not in accordance with the will of our Lord, yet the Church accepts it anyway, then the implication is disastrous. Why? Well because a Church which does not follow the will of Christ is simply not the Church of Christ – it’s a false Church. While the believers in the Church may worship Christ, their Church is still not the Church of Christ. So yes, it is a big deal.
But glory be to the Father that some Churches have not yet erred in this way, and through the guidance of the Spirit, may this continue to be the case. Amen.