Now there’s a topic guaranteed to arouse strong feelings. I should be surprised if someone has not already got their answers ready as to why women cannot be priests. Those arguments have a long pedigree and remain convincing to both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, whilst the Church of England in the UK has managed to find a way of saying that women can be priests, but it is okay if you can’t accept that, as long as you accept it as being the position of the C of E. Naturally that has people at both ends of the spectrum of views on this dissatisfied, and women priests have been known to say occasionally that they feel that the language in which this is sometimes discussed makes them uneasy. Some feel that it is about time that everyone came round to their position, which, in that sense, aligns them squarely with those who have always opposed the idea of women priests. But that’s not what this posting is about, although it is relevant to it.
The readings for the feast of St Mary Magdalen reminded us of something that the Church has not always been good at stressing, which is the role played by women in the Church, and we see this from the beginning. But, as has often been pointed out, the Risen Christ is first seen by a woman, which, in Jewish law as it then existed, was not testimony which would stand up in court. This is of a piece with what we can glean from the New Testament about the earthly Mission of Jesus.
Many posts have appeared here about the role played by women in the New Testament and St Mark tells us that, in addition to those he names, “many other women” came with Jesus to Jerusalem. This was unusual at the time, and we know that the pattern continued from what Paul says. Romans 16 contains a long list of female names, and it is clear that they played a key part in the work of the first generation of the Great Commission. For those interested in a plausible fictional account centred on Phobe, I can recommend Paula Gooder’s book of that name which also contains some useful information on the role women played.
What is worth noting, in addition, is that the vivid picture we get from Paul is of a church where women and men minister together and where there do not seem to be rigid distinctions based on gender; those who can teach, teach, those who can prophesy, prophesy, there was no gender basis on which work you could do for Christ, just as there was no racial basis. Where the Spirit moved you, that was where you went. It is interesting, in relation to Phoebe, to note that St Paul describes her in three ways: as a benefactor, as a deacon but also as a sister. It is not her gifts not her position which define her within the body of Christ, it is the fact that she is a sister.
Those early Christian communities were, in that sense, more like some modern ones than was the case for many hundreds of years, where women and men worked together to build the kingdom. Yes, that is one of the things which led the Church of England down the route of ordaining women, and it is one of the things which its advocates elsewhere press. But if we stand back from the polemic which so often distracts us at this point, and from our current positions and those of our churches, it may just be worth looking at the fruits of the ordination of women and wondering whether they suggest the working of the Spirit or its absence.
The Catholic and Orthodox Churches have a clear position here, and I would hope that those who disagree with it will respect that; but, back to my initial comment, I hope that those of us who take the traditional view will at least be open to the question and examine the evidence. What is at issue here is not, pace the protagonists on both sides, but how we can disagree in faith, hope and charity. Too often our Christian history looks suspiciously like the rest of human history with us moved by the secular emotions of our fallen nature. But, one might protest, “this is a really important issue and it is important to – assert the eternal teaching of the Church/the lessons we have learned/that I am right – [delete according to taste]. It is precisely because it is important and it is precisely because we need to learn lessons that we should disagree as Christians should. The question, which I daresay comments will answer, is whether we can?