Of the many battles raging within the increasingly beleaguered Anglican Communion today, women’s ordination is perhaps the most conspicuous. In saying this I do not mean to imply that the question of whether women can be validly ordained as priests is the pivotal issue facing Anglicanism in the 21st century; its allowance is merely a symptom of a more general breakdown in agreement within the communion’s ranks about what is and isn’t orthodox Christianity. Nor am I asserting that the subject has garnered a more significant amount of media attention than have others. Even the Episcopal Church’s 2006 enthronement of Katherine Jefferts Schori as the first female Anglican bishop received far less coverage than its appointment of Gene Robinson to the same office in 2004.
Rather, what I intend by my words is simply that a person’s gender is far more readily apparent than his or her religious beliefs or sexual proclivities. In the Anglican Communion, where liturgy is still of paramount importance in many sectors, the beliefs of priest and congregation don’t necessarily become transparent (with notable exceptions) until one hears the homily or attends a Sunday school class; the Nicene Creed sounds the same whether one affirms its doctrines in a traditional manner or not. If this is the case with doctrinal adherence, how much more so with sexual orientation-which, unless it’s the flagship issue of the priest or parish in question, may not be mentioned at all? The sanctioning of women’s ordination wasn’t the only revision in doctrine and practice to have occurred in the Anglican Communion in the 1970’s. Yet it must certainly have been the most visible sign that a change had occurred.
For this and other reasons, then, the years immediately following the Episcopal Church’s 1976 General Convention were a time when a significant number of priests and laity left mainstream Anglicanism, finding refuge in the various continuing Anglican movements or else converting to Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. The Continuum doesn’t, to my admittedly rather limited knowledge, have a liberal wing advocating women’s ordination: considering its origins, a movement in that direction would be highly unlikely. Likewise, I haven’t heard of any similar rumblings within the Orthodox churches (though, again, I’m no expert on such matters by any means).
Then there’s the Roman Catholic Church, which has had, for several years now, a small but vocal contingent of believers actively campaigning for the cause in question. Every so often religious and secular news outlets run stories about illicit ordinations of women-usually performed by unnamed bishops in non-Catholic settings-provoking the usual expressions of dismay and glee from traditional and progressive Catholics, respectively. The Vatican has always been dismissive of these ordinations’ legitimacy but apparently considers the underlying sentiments of their participants to be subversive enough to warrant an apostolic letter and several official excommunications, among other measures taken.
Several authors far more learned than myself have written extensively on this subject. I am neither competent to do so nor desirous of diving into its murky theological waters. If I were to intentionally arouse the consternation of my audience, I would want the topic of discussion to be something I knew more about.
That said, I would like to preface what follows by pointing out that women’s ordination should only be an issue for Christian communities professing to believe in the sacraments. When I was still a Protestant, I believed that the pastor’s primary duties were preaching and pastoring. Since I didn’t doubt the competence of women in either capacity, I had trouble seeing what all the fuss was about with regards to whether a woman could pastor a church. I’ve since come to understand that the question of whether women can be priests is, at least in theory, a question of ontological ability, not fitness for leadership.
So the issue at hand is whether women are able to be validly ordained and confect the sacraments. What I’d like to point out here is this: the reason feminists are up in arms about not being able to consecrate the Host or hear confessions isn’t because these are enviable tasks in and of themselves. The life of a priest, as that life is intended to be, isn’t something one wishes for; it’s a calling. I, for one, admire those who’ve taken on the cloth. I am not, however, covetous of the task to which they’ve been assigned.
A Catholic priest is said to be acting in persona Christi-that is, standing in for Christ, the High Priest-when he performs his duties as priest. What was Christ’s life like while He was here? It was not a life of earthly glory, of political influence or ostentatious wealth. No, His life was short and filled with pain. He was rejected by much of His family and friends; in the end even those who had loved Him as teacher deserted Him, and many (though certainly not all) of his own people cried out for his execution. He was hated for who He was; ultimately, he was killed for the same. This is what being a priest entails-not that this will necessarily happen to every man who becomes a priest, but that is what one opens oneself up to in taking that path.
So why the fuss over an all-male priesthood? Two reasons immediately come to mind. First of all, this particular issue fits in uncomfortably well with Western culture’s traditional exclusion of women from certain roles, especially those requiring education and entailing leadership. The second and more important point is how these two phenomena, the unfair banishment of women from the public sphere and the justifiable restriction of the priestly life to men, have been intertwined in the course of history. From the time of Constantine to within the last 150 years, the Church has held an incredible amount of temporal power: the authority to coronate or depose emperors, for instance. When being a Catholic priest has meant an opportunity to influence whole nations, to live in wealth, to obtain pleasures undreamed of by the average peasant, of course there have been those who have taken on the role with the wrong intentions. The upshot of this has been a power structure-an earthly authority-dominated by men.
Yet this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. If one is offered a bishopric, one is expected to decline first, then accept: the desire to progress through the ranks of the Church is actually considered to be sinful. A friend of mine, a Jesuit seminarian, once told me that the Church has been at its best historically when under siege. There have always been saints, of course: no amount of corruption in the earthly organization could destroy that. Yet now we are likely to see popes and priests in high places who live as saints on earth, whereas by the time of the Renaissance-think of Alexander VI, the paragon of a corrupted clergy-that idea had become almost laughable.
My point in saying all of this is that, in terms of earthly glory, there shouldn’t be any difference in being a man versus being a woman. As priests men are indeed given a level of authority in the Church that women aren’t. But what kind of authority is it? For 99% of clergy, it’s the authority to counsel tormented souls in the confessional and see the dying off to the next life. At the highest levels, it is the authority to combat heresy on the level of proclaiming dogma, the authority to bear the weight of Church unity on one’s shoulders and suffer on its behalf.
None of these are terribly attractive duties. There is definitely glory to be had in them, but it’s the sort of glory that is fundamentally mixed with pain.
We are all called to serve God in this life. Hand-in-hand with this is a call to suffer, to complete the work of Christ on the Cross. At its heart a priest’s life is a life of suffering, an agony allotted specifically to men. I am in awe of the way a woman’s body can bear and bring forth new life, yet the task of childbearing is not one I envy women in the least. Whether we are priests, or else husbands and wives, monks and nuns-whether we are consecrated virgins or lifelong wanderers uncertain of our vocation until death: each of us is granted a special pain through which, if we accept it, we will be redeemed. The least we can do in these short lives we’ve been given is to not covet the pains reserved for others