The churches of the broadly Catholic tradition are split on the issue of whether to ordain women priests. By broadly Caholic I mean the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, the Old Catholic Church and the Church of England/Episcopalian church, along with a few offshoots. All of these churches are characterised by having an ordained ministry composed of people who have had a separate sacrament, ordination. In Protestant churches the minister is not seen as being different from the laity, as they believe in the priesthood of all believers, as expressed in the letter to the Hebrews.
Different opinions prevail. Within the Episcopalian/ Church of England tradition women have been ordained, but there has been much opposition. The Roman Catholics do not allow women's ordination, but have people in the church who accept it, and the Orthodox are dead set against it. But what is the basis for ordaining men only?
The basis is surprisingly weak.Jesus appointed only male apostles, but had women in the broader group of disciples. The apostles were personal assistants who went out preaching. In Palestine of that time the roads were lonely and there were bandits, as we see in the parable of the Good Samaritan. To send women out was to risk attack and robbery, possibly rape. There was therefore no theological reason for Jesus to select only males. He had good practical reasons pertaining to the law and order issues of the time. Furthermore, orthodox Jews had no tradition of having women preachers. Any women preaching would therefore have been ignored and possibly stoned. There was therefore no point in having women apostles. But this is not a prohibition that is for all time, but a merely situational consideration.
Furthermore, the term apostle underwent an evolution. The original twelve lost one member, Judas, and replaced him with Matthias, but after the resurrection apostle meant a witness to the resurrected Christ. There was at least one woman in this group, Mary Magdalene, who is known as the apostle to the apostles,as she saw Jesus near the tomb. As the church claims that bishops are the successors of the apostles, the fact that a woman was an apostle must mean that there can be woman bishops and priests.
The argument that Jesus did not make his mother Mary a priest and that therefore women cannot be priests [as she was so holy] is silly. Despite the Roman tradition that she remained a virgin, the Bible mentions Jesus' four brothers and his sisters [an unspecified number.] So Mary had had up to seven children [if Joseph had not married previously] at a time when there was no antenatal care. Mary would have been fat and suffering varicose veins, and so totally unfit for walking round Palestine. Anyway, as a grandmother she had responsibilities at home. [We know that the grandsons of Jesus' brother Judas went to Rome to meet the emperor Domitian, so there must have been at least one son with children.]
The argument that priests represent Jesus and that Jesus was male, so there is no way that a woman can represent him is weak to the point of risibility. Jesus was human. His maleness was not central to his identity. He had to be one or the other, male or female, and had he been female no one would have listened to him. So there was a good reason for God to incarnate him as male. But maleness is not theologically central to Jesus' identity. In fact, the priest represents the risen Jesus, who has transcended mere biological categories and can be considered as much female as male. So this means that we can have women priests.
There were possibly some spots in the early church were there were women priests, but this cannot be proven. One claim does not stand up to scrutiny. Paul in the letter to the Romans sends his regards to the presbyter Junias. Some see this as the accusative singular of Junia, a female name, indicating that there was a woman priest. However, it is the accusative singular of the masculine Junias as well, so nothing can be proven here. But Junias might have been a woman. The Celtic church, which was not under Roman Catholic control, almost certainly had women priests, as St Brigid of Kiildare was ordained bishop. This was written off by later propagandists as the result of a bishop saying the wrong rite over her, but it is not likely that a bishop would go through a whole ceremony and not realize that he was making a mistake. This is a case of history being rewritten to explain away embarrassing practices with which authority dd not agre, but which cannot be forgotten.
St Paul's supposed order that women should not speak in church, in the letter to Timothy, was not from Paul. It came from a later writer whose works were attributed to Paul. In the second century the Montanists were a sect troubling the church. They had ecstatic prophetesses who spoke out giving supposed revelations, A backlash against women's ministry was inevitable. Yet the church had deaconesses, ordained to an order below that of priest. Opponents of women priests have been at pains to say that they merely arranged flowers on the altar or took the Eucharist round to women. Whatever they did, they were given the title of deacon, which was one order below priest. This implies that the church can give some rank in the ministry to women.
The problem came as the church began to mirror the Roman power structure and a class of ruling bishops developed. The Romans believed that power was masculine and that persons taking orders were inferior to those giving them . Women could not therefore exercise power except as delegated by their menfolk. Thus if Christians had had women priests they would have been seen as taking orders from women and therefore being inferior to women. Furthermore, few women received an education and so could not have exercised the ministry, which requires a reasonable educatonal standard. It was therefore almost impossible for women to exercise the priestly ministry at the time of the early church, when the church was in much trouble with persecution as it was, without adding any more problems.
However, then is not now. We have evolved beyond the Roman imperial power structure and way of doing things. The time has come for the churches to come together to allow women to exercise the priestlly ministry. As we have seen there are no good reasons against it, and historical circumstances do not a good reason make. There will be problem, especially as some churches are set against it, but we must begin to solve them.
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