Monday, June 19, 2006

Women in the Church

It was only a matter of time before the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States elevated a woman to the episcopacy, and then it was just a little hop and a skip to electing one of the women bishops Presiding Bishop.. The only suprise here is that it took so long: women were first admitted to Holy Orders over thirty years ago.

The consecration of Gene Robinson, as scandalous as it was, was not the shocker that the ordination of women was. There have always been bishops who have lived sinful lives, though perhaps not as openly as Robinson. But Robinson is, at least, fit matter for the Sacrament, whatever his attitude towards the other Sacraments, such as matrimony.

Accepting women into the priesthood, though, that's another matter (no pun intended): that's a fairly major theological split from the Tradition. The elevation of a woman to the episcopacy merely underscores that split, it does not make it worse. My old friend and mentor, Fr. Bob Duncan, now bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, summed up what the real problem here is:
"In many ways the election speaks for itself," Bishop Robert W. Duncan Jr. of Pittsburgh said in a statement. Bishop Duncan is the moderator of the Anglican Communion Network, a theologically conservative group of Episcopal dioceses. "For the Anglican Communion worldwide, this election reveals the continuing insensitivity and disregard of the Episcopal Church for the present dynamics of our global fellowship."
It seems that certain communities within the Episcopal Church in the United States are happy to act unilaterally in certain matters (while criticizing the United States itself for acting unilaterally in other matters, one notes in passing). That is, in itself, not a good thing--communion requires some sort of consultation and regard for other points of view, not this "we're right and you're wrong" sort of thing. I suppose from their point of view, they are right and everyone else is wrong; no doubt they view the Roman Catholic Church as the institution that asserts itself to be right and all else wrong--but they have now effectively ended any chance of re-establishing intercommunion with Rome, let alone reunification. Rome must now turn to the East in its ecumenical efforts.

Clearly this is where the greatest tragedy lies--the end of all hope for intercommunion. But there is another element of sadness here, and that is the way in which women are being used for political purposes, usually with their own consent. It is, indeed, very desireable that women take positions in the church the allow them fully express their calling, but I think that there are some fundamental mistakes being made here. First is this idea that the only way fully to express one's calling is through a "leadership" position. Another is the idea that ordained ministry is, in itself, fundamentally a "leadership" position that should be sought principally as a means of fulfilling a perceived calling to "leadership". Ministers are supposed to minister, they are servants. It is an accident of our own political history that such roles are seen as "leadership" roles. The episcopacy, of course, is somewhat different, since it is, inded, literally, a position of "overseer" (< Gr. episkopos), but he who would be first.... Why is it, though, that we live in a time and a place where ordained ministry is viewed as an avenue of power, an office of leadership?

I am reminded, in all of this, of the role that women played among the Recusant Catholics during the 16th and 17th century. During that sad period of English history--already a harbinger of sadder periods to follow!--it was illegal to celebrate the Mass, and priests had to do their work surreptitiously. It was dangerous work, too, since the penalty was usually death, often involving horrible torture and mutilation along the way. The work would have been much more difficult than it was, though, had it not been for the brave help offered by women, particularly widows, who were able to take in the priests and hide them in their homes. These women risked their own lives to help provide service and ministry to their fellow Catholics, and without them it is fair to say that the history of Catholicism in England would have been very different (the Martyrology for tomorrow features one of these women, Blessed Margarite Ball, who was martyred for the help she gave to priests).

It is essential to find roles for women in the Church that recognize their inherent equality in human dignity but that do not transgress the clear teaching of the Church that they are not fit matter for admission to Holy Orders. The challenge here is to see that human dignity does not, in itself, require standing in a particular overseer position in order to be fully expressed, indeed, such dignity has nothing to do with being in one position rather than another.

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