“A priest, a minister and a rabbi walked into a….” In jokes, it’s a bar. In real life, it might be a ministerial meeting. The world sees them as professional colleagues in competing enterprises. But they are three separate vocations. This seems clear to Roman Catholics, Presbyterians and Jews, even if there are pastoral and spiritual similarities. But Anglicans can get confused and bounce back and forth between priest and minister.
It matters. When I heard a theology professor justify ordaining women as priests by quoting passages from the New Testament referring to women “ministering,” it became clear to me that Anglicans first have to agree on what ordination means before they can even discuss who should be ordained.
“To minister” in the New Testament usually describes more the role of the deacon than the priest. It often is a translation of the Greek “diaconia,” but English has no verb “to deake.” This is confusing for those who use the terms of “minister,” or “ priesthood,” as synonymous, a unitary churchly office. In the early Church, there were a large number of offices. There were apostles, prophets, teachers, healers, helpers, administrators, miracle workers (1 Corinthians 12:28-29), and a little later doorkeepers, exorcists, lectors along with deacons, presbyters and bishops. The latter three soon became, and remained, distinct categories of apostolic ordination. By the second millennium, however, the diaconate had disappeared in the West except as a ceremonial step to priesthood. Unfortunately, the Reformers had no role model left of the functioning diaconate in the early Church. The diaconate as a functional order was not established again in the western Church until recent times.
Women served as deacons from New Testament times forward (Paul’s mention of Phoebe, for example). In the Byzantine Church, they were numerous. John Chrysostom mentions sixty at Hagia Sophia alone. The modern claim has been made that these were somehow “lay deaconesses,” but the same word for ordination (“keratonia,” from the Greek word for hand) was used for women as for men. They had somewhat different duties than male deacons, but that they were ordained deacons is clear. The total absence of historical record indicating women priests in the catholic Church of the first millennium is also extremely clear. Had it happened, it is not credible that it would not be mentioned, as it would have been big news.
Thus, all Christians are called to minister, some in the specific service of diaconate, but to apply the term in early Christianity to the modern Protestant minister is faulty exegesis. Of course, women Christians are called to be ministers, including today’s Protestant minister. But if you accept the catholic Tradition of sacramental priesthood in apostolic order, the Biblical reference to women as ministers simply is not relevant.
If you agree with the Anglican concept that theology should be decided on a reading of Scripture as interpreted by Tradition, you will thus find absolute justification for women ordained as deacons and the absolute absence of women as priests. This irritates conservatives, who really don’t want women in the chancel at all and liberals, who think women should function as men in all endeavors.
But is it possible that the absence of women in the priesthood, while historically accurate, is a result of cultural bias only recently adjusted, and not a permanent Scriptural condition? To answer means returning to the basics.
In contrast to a Protestant minister, a priest in the catholic Tradition is ordained in apostolic succession primarily to preside at the Lord’s Table as the delegate of the bishop. This action radiates out from Sunday morning as the parish family leaves the Table, carrying the real presence of Jesus with them, to do their liturgy, their service during the week. As such, the priest serves as pastoral father to the parish family through their respective lives, always beginning and ending at the Table of the family of God.
The priest presides by standing in the place of Jesus as parish father. Jesus was a man. How important is it that the parish father also is a man as he stands where Jesus stood on Maundy Thursday? Strip away all the notions of career and power attached for far too long to priesthood and of male dominance in our society. What remains is a father seeking to provide for his family, from the vantage of God who we beseech to “graciously behold this thy family, for which our Lord Jesus Christ was contented to be betrayed” (Good Friday Collect), in love and humility. In this creation where we all fit together, each with our own vocation, carried out in humble loving service, the role of father is not interchangeable or optional. Neither is the role of mother, whose corresponding and complimentary image is that of Mary, the first among Christians, whose obedient “yes” to God contrasts with Eve’s rebellious “no,” and harmonizes with Jesus’ obedient “yes” to the Father, in contrast to Adam’s “no.”
If you see the Church as an institution with an organizational power structure and the parish priest as the authority to impose the wishes of the episcopal hierarchy on the parish, this will seem very difficult.
If you see the Church as God’s sacrament of love, where the first are last and the parish priest serves in humility as a loving father of a family, all with unique, equal and complimentary vocations, this makes sense. Jesus’ analogy is that he is the bridegroom and we, the Church, are the bride. His sacrificial love is that of a husband for his beloved.
I suppose, in a world of sin, it sadly comes as no surprise that, when love and humility are replaced with ego, power, abuse of authority, and career hirelings, Jesus’ love is distorted and denied. Destroying the perfect model of what God created – gender that is complimentary and equal – is not the solution. Rather, we should destroy the distortions that perpetuate the models of power, abuse, and institutional preservation instead of love, sacramental grace, humility, and service.