Why I Changed My Mind on Women Clergy

The Orthodox Church, while never dogmatically ruling against women priests, has never ordained women. There is, however, a historical basis to reviving the female diaconate, which has simply fallen into disuse for various reasons.

Although St. Paul asks for women’s silence in the church in one specific context (1 Cor 14:34), he also commends St. Junia as a fellow co-worker and Apostle (Romans 16:7), and praises St. Priscilla, the teacher of St. Apollos. Paul also mentions women praying and prophesying publicly in the local churches (1 Cor 11). He calls St. Phoebe a deacon and she is the one who teaches the Letter to the Romans (Romans 16).

The Church is indebted to the contributions of holy women, and has recognized them consistently in their veneration of saints. St. Macrina the Younger taught her younger brothers St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory of Nyssa while leading a monastery. Female emperors like St. Theodora restored icons and convened councils, while preachers like St. Mary Magdalene witnessed the Resurrection are fondly referred to as “Equal to the Apostles” in liturgical prayer.

I was not for male-only clergy because I believed men were better than women. I simply believed God gave men and women different roles. My catechism class taught me that women had the unique ability to create biological life in their bodies (pregnancy) while priests had the the unique ability to create life on the altar (the Risen Jesus in the Eucharist). They were not saying men had to be priests and women had to be mothers, but were giving an example of how difference does not mean lacking in dignity.

But pregnancy is unique to female bodies because of biology. While a male body cannot become pregnant, a female body can receive the laying of hands, say public prayers, preach, and perform the sacraments. Nature does not prevent her from doing so. Furthermore, men also create new life biologically, though they do not carry the child to term. The analogy did not make sense upon further reflection.

Another perspective I hear often is rooted in Christ’s role as the Bridegroom of the Church. The Church has historically been identified as the Bride of Christ. The priests are bridegrooms. Priests are also addressed as fathers. Thus, priests are to be men.

But analogies can only go so far. St. Paul describes himself and his preaching companions as nursing mothers, not fathers (1 Thess. 2:7). Jesus is not only illustrated as a Bridegroom, he is also described as a Lamb. The Church is not only depicted as a spouse, She is also depicted as the Body of Christ. Restricting the roles of women simply because of one analogy among many does not do the analogy justice.

The understanding of priesthood I landed on for several years was rooted in Roman Catholic sacramental theology; the priest being in persona Christi, or the person of Christ. I acknowledged that since Christ is a male, and because a priest is an icon of Christ at the altar, only men could be icons of Christ at the altar. We use bread and wine for communion and water for baptism, so it made that in picking twelve male apostles, Christ indicated to us that males are the necessary “matter” to the Sacrament in order to represent him.

Critics to this perspective point out that Christ was a Jew and the Twelve were Jewish. Why is maleness an essential property for ordination but not Jewish ethnicity The ontological question is answered by St. Paul:

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” – Gal 3:28

A response to this is that ethnicity does not point to the ontological nature of personhood, but gender (maleness or femaleness) does. However, making maleness an essential part of personhood, whether for Christ or for us, indidcates worse implications.

First, maleness and femaleness cannot be essential parts of our personhood. God being called Father, Son, and Holy Spirit has never intended to say anything about the gender of the Trinity. Men and women are both fully made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) who is without gender. Women and men could not both reflect the Godhead if this was the case.

Secondly, this argument does not merely exclude women from the clergy, it excludes them from salvation. St. Gregory of Nazianzus asserted that “the unassumed is the unhealed.” The Word of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). In other words, Jesus had to clothe himself in every part of humanity to share in all of its suffering and death in order to save it. The Cross does not save because it is God in male flesh; it saves because it is God in human flesh.

Sarah Hinlicky Wilson puts it more succinctly:

“It is not a hysterical overstatement, then, to assert that the ordination of women is closely tied to the salvation of women. If the female cannot represent Christ because of her femininity, it is hard to understand how Christ in his masculinity can represent her in his death and resurrection.”

Making Jesus’ maleness an essential part of his personhood is in conflict with what the Church Fathers believed about the Incarnation. This does not mean they supported women priests! None of them could probably have imagined this discussion taking place like it is in contemporary ecumenical dialogue. But it does mean we need to listen to the Holy Spirit working through them in their teachings on Christology and Incarnational theology, and following that to its logical conclusion (i.e. ordaining women as full icons of Christ). This is not a new project, by the way. The Church Fathers say things the Church no longer practices or believes, but that’s another post for another time.

Far from abandoning the Great Tradition, ordaining women enhances it.

One last thought before this discussion goes too far up the ivory tower — The most impactful moment for me arriving at this conclusion was at an Episcopal Christmas Eve service hearing a woman say the Eucharistic Prayer and watching her distribute the Divine Gifts. That’s it. There is not a doubt in my mind these women represent Christ. Holy Orders enable them to present the eucharistic gifts to the Father, to call upon the Holy Spirit to transform them into the Body and Blood of the Son.

The Church will ordain women when it listens to women calling us to the Resurrected One, just as it did on Easter morning.

Author’s Note: I had very little original thought to add to this discussion, so I will direct you to better resources below.

Books:

The Ministry of Women in the Church by Elisabeth Behr-Sigel

Woman, Women, and the Priesthood in the Trinitarian Theology of Elisabeth Behr-Sigel by Sarah Hinlicky-Wilson

The Ordination of Women in the Orthodox Church by Elisabeth Behr-Sigel and Met. Kallistos Ware

Articles:

Ordaining Women: Two Views by Jessica Ferrara and Sarah Hinlicky-Wilson

Ecumenical Perspectives on the Ordination of Women by Sarah Hinlicky-Wilson

From Charisms to Calling by Wesley Hill

I love you but…

This morning, I came across a heartbreaking post on a Facebook friend’s profile:

Received tonight from a great-grandmother (one of the most poignant responses I have received yet)…

“Thirty four years ago this week, our family created an unnecessarily empty chair at our Thanksgiving table. Earlier that Autumn of 1983, our second of four sons had revealed to my husband and me that he was homosexual. While the story is too long and intricate to share in detail in this forum, suffice it to say, we absolutely drove him away. Though we didn’t mean to, that is exactly what we did. We told him that we loved him BUT…and then he was gone. GONE. DISAPPEARED.

Oh, for sure, we felt righteously justified, year after year, by the emptiness of the chair — heartbroken but righteous, with the righteousness obviously more important to us than the heartbreak. After all, the Apostle Paul had taught in First Corinthians 5, ‘With such a one, do not even eat.’ So we didn’t. We were good Christians but terrible parents.

While a book could be, and deserves to be, written here, I just wanted you to know that our son died nine years later of AIDS. And while the people in our church ‘knew’ this was ‘the wages of sin,’ I knew then, and know now, it had nothing to do with his sin and everything to do with ours.

So please keep doing what you are doing and saying what you are saying. It matters.

P.S. This Thanksgiving, one of our granddaughters, who happens to be homosexual, sat in the chair of an uncle she doesn’t remember. And she said the Thanksgiving prayer. It was beautiful.

And I was heartbroken and grateful.

I look forward to the day when I can sit again at the table with her uncle and my boy. Heaven must give me the chance to tell him I am sorry.”

This was the first thing I read this morning. It hit me so hard that I started weeping. My familial estrangement isn’t related to my sexuality, yet so much of this story resonated with me. Placing the conjunction “but” on love in a vulnerable moment alienates LGBT people from the Church, rather than running to Her as Mother.

As a gay man, I never stop coming out. Every person I meet initiates a complex process of emotional calculation: When do I mention it to this person? Do I wait for it to come up naturally? What if they ask me a question about marriage or dating? Am I lying by omission if I answer a question vaguely? Is this person safe?

Coming out is a vulnerable ordeal, especially within the context of faith communities. A consistent response I receive from Christians when I come out is, “I love you, but I can’t support same-sex marriage” or “I love you, but I can’t support sin.” Setting aside the constant assumption of what my sexual ethic looks like or what does/does not happen in my bedroom, that response just doesn’t sit right with me.

To be clear, I’m not saying you need to adopt a liberal sexual ethic to love LGBT people. I’m not saying you can’t find specific sexual behaviors immoral while simultaneously loving sexual and gender minorities. I think LGBT people like myself find the “I love you, but…” response so frustrating because it’s uniquely applied to us and not to straight people.

Imagine if your friend broke down one day and shared the present difficulties within her marriage. I certainly hope your response wouldn’t be, “I love you, but I can’t support divorce.” Your response would assume a lot about her decisions, context, and culpability in the situation. It would also miss an opportunity to meet your friend’s need for love that she isn’t currently receiving from her husband.

Back to the original post:

What I love about the reflection from the woman in this story, is that she didn’t specificy what her current theological stance is on same-sex marriage and gay sex. She didn’t need to. She recognized sin as a communal disorder where her actions had the direct spiritual impact on her son. She repented. She is doing her best to love her granddaughter. And she earnestly looks to the day of Resurrection when “He will wipe every tear from [our] eyes” (Rev 21:4) and experience eternal communion with her son. This email could have been written by a woman who has a traditional sexual ethic or a liberal sexual ethic, and I’m genuinely grateful for her courage.

When I put in the emotional labor to tell you I’m gay, switch up the conjunction. Try: “I love you and nothing you just told me will ever change that.”