A few weeks ago, a Roman Catholic seminarian asked me, “has women’s ordination helped the Anglican Church?” His question was innocent enough, posed with genuine curiosity, and I appreciated his effort to hear the experience of another Christian tradition. Maybe it helps that I understand the sacramental theology underlying Roman (and Eastern) insistence on a male-only priesthood, and that, to a considerable degree, I am in accord with it. Many if not most Anglicans place a strong emphasis on God’s work among us through visible signs participating in Divine Grace. For the Sacrament of Holy Orders, that visible sign is none other than a real human being who shares a nature with the Son of God, who participates in Christ’s ministry as our “Great High Priest.”
Nevertheless, I was taken aback, unable to properly answer the question. This had nothing to do with the question itself, but with the ecclesiological category that framed it: has it “helped?” I simply don’t consider the ordination of women to the diaconate, priesthood and episcopate in those terms. The answer to me is so obviously a “yes,” and an “obvious yes” that gets repeated every time a woman is ordained, and in the steady stream that is God’s gracious movement through the ministry of ordained women in their pastoral, academic, administrative and other contexts. So unlike the “obvious yes” of grace that I discussed last week, this “obvious yes” is continually held up before us, has become part of our collective memory as a Church.
Time to break out the jargon, and the Latin. The classical distinction raised by the question and my (muffled) response is that between the esse and bene esse of the Church. In English, the “being” (or the cognate, “essence”) and the “well being” of the Church. The bene esse names what is helpful, salutary, or “nice to have.” The esse what is constant, established by God, foundational to what the Church is. We shouldn’t make too much of this distinction, for two contrasting reasons: 1) we would hope that those essential things (again, a cognate) are helpful to the Christian life and community, and conversely 2) things that we think are essential but may be unhelpful can be open to re-evaluation as to their essentiality. This process of re-evaluation is precisely what we mean by “reform,” if it is submitted to the discernment of the Holy Spirit.
Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda. “A reformed Church, ever reforming.” Western Christians, Roman Catholics included, see Reform as part of the esse of the Church. Things that begin as a helpful response to a situation continue to be helpful, such that they are seen to be part of that steady stream that is God’s gracious movement among us. But even though reform clearly isn’t a uniform continuity with the past, it isn’t a complete rupture with the past either. Rather, an authentic reform merely explores a fuller, truer vision of something already considered to be essential to the Church.
When Florence Li Tim-Oi was ordained to the priesthood on January 25, 1944, the priesthood of the Catholic Church was not broken, and Li’s ministry in post-war China thrived. When Churches throughout the Anglican Communion formally opened the priesthood to women in the 1970s, the Sacrament of Holy Orders didn’t magically disappear. Instead, the fruit of the sacrament—vital ministries of Service, Word and Table and Oversight—carried on as before. The difference is that these ministries gained a whole swath of highly capable, committed and compassionate people to take them on.
People—human beings—who had previously been prohibited from exercising these ministries. People—human lives—who could now offer their own particular lives and experiences to participate in the ministry of the Servant of all, the Great High Priest and the Chief Shepherd. At Wycliffe I have met numerous women seeking ordination that clearly should be ordained, and (if I’m being honest) I have met some that probably shouldn’t just yet. But this is no longer a question of whether they can participate because they are women, of whether women constitute part of the esse of the priesthood. It is the question common to all who seek ordained ministry: whether they are duly formed to bear the compassion, competency and integrity that marks the bene esse of the priesthood and the Church.
Fiftyish years on, this has now passed into our collective memory, our common conception of what a priest is. It has occurred alongside the brave work of feminist movements that continually hold up to our memory the fact that a full conception of what humanity is requires the reality and experiences of women. It has even pressed our Christology to affirm that nature and life (“reality and experiences”) of the Son of God, born of His Blessed Mother, the abuses of His sorrowful passion, the triumph of His glorious resurrection and ascension, have to incorporate the reality and experiences of women even in His own flesh. That which is not assumed is not redeemed; the ordination of women requires us to remember that “forgotten obvious” that the reality and experiences of women’s lives have been redeemed and assumed in the life of the Son of God. Which is why I have to affirm that a woman can, in her body and her life, be a visible sign of Christ’s priestly ministry. But I must go further: if Christ offers the priestly ministry of His Body to the Father on behalf of all humanity, then the sacramental sign of His priesthood is only full if it can represent all of humanity.
To be starkly technical about it, a male-only priesthood is deficient in this representation. This is unlikely to convince Roman Catholics and others who affirm a male-only priesthood, but my goal here isn’t to convince but to help clarify, and help others understand. Maybe this parallel will serve that purpose: Anglicans and Roman Catholics together hold that the priesthood and episcopate are part of the esse of the Church. Roman Catholics believe that Petrine ministry is essential to what the episcopate is: without it, the episcopate is present only as a shadow of its fuller, truer self. Many Anglicans agree (see #19-23), including myself. But I also claim that the ordination of women is essential to what the priesthood is: without it, the priesthood is present only as a shadow of its fuller, truer self. The ordination of women is therefore essential to the fullness of the Church.