Editor’s Note: The piece below represents the opinion of the author. Anglican Pastor does not take a site-wide position for or against women’s ordination. We do, however, require both clarity and charity. We ask that your responses to it do so as well.
In a debate as crucial and heated as the matter of ordaining women to the priesthood in the Anglican Church in North America, it is worth trying to understand what motivates the other side. In my case, being convinced that the received catholic interpretation of the Scriptures is definitive, the “other side” commends and supports the ordination of women to the priesthood.
How can I account for the views on the “other side”?
Due to the diversity of parties and traditions within Anglicanism, churchmanship is a large part of the question, sure. But, at the end of the day, we are all Christians reading God’s authoritative Word. I believe the “other side” holds their beliefs in good faith. They are every bit as educated and wise as the scholars on “my side”. For the most part, we use the same interpretive tools to unpack the meaning of Scripture. “They” desire to honor and obey the Living God every bit as much as “us”.
How then, do they come to such opposite conclusions on this question? While the dominance of Gender Studies in the Academy cannot be fully excluded from the equation—it is in the very air that we breathe now—I believe there is an additional factor that might come to bear as motivation: The failure of male clergy.
Since I am myself a male priest in the ACNA, this means a failure that I am party to.
Brothers, we have failed.
We have failed in how we have carried the ministry of priesthood.
If we had carried our ministries in a more apostolic, more Christ-like fashion, perhaps the wider Church, against the winds of change, would have rested more content in her inheritance of an all-male priesthood. Perhaps there would be less of a felt need to admit women to the priesthood, had we male priests done our job better. Brothers, I believe we have failed.
How have we failed, exactly?
We have failed:
When we have blurred the boundaries between a God-given holy male-headship and a simplistic cultural patriarchalism.
When we used “ministry” and “ordained ministry” as synonyms, thus relegating true, Spirit-filled ministry that could be done by lay men or women to a second-tier incidental in the life of the Church.
When we accepted worldly accolade, glory, or perks for being an ordained minister, thus socially allowing the order to be seen as superior, rather than that of a servant.
When we have—in word, deed, or allowance—given credence to the false idea that an ordained minister is somehow a special sort of human being.
When we have failed to rightly magnify the gift that is the property of all baptized Christians: The Indwelling Spirit of God.
When we have neglected the public reading of Scripture, and have not brought forward the full witness of the New Testament, including 1 Timothy 2, for the people of God to mark and inwardly digest.
When, despite the clear teaching of the Bible that (1) men and women equally are made in the Image of God and (2) the distinction of “male and female” is of no consequence in Christ (Gal 3:28), we have nevertheless taught or implied that women are in any way ontically inferior to men.
When we, out of resistance to women in the priesthood, have discouraged or prohibited women from exercising their rightful and biblically-sanctioned ministries:
- Catechist (cf. Priscilla),
- Teacher (cf. Euodia and Syntyche),
- Small-Group Leader (cf. The female prophets in 1 Cor. 11),
- Lector and Deaconess (cf. Phoebe), and
- Lay Eucharistic Minister (cf. Mary, bearer of our Lord).
When we have thought that some members of the body are of greater value than others, or allowed others to believe the same, arrogantly asserting that the eye is more important than the hand.
When we have laughed at jokes about women, Or worse, when we have made them ourselves, perhaps even from the pulpit.
When we have been weak and two-faced, not confronting sin and dysfunction in the church head-on but allowing others to suffer.
When we have equated machismo with manliness, and have been pushy, bossy, rude, harsh or condescending, all under the ruse of “strong leadership.”
When we have seen inordinate emotional responses and the need for psychotherapy in ourselves, and have not gone to a therapist.
When we have adopted a “father knows best” approach and not humbly accepted the counsel of others.
When we have not sought to truly love our congregations from the heart, and instead have grumbled against them to others.
When we have tried to further our own convictions with a “thus saith the Lord.”
When we have bowed down to the capitalist idol of over-work, and clocked too many hours “for the Church”, robbing our families of the debt of love we owe to them.
When we have equated cultural expressions of manliness with godly expressions, and made men who don’t like sports or hiking to feel like they are less manly for the fact.
When we have preached things that we do not do ourselves.
When we have engaged with other Christians who support the ordination of women to the priesthood with contempt, anger, slander, malice, or scorn.
In short, when we have not been good fathers, we have failed.
It’s not the only reason, to be sure, but I believe part of why so many in the church today want “mothers” is because the fathers have so often failed us. As Christians we want—we desperately need—someone who will take care of our souls, and many fathers have made a mess of it, myself included.
So, apart from all debate, I’m calling out to all spiritual fathers:
Play the man. Join me in crying out to God to make us servants to the church like St. Paul was a servant. Fast for yourselves and for the brothers.
And if you recognize any traits from my lament in your own ministry (and I hate to say: I recognize some of them in myself)—repent.
Cry out with me to our heavenly Father, to pour out his fatherly gifts into our hearts, that we may carry out the ministry of his Son in a manner more in keeping with him who humbled himself, taking on the likeness of a servant. If we men can do better, with God’s help, maybe the church won’t feel the need to ask Eve to stand in for Adam at the altar.
As C.S. Lewis so memorably put it in his 1948 essay Priestesses in the Church?,“We men may often make very bad priests. That is because we are insufficiently masculine. It is no cure to call in those who are not masculine at all. A given man may make a very bad husband; you cannot mend matters by trying to reverse the roles. He may make a bad male partner in a dance. The cure for that is that men should more diligently attend dancing classes; not that the ballroom should henceforward ignore distinctions of sex and treat all dancers as neuter.”
If we male priests inhabited the priesthood with more modesty and gentleness and humility, then it would be more apparent to the wider church that indeed, a priest is only one of many roles within the church that is necessary for her life and health.
If we carried our priesthood in a more Christ-like manner, it would cease to appear as something desirable, something to be grasped, something that was necessary for the real equality of the sexes in the Kingdom of God to be on display.
Consider how different it was in St. Paul’s time—the Apostles were exhibited as the refuse of the world. No one wanted to be one! And yet they ministered with a godly authority that has been rare ever since. And additionally, in their time, the fullness of ministries, of both men and women, were possible. How many of our churches today would honor a woman who prophesies, the way they were honored in Corinth? How many priests today would say of a woman who serves in the parish, that she is indeed a bona fide co-laborer in the gospel (Cf. Phil 4:2-3)?
Reducing the man-made self-importance of the priesthood is an essential component to the building up of the church, and equitable flourishing of both men and women in her midst.
Brothers, let us repent of our failures.
Ben Jefferies is the rector of The Good Shepherd Anglican Church, Opelika, Alabama. He served on the Task Force that produced the Book of Common Prayer 2019. He is married with three daughters.