Editor’s Note (Greg Goebel): Fr. Lee Nelson has been a writer and supporter of Anglican Pastor from our earliest days. I asked him to write a response to the Rev. Dr. Emily McGowin’s post for our site. Meanwhile, Rev. Blake Johnson has also published a response on the Theopolis Insitute’s blog.
We present this post below to you as a contribution to this important discussion. You should also read Dr. McGowin’s rejoinder. After that, we will ask the writers to continue any discussion in the comments, or if they choose, on a social media platform.
Each of these writers is a faithful Christian who cares about the Gospel and the Church. While some forms of argumentation may be vigorous and directly challenging, we know all of these writers to be charitable leaders who desire to promote the truth, and to serve the Church. Thank you for reading along with us as we seek to represent some of the viewpoints within our church.
As always, Anglican Pastor does not take a site-wide position on this issue, except that we are seeking to allow representatives of various viewpoints to share their thoughts with you.
Emily McGowin has made an argument for the ordination of women to the priesthood. This is, as she notes, a limited argument, not meant in any way to be a comprehensive defense. It involves a pseudo-patristic Christological argument as follows: if the incarnation of Our Lord assumed not just male human nature but human nature more generally (including both male and female), then both men and women can be saved. And, therefore, both men and women can represent the incarnate Christ as priests.
The first inference was made explicitly by Gregory of Nazianzus and other Fathers. The second was drawn by none of the Fathers.
As the argument proceeds from Patristic Christology, and as the Fathers were writing as interpreters of Holy Scripture, her innovative argument must be subject to biblical scrutiny. And being subject to biblical scrutiny, it fails. Let me try to explain why.
That both men and women can be saved by our common Redeemer is a basic Christian belief.
All of the baptized share in a royal priesthood: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (1 Peter 2:9)
But we must remember that the first Christians were Jews. They knew that all Israelites were called to be part of a priestly nation (Ex. 19:6), but that God called only a select number of men to be priests as a special vocation (Ex 21& 22).
So too, in the Church, we are all called to live in a priestly manner, but only a few are called to the vocation of priesthood. All Christians act in a priestly manner as they live out their vocation within the created order. Every act, whether it’s brewing coffee, or feeding your children, or working as a doctor, or feeding the poor, even just walking down the street, becomes a priestly act if it is carried out prayerfully and in witness to Jesus. But this is a reality wholly distinct from how we ought to think about ordination.
Anglicans have a deeply rooted theological method.
We start with Scripture, taking it in its plain and canonical sense, respectful of the Church’s consensual and historic reading (e.g. the Jerusalem Declaration). If something cannot be proven by Holy Scripture, it cannot be required to be believed because, as we put it, Scripture contains all things necessary to salvation.
Then we look to the tradition, specifically how the Church has read Scripture. From there, we exercise right reason to answer the question before us, bound again by Holy Scripture and the consensual readings which we find in the Tradition.
The Fathers understand themselves to be bearers of the very faith they had received in Holy Scripture. They carry out this tradition, not in abstraction from Scripture but in conformity to it. Another way of putting it is this: for Christians, logic has a name: Jesus Christ, as he is revealed in Holy Scripture, as he is testified to down through the centuries, and as we have received him.
One of the biggest problems with McGowin’s argument is that she does not start with Scripture.
Instead, she starts with a questionable patristic argument (with which the Fathers she quotes would not have agreed) and then builds from that to attempt to tell us why we must accept this dramatic change in teaching and practice.
McGowin’s failure to robustly engage Scripture first shows up when she assumes that men and women can represent Christ and the Church equally (or equally badly, as the case may be)—either analogously, iconographically, or sacramentally. She reasons that if male and female can be saved, then male and female can function more or less equally. This reasoning, of course, has the benefit of widely received notions in the culture that support her. But what she doesn’t have is the backing of Holy Scripture.
We see in Genesis that woman is drawn out of the side of the man, and fashioned from one of the man’s ribs (Gen. 2:21-22).
Human nature is created first in Adam, and while Eve’s human nature is full, it is of a derivative sort. While man and woman are both made in the image of God, we see that they are set to carry out very different vocations within the created order.
The woman relates to all living as life-giver and mother. All human life will now come forth from a woman. The man’s relation to creation is that of a father and gardener, tending the garden and bringing forth life from the ground. While they exhibit what John Paul II called a “somatic homogeneity”—meaning that their bodies are of the same substance—their sexual difference serves to show the relation between God and creation: one gives and the other receives.
The New Testament witness is similar.
While soteriological distinctions between man and woman pass away in baptism (Galatians 3:28), men and women retain distinctions in the ways they serve the divine economy.
Paul writes, “The head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God” (1 Cor. 11:3). He does “not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over men” (1 Tim. 2:12). Distinctions of dress and conduct within the Church between men and women are maintained, even while they are “joint heirs of the grace of life” (1 Pet. 3:7).
So while the sacrament of baptism unites man and woman in a redeemed humanity, it does not erase bodily distinctions or hierarchies of authority within the Church. Just as the one-flesh union of marriage does not erase sexual distinction, but puts that distinction to sacramental use to show forth the mystical union between Christ and his Church, so the union of man and woman in one Church means that their sexual difference is not reduced but enhanced. Their ontological status as redeemed children before God is the same, but they do not fulfill the same functions, or even show forth the same realities in living that redeemed life.
Women and men have different ways of serving the Lord Christ, as do parents and children, pastors and their flocks. Sacramental order and the orders of ministry exhibit hierarchies that allow men and women to exercise their unique roles in showing forth the glory of the Church’s Incarnate head.
The New Testament, while affirming the ministry of women in various forms, leaves no room for women to be ordained as either presbyters or as bishops. Arguments to the contrary are must turn Scriptures on their head to make them fit desired conclusions.
But at no point do the New Testament authors surmise from this that women cannot be saved! They simply teach that some roles are reserved for women and others for men. The question of whether or not women can image forth the Incarnation in the person of Christ is unanswered by the New Testament authors. What they do answer is the question of whether a woman may have authority over a man and whether a woman can or should serve the Church as a sacramental sign of Christ as a priest or a bishop. The answer is no.
Therefore, McGowin’s argument cannot be taken seriously by anyone who takes the authority of Scripture seriously.
This method of reasoning is also vulnerable to the theological and exegetical method of liberal Protestantism: determine the alteration to faith and practice which must be made in order to survive or thrive in the modern world, develop an exegetical or theological method to suit that end, and conduct whatever pyrotechnics are necessary to effect that change.
In fact, such an argument in its literal reading could be applied to suit just about any alteration to the Church’s historic teachings on sex, the role of men and women, or marriage.
Now, I don’t accuse her of proposing any of that. But this method, if applied consistently, would lead to wholesale alteration of the Church’s teaching, in defiance of Scripture. This, alas, is the problem of exalting so-called logic over divine revelation in Scripture.
Ironically, I think that McGowin’s argument actually shows why only a man can represent both sexes before God as a priest.
For she accepts the fact that the man Jesus can adequately redeem both men and women. It stands to reason that if one (albeit divine) man can best redeem both sexes, another man can well represent both sexes at the altar.
Furthermore, it makes eminent sense for a man—and not a woman—to stand for Jesus at the altar saying “This is my [man’s] Body given for you.” Yet McGowin has strangely directed the reader to the all-embracing humanity of Jesus Christ the God-Man, and then misdirected the reader to the “logical” conclusion that a male-only presbyterate cannot adequately represent its flock at the altar. It is even more strange to suggest that a woman can play the role of a king, much less our heavenly King.
Bear with me a bit more as I examine her syllogism.
- The Incarnate Christ, as male, represents and redeems humanity, both male and female.
- Women can be redeemed.
- Therefore, women can be priests.
Her conclusion is a non sequitur because it involves a very serious category error, the blurring of the distinction between soteriology and sacramentology which occurs between the second premise and the conclusion.
McGowin claims two things.
First, that the distinctions between men and women are non-essential (thus rejecting the essentialism that God himself invented and reveals in Scripture, endorsed by the Fathers), and therefore non-essential to how we think about sacramental order.
Second, she argues that the ability of male and female bodies to serve sacramentally to image forth the Incarnate Christ are equally (in)sufficient.
McGowin anticipates the response that redemption and sacramental representation are different.
Indeed. I would say that not only are these categories different, but ignoring that difference is at the heart of McGowin’s argument. Clearly, the idea that a woman can be saved and the idea that a woman can be ordained a priest are two different ideas, borne out by the fact that not all Christians are ordained. The argument is something akin to saying “Birds can fly, therefore feathers can fly.” She confuses the properties of the whole Church with the properties of a part. But, McGowin doesn’t take this distinction between categories seriously. By blurring the categories, McGowin sets the ground for her argument, but alas, this category error is its fatal flaw.
McGowin responds that “an analogy does not require a pure one-to-one correspondence.”
That is emphatically true. If it is true that God can only be known by analogy, then that is all we have, imperfect similarities that always fall short. There is even a question in Christian theology as to whether or not God can ever be known in his essence at all. The idea is that we can only ever “tell the truth, but tell it slant” (to use Emily Dickinson’s phrase).
But, this is an activity wholly dissimilar from McGowin’s proposal: that man and woman as analogues to Christ are equally bad, and being equally bad, should be equally embraced. Yet the argument made by those who hold that only a male priest can stand in the place of Christ sacramentally is not saying that the analogy is perfect, only that it is fitting, and being fitting, only a male priesthood can sign forth Christ who is Incarnate as a man, and as such the savior and redeemer of all mankind, both male and female.
Christian theology does not throw up its hands and say “Well, all analogies fall short, therefore we should stop trying” but rather, “All analogies fall short, some more than others. Therefore every attempt should be made to be as precise as possible.” Analogies, in order to be helpful in lending clarity, must fit. They must lead us closer to the truth, not away from it.
McGowin asserts that “sacramental representation means the priest functions not as Christ, but as an icon of Christ.”
She argues, with William Witt, that physical similarity to the male body of Christ is not central, but without saying why it is not. They seem to mean that both male and female bodies can function semiotically to point to Christ. As I have said, when it comes to the notion of the Church functioning in this way ecclesially as Bride to point to Christ, that is absolutely the case. But our symbols matter. As Ken Myers continually reminds us, “Matter matters.” Why did Jesus choose for his symbols twelve men? Why not one of the Marys? McGowin does not wrestle with this.
McGowin proposes that the sacramental image of the priest is conformity to the pattern of Christ, the Suffering Servant, which though not defined, can be understood to mean that insofar as the priest suffers, or serves, or prays, only then is Christ represented.
But it was Donatism which taught that the priest must be a moral or spiritual exemplar in order to be effective as a sacramental sign. The Church has taught consistently that it is actually in doing what the Church does, that the priest functions sacramentally.
And if that is the case—and the tradition says that it is—how can anyone claiming to be a priest do what the Church has not done? How can it be that this powerful sacramental sign of Christ’s Incarnate priesthood be so dramatically altered (a process not wholly different from a sex change) without dramatically altering our fundamental convictions concerning Christ himself?
In order for an icon to “work,” it must participate in that which it images forth. While there can be little doubt that a woman can image forth Christ due to her participation in him, what is in question is whether a woman can image forth Christ giving us his Body and Blood as she presides over the Church, specifically in the celebration of the Eucharist.
McGowin claims that both male and female bodies can function sacramentally to represent either the Church or Christ.
The main assertion is that if a male body can represent Christ at the altar and also represent the female Bride, then women can fulfill both ordained functions as well. But this does not follow.
First, while it is freely admitted that women can represent Christ, this is not the question. The question is whether or not women can be ordained as presbyters in the Church to preside over the Eucharistic assembly, representing Christ, who is the head of the Body. Can women exercise this authority? She claims that these sexual differences do not show us anything essential, that we must look past sexual difference to see bare humanity in a more general sense, as if anyone could do so. Yet the scandal and power of the Incarnation are found precisely in its particularity—that Christ was incarnate, not as an androgynous human being, but as a man.
McGowin’s last assertion, however, needs to be challenged most vigorously: that those “who feast at Eucharistic tables presided over by women priests get to see glimpses of this new creation every Sunday.”
The claim is essentially this: that an all-male priesthood is deficient, and again, if this is the case in the Church, then why is it not the case with Christ? How have we not become captive to what C.S. Lewis termed “chronological snobbery,” the idea that we, in our late times, have finally put a finger on the truth, that we now understand so much more than our predecessors in the faith? What can account for this discrepancy? Sexism? Misogyny?
And how on earth is one supposed to deflect those accusations from Our Lord himself? How can the appointment of twelve male apostles be anything but the sin of sexism, blinding the Church intentionally from seeing the full picture of the new creation? And lastly, what of the status of women who attend churches that only have male priests, including large parts of Anglicanism, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Orthodox Churches? Do they not, by participating fully in the liturgy, show forth Christ’s new creation every Sunday? Do they not get to see glimpses of redemption?
McGowin’s central claim was that men and women are interchangeable—which Scripture and history and biology deny. But at the end of her article we get to this last, additional, claim–that the inclusion of women in the presbyterate provides us with something vastly superior.
By asserting an imposed vision that is considered not a development of, but as superior to, the biblical and historical vision of man and woman, and by blurring the lines between soteriology and sacramentology, has undermined and disparaged the very theology and practice of the Fathers which she has claimed to defend. This patristic theology is not only deeply biblical, but for that very reason and its attestation by the Fathers, it is authoritative for us as Anglicans.
The Rev. Lee Nelson, S.S.C. is a priest, church-planter, and catechist. He has planted churches in Waco and College Station, Texas with the aim of making disciples on college campuses. He is currently the Chair of the Committee for Catechesis of the Anglican Church in North America which produced To Be a Christian, an Anglican Catechism.