Unable to answer these arguments, I remained silent toward these people; but now I beg you Father, to instruct me in what I should say to defend the truth, so that (following the Apostle’s injunction) I may “be ready to give an account of the faith that is in us.”
—St. Gregory Palamas
I’ve been hesitant to weigh in on the ‘Women’s Orders’ controversy because I haven’t exactly liked the rhetoric that has gone around. This isn’t to say that any one author on either side has been particularly antagonistic, I just mean that it’s a topic which can very easily become emotionally compromised. As a general rule, I avoid conversations where others are more emotionally invested than myself – I simply do not have the energy. And were I able to muster the energy, I doubt women on either side of the debate would appreciate another divinity student in his mid-twenties giving his two cents on just what a woman can or cannot do. And finally, were I to prove my side definitively (or as definitively as internet debates can be), just imagining getting sucked into the kind of back-and-forth blog feud that such conversations are prone to produce (Anglican Compass, Earth & Altar, I’m looking at you two) is my own personal hellscape. So let me be very clear: I won’t be doing any of that.
What I will attempt to do is address one particular point and I will not be going any further for quite some time. I aim only to show that it is possible to hold a ‘classical’ understanding of Holy Orders and still honor the god-given dignity of women. It is unfortunate that many within the ‘complementarian’ camp are so preoccupied with trying to subject womanhood to the masculine sex that their argument actually loses its potency. I am saddened that my experience has convinced me that many on my side of the picket fence are not interested in sacramentology so much as sexism. It becomes clear that the issue is not really about remaining subjected to Divine Revelation as it has been mediated to us by the Church, but domination. But do I forfeit the position then? Not at all! To paraphrase St. Paul, I’m simply happy that the truth is taught despite personal failures or questionable motives. I hope to show that though I believe that only men may (really can) fill the offices of Deacon, Priest, and Bishop, I may hold this theological truth without compromising the dignity of my Mothers in the Faith, without whom I would not be a Christian – let alone a good man. I hope to demonstrate that my view isn’t born of defensiveness as if my antiquated position must be vindicated before the modernist eye, but rather that my position rests upon the high offices particular to femininity and gains nothing by detracting therefrom.
As a good Protestant and (even better) Anglican, it is only right that I begin where Holy Scripture begins, which just so happens to be the very beginning. It is here in the beginning – within the creation narrative – that we discover, with the help of Matthew Henry, something truly remarkable. Henry points out (like St. Augustine before him) that creation culminates in the formation of mankind because the “method of the creation was to advance from that which was less perfect to that which was more so;” from least to greatest. If this is the case, then I cannot help but grin at the fact that Woman is created after Man. It logically follows that if Man was dust glorified, then Woman was Man glorified. Likewise, if Man was the crown of creation, then Woman was the crown of Man! “[H]ere a twist of irony: that man is no good without his Eve.” This alone is enough to give us pause and reflect.
The first book of the Law does not stop here, however, as it bestows on Woman a double honor: we must remember that Man only received one name – “Adam,” meaning ‘Man’ or ‘Mankind.’ The same is not true of our first mother! It is true that she is first designated as “Woman” because she “was taken from Man”, but the text then goes on to give her another honorific title – Eve (Hebrew: Chavah, likely derived from chayah, meaning “to live”), because she is the “mother of all the living.” The LXX highlights this emphatically by calling the woman Zoe, which literally means “life.” But what about our father Adam? Surely he was the father of all the living? Surely he is ‘life’ as well? And yet Holy Scripture reserves this twofold prestige for the Woman alone. So then from the very beginning the Word of God heaps honors on womanhood! The life of the Blessed Virgin Mary tells us quite the same thing: “who am I that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” utters St. Elizabeth. I will spare the reader a lengthy excursion into Mariology but suffice it to say that as far as the Biblical Account goes, poor St. Joseph is never treated with such reverence. This piece of the Biblical narrative is – as far as I have seen – altogether missing from the present discourse. Those of us within the classical camp cannot forget about our mothers: Eve, the Matriarchs, Miriam, Deborah, Esther, Judith, Susanna, and many more – St. Mary herself being paramount. Likewise, those within the opposing camp should not assume that we have or ever intend to.
Right off the bat, it is worth restating what many who share my position have found themselves repeatedly saying: ‘men do not get to be priests.’ Some men may be admitted to that office, but it is not a role that anyone is entitled to. Rather, it is a gracious calling. But why are some admitted? Once more the answer is grace. The classical opinion may make sense of St. Paul’s exclusion of women from the Presbyterial office by following a restorative pattern that contrasts the events of the primordial fall with the restoration of that fall through the Gospel. We recall that in the Garden it was the First Eve who took from the Tree of Death, communed, and gave to Adam, her spouse. Mirroring this narrative, Christ at the Last Supper, functioning as the Second Adam, takes from the Tree of Life – His own Body– communes, and gives to His spouse, the Church. There is a reversal in typology taking place here: in the beginning Man complicitly ate death, and now he is bidden to feed others the bread of life. In the beginning the Woman gave death for food, and now she is privileged to eat life everlasting. In the liturgy each Sunday we confess that we are both unworthy “because of our many sins, to offer you any sacrifice,” or to “gather up the crumbs under your table.” Neither the one who feeds nor the one who eats is deserving of either role. The sin of Adam renders his sons just as unworthy to offer the holy mysteries as it does the daughters of Eve. It is grace which has given the sexes their privileges, and these privileges are a divine reversal of what was earned through their willful rebellion in the Garden.
So what then? Is there no role for women in the Church? Are their responsibilities merely passive? Sts. Paul and John Chrysostom tell us no. Though they clearly state that a woman cannot be a Presbyter, “God has given her no small consolation, that of childbearing.” Holy Scripture designates motherhood as –salvific. This is probably strange to our Western ears but becomes readily clear if we once more look at the typology of the fall narrative. When our first parents were evicted from their paradisiacal home, God cursed them, saying to the Woman:
I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children.
He cursed the Man similarly, saying:
cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;= thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground
In the Christian life we see the redemption of those ancient curses in that the product of those curses become the means of salvation for not only the sexes individually, but for the entirety of Mankind. There is a particularly masculine typology taking place in Christ’s “oblation of himself once offered.” Whereas Adam’s bread is purchased by the sweat of his brow, the priest’s is purchased by the bloody sweat of Christ’s, and in this, the curse is undone. The bread for which man toils all his days, the fruit of the sweat of his brow, he is now invited to offer before Almighty God. “These gifts of bread and wine” become a “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving”– the Eucharist! And just as Man’s curse has become for him a means of salvation, St. Paul has told us that the same is true for the Woman, “She will be saved through childbearing.” The curse has become salvation!
The Priesthood Compared to Christian Motherhood
Now I can already hear the objectors: “You want women to just be mothers.” Not at all. That’s like saying that I want men to just be priests. It’s absurd! But absurdity aside, that’s really not the issue with the phrase. In reality, as Christians, we must absolutely reject the rhetoric. Just mothers? Since when is motherhood something to laugh at? To see motherhood as a lesser office is to buy into a patriarchal worldview which is antithetical to the point that I am trying to make. I intend (Lord willing) to say the exact opposite of what this phrase is insinuating. If we were to truly grasp what Holy Scripture says about motherhood, you would never find a Christian of either sex speaking about women being ‘just mothers.’
When comparing Christian Motherhood to the Priesthood it becomes abundantly clear that the former is the greater honor. It is only recently in our history that we would ever doubt such an assertion. For the majority of the Church’s experience it was a mother who was the supreme role-model, not a priest. I mean of course the Blessed Virgin. For nearly two thousand years, if you were to be asked who a Christian ought to emulate, the answer would assuredly be: “Be like the Virgin Mother!” I’m sure that any priest will tell you that they may labor their whole life and only accomplish the conversion of a few souls. A whole life may be committed to the ministry with very little to show for it. In a day and age where church-planting is increasingly the norm, this becomes more apparent. This is why St. Paul says “We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work.” Though the same difficulty is not true of the Christian Mother (yet “esteem” is rightfully hers). St. Paul tells us that her children, by virtue of her faith, are already holy. This is the scandalous reality: Christian Motherhood is as close as mankind comes to creating a Christian ex nihilo – out of nothing.
When our first mother bore Cain, she exclaims “I have acquired a man with the Lord.” The Rabbis commenting on this passage point out that whereas Adam and Eve were produced by the Lord alone, they are now partners with God in this new creative endeavor. Thus childbearing is simultaneously Human and Divine; it is sacramental. Whereas Baptism is the Gospel applied to water, and in the Holy Supper it is applied to bread and wine, Motherhood is the Gospel applied to flesh. Looking again at our mother Eve, we recall that she is promised pain in her childbearing, but she is also promised children – not only children but a particular child – the Seed that will crush the serpent’s head. The first promise of motherhood, with all of its terror and uncertainty, was also the first promise of the Gospel. This promise then culminates in another Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, who bore Our Lord, the true sacrament Himself. In the Eastern Tradition the Feast of the Annunciation is referred to as the “Evangelization of the Theotokos.” For St. Mary, there is no distinction between her conception of Our Lord, and her reception of the Gospel. Every mother leading up to this typological crescendo –and every mother since – has either been a foretelling, or a retelling, of “the word of God, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints.” Motherhood is the Gospel, and it does the work of the Gospel: it makes saints.
Returning once more to the Presbyter we see that as soon as these meager souls are converted, the Priest must tirelessly catechize and prepare them for the awful mystery of Baptism. Not so for the Mother! “This promise is for you and for your children” cries St. Peter. There is no catechumenate for the children of holy women. They, unlike the converts, are entitled to Baptism – it is their birthright! The convert is by Baptism given a Baptismal nature; holy children approach baptism as ones of a like nature. The convert comes as one seeking citizenship and refuge in a new land; the holy child as native-born citizen finally coming home. And not only are these children welcomed in the Kingdom of God, they are bidden – Christ has called these children to Himself. The ever-insightful Anglican Theologian M.F. Sadler reminds us: Our Lord “evidently considers infants to be in a better spiritual position for receiving the grace of His kingdom than such believing adults as the Apostles were at that time.” – and why we ask? Their holy parents!
Now is likely the point where the interlocutor will remind me that the promise of holy children applies to Christians Fathers as well. This is true (thanks be to God). However, we cannot deny the intimate link Scripture has placed between holy children and their mothers. The promise of Holy Seed was not given to Adam, after all. Neither was it our father Jacob who wept for the slaughtered Innocents, but “Rachel weeping for her children.” Astoundingly, this mother hears the cries of her children from within æveternity. The literalism may make some uncomfortable, but even if this passage is reduced to a mere poeticism, it still highlights the unique biblical link between mother and offspring. Consider also Jochebed, Hannah, the wife of Manoah, St. Elizabeth, and of course – the Blessed Virgin Mary. Along with these marvelous figures comes the Church’s testimony: who can forget the faithfulness of St. Monica? Who has done more for the Church than St. Emilia? Rising, Holy Children call their mothers “blessed.” The holy call them blessed! Womanhood’s aforementioned double honor has not been limited to the motherhood of Eve. What greater dignity is there than this? Thus it would seem that both the ‘labor’ and the ‘esteem’ ascribed to the Priesthood is accomplished more thoroughly among Christian mothers.
The Eucharist Compared to Christian Motherhood
A final series of points (for this essay anyway) on the topic may be demonstrated by comparing Christian Motherhood to the Blessed Sacrament itself. The Biblical Narratives provide us with several instances wherein we encounter figures who are consecrated within the womb. Jeremiah was consecrated to be a prophet to the nations before he was born. St. John the Forerunner was “filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.” St. Paul was “set apart” by the Lord while still in the womb. Under the Law of Moses, we are told that every firstborn son was consecrated to the Lord. St. Mary is “overshadowed” by the Holy Spirit and conceived Christ. It would seem that as the Holy Spirit consecrates and sets apart the contents of the priest’s hands, so too has he consecrated the contents of the womb. The beauty of the Gospel is that though in former times this ‘consecration’ was limited to a select few, it is now the promise of all Christian mothers. To beat what must by now be a barely breathing horse: Christian Children are holy. In former times, only the priests were permitted to eat the Bread of the Presence; in Christ all may eat. Just as the redemption of the masculine curse reaches beyond itself to the point of touching both sexes, so too does the redemption of the feminine curse. Both Male and Female. As both partake of the redeemed Bread, so too are both sexes beneficiaries of the holy womb. “[F]or as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman.” Holy Women birth both Holy Sons and Holy Daughters. It is a more inclusive covenant.
Going a step further, the consecration of the Supper by the touch of the Holy Spirit is only ascribed so much potency because it was first hallowed by the touch of Our Lord. “For on the night that he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus Christ took bread; and when he had given thanks, he broke it.” The Holy Supper would be no holier than any other Christian meal if it were not for this moment. It has been made holy by Our Lord’s own hand, and so too has the womb – but unlike the bread it was not with His hands only, but with His very self. “When you took our flesh to set us free, you humbly chose the Virgin’s womb.”
But sacraments convey grace; what grace does childbearing communicate? Just as it is Christ who is received in the Blessed Sacrament, it is also Christ who is received in the birthing of Covenant Children. When such a child is born, the Church prays: “O God, you have taught us through your blessed Son that whoever receives a little child in the Name of Christ receives Christ himself.” Thus, just as we reverence the Lord’s Table because it is where Christ has made Himself present, It is for the same reason that we reverence women. Strange as it sounds, there is a real presence within Christian Childbearing.
In the Supper we relive with Him His last night; in birth we relive with Him His first. But not with Him only: the Church has not forgotten the words of Our Lord that whoever welcomes a child in His Name welcomes not Him only, but also His Father who sent Him. This is important because in the Eucharistic moment we encounter the entire Trinity – the Son offered to the Father by the Spirit – in birth we find the consecration of the Spirit, the presence of Christ, and with Him his Almighty Father. Both are Trinitarian experiences. What an astounding mystery.
Motherhood’s salvific nature is not a feeble subjection of femininity, but rather a robust restoration of the curse inherited from the sin of our first mother. When compared to the Priesthood we see that a Mother adds to the Kingdom more efficacious than his proselytizing. That apart from him, by virtue of her faith, her children are already prepared for the Font of Regeneration. That hers is a particular dignity which is worthy of her children’s praises. Likewise, whereas the priest may offer sacraments, the mother herself is the sacrament offered, and therefore worthy of reverence. Yet even these are not an adequate summary of the subject. This is why women cannot be Priests. It was because the Apostles had a high calling that it was not right for them to wait tables. Similarly, there is such a high office disposed to womankind that it is not right for them to wait Holy Tables.
Now I am aware that there are those who cannot have children. In my experience, it is difficult to praise motherhood without someone inserting mid-sentence “but what about those who can’t‽” This is really not the issue. Just as I said earlier that not all men can be priests, not all women can be mothers. This is perfectly fine, though it may require another article in the future. What I will say is that if we believe that the waters of baptism are holy because they were hallowed by the entrance of Our Lord, then we may also rightly conclude that He also hallowed the womb. This is a particular treasure that belongs only to women.
Finally, I would ask that both parties remain charitable towards me. This is an intentionally brief piece because I did not want to do what many others have done and try to prove my position exhaustively, but rather provide an interpretation. Simply looking at my other articles will show that this is outside of the norm for my writing. All I hope to do is show that the classical opinion does not necessitate misogyny, but rather upholds the sanctity and dignity of women. Pray for me, a miserable offender.
- I know that some readers will have to be gracious with me here as there are many who do not believe that a male-only clergy is founded Biblically or Historically. In that case, I hold to the view that has been perceived as ‘classical’ until recent scholarship. ↑
- I mean here the strange doctrine of the Eternal Subordination (or even Functional Subordination) of the Son. These Trinitarian novelties show that many would rather forfeit orthodox dogma for the sake of their self-serving theology of the sexes. ↑
- History, let alone Church History, is full of many correct opinions often given for the wrong reason by sinful individuals. Were the crux of a principle to rest on the perfection of the spokesman, all Bibles would contain the Red Letter segments only. ↑
- Philippians 1:15-18 ↑
- I am referring to Kathy Gove and Minda Dwyer who served as both godly examples to a young Christian, and as second mothers to a boy who needed as many as he could get. ↑
- Matthew Henry, Commentary on the whole Bible. Genesis 1:26-2. ↑
- See Proverbs 12:4 ↑
- Levi the Poet, The Beginning. The Separation. ↑
- This is Rashi’s interpretation ↑
- Genesis 3:20: καὶ ἐκάλεσεν Ἀδὰμ τὸ ὄνομα τῆς γυναικὸς αὐτοῦ Ζωή, ὅτι αὕτη μήτηρ πάντων τῶν ζώντων – It is interesting that Adam is simply transliterated as Ἀδὰμ (Adam) instead of ‘Man’ (άνθρωπος), and yet ‘Eve’ is translated into Ζωή (‘Life’). I think this tells us something special about the title, it is not merely a name. ↑
- Luke 1:43 ↑
- These latter women, though apocryphal, are esteemed worthy by the Church to be “read for example of life and instruction of manners” (Article XI). ↑
- Book of Common Prayer, 117 ↑
- Ibid, 119 ↑
- 1 Timothy 2:11-15, St. John Chrysostom, Homily 9 on First Timothy. ↑
- Genesis 3:16-19 ↑
- Book of Common Prayer, 116 ↑
- Luke 22:44 ↑
- Book of Common Prayer, 116 ↑
- Ibid, 117 ↑
- 1Timothy 2:15 ↑
- 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 ↑
- 1 Corinthians 7:14 ↑
- Genesis 4:1 –Rabbi A.J. Rosenberg’s Translation ↑
- This is Rashi’s interpretation drawing from Genesis Rabbah 22:2, Mid. Tadshei, Niddah 31a ↑
- Genesis 3:15 ↑
- Colossians 1:26 ↑
- Acts 2:39 ↑
- Matthew 19:14, Mark 10:14, Luke 18:16 ↑
- M.F. Sadler, The Second Adam and the New Birth, Chapter IV ↑
- Jeremiah 31:15, Matthew 2:18 ↑
- Proverbs 31:28 ↑
- As far as I am aware, there is no similar expression in Scripture regarding Fatherhood. Where is their blessing? Consider Proverbs 30:11 – The Fathers are cursed and the mothers are simply not blessed. There seems to be no indication that the Paternal figure was obligated to be “blessed”, and yet it is sinful not to give such reverence to the Mother. ↑
- It is worth pointing out that St. Paul felt the need to remind the laity to honor the Ministry. Reverence toward maternal figures is assumed in Scripture. ↑
- Jeremiah 1:5 ↑
- Luke 1:15 ↑
- Galatians 1:15 ↑
- Exodus 13:2. Luke 2:23 ↑
- 1 Samuel 21:1-6, Matthew 12:1-8, Mark 2:25-27, Luke 6:3-5 ↑
- It is interesting that in the LXX the frankincense used to prepare the bread is referred to as an anamnesis, thus there is a clear correlation between the Showbread and the Eucharistic Bread. ↑
- 1 Corinthians 11:12 ↑
- 1 Corinthians 11:23-14, Book of Common Prayer, 116 ↑
- Te Deum Laudamus, Book of Common Prayer 17 ↑
- Book of Common Prayer, 219 ↑
- See Taylor’s On the Reverence due to the Altar ↑
- The Prayer Book reminds us: “In the case of the mother dying in childbirth or some other tragic event, the Church still proclaims, even through pain, that the child is a gift from God.” (Book of Common Prayer, 221). The gift-ness of Children is only truly appreciated when it is viewed through the givenness of Christ’s Incarnation. ↑
- Mark 9:37 ↑
- Acts 6:2 ↑
- “[T]he Baptism of thy well-beloved Son Jesus Christ in the river Jordan, did sanctify Water to the mystical washing away of sin” – 1662 Book of Common Prayer, The Ministration of Public Baptism of Infants. ↑