In October, the Rev. Dr. Emily McGowin wrote an article defending women’s ordination against objections from those who insist only a man can become a priest and administer rites in persona Christi. There have been several responses to her article already, and I do not want to simply echo those articles. But McGowin raised a number of thoughtful questions about the traditional claim that only a man can stand in the person of Christ at the altar in a way that faithfully represents the reality that Jesus is the one who absolves us of our sins and feeds us his body and blood. I have benefitted from Fr. Nelson’s scriptural objections to redefining the priesthood, as well as Fr. Wilgus’ sacramental case for the historic practice, but I want to come at Dr. McGowin’s questions from another angle, and I hope to develop a more robust understanding of the priesthood and the priest’s role in the liturgy along the way. Dr. McGowin describes the argument against ordaining women priest’s on the basis of in persona Christi as follows:
The argument, in short, goes something like this: because women have female bodies and Jesus Christ has a male body, women cannot serve as a sacramental sign of Christ in the Eucharist.
To be more specific, women cannot act in persona Christi because their female bodies do not correspond to the body of the male Christ. In this view, female priests are not just not allowed; female priests are false signifiers. In their female persons, female priests lie, as it were, about the male person of Jesus Christ, who is presiding sacramentally at the altar.
And, as a result, women must not represent Christ at the Eucharistic feast.
This description gives us the gist of why Christians argue that a woman cannot stand in persona Christi. But, without defining “sacramental” or explaining what it means for God to make us male and female, it oversimplifies. In order to feel the force of the in persona Christi argument against women’s ordination, we must also accept a sacramental account of gender.
Once we adopt the appropriate sacramental paradigm to understand what it means to stand in persona Christi, we will have arrived at a better place to evaluate Dr. McGowin’s argument.
Dr. McGowin begins by describing the early church’s argument (credited to St. Gregory of Nazianzus) that “what is not assumed [by Christ] is not healed.” The common humanity of Jesus heals humanity categorically. If the incarnation can heal all of humanity, why cannot women, members of that common humanity, represent Jesus as priests?
This question about why priests should be male raises another question—why should Jesus be a male? It is not simply to fulfill prophecy or certain aspects of the Law. There is a sense in which it was necessary for Jesus to be a man. To be the head of a new humanity, Jesus had to succeed where the first Adam failed and undo the curse that spread to all mankind through the head of all mankind.
I want to make sure that I am clear about this claim. God is all powerful, and he could have saved sinners any way He deemed fit. Thomas Aquinas makes a similar point when he argues that it was possible for God to save humanity without the incarnation (Summa Theologiae, III.1.ii).
However, there is a second notion of necessity Aquinas defends which may also be called fittingness. It may not have been an absolute necessity, but to the extent that it perfects what God already established in the created order, Christ being male was necessary insofar as it was “fitting.”
Why couldn’t Jesus be female?
Adam, the primordial man, is the archetype for humanity. Throughout Scripture, the man is representative of headship, echoing Adam. Eve comes from Adam, and sin enters the world through Adam–despite Eve being the first to eat the forbidden fruit.
By becoming a man, Jesus perfects the fallen archetype and becomes the “Second Adam.” Humanity is not depicted as being in Eve, but Adam. If the head of humanity is male, then the head of renewed humanity would also have to be male to undo the Fall. Eve is restored in Adam because she is “flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone.”
In short, Jesus’ maleness is most fitting to the theological narrative of Scripture.
Of course, there are debates as to what headship entails. For example, the Junia Project—a prominent egalitarian organization in favor of ordaining women—critically reflects on biblical headship on historical-grammatical grounds.
Nevertheless, whatever headship may mean, what matters to the in persona Christi argument against women’s ordination is that headship is uniquely masculine. The link between maleness and headship is key to understanding its sacramental significance.
Sacraments and a Worldview of Participation
In defending her argument’s association of redemption and sacramental representation against the objection that they are two different things, Dr. McGowin references the “analogy of being.”
… the idea of sacramentality is rooted, in part, in the analogy of being.
An analogy does not require a pure one-to-one correspondence—indeed, in Christian theology it specifies the opposite. Between creature and Creator there are similarities, but never such that the dissimilarities are not always greater. Thus, all analogies between God and human beings are inadequate. They are able to speak some real truth, but always fall short in the end.
Similarly, the sacramental representation of the priest will always fall short of pure representation because it is based on analogy.
However, the analogy of being pertains to Divine Simplicity and our language about God. This doctrine contends that we can speak meaningfully about God using temporal language, but it is not a one-to-one correspondence. Sacraments are not predicative of the Divine Nature, but of the created grace conveyed. The sacraments exist to connect us to grace through that which is within our experience, and they are not analogous in the scholastic sense.
The historical understanding of a sacrament is best defined as an effectual sign that conveys the spiritual grace which it signifies. Baptism signifies the waters of a new creation and rebirth. The bread and wine signify the body and blood of Christ, the Passover Meal, nourishment, etc. Chrismation (anointing with oil) represents the pouring out of the Holy Spirit (See Cyril of Jerusalem’s Catechetical Lectures III.23 “On Chrism.”). Sacraments signify how grace operates in the life of the believer, whereas analogy is used to speak of the transcendent, uncreated Creator using temporal, creaturely language.
Christ is human in a univocal sense and is also male in a univocal sense. Since the priesthood is rooted in the humanity of Christ, it is not analogous in any sense as it does not refer to the Divine Essence. Christ is also univocally male. Now, it is the case that male headship and Christ’s headship are analogous, but that still requires a sacramental signifier of “headship.” Thus, only male priests can signify Christ’s headship analogously.
The priest who stands in persona Christi does not convey grace like a sacrament, but the priest is functioning sacramentally. That is, the priest is signifying an invisible spiritual reality even if he does not directly convey grace.
Sacramental theology requires a broader sacramental worldview that I would describe as “participationist.” Our physical reality participates in an unseen spiritual reality. The priest standing in persona Christi is integral to the larger picture. The priest participates in the person of Christ, whereby Christ himself ministers to us through the priest.
Dr. McGowin links the sacramental nature of ordination with the universal reach of salvation and Christ’s common humanity. The universal reach of salvation, however, is found through the redemption of the Adamic head.
Adam stands for the whole of humanity—not Eve. As the head of the Church, the sacramental sign of Christ must express headship.
In an egalitarian society, can a woman signify headship? It seems the answer must be “no,” unless we are willing to radically revise biblical imagery regarding the themes of male, female, Christ, and his Church.
For example, the husband is also an icon of Christ, with marriage being the icon of Christ and his Church (Eph. 5, I Cor. 11, II Cor. 11, Rev. 19, etc.). It is never the case that the wife represents Christ while the husband represents the Church. In the reverse, Christ is never depicted as the bride, nor the Church as his groom.
If the only distinction between husband and wife is biological sex, without a theology of male headship, there is no reason to retain the imagery of the husband as head of the wife just as Christ is the head of man (I Cor. 11). Ironically, if sex is the only argument for linking Christ with the husband, it stands to reason that the same can be said of the priesthood. After all, if the argument is that “if women can be saved, women can be priests,” whereas priests and husbands signify Christ, there’s no reason to hold a double-standard between the household and the household of faith (Gal. 6:10).
However, if the husband signifies something that his wife does not signify, then it seems manhood and womanhood mean more than just sex. Unless maleness signifies headship uniquely, what reason would there be for not reversing this imagery?
Similar concerns arise with iconography. Would it be appropriate to write an icon of Jesus as a female? Orthodox theology should respond in the negative. But why?
The answer cannot merely be historical accuracy, since even the most historically informed icons could never make such a claim.
Assuming one does not “bite the bullet,” depicting Jesus in the feminine, there needs to be an account for why it is wrong to write an icon of a female Jesus while allowing priests—living icons who are sacramentally in persona Christi—to be female. If it is only necessary for a priest to signify Jesus’ common humanity, a written icon of a female Jesus should be permissible. I submit that the decision to relativize the significance of gender in the priesthood jeopardizes our ability to maintain a Christian anthropology.
All Priesthood has Christ as its Fount
The Epistle to the Hebrews calls the Levitical high priest a foreshadowing of Christ, who is our high priest in the order of Melchizedek (Heb. 7). The all-male priesthood foreshadows Christ in the heavenly sanctuary. As a light-hearted term, the Levitical high priest was “in pre-persona Christi.”
Where the OT high priest was a foreshadowing, the Christian priest is a shadow of Christ in the liturgy. They are reflections of the same priest on opposite sides of the resurrection. Whatever discontinuity may exist between them, they are both doing similar things as sacramental signs of the same Jesus.
Insofar as they both signify Christ, the former did so through an all-male priesthood. As St. Thomas Aquinas says in his Summa Theologiae;
“Now Christ is the fountain-head of the entire priesthood: for the priest of the Old Law was a figure of Him; while the priest of the New Law works in His person, according to 2 Corinthians 2:10: ‘For what I have pardoned, if I have pardoned anything, for your sakes have I done it in the person of Christ’” (ST. III.23.iv).
Local Signs & Constituent Parts
Dr. McGowin mentions a clever argument from Sarah Coakley that states that women clergy no more misrepresent Christ as female than a male priest “in persona ecclesiae” (in the person of the Church) would misrepresent the Church as male. Additionally, the argument continues, an all-male congregation would not misrepresent the Church as masculine. This criticism is persuasive on the surface, but the terms are used ambiguously. The critique is based on a category error.
The terms “in persona Christi” and “in persona ecclesiae” must be defined. Although any Christian can be said to represent Christ in some sense, it would not be synonymous with in persona Christi. The latter refers to the role of the priest in the liturgy as a reflection of the heavenly sanctuary.
The Roman Catholics provide a helpful explanation of what it means for the priest to stand in persona Christi because they place their explanation in the larger framework that I am trying to convey. The Roman Catholic catechism describes the foundation for the belief that priests stand in persona Christi:
In the ecclesial service of the ordained minister, it is Christ himself who is present to his Church as Head of his Body, Shepherd of his flock, high priest of the redemptive sacrifice, Teacher of Truth. This is what the Church means by saying that the priest, by virtue of the sacrament of Holy Orders, acts in persona Christi Capitis (CCC 1548).
Notice that Vatican II added the term “capitis,” or “the head,” to in persona Christi to reflect the role of Christ’s headship in holy orders.
The priest is a shadow of Christ, the High Priest who offers his sacrifice at the heavenly altar and then distributes it to his people. Through the priest, it is Christ who calls us to worship, Christ who absolves us, Christ who feeds us, and Christ who blesses us. Christ, who is not locally present, is sacramentally present through those things that are locally present.
The same cannot be said for “in persona ecclesiae.” The Church is already locally present and does not need a sacramental sign of its presence. The Church Universal is present through the local Church via the congregation—of which the priest is a part. Indeed, when priests pray with the people, they take their place as members of the congregation. They serve as members of the mystical body, not as sacramental representatives.
The only time clergy might arguably be representatives of the whole Church is at the episcopal level—bishops. This is especially true of ecumenical councils, in which a traditionally all-male college of bishops represented the Church catholic. Even here, the bishops are acting as members of the Church and not on behalf of a Church that is not locally present. They are exercising their role as part of the Body.
This notwithstanding, there is a further recognizable difference between representing Christ, who is a literal, singular person with a natural gender, and representing the Church. The Church does not have a natural gender, nor is it a literal person. Rather, the Church is the mystical body of all faithful people.
Returning to the icon of marriage, the husband represents Christ as the head, but he is also incorporated into the Church. While being a man does not undermine the Church’s feminine imagery, it is taken for granted that the wife does not stand in the place of Christ as the head of her husband.
The husband is both a representative of Christ as the groom while also being part of the Bride of Christ. The Christian husband is a dual icon, but the wife is not—at least in the context of marriage. This is analogous to the role of the priest, who is in the person of Christ the head. That the priest serves in both capacities is no more an argument for WO than the dual capacities of the husband is an argument for a female groom.
There are deeper disagreements about theological anthropology and gender that need to be explored. Dr. McGowin’s criticisms are rooted in prior theological discrepancies. That is, it is evident that she is working from a different theological framework than the communities that have developed and articulated the doctrine of in persona Christi.
“A small error in the beginning is a great error in the end;” therefore, Anglicans should give greater attention to discussing the correct framework for a Christian understanding of reality. The controversy of WO stems from disagreements about the nature of ministry, sacraments, gender, ecclesiology, and the like, as recognized by the ACNA Task Force on Holy Orders (Holy Orders Task Force Final Report, 315).
On the topic of women’s ordination specifically, if those in favor of women’s ordination concede what has been said about male headship—however it is understood—then my counterpoints must be addressed:
Can women sacramentally signify the headship of Christ as our second Adam?
What justifies the discontinuity with the all-male priesthood of the Old Testament?
How might an ordained woman be distinguished from a written icon?
Thoughtful responses to these questions will hopefully move the conversation forward in a constructive way.