David Dale examines the connections between women’s ordination and the new sexuality

A sentence in Philip Hacking’s article, For the Sake of the Gospel, in February 1996 New Directions raises an important issue.

‘In my early days I found many people unwilling or unable to see the link between the hermeneutic which allowed the ordination of women and that which will allow the ordination of practising homosexuals.’

Is there a clear connection between the decision to ordain women to the priesthood and the changes – not just proposed but in effect – in certain areas of sexual ethics? Does the one lead inevitably to the other? Are they parts of the same theology?

At first sight one or two things point in that direction. Archbishop Tutu justifies his opinion that it is right for homosexual priests to have a homosexual genital relationship on the grounds that it is a matter of justice, compassion and consistency. ‘I am passionate in my opposition to injustice and I believe I know where our Lord would stand. It is a matter of justice, compassion and consistency here.’Justice, compassion and consistency were major arguments in favour of the ordination of women.2

Is there more substance to belief in the connection than that?

The Orthodox woman theologian Deborah Belonick, among others, argues that the idea of a female priesthood is part of a much broader agenda affecting every part of theology.3

Opponents of the ordination of women have often thought this and one would expect it to be the case. It is of the very nature of theology that it is systematic and that each part is connected to every other part. Change one part and you change the rest. That has been the experience over and over again and others have noted it but it needs retelling.

The issue here is a Christological heresy. It is a heresy that leads straight to a docetic Christ and sexual immorality. The connection between the two beliefs is not just hermeneutic. There is a straight and clear doctrinal connection as well.

We begin with the belief that the ministerial priest is the symbol and icon of Christ in the Church. The mystery of Christ’s presence in the Church cannot be communicated cognitively. Mysteries – those truths which cannot be expressed by word of mouth – are communicated symbolically. That the priest is the icon of Christ is attested biblically and in the Fathers.He represents symbolically the presence of Christ in the Church.

The symbolic nature of the ministerial priesthood is accepted by the advocates of the ordination of women. Dr. Carey, in the Reader’s Digest, castigated as grave heresy the proposition that a woman could not represent Christ at the altar. Such a comment only makes sense if the priest is the symbol of Christ at the altar. The advocates of the ordination of women to the priesthood in the debate on 11th November, 1992 referred several times to the symbolic function of the priesthood.Canon W.F. Dillistone sets out the function of the symbolic ministry well.6 It is surprising that he proceeds to suggest that women priests would symbolise not our Lord but the Mother Goddess. He does, however, understand the ministry as symbolic.

References have frequently been made to St Gregory of Nazianzus’s comment in his first letter to Cledonius; ‘For that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved.’It is used to sustain the proposition that since our Lord assumed human nature anyone with human nature could symbolise Him and that not to allow the ordination of women is to prevent the assumption of female human nature which will not therefore be healed.

It is further argued that our Lord actually assumed female human nature and that he was androgynous.The significance of the argument depends upon a symbolic understanding of the ministerial priesthood. We shall return to that comment of St Gregory Nazianzus below.

Nothing, incidentally, points more clearly to the danger of using a part of a remark by one of the Fathers without understanding the debate of which it was a part and without also looking to the conclusion of that debate. It also points to the danger of using a comment from within a particular philosophical tradition without understanding the terms of that philosophy. Anyone reading the rest of the two Letters to Cledoniusor the Theological Orations or any other of St. Gregory Nazianzus’ writings would find nothing to support the view that our Lord assumed undetached human nature.

The fallacy to which this particular belief in the symbolic nature of the ministry (i.e. as symbolic of the Lord who assumed undetached human nature and who can therefore be symbolised by a woman) leads us is clear when, in simple terms, we realise that for the Fathers there is no such thing as undetached ‘human nature’. There is only human nature to be found in persons who are either male or female. The Lord assumed (in the orthodox, non-adoptonist sense) human nature and so had to be either male or female. Human nature does not come undifferentiated or detached from a human person who is male or female.

St. Theodore the Studite writes: ‘Christ was certainly not a mere man nor is it orthodox to say that he assumed an individual among men but the whole totality of the nature. It must be said however that this total nature was contemplated in an individual manner for how otherwise could it be seen – in a way that made it visible and describable.. which allowed it to eat and drink? An indescribable Christ would be an incorporeal Christ; …. Isaiah described him as a male being and only the forms of the body can make a man and a woman distinct from each other.’9

‘Humanity for Theodore “exists only in Peter and Paul,” i.e., in concrete human beings, and Jesus was such a being.’10

The androgynous Jesus of the advocates of the ordination of women11 is not a truly incarnated Lord. He has not assumed human nature because to do so means becoming a man or a woman. There is nothing else called human nature that can be assumed.

The parading of a naked female figure, Christa, on the Cross at the celebration of the Ecumenical Decade of Solidarity with Women at Manchester Cathedral in the presence of Bishop Christopher Mayfield was undoubtedly blasphemous and unbiblical but it had a certain perverse rationale. The figure was not the bearer of undifferentiated human nature but was female. But the Lord was a man.

The Iconoclast controversy and its resolution at the Seventh Ecumenical Council was precisely concerned with this point. The first Sunday of Lent in the Orthodox Church which celebrates the decision of the Seventh Ecumenical Council is called the Triumph of Orthodoxy because it is the triumph of Chalcedonian Christological orthodoxy.

What were the issues? It was believed (and is still believed) that the icon brought to the eye what the word of the Gospel brought to the ear. ‘What the word transmits through the ear that painting silently shows through the image.’12 The icon is therefore a vehicle of the Gospel and is venerated. ‘The honour shown to the icon passes to the prototype.’13

The Iconoclasts believed that our Lord could not be depicted in an icon since what would be portrayed would be only His human nature not His divine nature and the icon would not therefore symbolise the Lord of the Gospels, the Incarnate Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. An icon of our Lord was deemed to present a Christ whose natures were either confused or who had only a human nature – Monophysitism and Nestorianism respectively. They further claimed that He did not assume a human person but human nature which was universal. He is, therefore, universal man not a particular man and so cannot be represented in an icon.

‘Iconoclasm’s notion of an indeterminate humanity is a subtle Docetism. Universals are apprehended by the intellect; individuals are seen with the eyes. Were Christ’s nature universal and not individual, He could only be “touched” by mind and thought, and his humanity would be an illusion.’14

‘Iconoclasm, according to St John of Damascus, is a species of docetism, a disrespect for the mystery of God – manhood.’15

The similarity between the Iconoclast position and those who misquote St Gregory of Nazianzus is remarkable. St. Theodore the Studite, among others, demonstrated clearly that the Iconoclasts had a fundamental misconception over the nature of the hypostatic union – the union of the Divine and human natures in one person or hypostasis of the Lord. ‘It is the hypostasis of the Incarnate Word and not His essence which is represented in icons of Christ.’16 Since the human nature that the Lord assumed into the divine hypostasis is seen and touched it only subsists in individuals. He therefore assumes a human person, the concrete human nature. The divine hypostasis of the Word becomes the man, Jesus of Nazareth.

Unless this is true then real human life has not been assumed and, to quote St. Gregory Nazianzus in context, ‘that which He has not assumed He has not healed.’ Apollinarius, against whom St. Gregory Nazianzus was writing, taught that the manhood in Christ was incomplete, His human spirit having been replaced by the Divine Spirit and therefore, from an Orthodox position, He is not a perfect example to us nor did He redeem the whole of humanity but only its spiritual elements. He was, in effect, a docetic Christ, only seeming to have suffered in the flesh for our salvation. (While this is what St. Gregory Nazianzus wrote against, the precise nature of Apollinarius’s statement is confused but is not relevant to the present argument.)

Since our Lord bore the body of a man – it had to be that or the body of a woman – what is symbolised in the iconic function of the minister is human nature in a man. To suggest otherwise is to see a docetic Christ symbolised in the ministry.

Docetic belief, the belief that our Lord is not very God and very man but only very God and an appearance of man (i.e. the bearer of undetached human nature), has its roots in platonism and the gnosticism of the first centuries of the Christian era and consistently leads to one of two extremes about the flesh: either extreme asceticism or extreme licence.17

As straws in the wind we see the downgrading of personal ethics in favour of social ethics, the exchanging of moral questions for moral issues.18 If we examine the teaching of many contemporary American theologians we find the dismissal of the significance of personal moral acts and concern only with social moral issues – which it may be argued are not moral issues at all. But that is another question.

To sum up: the line of reasoning is straightforward. The ministerial priest symbolises the mystery of Christ’s presence in the Church. A woman can only symbolise Christ if He is not the Christ of Orthodox belief; i.e. a Christ who assumes undetached and undifferentiated human nature rather than becoming a man or a woman. The Lord was a man. The argument that priests then ought to be Jewish carpenters (and so forth) is to confuse the essential humanity of the Lord with the accidental characteristics of His human life. Sexuality is not an accidental characteristic. If a woman symbolises the Lord then she symbolises a docetic Christ, unfleshed, possessed not of humanity in the only way humanity can be possessed, as a man or as a woman, but only of human nature – a universal concept rather than the real humanity of a real incarnation. A docetic Christ assumes an idea not a reality and so cannot save reality. As night follows day an unfleshed, docetic Christ leads to the break down of sexual ethics. It has happened too often to be dismissed. The connection is simple and direct.

Our suspicions were correct. The beliefs of a church which ordains women to the priesthood differ in every particular from Orthodox belief. The Christ it preaches, by its symbols and structure, is the docetic Christ who does not save and belief in whom leads to a distortion in the understanding of the flesh and of sexual ethics. ‘The structure of Catholicism is an utterance of the Gospel.’?19 The structure has been changed and the Gospel has been changed. The root of it all is a Christological heresy. St. Gregory Nazianzus puts it very clearly:
‘If anyone should assert that he passed through the Virgin as through a channel and was not at once divinely and humanly formed in her (divinely, because without the intervention of a man; human, because in accordance with the laws of gestation), he is in like manner godless.’20

And in another place he says:
‘O new commingling; O strange conjunction! The self Existent comes into Being, the Uncreated is created, That which cannot be contained is contained by the intervention of an intellectual soul mediating between the Deity and the corporeity of flesh. And He who gives riches becomes poor; for He assumes the poverty of my flesh that I may assume the riches of His Godhead… He partakes of my flesh that He may save both the image and make the flesh immortal.’?21


1. Guardian. 12th February, 1996 report of BBC interview of 11th February, 1996.
2. Verbatim Report of the Debate of 11th November, 1992 London. 1993. passim.
3. Deborah Belonick The Spirit of Female Priesthood in Women and Priesthood ed. Hopko. New York. 1983. pp. 135 – 168
4. e.g. 1 Timothy 2.5. Thus the priest is the icon of Christ; 2 Cor. 5.20; Gal. 4.14. St Ignatius of Antioch. To the Magnesians 6.1.; To the Trallians 3.1.; To the Smyrneans 8.1.
5. pp.10,31. Verbatim Report
6. Yes to Women Priests ed. H. Montefiore London. 1978. pp.30ff
7. First Letter to Cledonius (Ep.CI) p.440 Vol.VII. Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers. Grand Rapids, Michigan. 1983
8. The Rev. D.Power, Diocesan Adviser in Evangelism to the diocese of Portsmouth. Comment at a clergy meeting.
9. Theodore the Studite, Antirrhetic 1. PG. 99. 332D – 333A, 409C
10. Byzantine Theology. Meyendorff. New York 1979. p. 47.
11. See note 8 above.
12. St Basil the Great. Discourse 19 on the Forty Martyrs. PG.32. 509A
13. St Basil the Great. On the Holy Spirit 18. PG32. 149C
14. John Saward. art. Christ, Our Lord and the Church in the teaching of the Second Council of Nicea Chrysostom. Vol. VIII n.l. 1988
15. G.V.Florovskij The Byzantine Fathers of the Fifth to the Eighth Centuries Paris. 1933 p.250.
16. St Theodore the Studite. Antirrhetic 111. 1.18. PG99, 397C
17. e.g. The Mariavite Church of Poland and the Cathars.
18. Issues of Morality chosen by the Bishops of the Church of England in order of importance: Unemployment – 19.4% Environment – 19.4% 3rd World – 17.8% Government/Politics – 13.2% Racial Disharmony – 11.6% Euthanasia – 7% Disarmament – 5.4% Abortion – 3.1% Extra – Marital Affairs – 3.1% Homosexuality – 0% Report The Times. 14th February, 1996.
19. Michael Ramsey. The Gospel and the Catholic Church. London 1939 p.55.
20. St Gregory Nazianzus. First Letter to Cledonius (Ep. CI) Vol VII NPNF. p 439
21. St Gregory Nazianzus. Oration XLV – The Second Oration on Easter. c.9. Vol VII NPNF. p 426.

David Dale is Vicar of All Saints’ Ryde, IOW, in the Diocese of Portsmouth