David Wise on sexual differentiation, incarnation and representative priesthood
Since “the vote”, the church of England has experienced a process of fracturing which is not yet at an end. A widening gap between revealed faith and theologically correct novelties characterises our time.
Still alive is the issue of faith in the Incarnate God. 21 years after the publication of “The Myth”. The Incarnation took place within the given-ness of human sexual differentiation and with human co-operation. This is not irrelevant to questions of priesthood today.
The form of the priesthood for us is an incarnation of Christ’s priesthood. As the God-man. Jesus Christ in our eternal High Priest. and it is to him that we must always look. It is with his humanity. rightly understood. that we identify, so that we may truly worship his divinity.
Jesus of Nazareth was known among his contemporaries as a man. The Gospels record that he was born a male child, that he was circumcised and presented in the Temple in accordance with the stipulations of the Jewish Law for male offspring.
Human beings are differentiated as males and females. Sexual differentiation in plants and animals has been thoroughly investigated by biological science. and its processes are clearly understood. In the species ‘Homo sapiens. the male gamete is always determinative of the sex of offspring. Human genes have either an ‘X’ or a ‘Y’ chromosome combined as XX (resulting in a female) or XY (male). A ‘X’-bearing sperm fertilising an ovum (X) thus produces a female offspring (XX), a ‘Y’-bearing sperm fertilising an ovum produces a male offspring (XY). Human ova bear the axe
chromosome. only. Human sperm may be either ‘X’ or ‘Y’ bearing. Thus, barring abnormalities. the human race is clearly differentiated according to sex into males and females.
It should be noted that the word ‘sex’ correctly indicates male and female. while the word ‘gender’ refers to masculine and feminine. The incorrect use of the word ‘gender’ to denote ‘sex’ is both confusing. if accidental, and misleading. if deliberate. It hardly needs pointing out that while ‘sex’ denotes a clear cut differentiation (barring abnormalities), i.e., male or female. ‘gender’ may be used to indicate a range of characteristics. a *spectrum’ from femininity to masculinity. This is widely accepted as appropriate terminology for character and behavioural traits in human beings.
The confusion of the meanings of the words ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ may be partly responsible for the popularity of the notion that Christ’s human nature is somehow sexually inclusive in a manner uncharacteristic of our own as men and women (i.e., males and females of the genus, Homo sapiens). if this were to be the case. then Jesus Christ is not human in the same sense that we are human. This would inevitably cast doubt on what scripture and tradition understands by incarnation; that is God becoming a human male. Jesus Christ. in order to bring to fulfilment his saving purpose for all creation.
If we wish to retain incarnation as a way of understanding the means chosen by God to save his fallen creation, then we cannot avoid facing the fact that in becoming human. and truly like us. God could only become a man or a woman. To become ‘incarnate’ in any other sense. would not be a true sharing in our human condition.
To set aside the sexual differentiation which characterises almost all of the biological world. would be to distort the concept of humanity as we human beings know and experience it. In taking on himself some sort of undifferentiated ‘humanity’. God in Christ would not be saving us by becoming one of us, rather he would be masquerading as a human being – some kind of humanoid chimera.
Ideas such as this have long ago been dismissed as false understandings of the nature of Christ. The Church asserts that only by taking upon himself OUR human nature. could God save us. in Christ. What he did not assume: he did not redeem. The differentiation into male and female is then part of the given-ness of the human condition, which we share with much of the created order.
Incarnation has in turn been referred to by theologians as ‘myth’ and #metaphor’ in recent years. Neither myth nor metaphor do justice to a reality on which our salvation depends. If salvation were solely concerned with the redemption of the human mind. or with the purification of human thought. then metaphor would be a very appealing way of understanding Cod’s salvific work. The renewal of the human mind is but a fraction of the scope of salvation as scripture and tradition understands it. Jesus Christ saves by entering fully into our human condition and by experiencing human suffering and death, and by transcending and overcoming these to win an ultimate victory. That victory is ours to share through faith in him. and it is a redemption of our whole being; body, mind and spirit, or it is no redemption at all.
Not only is it a redemption for all humanity through faith in Christ. but it is a raising of the whole created order to a restored relationship with God.
Such a cosmic redemption cannot be narrowed to the saving of something as restricted as the human intellect.
What then of the suggestion that only by assuming an ‘inclusive’ humanity could Jesus be said to save all people, regardless of sex. Well known arguments here have a double edged character. If, for example, the Jewishness of Jesus does not diminish his universality as saviour. does his being a man? Has anyone suggested that only Jews could be saved? Yea. and S. Paul put paid to that! Has anyone suggested that men only are saved through Christ. and that women are not? Yes, but the Church has not taken them seriously.
Some women undoubtedly experience difficulty in identifying with a male saviour. One artist depicted “Christa” as a crucified female figure. but Christians have rejected that ‘statement’ as lacking proportion, assaulting revealed religion or even blasphemy.
We recognise that race and sex are not equivalents. A Jew can save people of all races. by virtue of his participation in the human condition. and without renouncing Jewishness. Can God in becoming a man save both men and women?
For most of our history, that question has not been asked. but recent Christian history has seen the growth of feminism, particularly in the western hemisphere. In the past. few if any could have doubted that God incarnate as a man was the saviour of women.
Mary who bore him in her womb is the traditional image of the first to be saved. for she is the grace-filled mother. She is par excellence the human being who has received this divine gift. Mary is holy because Mary was
made holy. Mary is saved. like any of us. through the sacrifice and victory of her Son. Mary. though sometimes venerated with extravagant devotion. was always in need of salvation herself and is never to be thought of as in any sense divine. Mary is very much one of us. a deeply human example of virtues.
Is Mary an example of a woman saved by Christ? It must be recognised that either she was not saved. or she was not in need of salvation. If neither of those statements is true. then Mary was not a woman. a human being. but some kind of goddess. Such a suggestion is. of course, absurd and flies in the face of scripture and tradition. Mary was indeed saved and her holiness is all the more accessible to us. as we venerate her.
Is a male saviour. then, in any sense inadequate? Objectively speaking the answer must by in the negative. Our religion exists to proclaim that all men and women have access to the salvation wrought by God in Christ. if they respond in faith. However, it has been suggested that Jesus perceived as a man. may constitute a psychological barrier to some women.
By a kind of transference. the problem experienced by some women has been ‘theologised’ into novel understandings of the person of Christ (pushed to extremes in images like “Christa”, for example).
The enfleshment of God, will remain a mystery which the human intellect must continue to wrestle with. The insights of biological science may throw light on the mystery. but our knowledge of the human reproductive system can only assist our understanding to a limited degree. What we know and experience and seek to understand by the term human existence is life on this earth as men and women. As men and women. we have access to God’s redeeming work in Christ through faith in him. Men and women have equal access to that salvation – to forgiveness of sins and life everlasting.
The community of believers exists to bear witness to the ultimate victory of good over evil and the defeat of the power of death. Nowhere in Christian community life is that truth more vividly expressed than in the eucharist. the sacrament of unity.
Paradoxically. that sacrament so central in the catholic understanding of the Christian religion. is now a focus of disunity and an occasion which causes great pain to faithful communicant members of the Anglican Church. Our eucharistic fellowship in Christ is broken and where once there was a sense of belonging to a family, there is now for some a sense of bereavement.
What meaning has the phrase ” representative priesthood”? Who does the priest at the altar represent and to whom? Western catholic tradition spoke of the “Alter Christus” (the other Christ). suggesting by that phrase that the priest in the eucharist represents Christ to the assembled people. Fewer catholics feel comfortable with that understanding today than formerly. It seems almost like hubris to put a human being ‘in loco Christi’; but there is a sense in which representation may be a helpful concept. The Orthodox east understands the priest in the Liturgy as the Icon of Christ.
Roman Catholic and Orthodox understandings may not necessarily be in tune with Anglican understandings. They come from communions where a greater degree of coherence exists in the theology of the priestly ministry. Anglican understandings of ministry are manifold, and no one doctrine has ever commanded acceptance across the spectrum of churchmanship.
In examining the notion of representation. we have to look at the priest in the eucharist as (in some sense) representing Christ to the people, and also as representing the people to God (standing before God with the people on his heart). It is here that any notions of worthiness. qualification and right must be immediately discarded.
No priest represents (in either sense) because of inherent goodness or some other qualities possessed. or because of any dignity or status. Priests who preside at the liturgy do so in the full knowledge of their own unworthiness and as sharers in the sinfulness of the world. The priest represents the incarnate Christ in his identification with the people in the eucharist, not standing over against them. but as belonging to them, and they to him.
As Christ himself expresses total identity with the human race, and is in no sense lacking as a saviour just because he is male. so a priest cannot be thought of as an incomplete or inadequate representative of men and women because nature has determined that there shall be a difference between the sexes. If that were so, then neither a man nor a woman alone could adequately preside at the eucharist and both would have to be present.
Representation of men and women to God, as one role of the ordained priesthood leaves us with no possible solution. Either priests of one sex will fully represent human beings of both sexes. or we shall have to say that neither a male nor a female alone will do. If we take the latter point of view then women priests are no solution to the problem of representation in this ‘direction’ (i.e. human to divine, if you will).
If. as some hold. a male priest somehow ‘excludes’ female worshippers. then by any process of thought that is logical. a female presiding at the altar might also ‘exclude’ the male worshipper.
The notion of the eucharistic president as ‘representative’, in one ‘direction’. must be balanced by the notion of representation in the other. The priest with a congregation assembled for the eucharist may be regarded by some as unrepresentative, but this will inevitably be so unless male and female priests concelebrate at every eucharist. which seems hardly practicable.
The priest representing Christ at the celebration of the eucharist is representing the God who became incarnate as a man. The individual Anglican will now have to decide whether a male more clearly expresses this identification than a female, or whether the sex of the eucharistic president is unimportant.
David Wise is vicar of Mexborough in the diocese of Sheffield.