Geoffrey Kirk discovers that the old arguments
are not necessarily the best.

A CHANCE MEETING at the General Synod of the Church of England with an ex-Jesuit, now functioning as an Anglican priest and academic, brought me face to face, after some years, with one of the hardy perennials of the argument for women’s ordination: the claim that ‘the maleness of Jesus is not soteriologically significant’.

The statement is not at first sight either pellucidly clear or obviously relevant. So it needs a little contextualization.

One of the mainstays of the argument for the priesting of women in the Anglican Communion was, of course, the notion that humanity in all its fullness cannot be represented by a priesthood which is exclusively male. A male priesthood is said to be offensive to women, and to ‘exclude’ them.

This is an argument, of course, which begs the question of whether priesthood was ever intended to ‘represent humanity’ in some politically correct or demographically acceptable way. But let us leave that aside for the moment, and concentrate on what the priesthood, within the Catholic tradition, has generally been agreed to figure or represent: the person of Jesus.

The priest, says St Thomas Aquinas, acts ‘in persona Christi’. He is, says the great theologian of iconography, St Theodore of Studios, ‘mimema Christou’. (Both expressions, it should be noted, have an ultimately theatrical etymology.) The priest represents the people to the Father only in so far as he shares in the priesthood of the Son, who is the great Representative of humanity to God.

The problem for the proponents of the ordination of women will immediately be apparent. If a male priesthood cannot represent humanity in its fullness, how can a male Incarnation? And yet how can both sexes be involved in the work of redemption if the Redeemer is not the Son of his mother?

The formulation of my ex-Jesuit acquaintance is intended as the denouement of this particular Gordian entanglement. But, to say the least, it has its problems. Those problems can best be understood if they are approached from a number of different angles.

First, there is the matter of personal identity.

Can it ever be said that anyone’s maleness (or femaleness, for that matter) is ‘soteriologically insignificant’ ? The question involves further and deeper questions: what are we saved in and from?

Christian moral theology, for all its important ascetic elements, has generally affirmed the body, and so its sexuality, as one of those things (hallowed and used aright) which God created and saw to be good. The resurrection of the body, that is, follows the forgiveness of sins and precedes everlasting life. It is often pointed out that the Genesis story locates sexual differentiation before the Fall; racial and cultural differentiation after it. This biblical intuition seems to be borne out in contemporary experience. Plays and stories about sexual relationships and dilemmas most easily cross cultural divides. Though Romeo and Juliet is not Shakespeare’s best or deepest drama, it is probably his best known.

New ethical and moral ideas, moreover, seem to offer further confirmation. The Task Force on Changing Patterns of Sexuality and Family Life of the diocese of Newark, New Jersey (one of the most ‘advanced’ dioceses of the Anglican Communion) recently claimed that ‘our sexual identity and behaviour’ are means for our ‘experience and knowledge of God’. It went on to assert that, if the Church condemns all sex ‘outside of marriage’, a ‘vitally important means’ for ‘our relatedness to God’ is thereby ‘obstructed’.

And indeed the very failure of women to identify with and feel represented by a male priest indicates the importance for them, soteriologically, of their own sexual identity. Unless we are to subscribe to the erroneous view that women are merely misbegotten males, then we are obliged to affirm that the femaleness (or, indeed, maleness) of every individual is a part of the manner in which, as individual persons, they are fashioned in the image of God. If to say that ‘the maleness of Jesus is soteriologically insignificant’ is to say more than ‘Jesus saves both women and men’, then it looks dangerously close to asserting that the person of Jesus is somehow either sub- or super- human. Which would be to run a cart and several horses through the Chalcedonian definition; and (for protagonists of women’s ordination) to shoot oneself in the foot.

Second, there is the matter of the nature of story.

The proposition that ‘the maleness of Jesus is not soteriologically significant’ can seem to work perfectly well at the level of theological abstraction – in a Bernard Lonergan sort of way, as you might put it. But it takes no real cognisance at all of salvation history – of the fact that the Bible (and the Gospels in particular) are a story. For Christians, salvation is by narrative; or at least by an event which is part of a history.

If ‘the maleness of Jesus has no soteriological significance’ – if it is a merely random phenomenon, like the lottery numbers on any given Wednesday or Saturday – then it would, of course, be possible to tell the self-same story with different characters. It would be possible for the Church to contemplate (theoretically, though not actually) the crucifixion of the incarnate daughter of a divine mother. Though the plot would necessarily be somewhat different, the meaning and implication of the drama would be exactly the same.

But the reverse proves to be the case.

No one with a knowledge of Jacobean tragedy could miss the sexual overtones of a female crucifixion. Anyone with a reasonable imagination can begin to supply the dialogue in a version of the Crucifixion from the York Mystery Plays where the prisoner was a thirty-year old woman. It was perhaps for reasons like these, that crucifixion was in ancient times restricted to males.

Nor would the self-sacrificial death of an innocent female have the same significance and resonance as that of an equivalent male. Women, as we are frequently reminded, are the victim figures of history. Archetypally they are the object and not the subject of verbs of violence. A woman with cuts and bruises is a ‘battered woman’; a man in the same condition ‘got into a fight’.

An essential element of our gospel narratives, moreover, is one of role reversal. Jesus is a king; but not of this world (Jn 18: 36); neither he nor his disciples are to fight ( Jn 18:11). The theme which links the particular narrative of Jesus’s encounter with Pilate to the meta-narrative outlined at the beginning of the Gospel (‘…the Word became flesh…’), is that of kenosis. The eternal Word empties himself to become a man; the Word made flesh renounces ‘manly’ qualities of self-reliance and self-determination in an obedience to the Father which exactly mirrors the ‘womanly’ response of Mary.

Strangely this renunciation of the core values of patriarchy by the one who is truly Rex et Redemptor is often missed by feminists in their analysis of these stories. Marina Warner in a classic attack on the cult of the Virgin as a means of social control, writes:

‘By defining the limits of womanliness as shrinking, retiring acquiescence, and by reinforcing that behaviour in the sex with praise, the myth of female inferiority and dependence was perpetuated…the Church can therefore continue to deny women an active and independent role in its ministry…'[Alone of All Her Sex, 1976, p.191]

For Warner, Mary is an icon of ‘submissiveness’, and so oppresses women. The fact that her offending word to the angel (‘Let it be as you have said’) is echoed by her divine Son in his passion (‘Not my will but yours be done’ Lk 22.42) and commended by him to his (male) disciples as a pattern of prayer (‘Your will be done, on earth as in heaven’ Mtt 6.10) seems to have escaped her.

And yet the story is incomprehensible if the reader cannot see the extent to which Jesus rejects patriarchal values and asserts the pre-eminence of the very submissiveness which Warner affects to despise. It is the story of the willing self-abasement of that proto-patriarch, God; and it will only work if the main protagonist, at the human level, is potentially and credibly a possible upholder of patriarchal values himself: in a word, if he is a man. Nor can Warner legitimately complain (as she does) that the virginity of Mary is also oppressive to women. This is a tale in which, paradoxically, the last word in sexual politics is given to two virgins (whose relationship one with another, as Christ and his Bride, Paul makes the emblem of Christian marriage [Ephes 5]).

In short, the gospel story is a tale about willing surrender of authority; and on the simple principle that you cannot surrender what you do not possess, it will always be the case, in patriarchal societies, that such a story will require a male protagonist. It might also be true that, in a matriarchal society it would require a female protagonist; but such an observation is strictly in the realm of theory, since to the best of anthropological knowledge no such society has ever existed. ‘All the claims so glibly made about societies ruled by women are nonsense. We have no reason to believe that they ever existed…’ wrote Margaret Meade, reviewing Steven Goldberg’s book ‘The Inevitablility of Patriarchy’ in 1978.

Third, there is the matter of affective piety.

Christianity, as it adherents have always claimed, is a religion of love. At the heart of its distinctive piety is a love relationship between the devotee and the Saviour. That relationship, as countless texts through the ages witness, is experienced intensely and personally. The locus classicus of such a devotion to the person of Jesus, often employing intensely sexual imagery, is the sequence of sermons on the Song of Songs of St Bernard of Clairvaux. Edward Caswall’s translation of the sub-Bernardine hymn ‘Jesu, dulcis memoria’ captures their essence:

Jesu, the very thought of thee
With sweetness fills my breast;
But sweeter far thy face to see
And in thy presence rest.

It is this intense devotion to the person (and so to the face) of Jesus which underlies the spirited defence of icons undertaken by the Byzantine monk Theodore of Studios in the period immediately after the seventh ecumenical council. For Theodore the image of the face of Jesus fulfils and confirms what is learned about him in the scriptures:

‘Imprint Christ …onto your heart, where he already dwells; whether you read a book about him, or behold him in an image, may he inspire you as you come to know him twofold through the twofold experience of your senses. Thus you will see with your eyes what you have learned through the words you have heard. he who in this way hears and sees will fill his entire being with the praise of God.’ [PG 99, 1213CD]

The face of Jesus, precisely because it can be painted and represented, is, for Theodore, the ultimate testimony to the self-abasement, the saving kenosis, of the Word made flesh:

‘If, then, Christ has become lowly for our sake, how could the signs of his lowliness not be visible, such as colour, tangible form, a body? By means of all this and in all this, he now can be ‘circumscribed’. Those who do not accept this, really destroy the salvific plan of the eternal Word’. [PG99, 337A]

It would be absurd (because impossible) to attempt to separate the maleness of Jesus from the other aspects of his person, as it is represented and contemplated. Indeed the maleness of the representation is essential to the awareness of its identity in a way that other factors are not. The feminist theologian, Daphne Hampson, cites the example of a book of pictures of the crucifixion from a wide range of cultures and backgrounds:

‘The variety is fascinating. There are yellow Christs and brown Christs, Christs who are serene and Christs in agony, Christs who are stylised and Christs in the image of the people who depicted them. But one thing these pictures have in common…they are all images of a man…A woman is the ‘opposite’ to Christ in a way in which someone of another race is not’ [Theology and Feminism, 1990, p77]

Hampson goes on the recall the uproar over the image of a crucified woman placed in St John the Divine Anglican Cathedral in New York. The uproar, as she justly acknowledges, was not because an image of a crucified woman is, in itself, offensive or blasphemous, but because it was offered for adoration, and it was not Jesus.

Looked at from these (and other) points of view, the claim that ‘the maleness of Jesus is not soteriologically significant’, begins, I am afraid, to look pretty threadbare. It is a purpose-built construct, with no life of its own outside the polemic and apologetic requirements which brought it into being. Nor does it deal well with the very problems which it purports to solve. To say that the maleness of Jesus is somehow inconsequential to the way in which he is to be figured or represented is not to justify or encourage the ordination of women to the priesthood: it is to undermine the doctrine of the incarnation and, in Theodore’s words, ‘to destroy the salvific plan of the eternal word’.

Anyone can see that advocates of the priesting of women were bound to have problems with the notion that the priest in some way represents Christ (and related problems about how Jesus can represent women who claim to be excluded by male representation). But if the solution to the problem does not lie in attempting to mitigate in some way the offensive masculinity of the one represented (on that stony road, one is bound, sooner or later, to stub one’s toe against popular piety, historical actuality and Chalcedonian Christology), might it not be found in altering or abandoning the very idea of representation?

The veteran Scottish theologian Thomas Torrance has taken the second course, and the late Professor Geoffrey Lampe attempted the first. Both have their problems.

The problem with Lampe’s solution is that it takes little or no account at all of the fact the priest is traditionally said to represent the person of Jesus. He proposed (based on the use of presbeuein at 2 Cor 5:20 and Ephes 6:20) an ambassadorial model of representation, which would depend on the authority and accreditation of the representative rather than on any actual resemblance to the one represented.

But this will hardly suffice. Her Britannic Majesty’s ambassador in Washington represents, not a person (‘Betty Windsor’) but a constitutional fiction (‘the Crown in Parliament’). At even the most basic level, as the evangelical J.I. Packer has pointed out, more is needed. Packer writes:

‘Since the Son of God was incarnate as a human male, it will be easier, other things being equal to realise and remember that Christ in person is ministering when his human agent and representative is also male…’ for ‘…Jesus was not and is not merely a symbol of something, or a source of teaching which can stand on its own without reference to the teacher’. [Man Woman and Priesthood, 1989, Introduction, p.xii-xiii]

These problems notwithstanding, Lampe’s is a better proposal, I suggest, than the assertion that ‘the maleness of Christ has no soteriological significance’. At least it could never oblige one to dubious speculations about the two Natures of Christ.

With a sweeping gesture, T.F. Torrance, on the other hand simply denies that the idea of the priest as an icon of Christ or representation of his person is ancient or relevant. It is ‘pseudo-theological’, he claims; not the product of reflection on a developing tradition, but the dead-end speculation of a group of nineteenth century reactionaries. He cites no evidence; and does not say who they are.

Now, whilst it is true that the idea of the priest as an icon of the person of Jesus is nowhere to be found explicitly in the Fathers or the Schoolmen, it is also pretty rich for an advocate of women’s ordination to accuse anyone, nineteenth century or otherwise, of mere novelty. That the basic idea has ancient origins and a respectable pedigree cannot be doubted. The question is: is it a legitimate development of those traditions, and reasonable grounds for denying ordination to women?

An ex-Jesuit Anglican might, I suspect, be inclined to look on a theology of icons and sacraments offered him by a Presbyterian in the same light that the Trojans regarded gifts from Greeks. But again, for my money, it is a more defensible position than the one he has apparently chosen.

There is, however, a final (and possibly fatal) problem about delimiting or abandoning the idea that the priest represents Christ, which is, quite simply, that it was part of the initial motivation of the campaign to see women ordained.

The Rt Revd Paul Moore, formerly Bishop of New York in the Episcopal Church put the matter with characteristic forthrightness :

‘If God is Male, not female, then men are intrinsically better than women. It follows then, that until the emphasis on the maleness of the image of God is redressed, the women of the world cannot be entirely liberated. For if God is thought of as simply male, then the very cosmos seems sexist….However, when women.. wear the symbolic robes of Christ, this unconscious perception will begin to be redressed…’ [Take a Bishop like Me, 1979, pp 35, 37]

The family resemblance between Moore’s position and the more crisply formulated ‘if God is male, the Male is God’ of Mary Daly will be apparent. And Moore’s solution is equally transparent. Women’s ordination is for him the ultimate image makeover for God; the only way to defend Christianity from the feminist critique.

It may be that Christian feminists (or at any rate those of a catholic colour) are indissolubly wedded, after all, to the idea that the priest represents Christ; and that, paradoxical though it may seem, they are reliant on a rather narrow and visual version of it.

They cannot get what they want without it.

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark.