Geoffrey Kirk asks if women can be baptized, should they also be ordained?

What is the ministerial priesthood? What are its origins? On what does its distinctive authority (if any) rely? And what is its relationship to the ‘priesthood of all believers’ which was the strong suit of the Reformation? These are (like many others) questions which Anglicans generally avoid asking; probably because they are so ill-equipped to answer them, and will never be able to do so from a solid basis of internal agreement. But we would be well advised to make the attempt, as a matter of urgency.

One factor in the debate about the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate is the attitude of the Diocese of Sydney and its allies across the Communion. The Sydneysiders have held off from lay celebration, they say, out of respect for the unity and integrity of worldwide Anglicanism; but when other provinces and dioceses see no need for restraint on the consecration of women, or of practising homosexuals, they see no further cause for restraint on their part. Anglicans cannot (or will not) make up their minds on the sacramental nature and dominical origin of Holy Orders. Some take the general position of the Protestant Reformers, that the ministerial priesthood is merely a special case of the priesthood of all believers which is conferred at baptism. Just as there is no sexual differentiation in the dignity and ministry conferred in baptism, so logically there can be no theological case for reserving the ministerial priesthood to men. On this understanding the ministerial priesthood of presbyters and bishops is merely a special case of a general dispensation: priests and bishops are ‘office holders’ within the community of faith, exercising in its fullness and on behalf of that community what all its members cannot conveniently exercise. The sacramental basis of their ministry, in other words, was conferred in baptism. Catholic Christians have never accepted, or been happy with, this reductionist view of priesthood and episcopate. They have never, from the earliest times of which we have record, supposed priesthood to be a pragmatic extension of baptism, and episcopacy a special case of priesthood.

Appealing to the Lord’s choice of twelve (male) Apostles before the general commission to ‘baptize all nations’, they have asserted a separate dominical origin for the sacred ministry, through the direct election of the Twelve by Jesus and by its continuance in the Apostolic Ministry. There is, for Catholics, a distinct vocation of handing on ‘the office entrusted by Christ to his Apostles of teaching, sanctifying and governing the faithful.’ This ministry, of course, is one of service to all the baptized (in which bishops,

priests, religious and others are included); but it is distinct from the baptismal dignity (though in no way superior to it). Like the baptismal vocation of all believers, it relates directly to the Lord who commissioned it.

There is, on this view, no injustice or inequality towards women in the reservation of the sacred ministry to men. It is merely obedience to the Lord’s will. Just as he sovereignly elects in baptism those whom he wills (‘You did not choose me, I chose you’), so in the election of the Twelve he established the patterns of the episcopal and presbyteral ministry. That distinct ministry differs not in degree but in kind from that of the priesthood of all believers.

Of course, as is so often asserted and proclaimed, Gal. 3.28 expresses the ‘inclusive’ nature of the baptized community. But it should be remembered that even that ‘inclusion’ is still, like the Lord’s choice of Apostolic Ministers, a matter of election and not of right. Some are not called or chosen.

In reply to objections that the consistent practice of the Church heretofore runs counter to the radical equality established in baptism, Catholics respond that, though baptized men and women are equally incorporated into the Body of Christ and into the common priesthood, the ministerial priesthood is a separate and distinct vocation, to which the Lord calls certain men, to the service of that common priesthood. It does not thereby follow that the exclusion of all women and most men from the ministerial priesthood is unjust.