Geoffrey Kirk asks: since priests act in persona ecclesiae, should women have a part in that role?

The Church, the Body of Christ, is, of course, made up of both women and men. Women, indeed, have been the greater number in terms of regular worshippers in most Christian communities in modern times. It is Christian teaching, moreover, that both women and men are made in the image of God, though some Protestant theologians, notably Karl Barth, have maintained that the imago dei is to be found pre-eminently in the married state, where man and woman become ‘one flesh’. Catholic theologians have more recently concentrated on nuptial imagery about the Church, which perhaps complements this Protestant emphasis.

But it is to misunderstand the representative role of the priest in the celebration of the Eucharist and in absolution to suppose that he directly represents the gathered community and that he should do so therefore in some demographically accurate way.

Walking sacrament

It was a commonplace of those who favour women’s ordination that ‘the priest represents God to the people and the people to God’. This is at best an oversimplification and at worst a fallacy.

The priest represents Jesus (as some traditions have put it, he is alter Christus; or, as Fr Austin Farrer memorably said, he is a ‘walking sacrament’, making Jesus present in historical time). It is Jesus who ‘represents God to the people and the people to God’, precisely because he is both: the ‘perfect image of the Father’ and the ‘head of the Body, the Church’. It would be a strange, and arguably heretical, view of the priesthood which made of him some sort of intermediary agent, independently of the Incarnate Word and Lord of the Church.

The role of the priest is made abundantly clear in the words of absolution to the penitent: ‘God the Father of mercies has reconciled the world to himself through the death and resurrection of his Son, and has poured forth the Holy Spirit for the forgiveness of sins. May he grant you pardon and peace through the ministry of the Church. And I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Third person narrative

The same point is made in the eucharistic prayer, where the Lord’s words are part of a third-person narrative. The priest acts for Jesus; Jesus acts through the priest; the whole action is ‘through [Jesus], with him, in him in the unity of the Holy Spirit’ to the glory of God the Father.

The claim that the priesthood should include women in order more fully to represent the gathered people of God seems to imply a number of things which are contrary to the Church’s traditional assertion that it is Christ who ministers in his sacraments. It might be thought to imply that Christ himself cannot adequately represent his Body and be its Head because his maleness somehow limits or incapacitates him.

It might be thought to imply that it is the Church (represented by an ‘inclusive priesthood’) which offers sacrifice to the Father, and not the eternal Son. It might be thought to imply that the Eucharists celebrated by a male-only priesthood were therefore deficient or invalid, and that the Church had fallen short of the Lord’s intention for the whole of its previous existence

Church and Scripture

It is easy to see how, if any or all of those things were the case, faith in the sacraments, the Church and the Scriptures would be seriously compromised: for the sacraments would have been celebrated only partially or inadequately; the Church would have been misguided and (wittingly or unwittingly) the agent of gross injustice; the Scriptures would be seen to have failed to provide guidance upon what is now seen as a sine qua non of ecclesiastical polity.