Female Priests Among Christians (and Mormons), part 1.

This is a series of posts about female ordination. In it I will briefly consider some aspects of history, tradition, and scripture, various ecclesiologies, and other stuff. There are 10 parts, unless I get enthusiastic for some reason. You can find the whole series here.

First, I want to be clear that I’m not talking about a ministry of females or even female ministers. That exists already for most of the confessions out there. What I’m going to address is, for lack of a better general term, female clergy. And even this should really be parsed further among churches whose clergy go by the title of “ministers” and those whose clergy go by the title of “priest” or “bishop” and a few variations on that (say, “patriarch”).

This series relates most to churches who use the title “priest” (or some cognate) for their clergy and who are ordained to such offices. This might seem like semantics, but it is historical fact that it’s among these churches (like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or the Roman Catholic, or Orthodox, or some branches of the Lutheran faith, Anglicans, and some others, indeed, Mormonism had developed, by 1835, a whole mythos about church bishops and Old Testament Aaron, the first Mosaic priest Cf. final version of D&C 68) where there has been heated dispute over the issue of female leaders. After decades of discussion, Anglicans may undergo schisms over this. What is the problem about female priests over against female ministers?

Partly I think this stems from the derivation of the Christian title of “priest.” An office by that name was a fixture in Judaism in the time of Jesus and then in the apostolic and post-apostolic worlds. Christians began as identifying as Jews, they saw themselves as Jews who (largely in the beginning) still revered the temple and worshiped there. Preachers/missionaries from Jerusalem went out to the Jewish diaspora until they gradually began to accept the notion that Gentiles were fit to be Christians. During that time, as evidenced in things like the pseudo-Pauline literature (1,2 Timothy, Titus) the author never mentions the notion of a Christian priest. Instead, Christians largely mimicked the synagogue leadership architecture, not the temple. It wasn’t until well into the 2nd century CE that Christians took on the “priesthood” if you will, after they had been cast out of Jewry. The logic of that move gradually developed into one that saw Jews as forever unworthy of divine office and that Christians were raised up as the true “Jews” if you will. The Eucharist (sacrament, Lord’s Supper, etc.) took the place of the temple sacrifice in that logic. The divine mysteries captured in the Temple Priesthood of Judaism became that of Christian Priesthood along with the awe associated with the Mosaic story. There is something here that connects on some deep level to feelings about women and ordination in priesthood traditions, I believe. Historical patriarchy certainly but this is not the only tool needed for understanding. And as I noted there is something to this in the Mormon understanding of priesthood.

The twentieth century in particular has been marked by a continuing quest for freedom of expression and control of one’s own destiny. Ethics surrounding marriage, birth control, divorce, abortion, the coming out from the shadows of LGBTQ+ persons, have been part of stark changes in modern definitions of acceptable, even religious behavior. People (and more slowly institutions) have moved from belief/policy of never impeding the birth of children to couples not having children if they do not want them (in various possible senses here) or the expectation to remain in abusive or otherwise unsatisfactory marriages. Women, at least large segments of women, have determined to decide their own destiny and not to have it dictated by a man or men or male tradition, individually, or institutionally, and this has extended to churches of all sorts but certainly including Mormonism. In the institutional priestly category this translates in part to a question of equal possibilities (such as female Mormon bishops or apostles, say).

Economic factors may play a role in the desire of institutions for clergy ordination of women. This has been an obstacle for female ordination in mainline Protestant churches. Methodist, Presbyterian, Anglican, etc. have in recent times had all the clergy they can reasonably place. And there is still some inherent if subtle discrimination: women might be ordained, but will they be given significant ministerial assignments? Among Catholics, the opposite (in terms of need) has been the case. A large number of dioceses have heavy shortages of clergy in their parishes. (Forgive me for not citing statistical sources, this isn’t that kind of post.) One Catholic scholar noted that in the Carribean in many parishes, only on one Sunday out of four (or more) can a priest be present to consecrate the sacrament so there is only a full Mass once a month. This is an interesting case because the bishop authorized nuns to do parts of the Mass and distribute an already consecrated batch of the Eucharist. But they can’t to the actual consecrating themselves. This kind of practice is widening among Catholic dioceses. Women passing the sacrament! However, women cannot hear confession. The sacrament of penance is a male administered rite (and the somewhat similar LDS practice among bishops is also closely guarded).[1]

————–
[1] For penance, there is an additional problem: the confessional requires formal ethical training and rigorous study of canon law, at least in theory.

Comments

  1. Interesting thoughts. The LDS Church is quite constrained in this matter – the same change in the Joseph Smith Translation that removed the prohibition on women SPEAKING in church replaced it with the phrasing that women not be permitted to RULE in the Church. This, along with the fact that the clear majority of Mormons are content with an all-male priesthood, is enough to convince me that there won’t be any substantial change on this matter in the foreseeable future.

    Personally, I see the LGBT issue as being quite a bit hotter in the church today – there’s a big difference between full social inclusion in the church, albeit with no priesthood authority, versus no inclusion at all. The fact that the majority of young Mormons are in favor of LGBT equality is not something that can be ignored without consequences.

  2. Thank you so much for beginning this series. Before I was baptized (7 months ago) I was ordained clergy in the Anglican denomination. I gave up my ordination in order to be baptized. I will be following closely.

  3. Great stuff, wvs. I think this topic is particularly fraught for us because of how definitions of priesthood have changed. I know you were careful here to talk about female priests, but it is so hard for us not to impose our conception of priesthood (and reasonably so).

  4. Believing Joseph, thanks for pointing out the JST change. I do think the LGBTQ issues are front and center for YA.

  5. Jenifer, I’m fascinated by your comment. I’d love to hear more about your story. I hope what I’ve written will be something you can enrich from first-hand experience!

  6. Thanks, J. Priesthood can be complicated and how it interfaces with broader Christianity can be a tricky translation. Not sure if I’ve done an adequate job there. I’ve got the team at my back to fix it hopefully.

  7. I should also add that my view is often narrowly North American. That can be a problem.

  8. My dear grandmother brought communion to many of her fellow parishioners too ill to attend mass. When she also became too ill, a woman in her congregation did the same for her. When I have attended mass (with my grandmother or friends), I’ve noticed not only nuns but lay women assisting in what we would call “administering the sacrament.”

    #holyenvy

  9. WVS: Interested in the series. I think I know some of where you’re going but I’m looking forward to being surprised. I appreciate the care with which you define terms and identify sources and limitations. I think that care is necessary to respond to the often-observed tendency to read pre-determined results back into scripture and history.

  10. Leona, that’s a great vignette. Thank you.

  11. Believing Joseph

    The fact that the majority of young Mormons are in favor of LGBT equality is not something that can be ignored without consequences
    If the church simply bowed down to the blowing Winds of Change when would we be a peculiar people?
    Gay marriage is simply not compatible with the gospel and members should not support it.
    Alcohol is legal but a practicing alcoholic may not have full fellowship in the church.

    Gay marriage is legal but a practicing homosexual may not have full Fellowship in in the church.

    And to keep this with the post I believe if we had female apostles they would be clamoring for gay marriage.

  12. Julie S.,

    If you’d read my comment more carefully you might notice I never actually advocated for LGBT equality. All I said is that I think it’s such a pressing issue in the church today because so many of the youth are passionate about it. If you believe a change in the doctrine would be a bad thing, then you should be worried that the opinion of >50% of young Mormons is now out of line with the orthodox teachings. I certainly am.

  13. WVS – thank you. My life has been totally turned upside down by my converstion…in ways I am still not recovered from. But still having said that, I would do it all over again, no question. But the question of priesthood is hard. I have a Master in Divinity, learned Greek and Hebrew, have lead in congregations, am skilled at helping people through difficult pastoral issues. It’s difficult to accept that a boy of 18 who hasn’t finished high school is qualified to minister in ways I am not simply because he is male. And yet, here I am, No regrets.

  14. I’m incredibly excited to read this series! And Jennifer Roach, your story is fascinating. I’m excited to read your blog as well. BCC continues to provide a place of belonging for me where my knowledge is expanded and my faith enriched.

  15. Hi Jennifer,

    I find this recent talk to be insightful.

    https://www.fairmormon.org/conference/august-2019/women-men-and-priesthood-power

  16. Thank you, David. It’s a good talk. On most days I am okay with the complexity of the situation. But there are days….

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