On a Saturday afternoon several weeks ago in Kentucky, a former Roman Catholic Carmelite nun, Rosemarie Smead, was ordained a catholic priest. For obvious reasons, this made something of a splash. (Click here for a story.)
This past week, in related news, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Freiburg im Breisgau, Robert Zollitsch, said at a conference on reforming the church it’s time for the Roman Church to at least consider ordaining women deacons. This doesn’t have as much drama as the first story, but it may have more staying power and, if so, it’ll have much longer-term interest.
These kinds of stories are not only interesting because of what they report but what they represent – why it is that they get buzz. Apparently, lots of people want to hear about this. I’d suspect it’s because some dominant strands of Christianity show an apparent foolishness and close-mindedness about women. The Reuters report about the Kentucky ordination cited a poll which revealed that 70% of American Catholics say they would be in favor of women being ordained priests.
Contemporary Christianity is, for some of us, recovering from a centuries-long failure to appreciate women in leadership positions. The official reason the Roman church gives for why women can’t be priests is because Jesus chose twelve men. That’s true, at least on the surface. But I’m often struck that people who say they read their bible or those who claim to know the heart of the Christian tradition, inside and out, often fail to notice what’s actually going on there. One doesn’t have to read between the lines; there’s no hidden story in the New Testament: the male-dominated Christianity that excludes women from leadership positions is not the kind of Way which Jesus practiced, and it’s not the religion of Jesus’ earliest followers. Let me be very clear: for Jesus and the bulk of early Christianity, I can find no distinction between male apostles and female apostles.
Women are not only characters in Jesus’ life but, in fact, key players. Jesus chose twelve male followers but it can hardly be argued, after looking up from the pages of any gospel, that there was only a set and select group of disciples. Jesus’ mother, Mary, not only says “Yes” to God’s intervention in her life, she also ministers alongside him – all the way to the very end. Jesus’ best friends were a trio of siblings, Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha – whose home Jesus often retreated to in Bethany. In John’s gospel, the first person to whom Jesus reveals he is, in fact, the Messiah is a woman: a Samaritan woman at the well. And the first witnesses to the resurrection, the very defining concept of our Christian faith? Women, all of them. Then there’s Mary Magdalene, about whom much has been added through the ages, some of more ancient years designed to blacken her character, some of more recent years to take away the spotlight from her genuinely faithful relationship to Jesus. Whatever you’ve heard about Mary Magdalene suffice it to say that the New Testament presents her as a shining exemplar of a truly great disciple and, no less, apostle of the Risen Christ.
Jesus’ gender inclusion continued in the movement which kept alive his spirit. In Acts of the Apostles chapter 16 you meet a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. Paul met her and several other women in Philippi on one of his travel journeys. Lydia became interested in the story of God reconciling the world in Christ, and she and her entire household were baptized. Moreover, she became a major patron of the early church and founded a church in her home. It should also be mentioned that Lydia is a self-made woman, of sorts: purple cloth was incredibly expensive, being made from a crushed shell from the Mediterranean sea basin; that’s why purple is the color of royalty — those of means and wealth were among the few who could afford such a dye. There’s no Mr. Lydia: just a wealthy, well-to-do, and self-assertive woman who helped the Christian movement significantly. Read on and you learn of another couple who were leaders and apostles, Priscilla and her husband Aquila (Acts 18). To the Galatians, the Apostle Paul stated emphatically that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither male nor female, neither slave nor free, for all are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28) The earliest forms of Christianity, just like Jesus’ own gatherings, were not only gender inclusive but they seemed to know no distinction between God’s acting through male or female leaders, for all indeed are one in Christ.
An all-male priesthood was made by us. Not Jesus. Not his earliest followers. A hierarchical church which differentiated between women and men at some fundamental levels with exclusive consequences for leadership positions was also made by us, not Jesus. And even though gender distinctions can also be found in the New Testament – most notably in the so-called household codes in which there’s an apparent pecking order: children obey parents, women obey husbands, husbands obey God (Eph. 5:22-6:5 or Col. 3:18-4:1) – the time of writing and origin of those documents seems to have more to do with a religion adopting the ethos of its culture and surrounding Roman imperialist society than following the clearly egalitarian and radical love-ethic of the God whom they knew as Emmanuel.
If you hear these words of mine as something like a politicized call to action or civil rights manifesto about inclusion for inclusivity’s sake, I apologize. That’s not my intent, well, not my primary intent. I’d like to take this another step, and at least in closing go a little bit deeper. There is a spiritual message here.
Obviously, I don’t have an issue with raising up women in ordained leadership positions in the Christian church. I do have an issue, however, with women being thrust into the maintenance and continuation of a centuries-long, male-dominated institution which has become known, for many, as “Christianity.” This religion founded on the Way of Jesus is not enriched if we do little more than add women to the roster of traditional male roles. (Interestingly, many of my female clergy friends have often remarked on how weird a feeling it is to put on the clerical collar for the first time. Even priesthood’s dress itself – a backwards collar, no less – is a distinctly male article of clothing.) I think what many are searching for is balance.
I don’t think that that 70% of American Catholics who say the church should be open to ordaining women as priests would be satisfied, entirely, by knowing that the celebrant or preacher or person baptizing their son or daughter could very well be a woman. I think that that 70% is saying, in other words, they are tired of the ways in which the Jesus Movement which seemed so clearly bent on equality and life and justice became, in fairly short order, obsessed with power, position, posture, and wealth. I think they’re calling for balance, at the very least, between the church which acts very much like a kingdom of this world and has, for centuries, nearly perfected an ethic of exclusion and judgment to now use its considerable wealth and voice to speak again the values of its Head: Jesus the holy child of God who modeled for us something truly profound and life-giving.
Whenever Jesus in the New Testament seems to describe what he’s about and the type of thing he’s trying to do, I’ve noticed he talks in surprisingly intimate, relational, domestic terms. In the middle of his farewell address to his followers, according to John, Jesus urges them to love one another and goes on to say “my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” (Jn. 14:23) What a rich and intimate expression: Make our home with them. There’s no institution or power or organization here, no politics or positioning or structure. The image Jesus uses is blissfully tangible, direct and comforting: home.
There is an untold level of transformative power in the home. Home is where the heart is, we say. Home is where real change, real growth, real life happens.
While in Chicago, I taught for years in a Roman Catholic high school for girls run by the Sisters of Mercy. The Sisters of Mercy acted like good daughters of the Pope but under the surface – and you didn’t need to scratch too deeply – they were open-minded and spirited radicals, committed to doing works of justice and mercy wherever it was God was sending them, no matter what the church’s official leadership said. (Case in point: they hired me, an Episcopal man, to teach theology to Roman Catholic girls!) I loved the Sisters of Mercy for their spunky and radical spirit, and I value their tradition very much.
Founded in nineteenth century Dublin by Catherine McAuley, the Sisters of Mercy live and practice an intentional and, as I said, radical ministry that is, at the same time, kind of quiet. They founded schools and hospitals, orphanages and what Catherine called ‘Mercy Centers’ – places which transform society from the inside out. Catherine McAuley once remarked: “No work of charity can be more productive of good to society than the careful instruction of women.” This thesis, currently being tested with success in Afghanistan and other developing countries, is not predicated on sweeping political or structural changes. Rather, Catherine argued, it’s about changing the values of the home, where women, at least in the nineteenthcentury, made their decisive mark. If you can change the values of a home – if, for instance, because of her education a woman knows she has the power to exercise choices in life – then you change the neighborhood. If the neighborhood changes, so might the city. If the city, then the society, and if the society then, perhaps, the world.
I wonder what it might be like if Christians started exploring these cozier, homelier (*by which I don’t mean ‘unattractive’) and, frankly, simpler values of the One who lived as one of us: the Messiah who asked us to keep love alive so he and the Father will “make their home” in us. Many are already striving for this balance and there’s much good news here. For this very reason, I have to say that smaller churches such as St. George’s, Valley Lee are uniquely able to grow in vibrancy and vitality much more so than bigger church institutions – most notably those Cathedrals and dioceses and denominations which are shrinking and, if not shrinking, struggling to do little more than keep alive the tradition which built them years ago. Perhaps the tradition of an overtly institutionalized Christianity is, these days, drawing its final breath. If that is the case, and I suspect it is, we can say one positive thing: Jesus is not going anywhere. Jesus is very much alive. Nor is the movement Jesus began slipping away, but perhaps his Way which is predicated on those more intimate values of love and family, the home of God among us, is, these days, finding new life.