This question has been hotly debated throughout history. From the early days of the church when some women in the Church at Corinth were criticized by Paul for disrupting worship to the 21st century when many women now function as deacons, priests, and bishops. There is now widespread acceptance of women as clergy at every level in many denominations, but the debate still rages on and, no doubt, will continue until the second coming, when Christ will return and settle the issue.
The Priesthood is a mantle, worn by those whom God has called to serve him through his church. Even though the word “Priest” is a title, which confers on a person a position of authority, Priesthood is NOT a title conveyed by humans and it is NOT a position of authority granted by human hands. The Priesthood is God’s gift to those who answer the call to minister to God’s people through the sacraments of the church. As such, it is given by God through the Holy Spirit. In the history of the Church, there has never been a moment when God said, “Only men can be touched by my Spirit to do my bidding.” Actually, there has never been a moment when God said, “Here’s how you make a priest….” What there has been is God’s calling on the hearts of people in every walk of life to be God’s priest by serving and by offering Christ’s sacrifice, healing, blessing, and anointing.
In our human wisdom, the church has developed a process of examination and discernment to ensure that the church is only served by qualified people. As cumbersome and painful as this process can be, it seems to be necessary as the ministry to God’s people has become more and more demanding and, every day, the knowledge needed to instruct God’s people increases. So, the church has imposed its human methods of setting apart those it deems worthy of the position and title. Unfortunately, human examination and discernment often weed out those who have been genuinely called by God as the standards imposed by this process are many times not guided by God’s desires but by the needs and beliefs of the humans behind the process. Historically, the conclusion of the human process has been:
• Well-educated in God’s word and Church history
• Approved by human standards of decency and morality
There are countless reasons for those conclusions, especially the first one and it is not the intent of this article to rehearse them all. The point here is that this mantle of Priesthood has been given to men and women of God’s church since the earliest days of God’s creation. There were men and women anointed as judges in the government and Jesus accepted women in any roles that were allowed by the society in which they lived as well as those that were not. He gave his blessing on women to serve him as they followed him in his earthly ministry and even gave them the greatest ministry he could at the time – that of evangelist. He sent women to tell the Apostles the good news of his resurrection from the dead. Jesus placed no restrictions on who could be a follower and a disciple.
The church of today has many restrictions on women in the church. These are human restrictions, regardless of how the church manipulates Scripture to put discriminatory words in the mouths of Jesus and Paul and others who wrote of the ministry of the church. The restrictions which persist into the modern church were set and condoned and continued by the humans who took upon themselves the ministry of administering the church’s policies throughout history. A trip through Church history makes one thing clear – the policies and practices of the Church have changed, are changing, and will always continue to change as long as humans are involved. The only thing that has not changed is that Jesus is the head of the Church, the author of our salvation, and the ultimate authority of our faith. The mantle of Priesthood comes under the authority of Jesus and, while he left his Church in the hands of his Apostles, his intention was that it grow and develop under his authority and according to his standards.
This is why we don’t throw people out of the church when they sin; we teach forgiveness and we practice it. This is why we don’t make people take a test to receive God’s love; we teach unconditional love and we practice it. Jesus practiced inclusiveness in his community of disciples; women were included and welcome and given the most vital assignments. They were included and empowered by Jesus to the very limits of what the society allowed and even beyond. To Jesus, there was “no male and female,” only followers.
The Priesthood of the Church is modeled after the Priesthood of Jesus, not after his gender. The Priesthood is all about Christ, not about a male person. It is about the sacrifice of his human body, not his male body. It is about his offering of himself, his spirit as well as his body, on Calvary and none of this has anything to do with the fact that he was a male. Gender had nothing to do with the Priesthood of Christ; therefore, it seems obvious that Jesus would not exclude anyone from the Priesthood of the Church based on gender. Our human process should be concerned with morality and goodness and faithfulness and knowledge of God’s Word and all of the other qualities of Christ that people need in a Priest of the Church. Certainly there are some women who should not be ordained because they don’t possess these qualities just as there are men who should not be ordained for the same reasons. There is no evidence that Jesus ever intended that gender be one of the reasons that the mantle of Priesthood be denied.
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It’s taken hundreds of years and probably millions of words dancing on the edge of total heresy but finally – he’s done it! The Pope has gone over the edge with the Vatican’s latest Normae de Gravioribus Delicti document in which the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has put ordaining women or being ordained and being a woman right up on the list with sexual abuse of children and the mentally challenged.
Through my disbelief and rage, I can still manage to ask 3 questions:
1. Who do they think they are?
2. What Bible do they read?
3. Did they ask God about this?
Let’s take the 3rd one first – I know they craft these highly religious documents in an atmosphere of prayer and I am certain that those prayers include asking the Holy Spirit for guidance. I don’t claim to be God or anything but the God I do know wouldn’t have steered them anywhere near this rocky and treacherous shore.
The God of love whom I worship sent his Son to eradicate this kind of condemnation and I believe that Jesus was following orders when he flew in the face of every discriminatory practice of the day. He ate meals with women, he talked to them in public, he touched them and let them touch him, no matter what time of the month it was. He encouraged women to be real and he even entrusted – you got it – women! with the first news of his resurrection.
So that brings us to the Bible – neat huh? – have any of you ever read anything in the words of Jesus or even in the whole Bible about ordination. Folks, we made that up! We picked up on the whole anointing and setting apart and raising up from the selection process God put in place from the days of the early kings but there was no Commission on Ministry, no Standing Committee, no elaborate service with incense swinging and multiple holy hands weighing down on one head.
If Jesus didn’t tell his future church leaders how to “ordain” priests, how can anybody read anything he said and conclude that he would exclude women from such a process, which he didn’t set up in the first place. What Jesus DID set up was a standard for treating women as intelligent and valuable members of society so can you even imagine what he’s thinking now?
The Bishop who ordained me was a very wise man – many of you knew the Rt. Rev. C. Charles Vaché, 7th Bishop of Southern Virginia as a I did – warm, caring, with a gift for storytelling and a clever turn-of-the phrase. He was known for his gift of understatement with a touch of humor. One of my favorites was his quick comeback to what I know was an often repeated request every where he went: “Bishop, can’t you do something about this weather?” His stock answer was: “Sorry, I’m in sales, not management.”
After his long struggle with the question of the ordination of women, he became very clearly convinced that the ordination of women was “of God.” I remember someone asking him one time, “How do you know that?” And, I had to pick my lower jaw off the floor when I heard him say, “Because God has made effective and faithful female priests for more than 10 years now,” and, with that subtle twinkle in his eye that I had come to really appreciate, he looked at me and said, “And there’s no doubt that Susan Bowman would not have made it through the ordination process without God’s help.”
He was so right! I knew from the beginning that I needed God to survive the male-oriented system still present in Southern Virginia in the early 80’s and that, after 13 years away from academia, which I didn’t conquer too strongly during my first assault, I was in serious need of divine inspiration and intervention.
This brings us to the final question: “Who do they think they are?” This is one of my favorite responses to the outrageous and it’s close kin to “What were they thinking?” Of course, it’s a rhetorical question and I’ve no doubt that the literal answer is “God’s Church” or “God’s Servants” as these committed and concerned prelates seem to feel called somehow to serve as “guardians of the faith” in a faithless or at least a “faith-challenged” world.
The faith they are called to protect, however, is not theirs. They don’t own it; Faith is a gift from God to fallen humanity and, even as we seem to be constantly struggling with it, questioning it, and in some cases, rejecting it or modifying it to suit our tastes, it is the bedrock foundation for our lives. Everybody has to have faith in SOMETHING.
Our Christian faith is constantly under attack from all quarters, even from within our own denominations so it is clear that we humans need help with such crucial theological concepts as the Trinity, redemption, and the list goes on . . . .” I don’t claim to know everything about God (in fact, I’m not even sure that any of us can really KNOW things about God – I think we “faith” them) and I’m certainly teachable and ready to learn but I learned in seminary to check everything against Scripture and while I’ll certainly admit that there are tons of unclear and even contradictory evidence in the Bible about the role of women, there is no doubt in my mind about three things:
1. The Pope and the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith think that they are the absolute and final authority on “things of the Faith” and that they speak for God in all matters of the Faith. The first time there was an attempt to “play God,” two people got thrown out of the Garden.
2. The Bible that I read speaks loudly of God’s love for every human being, for Jesus’ love and respect for women, and for his fair treatment of every kind of person – even sinners. It speaks loudly of God’s hatred of evil and humans hurting each other and nowhere does the Bible I read equate the most despicable treatment of God’s most vulnerable with a woman’s sincere desire to serve God.
3. If the Pope and his CDF asked God about what to write in this newest piece of religious teachings, they either didn’t listen to the answer or they heard it wrong or they made up the answer they wanted to hear.
I don’t want to stoop to their level and call them unfit or unsuited and I certainly will not call them names or impugn their character as they have done to me and thousands of women like me. I will leave them to God.
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Susan Bowman, the “LadyFather” has written a book on her experiences in the ordained ministry. Aptly named “Lady Father,” it is available now at Amazon.com and don’t forget to check out Susan’s Facebook page at http://facebook.com/ladyfather.
Women Clergy – Victims or Victors
Prejudice and discrimination is alive and well in our society. Unfortunately, it also flourishes in the Church where it makes many people, especially women priests, into victims. In my mind, this is the one institution where we should be able to operate freely without prejudice and discrimination. It is the one place where ministers of the Gospel should be victors instead of victims. We should enjoy acceptance in the Church just as Jesus accepted all people, especially women, during his earthly ministry.
In my positions as a municipal employee, I encountered some initial hostility by the men I worked with until I proved myself worthy. Serving in these positions, I was holding jobs for which I had no previous experience and for which I had received no formal training. In one case my job was unique placing me in a pay grade that had always paid men in a highly technical position. So, some skepticism was understandable. In both cases, once I showed I was capable and more than willing to learn and to pull my weight, these men accepted and respected me.
My experience as an ordained woman in the Episcopal Church was similar. I found such acceptance to be spotty at best, mostly conditional, and at the worst, just the opposite. Generally speaking, I found neither total acceptance nor respect by the majority of people I worked with or the members to whom I ministered.
In the ordination process, there were people in authority over me and my standing within the process. Along with them, there were also people in the pews who fell into five general categories:
Totally accepting and supportive – These were few and far between. They tended to be people who blindly supported the equality of women in every facet of life. Also, there were those who had thoughtfully and prayerfully considered the ordination of women. They had come to the conclusion that it was part of God’s plan for the Church. Many times they also tended to be vocal in their acceptance and in their support of individual women whom they thought were suitable for ordination.
Accepted the idea but with reservations – There were many good church people who wouldn’t dream of being prejudiced against women or any other group. They called themselves supporters of women’s ordination. These people were inwardly unsure of the wisdom of upsetting the Church’s traditional hierarchy. They were also somewhat protective of their own comfort zone with women functioning in a traditional male role on a spiritual level.
Accepted the person’s qualifications but not the concept of women in ordained ministry – Many were often heard to say, after an encounter with an ordained woman, “I don’t think much of the ordination of women, but Xxxxx Xxxxx is OK.”
Rejected the idea of women’s ordination, but were open to change – These were also thoughtful and prayerful church people who just were not able to accept a female in spiritual authority. They usually were uncomfortable with women functioning as priests (celebrating the Eucharist, absolving sins, and pronouncing God’s blessing). Most were willing to discuss it rationally.
Totally rejected the possibility that women could function as priests – Many in this category were hostile, either openly or passive-aggressively. Most refused to accept a woman’s ordination as valid. Interestingly, there were many clergy in this category. There still are a good number of Episcopal clergy who will refuse to accept communion from a woman.
During my journey through the ordination process, I encountered people in some or all of the above categories. The most difficult to deal with were the people who had no rational reason for rejecting women as priests. They just couldn’t “deal with it.” I found many women in this category. Their questions were many times strident and pointed: “Why can’t you do ministry in the church as a lay person like I do?” “Why do you feel like you have to be ordained?” “Who will take care of your child while you’re in seminary or running out in the middle of the night for pastoral emergencies?”
Have you encountered these folks in your own journey? Did you ever feel personal pain from such words, even when uttered by a friend or family member? Have you experienced this as you dealt with clergy and bishops who could not accept your call or your ordained status? Write to me with your experiences – I’ve found some healing in sharing such moments with others. I have also found ways to co-exist with the prejudice and discrimination of women clergy in the church.
Also, I hope you enjoy my memoir entitled “Lady Father,” in which I detail my experiences, good and bad, as a priest of the Church. It’s my journey of how I moved from “Victim” to “Victor.” “Lady Father” is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and many other distributors.
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Susan Bowman, is an ordained Episcopal Priest, a Grandmother, and a Professional Writer. She was ordained as an Episcopal priest in 1986. Her memoir is a story that will speak to all women who are functioning in a traditionally male role. She has written a book about her experiences of discrimination within the church’s ordination process and in the parishes she served. It is now available for purchase on Amazon.com. Fill out the form below to enter contact information securely and check out her Facebook page at https://facebook.com/ladyfather.