World Council of Churches

A worldwide fellowship of churches seeking unity, a common witness and Christian service

Faith and Order on women's ordination

01 June 1998

New Skete Monastery, Cambridge, New York, USA, 26 May - 1 June 1998

The question of women's ordination has been cited by some as one of several issues that are inappropriate for multilateral ecumenical discussion, particularly within the WCC. Reasons for this reluctance include the sense that the topic has shown itself to be divisive already within many churches, and the perception (right or wrong) that the WCC, in its very style and ethos, tends to skew such discussions in "liberal" or "politicized" directions. A recent meeting of the Faith and Order Standing Commission requested two contributions on this theme as discussion starters: a historical survey written by Melanie May (an ordained minister in the Church of the Brethren), and a view from the Orthodox by Michael Tita (a priest of the Romanian Orthodox Church). These essays are included in the present dossier as a kind of "test case" in the carrying out of such discussions in WCC contexts.

I. A survey of Faith and Order discussions on the ordination of women: a retrospective introduction to future work

Melanie A. May

Discussion of the ordination of women is threaded through the ecumenical movement in the 20th century. This thread of discussion is, however, a slender one and has, at times, been all but unravelled by silence on the subject. Today we seek to weave this thread more integrally into the search for the visible unity of the Church, acknowledging that the visible unity of the Church is predicated on the recognition of all baptized members and the recognition of all those who are called to ordained ministries. We cannot, therefore, achieve the visible unity of the Church unless we are willing to talk together, in truth and in love, about the question of women's ministries, including the ordination of women.

Speaking the truth in love, we must confess we have among us deep disagreements about women's ministries, especially about the ordination of women to the full ministry of Word and Sacrament. But, speaking the truth in love, I believe we must also be willing to acknowledge, as did the Faith and Order Commission meeting in Budapest, in 1989: "this is not ‘an issue of Protestants against Orthodox or Roman Catholics', for all churches face serious issues related to the full participation and opportunities for leadership of women". We - Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants, Old Catholics - may not say to one another, "I have no need of you" (1 Cor 12:21). As each of us faces our issues related to women's ministries, especially to the ordination of women, we indeed have need of one another's experiences and theological perspectives. Indeed, God's call to us to make manifest the unity of the Church is a call to be open to one another as to God, trusting the possibility that the Holy Spirit may speak to us through experiences and traditions and insights of others. In such a spirit of mutual respect, and with a willingness to listen, we call upon the Holy Spirit to be present as we begin.

I will first elaborate, briefly, where we are as churches relative to women's ministries, especially the ordination of women. I will then review ecumenical, particularly Faith and Order, discussions of the issue during the 20th century. Finally, I will offer some suggestions for our discussion together now and in the future.

Where we are as churches

In his Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, promulgated in May 1994, His Holiness John Paul II stated that the Church has no authority to ordain women to the priesthood, confirming this teaching's grounding in the unbroken tradition of the Church. On 18 November 1995, the Congregation for the Doctrine and Faith (CDF) published a reply or "Responsum" to a question as to whether indeed the Church has no authority to confer priestly ordination to women as stated in the Apostolic Letter and whether the Letter's teaching is to be understood as belonging to the "deposit of faith". The CDF responded in the affirmative: "This teaching requires definitive assent, since, founded on the written Word of God, and from the beginning constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium (cf. Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium 25, 2)".

Since 1995, there have, however, been continued calls for renewed discussion of women's ministries and of criteria for admission to the priesthood. One statement, issued at the end of a meeting of the Council of European Conferences of Priests, said this:

We welcome warmly the growing co-responsibility of lay women and men for our church, which is taking place in almost every European country. It is for this reason that we seek renewed discussion of such themes as the place of women in the church, changes in criteria for admission to the priesthood and the responsibility of the laity. For many, such issues are, fundamentally, questions of human dignity. In our democratic world, dialogue is the necessary and essential way forward in creating a society which human values are upheld. This is equally true within the church and outside it.2

Other statements made since 1995 reaffirm Ordinatio Sacerdotalis and the "Responsum", citing scripture, tradition, and magisterial teaching to reconfirm that women cannot be ordained, and cautioning Catholics aligned with groups seeking such liberal reforms in the Church.

Meanwhile, since 1996, the Old Catholic Churches in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands opened the priesthood and all levels of the church hierarchy to women. In 1997, the International Bishops' Conference of the Old Catholic Church, which includes 14 Old Catholic bishops from around the world, decided that all member churches of the Union of Utrecht, which groups Old Catholic churches, were free to accept women's ordination, without jeopardising the unity of the union. The largest church within the Union of Utrecht, the US-based Polish National Church, is very much opposed to the ordination of women, convinced that opening up the ministry will hinder relationships with Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.

"The place of the Woman in the Orthodox Church and the Question of the Ordination of Women" was the theme of an historic Inter-Orthodox Theological Consultation in Rhodes, Greece, 30 October - 7 November 1988. The consultation was organized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople in response to a request coming from the Third Pre-Conciliar Conference held in 1986, in Chambésy, Switzerland. That Conference proposed a study of "the issue of the ordination of women in order to promote relevant Orthodox doctrine in all her dialogues with Christian Churches and confessions proceeding with the ordination of women".3 The consultation reaffirmed the "male character of the ‘sacramental' priesthood", citing "these ecclesiastically rooted positions":

  1. on the example of our Lord Jesus Christ, who did not select any women as one of His Apostles;

  2. on the example of the Theotokos, who did not exercise the sacramental priestly function in the Church, even though she was made worthy to become the Mother of the Incarnate Son and the Word of God;

  3. on the Apostolic Tradition, according to which the Apostles, following the example of the Lord, never ordained any women to this special priesthood in the Church;

  4. on some Pauline teachings concerning the place of women in the Church, and

  5. on the criterion of analogy, according to which, if the exercise of the sacramental priesthood by women were permitted, then it should have been exercised by the Theotokos (IV,14).4

The Consultation also issued a strong call for the restoration of the "apostolic order of deaconesses":

It was never altogether abandoned in the Orthodox Church though it has tended to fall into disuse. There is ample evidence, from apostolic times, from the patristic canonical and liturgical tradition, well into the Byzantine period (and even in our own day) that this order was held in high honour. The deaconess was ordained within the sanctuary during the Divine Liturgy with two prayers, she received the Orarion (the deacon's stole) and received Holy Communion at the Altar (VIII,32)5 .

The report of the consultation continues: "Such a revival would present a positive response to many of the needs and demands of the contemporary world in many spheres. This would be all the more true if the diaconate in general (male as well as female) were restored in all places in its original, manifold services (diakonia), with extension in the social sphere, in the spirit of ancient tradition and in response to the increasing specific needs of our time. It should not be solely restricted to a purely liturgical role or considered to be a mere step on the way to higher 'ranks' of clergy" (VIII,34).6

Orthodox women met again in 1996 and 1997 in conjunction with the Ecumenical Decade of the Churches in Solidarity with Women. At the first of these meetings, in Damascus, the final statement both celebrates "the many forms of ministry in which women in our churches are already engaged" (e.g., in monastic life, in local parish or diocesan settings, in the ecumenical movement, as teachers of theology and other educational service) and again calls for the restoration of the ministry of deaconesses, noting "that we will wait for the application of the recommendations from the 1988 Inter-Orthodox Rhodes' Consultation on ‘The Place of the Women in the Orthodox Church' to rejuvenate this order of ordained ministry".7 At the second meeting, in Istanbul, the final statement indicates that there were "differing assumptions regarding the role of deaconess", some seeing the diaconate for women as "a sacramental ministry which takes place by ordination", while for others "the ministry is not sacramental" and is described as "a church ministry".8 Both meetings call for support for women who seek a theological education.9

The place of women in ministry in churches of the Protestant Reformation movements, including the Anglican Communion, varies widely. In many of these churches, women are ordained to the full ministry of Word and Sacrament, especially in churches situated in countries of the North Atlantic and the Pacific regions of Australia and New Zealand. Some of these churches also have women bishops, including most recently the consecration of a woman as bishop in the United Church of Christ in the Philippines and in the Lutheran Church of India, as well as in Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist churches in New Zealand, Germany, the United States, and elsewhere. In their responses to BEM, these churches were nearly unanimous in affirming the great blessing women's ordained ministry has been to their faith, life, and witness. Many of these churches were also clear that the ordination of women is, for them, "an integral part of our obedience to the Gospel" and "a faithful expression of the apostolic tradition".10

Nonetheless, there remain very grave obstacles to women who are called to ordained ministry in most of these churches. Women preparing for ordained ministry in most Protestant and Anglican churches face what has recently been referred to as "an uphill calling".11 Once ordained, women still have more difficulty than men as they seek placement in ministry. Other difficulties include lower pay, fewer advancements, less support from within parishes and from supervisors, resistance to new styles of ministry and leadership. Indeed, one recent study argues that, in the United States, Protestant denominations' decisions about women's religious leadership are symbolic gestures intended more to construct a public identity relative to wider cultural currents than to support women's full equality with men in leadership roles.12 Another recent study argues that even this formal structural support for women's leadership is being eroded as "liberal" denominations are restructuring ministry in ways that marginalize women, e.g. more part-time positions, more partial or non-stipendiary positions, more ordination tracks to institute a new hierarchy of specialized ministries,13 more retired male ministers and priests used as an alternative labour supply.14 Once again, we can see this is not "‘an issue of Protestants against Orthodox and Roman Catholics', for all churches face serious issues related to the full participation and opportunities for leadership of women".15

The way by which we have come

And so the ordination of women, which has been a controversial issue, continues to be controversial for our churches. It has been and is, perhaps therefore, often unaddressed in ecumenical conversations. Already in 1916, Anglican bishop, theologian, and ecumenical leader, William Temple, stated the dilemma shared by many twentieth-century ecumenists who followed him in the movement toward the visible unity of the Church: "I would like to see women ordained: ... desirable as it would be in itself, the effect might be (probably would be) to put back the re-union of Christendom - and re-union is more important."

If the issue of the ordination of women has been relatively unaddressed, it has certainly not been unacknowledged. It has indeed been threaded through ecumenical discussions of the 20th century. The issue was voiced at the First World Conference on Faith and Order, in Lausanne, in 1927. And at the First Assembly of the World Council of Churches, in Amsterdam, in 1948, the churches' perspectives on the ordination of women were summarily stated:

The churches are not agreed on the important question of admission of women to the full ministry. Some churches for theological reasons are not prepared to consider the question of ordination; some find no objection in principle but see administrative or social difficulties; some permit partial but not full participation in the work of the ministry; in others women are eligible for all offices of the Church. Even in the last group, social custom and public opinion still create obstacles. In some countries a shortage of clergy raises some urgent practical and spiritual problems. Those who desire the admission of women to the full ministry believe that until this is achieved the Church will not come to full health and power. We are agreed that this whole subject requires further and objective study.16

This summary statement of where we are ecumenically with regard to the issue of the ordination of women is amazingly current. Still, I believe it is important for our discussions to set before ourselves road markers so we may consider well the way by which we have come since Amsterdam, paying particular attention to the way we have come since the Fifth World Conference on Faith and Order in Santiago de Compostela, in 1993. As I set up these road markers, I will weave among them crucial theological issues involved in the ordination of women that call for further work.

It was in 1961, at the Third Assembly in New Delhi, that Faith and Order, together with the Department on the Co-operation of Men and Women, was first directly asked to study "the theological, biblical and ecclesiological issues involved in the ordination of women"17 . After one consultation, 1963, at which study papers were prepared for the upcoming Fourth World Conference on Faith and Order,18 the issue did not appear on the Faith and Order agenda until 1979, when a consultation was sponsored as part of the Community of Women and Men in the Church study19 . The International Consultation on the Community of Women and Men in the Church, held in Sheffield, England, in 1981, recommended the following to the Commission on Faith and Order:

That the following theological issues, highlighted at Sheffield, find a place in the future work of the Commission:

  1. the significance of the representation of Christ in the ordained ministry, particularly in relation to the ordination of women;

  2. the diaconal dimensions of all ministries, especially their understanding of the diaconate and the place of women and men within it;

  3. the possibility and implication of churches being in communion when they have different policies concerning the ordination of women;

  4. the variety of ways of offering ministries, such as ordination, consecration, commissioning, and accrediting;

  5. the relation of fundamental human rights to the Christian understanding of the calling to the ordained ministry.20

While these recommendations were not directly taken up, the ordination of women was much discussed in response to the 1982 Lima text on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry. The text itself did not treat the ordination of women in the main part of the ministry section, acknowledging instead the issue in the commentary paragraph 18 (M 18). This commentary briefly describes the position of churches that do not ordain women and that do ordain women. No convergence on the issue was claimed or clarified. As is stated in Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry 1982-1990: Report on the Process and Responses:

The responses of the churches to the section on the ministry of men and women in the Church (M 18, 54) show dissatisfaction with the inconclusiveness of BEM on this issue. While some churches express disappointment over BEM's failure to provide a forthright affirmation of the ordination of women, others register disapproval for what they see as BEM's implicit bias in this direction. Such criticisms reflect the fact that this issue is insufficiently developed in the document and also that there are serious differences between the churches on this point.21

The report continues: "The responses testify to a new willingness to enter into a serious and open debate". Among the issues noted for further study and discussion are:

God's self-revelation in creation, history and in the particularity of the incarnation; the authority of scripture, Tradition, reason and experience; the nature and purpose of the church, how the church comes to make a decision on matters of faith and order when churches remain divided and how decisions are received in life; the priesthood of ordained ministers in relation to the priesthood of Christ and the priesthood of the whole people of God; the evaluation of cultural differences and the priority of the church's mission.22

The draft of this report on the BEM process and responses was reviewed by the Plenary Commission on Faith and Order meeting in Budapest, in 1989. All commissioners were involved in one of five groups that worked on specific aspects of BEM: on issues of scripture and Tradition, ecclesiology, and sacrament and sacrementality; in discussing the impact of BEM in the lives of the churches; in charting major issues for further study. The group report on major issues for further study is a significant road marker on our way to this discussion. Four points, in particular, amplify the published report on the BEM process and responses as already cited:

  1. The responses from the churches make it clear that ordination of women is far too important an issue to be relegated to a brief footnote in BEM. What Christians say about the ordained ministry says something about the kind of community we understand the church to be and the value we place on various kinds of ministries. The ordination of women, therefore, has symbolic power not only because of what it signals about the church and its ministry, but also because of what it conveys about the church and mission to the whole of human community.

  2. Although the ordination of women remains controversial among the churches, the pain felt by people on both sides needs to be heard and respected since the theological conviction is as strong on the one side as on the other.

  3. Further ecumenical study on the issue needs to be broadly based and rooted in a re-examination of scripture and Tradition. Account also needs to be taken of the process by which the Holy Spirit guides the church into new understandings and practices - as scripture and Tradition speak afresh in every age through "living tradition".

  4. Continued exploration should focus on what it means to "represent Christ" in the ordained ministry; the relationship of the ordination of women to the sacraments, especially to sacramental "power"; the ordination of women to different forms of ministry (e.g. in the Orthodox church to the re-introduction of the ancient order of women deacons); and the relationship of ordained ministry to the ministry of all baptized members. ...23

The sense of urgency sustained throughout these points is stated still more strongly in recommendations on specific topics for the future work of Faith and Order, endorsed by the entire Commission:

  1. We strongly recommend that as part of the proposed ecclesiology study, a consultation be held on unresolved ecumenical ministry issues, especially the ordination of women. This issue continues to represent a challenge in the ecumenical movement because there are churches which ordain women, churches which do not, and churches are undecided. The effect of this plurality on Christian unity needs to be discussed and ways need to be found to prevent this plurality being a major stumbling block in ecumenical relations and bilateral dialogues...

  2. Discussion of the ordination of women brings into focus a number of ecclesiological issues, such as understandings of ministry, authority, and tradition.

  3. The consultation should feature discussion on the representation of Christ in the ordained ministry, with careful exploration of the apostolic tradition in order to discover appropriate hermeneutical principles for dealing ecumenically with patristic material and with the question "who judges the tradition"?24

Beginning in 1991, the time and attention of the Standing Commission was devoted to planning the Fifth World Conference on Faith and Order, held in Santiago de Compostela, in 1993. It is, therefore, not surprising that the issue of the ordination of women next appears in the report of the Santiago conference, in the Reports of Sections II and III. The Report of Section II, Confessing the One Faith to God's Glory, focuses on the ordination of women relative to "the claims on us of the Bible and the whole apostolic Tradition", and points to the need to explore different understandings of Tradition in particular.25 The Report of Section III, Sharing a Common Life in Christ, notes both the continuing controversy regarding the ordination of women and the increasing willingness to discuss the issue among the churches having divergent practices. Recalling the Community study as well as the theme of the Fifth World Conference, the report specifically recommends that "continuing work on the issue of ordination of women be conducted along the lines indicated in paragraph 24 above".26

Paragraph 24 is focused on methodological matters. Specifically, it suggests the ordination of women be explored from the perspectives of theology and theological anthropology; Tradition; practice; the churches' ordination liturgies; and processes of decision-making regarding this issue by churches that do and do not ordain women. It is also recommended that churches that ordain and churches that do not ordain be invited to articulate the reasons informing their practice, particularly indicating whether and to what extent their position is based on Tradition, on cultural considerations, on the sacramental nature of ordination, on issues of discipline, or on other factors or combinations of factors. Above all, the report counsels, the "continuing way forward will be marked by mutual respect and openness to the guidance of the Holy Spirit".27

The Standing Commission met in Crêt-Bérard in January 1994 to review the work of the Fifth World Conference, receive the recommendations of the Conference, and then to prepare a conspectus of studies. This Conspectus of Studies contains two references to the ordination of women, both of which are worthy of our note. First, echoing the earlier recommendation endorsed by the Plenary Commission meeting in Budapest, the Standing Commission, referring to the newly emerging ecclesiology study, recommended that the study should

take up the concern for the community of women and men in the church which has a long history within Faith and Order. In this next phase, under a changed title, the focus would be on women in the ministries of the church with the aim of deepening the theological reflection on the relationship between human gender and ministry and the implications of this for the unity of the church. Within this general framework should be some focus on the relationship between gender and ordained ministry. We recommend that in relation to this there be one consultation on the specific theological question of the representation of Christ in the ordained ministry.28

Second, under the broad theme of Unity and Renewal/Ecclesiology and Ethics, the Standing Commission recommended "that ‘The Unity of the Church and the Renewal of Human Community' study deepen the theological reflection on the relationship between human gender and the ministry/ministries of the whole period of God, and the relationship between human gender and the ordained ministry, with particular reference to the issue of the representation of Christ in the ordained ministry".29 Thus, with regard to both the ecclesiology and unity and renewal studies, recommendations for further study of the ordination of women were made, thereby reaffirming recommendations received from Santiago.

Since Crêt-Bérard, there has been silence on the question of the ordination of women in Faith and Order work. The Unity and Renewal/Ecclesiology and Ethics study found its focus on nationalism and ethnic identity in relation to unity, for compelling clear reasons with regard to the world we pray with Christ may believe and be at peace. The ecclesiology study took as its task the harvesting of Faith and Order work, particularly post-BEM, in order to clarify points of agreement and disagreement. The new work of the study found its focus on episkopé-episcopacy, and in a more tentative way on issues of conciliarity and primacy.30 The ecclesiology text on the way to a common statement mentions the ordination of women once, as one among other issues in need of further reflection.31

The way ahead

This, then, is the way by which we have come, at least in outline. How shall we find a way ahead? As I reviewed this trajectory, I found two points in the report of the Plenary Commission meeting in Budapest that help me see the way ahead more clearly. First, during a lengthy and difficult discussion on the ordination of women in Budapest, the commissioners who were gathered were reminded, as I have already reminded us at the outset:

"one of the main tasks of the apostles was to face and deal with unprecedented situations;" we should be open to the leading of the Spirit in this as in other areas, recognizing that this is not "an issue of Protestants against Orthodox or Roman Catholics", for all churches face serious issues related to the full participation and opportunities for leadership of women.32

This is paramount - that we refuse to regard one another any longer in terms of whether our churches do or do not ordain women. The questions of ministry, of women's ministries, and of the ordination of women are, as we have seen, simply not so simple.

A second point from Budapest is this. In the discussion of the churches' responses to BEM at that meeting, it was stated: "All responses without exception affirmed the ministry of women in the church, whatever the given church's position on ordination and apostolic succession: the churches affirmed the propriety and need for the service of women in areas previously held in many churches predominantly, if not exclusively, by men."33 Accordingly, the Budapest report continues:

On the issue of the "representation" of Christ, virtually all responses insisted that every baptized person represented the Lord in his priestly, prophetic and royal presence and activity, with those in special ministries (particularly that of leadership) doing so in special ways, both within the body - especially during liturgical acts - and to those outside. Whatever their views on ordination and apostolic succession, all also agreed that every ministry is accomplished according to apostolic faith and apostolic tradition - however these are understood and practised in a given community.34

This makes it clear the issue is ministry as related to the search for the visible unity of the Church; and it is also clear we cannot continue to discuss the ministry of men without also discussing the ministry of women, women and men being alike baptized. Most basically, we cannot undertake our discussion of the ordination of women or the ordination of men without serious and sustained discussion of the ministry of all the baptized members, as BEM has taught us.35

Finally, in summary, the way forward will be opened to us as we were willing to engage, in truth and in love, the complexity of the issue of the ordination of women, and as we are willing to listen long and well to one another as we witness to our practices and theological understandings and deepest commitments. The way forward will remain opened to us as we are also willing to speak, in truth and in love, about any disparities between the faith we confess and the common life we live. Thereby, in the words of Santiago, the "continuing way forward will be marked by mutual respect and openness to the guidance of the Holy Spirit".

In the end, each and every one of us will need to search our hearts before God to discern whether we believe with Archbishop William Temple that visible church unity is "more important" than the ordination of women or whether visible church unity is at all achievable unless all baptized members - men and women alike in God's image - can fulfil the ministry to which God has called them in Christ.


II. The ordination of women - an ecumenical issue?

Michael Tita

The intention behind this paper, as indicated to me in the Director's request, was "to see how far this (i.e. the ordination of women) is an important issue for the way in which churches are able to relate to each other and recognize each other". Consequently, there was a further request, namely "to offer perhaps some clues as to how the issue might be addressed". Was it important and, even, wise to tackle - within the context of the theological debate proper to the Faith and Order Commission - such an issue that proved, at least, until now, a matter of a rather awkward, delicate nature not only in the ecumenical environment, but also in debates taking place within churches themselves?

In the theological discourse - as indeed, in many other walks of life - the temptation has always been to try and convince the others that one's own argument is the right one that everybody needs to adhere to it. And this seems to be the case also with most, if not, all our ecumenical discourse. Since the Director's indication was that I should "not so much focus on the ‘pros' and ‘cons' of the ordination of women", I ought to try and resist that temptation.

One has to admit, nevertheless, that there are many issues in which churches and individual Christians differ or, more acutely, disagree with each other. Whether one speaks of Trinitarian, Christological, Pneumatological, ecclesiological, or, indeed, practical, pastoral or moral/ethical aspects of the faith that one holds dearly and strongly proclaims and the ways that is expressed, it looks rather difficult to reconcile those different approaches, understandings and practices. And the ordination of women is one of these examples, which is by no means an exception.

There seems to be a clear-cut distinction between, on the one hand, an understanding (of Protestant origin) that allows and encourages the access/eligibility of women to the ordained ministry (including the episcopal dignity) and, on the other hand, a theology (Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical), which reserves that eligibility only for males. Consequently, any ecumenical debate on the topic of the ordination of women could become not a contribution, but rather an obstacle in the process towards a further rapprochement and, possibly, a mutual recognition of the orthodoxy and the orthopraxy of churches and individuals, as genuine followers of and witnesses to Jesus Christ, the Son of God Incarnated and the Saviour of the fallen world.

I dare to say that the Faith and Order Commission runs a certain risk by putting in the spotlight such an "explosive" issue as the ordination of women. By saying that, however, I do not want to discourage anyone. It could become one of the themes for common reflection and discussion in the ecumenical debate. Nevertheless, it is worth stressing the complexity and, even more so, the sensitivity of the issue, taking into account the criticisms coming from various parts of the Christian world. It is in this sense that while some of the so called, "traditionalists" or "conservatives" are harshly criticizing the readiness of many ecclesiastical and ecumenical circles to go along with those who are in favour of women priests, at the same time those who support the idea, the "liberals" for the others, bring their own views and also their complaints for what they regard as a discrimination against women that makes them a kind of second-class citizen.

In case the theme of the ordination of women is taken up, the following areas could be pursued as some possible future and more extensive issues for ecumenical reflection on the topic:

  • theological (biblical and patristic -- to my understanding, this is the most important aspect)
  • sociological (gender in modern society)
  • cultural
  • anthropological.

Some personal reflections on the theme

The issue of the ordination of women to priesthood could be seen as something belonging mostly to the Western churches. It has become a matter of debate in the churches - in which there is not a special veneration for the Virgin Mary - as a sort of compensation for the fact that they did not recognize in her the Mother of God. Moreover, it could be seen also as a reaction of the Protestant Churches against the Catholic theology, which -- through the dogma of the ‘immaculate conception' -- tends to transform the Mother of God into a kind of divinity, similar to Christ, having no original sin.

On the one hand, it came to the fore of the ecclesiastical and ecumenical debate due to mainly sociological causes, such as the pressure of the society - exerted also on churches - to recognize and apply an equal status for women and men, in all walks of life, including the church realm. At the same time, on the other hand, there were theological reasons that created the need for a "new", "refreshed" approach to the ordination of women, one of which is connected with the place and the role of the Virgin - the Mother of God, the Theotokos for the Orthodox and Catholics - as conceived in Protestant theology.

In this respect, it is interesting perhaps to notice that, in the Orthodox iconography, the Mother of God is always depicted together with her Son, who is at the same time our God. It signifies that, in Christ, she is the "God-bearer" (Theotokos). Yet, she was not present at the last supper, where there were only the apostles (in spite of the fact that she was Christ's mother).

If, as it seems to be the case, the Faith and Order Commission wishes to pursue the theme on the ordination of women, as an Orthodox I consider, if I may, that the Commission should concentrate its work primarily on the theological approach. It is only secondarily that it can tackle the other aspects of the issue. The theological (biblical and patristic) framework is, by far, more important than the social, cultural and anthropological contexts in which the contemporary issues of Christianity are to be reflected upon. Furthermore, it should discuss the theological approach of the ordination of women in the wider context of priesthood, marking the difference between the universal priesthood and the ordained ministry. To that end, the insights offered by the BEM process, which could be relevant to this issue, should not be overlooked or left aside.

The Church should take into account social developments, but, at the same time, it should not forget its call, as reflected in the Bible and in its Tradition. It ought not to change itself to suit certain social contexts or patterns, but it should work towards changing the society according to the values that Christ called it to uphold. The Church should not become secularized and, thus, lose its spiritual power; it must rather sanctify the world and human society as a whole.

Instead of conclusions

Indeed, there are no conclusions to this paper. There is rather a question that all of us are called to try and give an answer to: are we putting at risk the efforts made and the results achieved so far in the ecumenical endeavour towards the visible unity of the Church of Christ, by tackling such a divisive topic, as the ordination of women?

The answer to this question belongs to you and to the member churches of the WCC. It remains to be seen to what extent the theme of the ordination of women could be beneficial for our common goal, which is the unity that the Lord has prayed for. And further, to what extent our witness to the world - as a divided community - will help the world believe that what we are preaching is the truth.

The remark that William Temple made in 1916 concerning the relationship between the issue of the ordination of women and the quest for visible unity of the Church is something that we all need to reflect on carefully.




Notes from Dr May's paper

  1. Faith and Order 1985-1989: The Commission Meeting at Budapest 1989, ed. Thomas F. Best, Faith and Order Paper No. 148, WCC, Geneva 1990, p. 239.
  2. "Discussion of ordination issues continues", National Catholic Reporter (October 16, 1998), p. 9.
  3. Cited by Kyriaki K. FitzGerald, "The Inter-Orthodox Consultation on Women in the Church", Ecumenical Trends, vol. 18, no. 3 (March 1989), p. 33.
  4. The Place of the Woman in the Orthodox Church and the Question of the Ordination of Women (Istanbul: The Ecumenical Patriarchate, 1988), p. 4.
  5. Ibid., p. 10.
  6. Ibid., pp. 10-11.
  7. "Discerning the Signs of the Times: Women in the Life of the Orthodox Church", in: Turn to God, Rejoice in Hope: Orthodox Reflections on the Way to Harare, ed. Thomas FitzGerald and Peter Bouteneff, WCC, Geneva 1998, pp. 81-82.
  8. Ibid., p. 88.
  9. Ibid., pp. 80-82, 87.
  10. Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry 1982-1990. Report on the Process and Responses. Faith and Order Paper No. 149, WCC, Geneva 1990, pp. 79. For the full text of these churches' statements about the ordination of women, see Churches Respond to BEM, vols. I-VI, WCC, Geneva 1986-1988.
  11. Barbara Brown Zikmund, Adair T. Lummis, Patricia Mei Ying Chang, Clergy Women: An Uphill Calling, Louisville, Westminster/John Knox 1998.
  12. See Mark Chaves, Ordaining Women: Culture and Conflict in Religious Organizations, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1997.
  13. For example, several denominations in the United States have developed an alternative ordination track in which clergy are ordained to serve a single local parish only, e.g. in the Episcopal Church Canon 9 priesthood and in the United Methodist Church licensed lay pastors. Already there is data to suggest that women are being disproportionately tracked into these second tier positions. See Paula Nesbitt, Feminization of the Clergy in America, New York and Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1997, esp. pp. 115-123. See also Paula Nesbitt, "Dual Ordination Tracks: Differential Benefits and Costs for Men and Women Clergy", Gender and Religion , ed. W.H. Swatos, Jr., New Brunswick, Transaction, pp. 27-44.
  14. See Paula Nesbitt, Feminization of the Clergy in America, esp. pp. 135ff.
  15. T. F. Best (ed.), Faith and Order 1985-1989: The Commission Meeting at Budapest 1989. Faith and Order Paper No. 148, Geneva, WCC 1990, p. 239.
  16. Man's Disorder and God's Design, 5 vols., vol. 5: The First Assembly of the World Council of Churches, held at Amsterdam, 22 August - 4 September 1948, ed. W.A. Visser't Hooft, New York, Harper & Bros., Publishers, 1948, p. 147
  17. Foreword to Concerning the Ordination of Women, Geneva, WCC, 1964.
  18. The report of the Conference contains three brief references to the issue of the ordination of women. See The Fourth World Conference on Faith and Order, Montreal, 1963, ed. P.C. Rodger and L. Vischer, Faith and Order Paper No. 42, London, SCM Press, 1964, pp. 25-26, 65.
  19. For a report on this consultation, held in Klingenthal, France, see Ordination of Women in Ecumenical Perspective: Workbook for the Church's Future, ed. Constance F. Parvey, Faith and Order Paper No. 105, Geneva, WCC, 1980. In the interim there was a consultation on the ordination of women, sponsored by the sub-unit on Women in Church and Society. See What is ordination coming to? Report of a Consultation on the Ordination of Women, held in Cartigny, Geneva, Switzerland, 21-26 September 1970, ed. Brigalia Bam, Geneva, WCC, 1971.
  20. "The Community of Women and Men in the Church: The Sheffield Recommendations", The Community of Women and Men in the Church: The Sheffield Report, ed. C.F. Parvey, Geneva, WCC, 1983, p. 84. For the fuller sense of the discussion out of which these recommendations came, see the Section Report, "Ministry and Worship in New Community", pp. 127-130. For a sampling of the discussion of the ordination of women in local groups of the Community Study, see Melanie A. May, Bonds of Unity: Women, Theology, and the Worldwide Church, Atlanta, Scholars Press, 1989, pp. 143-145.
  21. Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry 1982-1990, p. 123. See also Melanie A. May, "The Ordination of Women: The Churches' Responses to ‘Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry'", Journal of Ecumenical Studies, vol. XXVI, no. 2 (Spring, 1989), pp. 251-269. It is interesting to note that at the meeting of the Plenary Commission on Faith and Order in Stavanger, in 1985, a somewhat more hopeful note was sounded: "More convergence is needed on the question of ministry and priesthood, ... not least of all, on the hard puzzle of the ordination of women to a ministry of word and sacrament. But where differences remain, we are not left feeling that positions are irreconcilable: the texts give the impression of ‘being on the move', that it will be possible to achieve greater convergence under the guidance of the Holy Spirit", Faith and Renewal: Reports and Documents of the Commission on Faith and Order, Stavanger 1985, ed. T.F. Best, Faith and Order Paper No. 131, Geneva, WCC, 1986, p. 81.
  22. Ibid., p. 124.
  23. T.F. Best (ed.), Faith and Order 1985-1989: The Commission Meeting at Budapest 1989, Faith and Order Paper No. 148, Geneva, WCC 1990, pp. 97-98.
  24. Ibid., pp. 237-238.
  25. On the Way to Fuller Koinonia: Official Report of the Fifth World Conference on Faith and Order, ed. T.F. Best and G. Gassmann, Faith and Order Paper No. 166, Geneva, WCC 1994, p. 242.
  26. Ibid., p. 252.
  27. Ibid., p. 250.
  28. Minutes of the Meeting of the Faith and Order Standing Commission 1994, Crêt-Bérard, Switzerland, Faith and Order Paper No. 167, Geneva, WCC 1994, p. 83. See also pp. 74-77.
  29. Ibid., p. 81.
  30. See The Nature and Purpose of the Church: A stage on the way to a common statement. Faith and Order Paper No. 181, Geneva, WCC 1998, esp. pp. 41ff.
  31. Ibid., p. 44.
  32. Faith and Order 1985-1989, op. cit., p. 239.
  33. Ibid., pp. 77-78.
  34. Ibid., p. 78.
  35. See Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry 1982-1990, p. 75. See also Becoming a Christian: The Ecumenical Implications of our Common Baptism, Faith and Order Consultation, Faverges, France, January 1997, esp. p. 29; and Dagmar Heller, "Baptism - the Basis of Church Unity?", The Ecumenical Review, vol. 50, no. 4 (October 1998), pp. 480-490.