Women's "Ordination" Denies The Incarnation

by Sheldon Vanauken

[Sheldon Vanauken (1914-1996) was an American author, best known for his autobiographical book A Severe Mercy (1977), which recounts his and his wife's friendship with C. S. Lewis, their conversion to Christianity and dealing with tragedy. He published a sequel, Under the Mercy in 1985. The following is from chapter 8 of Under the Mercy.]

The case for the "ordination" of women to the sacramental priesthood is very appealing. It appeals to our sense of fair play, of simple justice. Women have, in fact, suffered grave injustice: why is their being denied the priesthood not an aspect of that injustice? But the case rests not only upon justice but upon the equally appealing proposition that our Lord the Holy Spirit is leading the Church of Christ into a new understanding of the roles of women—and who are we to argue with the Holy Spirit? It is perfectly clear that women have the brains to be priestesses or even learned theologians; and no less clear that they have qualities of sympathy and understanding that would enhance their ministry. And, after all, neither Christ nor even the alleged misogynist, Saint Paul, ever laid it down that women cannot be priestesses, and Saint Paul, indeed, can be held to have implied that they could be in his great statement that there is neither male nor female in Christ Jesus. The fact that Jesus, so sympathetic to women, still did not, in that patriarchal Jewish world, make some woman, say, Mary Magdalene, an apostle was perfectly appropriate to His time and place. He also did not make a Gentile an apostle. Therefore, just as the Church made Titus and other Gentiles bishops (or apostles) when the time was right, so now we should not be restrained by Jesus' not appointing a woman nor by the resulting tradition from following the leading of our Lord the Spirit into new truth.

It is all most appealing and compelling. It was all so appealing and compelling to me in the late sixties—I being a strong advocate of women's liberation from the first—that, brooding upon injustice to my sisters and engaging in what I was pleased to call thinking upon theology, I was moved to write a spirited article urging the instant "ordination" of women. One uncomfortable question that I did not ask was: How do we know that men and women are, apart from the plumbing, the same, spiritually the same? We do not, in fact, know that. Another question, even more uncomfortable, is assumed by the proponents of women's ordination to be raised only by die­hard, male supremacist opponents; but it is a real question all the same: How do we know that it is our Lord the Spirit that is compelling us and not the Spirit of the Age? Those who find that question meaningless have perhaps answered it, at least for themselves.

Being myself unable to answer either question with assurance, I finally raised the question: What, if anything, is the bearing of the Incarnation upon the priesting of women?

The Incarnation is surely the central doctrine of our faith. If we are of those who speak contemptuously of credal literalism" (which appears to be shorthand for the assertion that we can say the Creeds without believing them and still, somehow, not be liars) we perhaps brush aside "He came down from heaven and was made man" and "very God of very God." But there are many in the Church—who may be called Christians—who do not brush these statements aside, who do believe the Creeds, and who hold the Incarnation to be of the essence of the Christian faith. I for one. And I speak to others of like belief.

Still, what bearing does the believed in Incarnation have upon the priesting of women?I am a writer, not a trained theologian. Let me, therefore, begin with an analogy that may make a certain amount of sense to those who write or read stories. Suppose, then, I write a novel and put myself in it (perhaps under a different name), as writers often do. I am the author, not the Author of All Things but the inventor (creator) of this particular story. For my novel I invent (create) an imagined city in an imagined time and place full of imagined characters. But I, too— not imagined or created—am in the (invented) city, talking to and interacting with the invented characters. I-the-character, wearing my familiar tweeds, smoking my pipe, speak to the invented characters, but I-the-character speak the words that I-the-writer give me to speak—the words that I-the-writer would speak in those circumstances. I-the-character do the will of my "father in the study," that is, the writer. I am, in short, incarnate in my book. All man and all God, that is the doctrine. And in the analogy, all character and all author. The analogy is not perfect. For one thing the characters don't have free will. And yet, as many novelists have said, sometimes the characters do "run away" with the story. The logic of the situation in my novel might compel me-the-writer to allow me-the-character to be shot or, if it were set in Roman times, crucified.

One more point about the analogy: I-the-writer know how the novel will end. The characters move in their invented time, and if they were truly sentient, the future to them would be veiled. I-the-writer am not in the book's invented time but in what to the characters would be eternity, even as God the Father is in eternity, though Jesus, God the Son become man, was in created time.

Argument by analogy is always dangerous, and any argument based on an analogy with the Trinitarian God would be incredibly dangerous. But I have not based an argument upon my analogy and do not propose to. I suggested the analogy only as a possible illumination in our thinking about the relation of the Incarnation to the priesting of women.

Still, the analogy does roughly express what the Church has maintained for some two thousand years of (created) time to be the relationship between God the Father and God the Son when the latter was made man in this (created) world. Jesus, the Church says, was all God and all Man—the body of a man, the mind of a man, the limitations perhaps of a man, yet God in the world. He and the Father were one, He said. And He did the will of the Father, He said. Therefore, He knew what the will of the Father was. But, then, to return to the analogy for a moment, I-the-character do the will of the writer as it is given me to do. I-the-character can do no other. Jesus, one with the Father, with perfect obedience, chose to do no other than the will of His Father.

The proponents of the priesting of women point out that Christ, even if He were the incarnation of God, was necessarily of finite mind. He had, they say, the limitations and even the prejudices of the particular (created) time and place of His manhood. Therefore, in choosing apostles, He, a Jew, would of course have chosen only men, even as those apostles, in their turn, in choosing first a new Twelfth and later others, would choose only men. Thus the tradition, unquestioned at the time, became fixed and has endured down the centuries. But we are not first-century Jews, and we should cast aside the tradition that was based upon no more than first-century Jewish prejudice. But this argument neglects one point.

Jesus, indeed, was a Jewish man of His time. But Jesus did the will of the Father which He knew, even as (in my analogy) I-the-character do the will of the writer which I know. Jesus did perfectly the will of the Father.

Jesus, with the limitations of a first-century Jewish man, did not ever, we may suppose, think of appointing a woman to the apostolate. He did not, we may presume, have the least notion that His not appointing a woman would prevent any woman from being priestess or apostle for nearly two millennia.

But God the Father knew. And Jesus did perfectly the will of the Father.

Just this is central. Before all worlds God the Father in eternity knew that on this (created) world sixty generations of women would be denied any aspiration to the priesthood because Jesus did not appoint a woman as apostle. Even if we now fling open the barred gates to the priesthood and the episcopate, the wronged generations of women stream back through the centuries.

It may be objected that Jesus did not appoint any Gentiles as apostles either. Perhaps it never occurred to Jesus that either women or Gentiles would be seeking the priesthood. But there were Gentile bishops and priests—Titus, for instance, or Timothy—as soon as the need arose with the expansion of the Church into the Gentile world. Why were there not female priests and bishops? Because of male prejudice in the Gentile world also? That will hardly do. Women were freer in the Greco-Roman world than they have ever been since until this century. They owned property; they were admitted to philosophical schools in Athens; they were often in positions of great influence; and, above all, there were innumerable priestesses of other religions. Christianity itself may have raised some eyebrows but a Christian priestess would not have caused them to be raised a bit higher. Why then, the difference? Why were Gentiles brought into the apostolate even in New Testament times but not women?

The Gospels are very brief; and we know nothing of many things Jesus must have said to the Twelve, except as a surmise from what happened. Thus we may surmise that He must have said that the apostolate was to continue since, after the defection of Judas, the remaining Eleven so quickly chose a new Twelfth. Of course we cannot base an argument upon what Jesus may have said about women. More important for our purposes is what He did not say. Quite certainly He did not tell them that no Gentile could ever be an apostle. The apostles were imbued with His teaching, and the elections of the early Gentile bishops must have been in harmony with that teaching. We simply do not know whether He said anything about women as apostles or bishops. We know only that in the Greco-Roman Church there were none. Therefore, there is no real parallel between His choosing no Gentiles and His choosing no women.

We come back then to what an incarnational Christian, if I may use what ought to be a redundant modifier, who favors the priesting of women must find his way round. Jesus, who did perfectly the will of the Father, did not appoint a woman. Therefore, it was not the will of the Father that He should. But, as a matter of historical fact, His not appointing a woman doomed sixty generations of women to be denied priesthood. This denial, known to the Father in eternity, must, then, have been the will of the Father.

And yet, it is said, the Holy Spirit is now leading the Church into the new truth that women can, after all, be priestesses and bishops. But if a woman now who is properly ordained by a bishop becomes a real priestess, then a woman properly ordained a thousand years ago would have become a real priestess. And, indeed, if women had been priestesses and bishops all along, it can scarcely be supposed that women would have sunk so low in the scheme of things as they did sink after the fall of Rome. Thus women have been gravely deprived and greatly wronged by being excluded from the orders. How do we get around the sixty wronged generations streaming back through the centuries? Did Jesus make an error? But Jesus did perfectly the will of the Father. Well, then, did God the Father make an error? Shall we imagine God the Father saying: "By Jove! That was careless. I certainly blew that one! How could I have forgotten those sixty wronged generations? Well, I'll make it right for the next generation, anyhow."

One of two things must be true if women can actually become priestesses: Either God the Father made a mistake and has now changed His mind. Or Jesus who was God incarnate did not do the will of the Father. The first is nonsense. The second amounts to a denial that Jesus was the incarnate God.

Any argument for the priesting of women that is based upon the Holy Spirit leading the Church into new truth must also account for old error—the sixty wronged generations of women.

I submit that it cannot be done without denying the Incarnation.