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Anglicans presage Catholic women priests - later.

The Church of England's decision on Nov. 11 to ordain women was important for reasons that go far beyond the desirability of having women at the altar in one European offshore island. It has become symbolic of something bigger, but how much bigger is still coming into focus

The most fundamental level of the recent vote was a historic decision in favor of cleaning up the doctrine of the incarnation, purging it of recent additions and misinterpretations and restoring its original purity. There is not a single, Christian feminist who has not, at least once in her life, tossed and turned in bed at night wondering whether perhaps Christianity was not after all "a masculinist religion and irreformable."

This judgment comes from the Scotland-based post-Christian feminist Daphne Hampson, who expressed regret that women's ordination may encourage a false hope that Christianity can be gender-neutral.

At the heart of this fear is the fact that Jesus was male and the worry about whether that matters. Of course historically we can see the need for a man, just as historically we can see the need for a Jew, but the question is metaphysical: Could a female savior have saved men? And if not, are women really saved by a male savior?

We proclaim in the creed "he was made man," and because the word man has two senses in English, the phrase can be taken two ways: "he was made human" and "he was made a human male." Of course no one disputes that as a matter of fact Jesus was male, but was that an essential part of the incarnation?

The Latin is clear: homo factus est not vir factus est, and so for several years I have been proclaiming loud and clear at the creed every Sunday my faith that "by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary and was made human." Sometimes it draws a puzzled stare, but more often no one notices. The other feminist clarification in the creed is a lot more commonly heard: "for us and for our salvation" rather than "for us men and for our salvation."

It is often pointed out that what we have inherited is a tradition of not ordaining women rather than a tradition against ordaining women. The question never really arose in any persistent way until the cultural and social changes of the modern age. But once the question was raised seriously and urgently, a negative answer began to be found in the form of a new accretion to the doctrine of the incarnation.

What both Anglo-Catholic and Evangelical opponents to women priests had in common was a belief that Jesus related more closely to men than to women. Either that was because men derived headship from Christ where women did not. Or it was because men could represent Christ in a way women could not.

And this was not just like casting a play -- for old men, one-legged men and black men all would do -- but rather in regards to Christ's redemptive activity in the sacrifice of Calvary, made present again to us in the Eucharist. Whichever way you looked at it, the theological arguments of the opponents came down to saying that men are more intimately connected to Jesus than women are in a fundamental way relevant to the economy of salvation.

Without the re-clarification that Jesus -- as God incarnate -- relates equally to men and women, Christianity would have fallen into the indignity of a truly sexist religion, which could not carry weight for anyone who regarded the equality of men and women as a fundamental truth.

Nor was the Movement for the Ordination of Women in Britain unaware of the far-reaching theological implications, for a novena of prayer leading up to the vote contains many reflections on the incarnation.

Members of MOW sang by the light of candles for one and a half hours outside the synod their thanksgiving to God, "Jubilate Deo ... alleluia." If their mood was one of victory, it was not victory over their opponents; it went much deeper than that.

Indeed several from MOW expressed regret that insufficient thought had been given to the hurt feelings of those who had lost the vote: They had to push their way out through a jubilant crowd, and there was neither a police cordon nor a back exit to spare them.

But among those joyful singers was a more religious sense than anyone could have anticipated. Only after the vote did anyone really begin to discover how important that decision felt. The feeling was that at long last we had good news (that is, gospel) to proclaim to the nation. It was not the victory of women over men, but of equality over injustice, of truth over confusion. The real victor was the doctrine of the incarnation.

I call it a historic decision. But there should be no question of regarding the Church of England synod as any sort of general church council with authority to pronounce on matters of doctrine. What the Church of England decided does indeed have relevance to all Christians (as the intense interest from Catholics bears witness) but not for that reason. It is more intangible than that.

To explain it we have to resort to the traditional theological language of sacrifice and substitution -- a notion many think old-fashioned and absurd, but which in fact makes deep mystical sense.

In a feeble human reflection of the way Christ has stood in for us and paid in his own flesh the price of our sin, the Church of England has taken upon herself the cause of the whole church. She has fought a fierce and destructive internal battle and has been ripped apart by it.

One cannot believe that any other church will ever need to go through such a furor again. We have been through all the arguments until we are blue in the face. We have looked at it upward, downward, sideways and faced up to the terrible price that had to be paid to get this essential measure through, with its implications for incarnation doctrine.

And so the Church of England, in her bloodied and bruised body, has borne the afflictions through which (as Isaiah 53 says) we are all made whole.

When the Catholics and the Orthodox eventually get around to ordaining women (perhaps next century, perhaps next millennium) it will come, by comparison, quietly, like, a thief in the night. For that sacrifice on behalf of us all, this Catholic wants to say to her Anglican brothers and sisters: Thank you.
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Author:Hebblethwaite, Margaret
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Dec 4, 1992
Words:1100
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