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Women Towards Priesthood: Ministerial Politics and Feminist Praxis.

Field-Bibb's work focuses on the issue of women and the ordained ministry as that issue arose in England and in particular in the Methodist Church and in the Church of England. Although only a brief section deals with Roman Catholicism, Catholic concerns and Catholic theology loom rather large in the overall interpretation. The book is divided into two parts, the first and longer of which is entitled "Documentation" and the second "Interpretation."

The first of the three periods into which F. divides the history of the problem begins with John Wesley and continues to the mid-19th century. Initially women played a considerable role in Methodism, especially in some of the groups that seceded from the original movement. As these grew, however, and became increasingly institutionalized, the public teaching role of women gradually disappeared. A second period began in 1890 with the foundation of the Wesley Deaconess Order. Although the issue of women ministers was formally raised in 1922, it was only in 1973 that the final decision to ordain women was taken. F. traces in some detail the arguments made by those favoring and those opposing such a step.

A similar treatment is given to the debate in the Church of England. There it emerged in 1861 and initially and for some time thereafter was discussed in relation to sisterhoods and deaconesses. In what F. calls the third period of the debate, beginning in the early 1960s, the issue became the priesthood. Increasingly arguments against were based on appeals to tradition and to symbolism. F. associates the shift with the ecumenical movement and a growing preoccupation of Anglicans with Rome.

The section on Roman Catholicism reviews official arguments against ordination, especially as these were formulated in the 1976 Declaration and in the series of articles supporting it that appeared in the Osservatore Romano. The presentation here is marred by a number of minor but distracting errors.

Part 2 is more dense in its argumentation and, at first reading, more difficult to follow. Its subsections are entitled respectively "Undercurrents," "Strategies," and "Interpretations." The first relates the documentation of the first part of the development of post-Enlightenment culture and to various trends and counter-trends in the churches. The relative ease with which the Methodist Church accepted at least the principle of women's ordination is seen as flowing from its openness to contemporary culture. Because the Roman Catholic Church continued to be a church apart, with its identity reinforced by institutions and symbols from an earlier age, it remained relatively impervious to such influence. Here, as elsewhere, the Church of England occupied a middle position.

The section entitled "Interpretations" is the most substantial of the three and contains what is most creative in the book. F. proposes, more than she actually develops, a critical feminist hermeneutics, a major component of which is provided by Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza's In Memory of Her. Emphasizing the phenomenon of resistance, F. argues that the key issues in regard to it are unconscious ones. To get at these recourse must be had to psychoanalytical theory. The book offers a critical reading of Freud which attempts to save his "brilliant description" of "the unconscious androcentric phantasy of |woman"' (286), even while liberating it from its patriarchal and Western biases. The presentation is too brief to make a judgment about its success.

Having presented in such detail the struggle of women to be ordained, F. seems to undermine the significance of their achievement. She describes it "as part of the assimilation-re-presentation process ... which absorbs and diffuses protests" (289). There are deeper issues of identity and sexuality that need to be dealt with. Her final judgment is that "a |re-view' of language is of more fundamental importance than ministry as an object of feminist concern" (288).

The documentation F. has brought together should be of interest to anyone concerned about the ordination of women. So too should the more creative and theoretical aspects of her argument, although some of these tend to be reductionistic and one-sided. As important, e.g., as unconscious factors clearly are, theological arguments deserve theological answers.
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Author:Donovan, Daniel
Publication:Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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