The ordination of women

Joe Fitzpatrick

This article considers the theological case that can be made in support of women priests. Radical change is needed if we are to dismantle the culture of clericalism which has fostered the scandal of abuse and the consequent cover-up. As Pope Francis has frequently urged, responsible lay women and men need to be involved in the governance of our Church. And, as some retired bishops have discerned, the admission of married men and of women to the priesthood would be two decisive steps towards that goal. Joe Fitzpatrick is a former priest of the Diocese of Motherwell.

In the letter columns of The Tablet in June and July 2018, three retired bishops – Bishops Crowley, Hollis and McMahon – called for a debate on the subjects of married priests and women priests. In The Tablet for 7 July another letter writer, John Picton, suggested that the arguments put forward in support of women priests ‘do not add up to much’, claiming that they are ‘based upon largely secular Western European notions of gender equality’; he went on to add that all we know from the New Testament ‘is that the twelve apostles were men, and the deacons they appointed were also men; also that in St Paul’s references to the leaders of the Christian communities, they too are men.’ In this article I wish to take up the challenge posed by the three retired bishops on the subject of women’s ordination, and to contest the claims made by John Picton.

First, Picton’s claim that the leaders of the Christian communities referred to by Paul were all men is simply untrue. In the opening verses of chapter 16 of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, we read: ‘I commend our sister Phoebe to you; she has been a ‘deacon (diakonon) of the church at Cenchrae’ and ‘a good friend to many, myself included’. Following this reference to Phoebe, Paul continues: ‘My greetings to Prisca and Aquila, who have worked at my side in the service of Christ Jesus’, going on to add that he has good reason to be grateful to them, as indeed do ‘all the churches of the Gentiles’ (Rom. 16.4). These Pauline commendations refer to the leadership shown by these three Christian women. What is more, in his reference to Prisca and Aquila Paul adds, ‘My greetings also to the congregation that meets at their house’, a statement that strongly suggests that Prisca and Aquila presided at the eucharistic celebrations held at their house since, according to Schillebeeckx, the practice of the early Church was for the owners to preside at the eucharistic services held in their homes.1

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