Monday, November 12, 2007

Ordained in a synagogue?

Though I thought Archbishop Raymond Burke's dramatic letters to the St. Louis women ordained as part of the Womenpriests movement were a little overwrought, I can't say I agree with their tactics. There is something profoundly strange about ordaining Christian ministers in a synagogue--and I wonder if many Jews wouldn't feel the same--and, frankly, I think it points to the problem with the whole Womenpriests movement: their understanding of ordination. (Read St. Louis Post-Dispatch's coverage here.)

Many people question restricting Holy Orders to men, but I think the real problem is with our current understanding of priesthood. Over history, ordination has increasingly been separated from local churches (dioceses) and parish communities. Theology, strongly influenced by St. Thomas Aquinas' understanding of the sacraments, came to see priests as a "cause" that made the sacraments possible, which unfortunately has given us an almost magical understanding of the sacraments, as if by some virtue conferred at ordination, a priest "transforms" ordinary bread and wine into Christ's body and blood. A more developed understanding of ordained ministry recognizes God's grace at work in the action of the church gathered (the liturgical assembly) and its ordained leader--and doesn't separate the head of the assembly from the body.

The Womenpriests, in my view anyway, have adopted that problematic theology. The first ones were ordained on a boat in the Danube River by an unidentified bishop--technically outside any local church community. Now two have been ordained in a synagogue. What can that possibly mean? Now they have the magic and can "perform" sacraments like any other priest?

I empathize with those who feel called to ordained ministry in the Roman Catholic Church whom the church will not ordain because they are women or married or gay or lesbian. It seems to me that many have God-given desires that have been affirmed by their faith communities--the mix that I think should lead to ordination. But including those people in an unreformed structure of ordination won't necessarily make that structure more just, and it may serve only to solidify distinctions between lay and ordained.

What we need first is a renewed theology of ministry--one that begins with baptism rather than ordination. Then I think the question of ordination, and who is ordained, and to what ministry, might look quite a bit different.



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