In the Anglican Church in North America, the question of women’s ordination to the priesthood continues to be discussed with each diocese left to decide its own practice. A recurring point of debate is how we are to understand the priest’s representative role in the liturgy.
Emily McGowin, in a recent article, challenges the argument that only male priests can represent Christ (in persona Christi) in the celebration of the Eucharist on the basis that Christ was male.
Referring to the maxim of Gregory of Nazianzus, “For that which he has not assumed he has not healed,” McGowin foregrounds this Christological formulation and its relationship to the in persona Christi role of the priesthood. Christ, though male, assumed and redeemed humanity, not just male humanity. Therefore, McGowin argues, since Christ shared in and redeemed humanity, women may function in persona Christi in the Eucharist. Notably, McGowin is not arguing against the in persona Christi role of the priesthood but for a more expansive understanding of it that includes female priests.
She draws out the implication of her argument:
If women qua women are fundamentally incapable—and, according to some Christians, even ontologically incapable—of representing the male Jesus Christ in their female persons, then that calls into question whether their female persons can be redeemed by the male Jesus Christ.
McGowin surely has an important point that women qua women can indeed represent Christ in their female beings. Any argument for a male-only priesthood which also contends that only men can represent Christ in any context not only leads to the sorts of theological problems McGowin points out but undoes the whole telos of the Christian life for male and female: being transformed into the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29).
But there is a different understanding of the in persona Christi argument that steers clear of the dangers McGowin flags up and yet retains the symbolic and gendered character of sacramental leadership. The issue is not whether a woman can qua woman represent Christ (of course, as McGowin shows, she can). The issue is whether the body as male and female has any symbolic significance at all in a liturgical setting.
Anticipating the response that the order of redemption and sacramental representation work in a different register, McGowin poses the question: “On what basis does the concept of sacramental representation rest?”
This is a great question, and one that should push us into more thoughtful engagement with how Scripture might answer it. McGowin answers this question by way of the analogy of being: since no human, male or female, can represent Christ “exactly, literally, univocally,” then women along with men can participate in persona Christ as analogues.
But it strikes me that the most important place to go in discovering the basis for our understanding of sacramental representation is the opening of Genesis. A sacramental and typological reading of the creation narrative sheds light on the question of priestly representation in a eucharistic and liturgical setting.
In Genesis 1, humanity is created male and female to bear God’s image in the world (Gen.1:26-28). In this context, male and female both represent God as his image bearers in taking dominion in the world. When we zoom into Genesis chapter 2, however, we discover a sacramental context in the Garden of Eden.
Yaweh creates Adam first, places him in a garden, and gives him priestly commands “to serve and guard” the garden (Gen. 2:15). The commands given to Adam for serving and guarding are the same verbs used for the duties of priests in the service of the tabernacle in Numbers (e.g., Num. 1:53; 3:7; 8:11; 18:7). Thus Adam is created as a priest to guard and serve the prototypical garden sanctuary.
The garden is a sanctuary whose imagery is later symbolized and reduplicated in the tabernacle and temple. The garden is also a place of sacramental food, represented by the fruit-bearing trees.
From Adam’s side, God builds a bride, the woman, whom we can think of a liturgical respondent in this garden sanctuary. But the priest Adam is to convey the instruction of the Lord regarding the sacramental trees to the bride. Adam is a priest tasked with teaching God’s word to the bride and overseeing the sacramental food with regard to the trees. As a priestly guard, he’s to do what the cherub with a flaming sword will later do: keep intruders out of the garden.
Of course, Adam the priest fails in this regard. He abdicates his priestly vocation, allowing an intruder, the serpent, into the sanctuary. This intruder goes after the bride and gets her to take the prohibited sanctuary food. She in turn takes the forbidden fruit and serves it Adam who was standing there, failing to speak God’s word and allowing the deception to take place. The scene is a sort of false eucharistic meal that upends the Lord’s liturgical design and commands.
Now, what does this have to do with priestly ministry in a sacramental context?
In the created order we have man and woman in a liturgical, sacramental setting. The man/husband/priest Adam has a priestly duty vis-a-vis the bride. His maleness isn’t incidental in this creation context, but symbolic and representative of the human race, including the woman. Ultimately, he’s a type of the Second Adam, Jesus Christ.
Jesus also has a bride formed from his side, the church. The church like Eve is both bride and liturgical respondent to Jesus, the true husband and great high priest. And the Second Adam deals with the intruder once and for all and makes a way for the church to eat from the sacramental Tree of Life.
Marriage is another context in which we can consider gendered representation. The husband represents Christ to the wife and the wife represents the church to the husband (Eph. 5:22-32). Of course, this doesn’t mean the wife cannot represent Christ in any way nor the husband the church. But there is an asymmetrical calling given to the husband to play the Christ role that doesn’t apply in the same way to the wife in marriage.
The nuptial mystery of Christ and his Church has been a key consideration in Roman Catholic understanding of the male priesthood. Pope Paul VI, in Inter Insigniores, sees the nuptial theme woven throughout Scripture and its attendant symbolism in male and female as significant liturgically. The priest is representative of Christ the Head and Christ the groom. The priest does also represent the church (in persona ecclesiae) but “precisely because he first represents Christ himself, who is the Head and the Shepherd of the Church.”
The defense of a male-only priesthood in the Eastern Orthodox tradition has focused more on the fatherly character of the priest and not the priest operating in persona Christi. Still, Fr. Alexander Schmemann claims that a contemplation of the "nuptial mystery" of Christ and the Church is requisite for understanding why priests must be men.
All of this is to point out that the historic position—East and West—has not simply relied on a few proof texts or facile appeals to in persona Christi. Rather, the argument for a male-only priesthood lies in deep typological patterns embedded in Scripture, not least in the nuptial mystery of Christ and his Church.
The typological representation in marriage is gendered. And so it is in a liturgical context. Genesis doesn’t give us a biological description of male and female, but it does give us a liturgical one. Like marriage, liturgy does not assume androgynous categories of the body, but invests male and female categories with typological significance, rooted in creation and pointing to redemption.
Too often, 1 Timothy 2:8-15 is appealed to as a simple knockdown verse against women’s ordination. But what can be overlooked is why exactly Paul grounds his argument in the created order. Paul appeals to the creation context, which, as we’ve seen, is a context that does concern priestly, sacramental representation by the male. That Paul roots his argument in creation, and given the sacramental and liturgical context of the creation account, we should take seriously how sacramental representation, liturgical leadership is established in the created order.
The liturgical anthropology of Genesis 1-2, the representative and masculine nature of the Old Covenant priesthood—or even something obscure like the sex requirements for particular animal sacrifices in Leviticus 1-7—might very well be fruitful avenues of further exploration in how we think about sacramental representation in the Bible.
Dr. McGowin helpfully highlights some problems in how we can think about sacramental representation. As Anglicans continue to debate women’s ordination, I hope the sorts of questions raised by her piece encourage a deeper exploration with how Scripture might re-orient us to the question of sacramental representation, liturgical leadership, and the created order.
Blake Johnson is pastor of Church of the Holy Cross in Crozet, VA.
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