This is the third in a series of essays discussing Catholic objections to the ordination of women and the second to address the argument that women cannot be ordained because only a male priest can represent Christ in the celebration of the Eucharist. Specifically, in presiding at the Eucharist, the priest acts“in the person of Christ” (in persona Christi). Since Jesus Christ is a male, only a male can play this representative role. In the previous essay in this series, I have summarized the biblical and historical background to the New Testament notion of priesthood, and to the understanding of ordained ministry in the early church. In that essay, I noted that there is no evidence that either the New Testament or the patristic church understood ordained clergy to play this representative role, i.e., to be acting in persona Christi. I now turn to find the sources of this theology in the sacramental theology of the Western Church, specifically as articulated by Thomas Aquinas.
During the early Middle Ages, Latin theologians taught that only the universal Catholic church was able to celebrate the Eucharist. Local churches who were in communion with the one holy Catholic church (una sancta catholica ecclesia) were understood to represent the whole church in the eucharistic liturgy. The priest who presided at the Eucharist was understood to represent the whole church when he acted as the liturgical leader of the local church. A key concern in the development of eucharistic doctrine was the problem of the heretical priest. How could a priest represent the whole church if he lacked the faith of the church? The consensus was that the Eucharists of heretical priests were invalid. The author of the Summa Sententiarum (probably Otto of Lucca [d. 1146]), held that they were invalid because in the eucharistic prayer the priest says “we offer” (offerimus), not “I offer” (offero); the priest thus acts ex persona totius ecclesiae (in the person of the whole church). In a discussion of the differences between the offering of the congregation and the offering of the priest, Lothar of Signi explained that the priest offers in the person of the whole church: “offerimus is said in the plural because the priest sacrifices not only in his own [person] but in the person of the whole church.”
Different opinions concerning this ecclesiological status of who does or does not qualify to be a priest led to an “evolving theology of the hierarchical priesthood,” along with changes in terminology. Medieval commentaries on the Mass depicted the “priest of the New Covenant” as the fulfillment of Old Testament priesthood as one who offers sacrifice for the people. This description is applied first to Christ, and then to ordained clergy. Beginning in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, figures such as Peter Pictor and Rupert of Dietz began to use the term similitudo (likeness) to describe the participation of ordained clergy in Christ’s priesthood. In addition, the imagery of drama is introduced and the priest is said to imitate Christ when he recites the words of institution in the Eucharist. Priests are referred to as vices Christi (deputies of Christ). The priest is compared to an ambassador – as ambassador of the church to Christ, and of Christ to the church.
As mentioned above, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) is the central figure in the development of the notion that, in celebrating the Eucharist, the priest acts “in the person of Christ” (in persona Christi), as representing Christ to the church. It is this theology of eucharistic representation that lies behind the recent and modern Catholic objection to the ordination of women to clerical office. If Jesus Christ is a male, then only a male priest/presbyter can represent Christ.
Aquinas’s earliest discussion of eucharistic theology does not mention the notion of representation of Christ at all, but follows the earlier notion that the priest acts as representing the church. In Aquinas’s earliest venture into a more or less comprehensive theology, his Commentary on Peter Lombard’s Sentences, he claimed that the priest proclaims the eucharistic prayer in the name of the church and represents the church: “He alone [the priest] who consecrates the Eucharist is able to conduct the act of the entire church, which is a sacrament of the universal [or entire] church.”
The claim that the priest acts as a representation of Christ first appears in Aquinas’s mature theological work, the Summa Theologiae. Aquinas’s sacramental theology is subordinate to his theology of the incarnation: Jesus Christ is the second person of the Trinity, the Word through whom God created the world, and the Son through whom, as become a human being in Jesus Christ, God is restoring a fallen creation, both through the forgiveness of sins, but also through uniting the church to himself. The humanity of Jesus Christ is the created “instrument” of salvation; the same Holy Spirit through whose power the incarnate Christ was conceived, and through whom he was anointed in his own baptism by John, has been sent by the risen Jesus Christ to be given to the church. The grace of the Holy Spirit is the bond that unites believers to the crucified and risen Christ, bringing about a union not only between individual believers and the Triune God, but also with one another as the mystical body of Christ.
In ST 3.60.3, Aquinas argues that a sacrament is a special kind of “sign,” and the reality signified in the sacraments is Christ himself, the head of the church, who is the unique and universal principle of the church’s sanctification. Sacraments are the risen Christ’s “continuing active presence in the world, transforming it through time until the consummation of all things at his coming again in glory.” As the incarnate Word Jesus Christ’s humanity is the unique instrument of salvation, so the sacraments are created physical instruments through which believing Christians receive the grace of the Holy Spirit to be united to Christ’s crucified and risen humanity (ST 3.62.3-4).
Key to Aquinas’s understanding of the manner in which the priest represents Christ is his understanding of worship as rooted in sacramental “character.” In ST 3.62.5, Aquinas argues that sacraments have a twofold nature: through the sacraments, God both takes away sin and “perfect[s] the soul in things pertaining to divine worship in regard to the Christian religion.” In ST 3.63.5, 6, Aquinas asserts that the sacraments make possible the grace-filled worship of those who have been sanctified through creating both “holiness of life and consecration for holy actions.” This capacity to worship is enabled by the sacramental “character” that Aquinas argues is a “certain participation in the priesthood of Christ”:
[E]ach of the faithful is deputed to receive, or to bestow on others, things pertaining to the worship of God. And this, properly speaking, is the purpose of the sacramental character. Now the whole rite of the Christian religion is derived from Christ’s priesthood. Consequently, it is clear that the sacramental character is specially the character of Christ, to whose character the faithful are likened (cuius sacerdotio configurantur fideles secundum sacramentales characteres) by reason of the sacramental characters, which are nothing else than certain participations of Christ’s priesthood, flowing from Christ himself (quaedam participationes sacerdotii Christi, ab ipso Christo derivatae) [my emphasis].
Aquinas here modifies a traditional notion of “character” as a “sign of grace conferred in the sacrament” (ST 3.63.3 obj 2) in the light of Heb. 1:3: “But the eternal character is Christ himself, according to Heb. 1:3, ‘who being the brightness of his glory and the figure,’ or character, ‘of his substance.’ It seems, therefore, that the character should properly be attributed to Christ.” (ST 3.63.3 sed contra). Thus, for Aquinas, the sacramental character is, in actuality, the character of Christ as the incarnate “image” of God the Father, and all baptized Christians are enabled to partake in worship through participation in Christ’s priesthood. In ST 3.63.6, Aquinas utilizes a distinction between the roles of agent and recipient to argue that sacramental character is uniquely associated with the sacraments of the Eucharist and baptism (as well as confirmation). In the Eucharist, the priest administers a sacrament for others; in baptism, one receives the capacity to receive other sacraments. Crucial for this discussion, however, is the statement that Aquinas makes concerning the sacraments and participation in Christ’s priesthood:
Every sacrament makes the human being a participator in Christ’s Priesthood (per omnia sacramenta fit homo particeps sacerdotii Christi), from the fact that it confers on him [or her] some effect thereof. But every sacrament does not depute someone to do or receive something pertaining to the worship of the priesthood of Christ: while it is just this that is required for a sacrament to imprint a character. (ST 3.63.6 ad 1).
Thus, every sacrament (not simply ordination) enables all human beings (not simply ordained males) to participate in Christ’s priesthood. Baptism and Eucharist communicate a special character to participate in divine worship; this character is itself a participation in the “character” of Christ, and, while there is a special role for the ordained priest – only a priest can administer the sacraments – both the baptized and ordained clergy equally receive the character that enables worship; both the baptized and ordained clergy equally participate in the character of Christ’s priesthood. Moreover, through sacramental character, both all of the baptized as well as the ordained clergy resemble Christ. Thomas identifies sacramental character as the “character of Christ . . . to whose character the faithful are likened,” through their participation in Christ’s priesthood (ST 3.63.3).
Aquinas’s understanding of the role of the priest in celebrating the Eucharist can be summarized as follows: first, Aquinas follows the notion common in his day that the consecration of bread and wine within the eucharistic prayer takes place when the priest recites the words of Jesus that are included in the narrative of the last supper in which bread and wine are identified with Christ’s body and blood. Adopting the Aristotelian distinction between form and matter that he had used elsewhere to explain that each sacrament must have both a physical element (the matter) and accompanying words (the form) (ST 3.60.6, ad 2), Aquinas argues that the “matter” of the sacrament consists of the change of the elements of bread and wine, while the “form” consists of the words of institution:
But in this sacrament the consecration of the matter consists in the miraculous change of the substance, which can only be done by God; hence the minister in performing this sacrament has no other act save the pronouncing of the words. . . . [T]he form of this sacrament implies merely the consecration of the matter, which consists in transubstantiation, as when it is said, “This is my body,” or, “This is the cup of my blood.” (ST 3.78.1).
The words of institution are not only essential to the Eucharist, but Aquinas insists that the recitation of these words alone would be sufficient to the performing of the sacrament. The words alone are sufficient because, in reciting the words, the priest is speaking the very words of Jesus Christ, and thus acting as a representative of, or in the “person” of Christ:
But the form of this sacrament is pronounced as if Christ were speaking in person (ex persona ipsius Christi loquentis), so that it is given to be understood that the minister does nothing in perfecting this sacrament, except to pronounce the words of Christ. (ST 3.78.1).
Accordingly it must be held that if the priest were to pronounce only the aforesaid words with the intention of consecrating this sacrament, this sacrament would be valid because the intention would cause these words to be understood as spoken in the person of Christ (haec verba intelligerentur quasi ex persona Christi prolata), even though the words were pronounced without those that precede. (ST 3.78.1 ad 4).
This is (almost) the whole of what Aquinas says about the priest acting “in the person of Christ” (in persona Christi). As Edward Kilmartin points out, the argument presumes a particular understanding concerning the words of institution and the “moment of consecration,” as well as that, in consecrating the eucharistic elements, the priest is enacting a drama in which he plays the role of Jesus Christ at the Last Supper. At the same time, what Aquinas says about the priest acting in persona Christi should not be isolated from the rest of his sacramental theology. The eucharistic prayer is the expression of the worship of the entire church, which is made possible by the sacramental character bestowed in baptism, which itself is a participation in Christ’s priesthood, enjoyed by all the baptized. The priest performs this role for the whole church because, as Aquinas had written earlier in his Commentary on the Sentences, the sacrament is the “sacrament of the universal church.” The priest who consecrates the Eucharist thus represents both Christ and the church. While distinguishable, these two functions are inseparable. The priest acts as a minister of Christ, intending to do “what the church does” (faciendi quod facit ecclesia) (ST 3.60.8). By basis of their participatory character in Christ’s own priesthood, the entire church participates in the eucharistic worship in union with the presiding ordained priest, who proclaims the eucharistic prayer both in the person of the whole church and in the person of Christ.
It is also important to note that Aquinas says nothing about the need for the priest to be male in the context of the priest acting in persona Christi. To the contrary, if the priest must be male in order to participate in Christ’s priesthood or to resemble Christ, then it would seem to follow that only males can be baptized because Aquinas locates the sacramental character of both baptism and the Eucharist (which makes worship possible) in a participation in the priesthood of Christ in which he insists that all the baptized participate. In recent years, some have argued that the priest represents the whole church because he first represents Christ; this would seem seem to reverse the logic of Aquinas’s position; it is because they first share in the sacramental character of Christ’s priesthood (in which all the baptized participate), and which enables all the baptized to resemble Christ, that ordained priests are later (through ordination) enabled to share in the special priestly character that enables them to both participate in Christ’s priesthood and resemble Christ as they consecrate the Eucharist.
It is the understanding of the priest as consecrating the Eucharist when he recites the words of institution (and thus acts as a representative of Christ) that comes to dominate eucharistic theology in the Western Roman Catholic Church following Aquinas’s formulation, and especially after the Reformation-era Council of Trent. At the same time, despite their rejections of the doctrines of transubstantiation and eucharistic sacrifice strongly endorsed at the Roman Catholic Council of Trent, many Reformation churches still affirmed (at least implicitly) the logic behind the position that followed Aquinas. The Lutheran formularies, for example, explicitly state that ordained pastors “represent the person of Christ, and do not represent their own persons . . . When they offer the Word of God, when they offer the Sacraments, they offer them in the stead and place of Christ.” It is in reciting the words of institution that the pastor celebrates the Lord’s Supper. This theology is also at least implicit in those Protestant churches in which the liturgical practice of the Lord’s Supper consists of nothing more than the pastor reciting the narrative of the Last Supper.
As noted in the previous essay, with the possible exception of a single passage in Cyprian of Carthage, there is in the early church no evidence of any discussion of the relationship between Christ’s priesthood and the priesthood of the ordained clergy. More important for the present discussion, there is no evidence whatsoever for a theology in which the priest, in the celebration of the Eucharist, represents or acts “in the person of Christ” when reciting the words of institution. This is a Medieval Western development that is first formulated explicitly in the eucharistic theology of Thomas Aquinas. It should perhaps be no surprise then that a conflict arose between Western Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theologians concerning the Eucharist in the first half of the fourteenth century. The controversy concerned the “moment of consecration,” but the real issue of disagreement concerned the agent of the consecration, whether this was the priest who acted as representative of Christ when the words of institution were recited, or the Holy Spirit when the epiclesis was invoked. The controversy began when Westerners accused the East of adding additional prayers after the words of institution.
The background to the conflict lay in the inclusion of the epiclesis, a prayer for the invocation of the Holy Spirit that occurs in Eastern eucharistic prayers following the account of the Last Supper, but was missing from the Western Latin mass. The crucial historical texts are the Mystagogical Catechesis of Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 350), the liturgy of Basil the Great (4th century?), and the liturgy of John Chrysostom (398-404). Cyril’s Mystagogical Catechesis contains a description of the invocation of the Holy Spirit, while the two liturgies both contain prayers in which the Holy Spirit is invoked to “bless and sanctify” the bread and cup that they might become the body and blood of Christ.
The Western scholastic theologians argued that, in commanding the church to “do this in memory of me,” it was Christ’s intention that the church should celebrate the Eucharist using Jesus Christ’s very words, and that the celebrant intended to speak in the name of and in the person of Christ. The Orthodox insisted to the contrary that the words of institution represented a historical account, and that it was necessary to add the epiclesis: Christ is made present not through the recitation of the words of institution, but through the prayer of the priest invoking the presence of the Holy Spirit. Despite more recent ecumenical convergence, this fourteenth-century disagreement has continued to be divisive. Orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov has stated: “It would seem that, in the ecumenical dialogue the question of the epiclesis is as important at present as that of the Filioque, since it is above all in the light of the epiclesis that the Filioque can be correctly resituated within the whole problem.” Some Eastern theologians have strongly objected to the notion that the priest acts in persona Christi. Evdokimov wrote:
For the Latin Church, the verba substantialia of the consecration, the institutional words of Christ, are pronounced by the priest in persona Christi, which immediately gives them consecratory power. Now, for the Greeks the identification of the priest with Christ, in persona Christi, was quite unknown, and strictly unthinkable. Rather, the priest invokes the Holy Spirit precisely in order that the word of Christ reproduced, cited by the priest should acquire all the efficacy of the word-act of God.
The disagreement has implications for the question of the ordination of women to clerical orders. Theologically, the disagreement boils down to the question of whether the presiding minister actsin the person of Christ (in persona Christi) and thus represents [a male] Christ, or, rather whether, in invoking the Holy Spirit, the presiding minister, praying on behalf of the congregation to invoke the Holy Spirit, represents the church, and thus acts in the person of the church (in persona ecclesiae). One would think that, given their skepticism about an in persona Christi ecclesiology, Orthodox theologians would have to search elsewhere for an argument against women’s ordination, but, surprisingly, when Orthodox theologians first began to respond to the question of women’s ordination, they adopted rather uncritically the new Roman Catholic arguments that, at the least, were in tension with Orthodox eucharistic theology. As noted in the previous essay, Orthodox theologian Kallistos Ware wrote (in a collection of Orthodox essays): “The priest is an icon of Christ; and since the incarnate Christ became not only man but a male – since, furthermore, in the order of nature the roles of male and female are not interchangeable – it is necessary that the priest should be male.”
Critique and Response
In what follows, I will summarize the views of several theologians from different theological traditions in an attempt to address the question: Does the minister (presbyter/priest) who presides at the celebration of the Eucharist represent Christ in the sense that, in speaking the words of institution, the minister acts “in the person of Christ” (in persona Christi) in such a manner that the risen Christ speaks his own words through the minister, and, if this is the case, does the fact that Jesus Christ is a male mean that the presiding minister must necessarily be a male?
An Orthodox Response
As noted above, the Orthodox understanding of eucharistic celebration with its emphasis on the invocation of the Holy Spirit in the epiclesis is fundamentally different from the Western Medieval scholastic understanding that located the moment of consecration at the priest’s recital of Christ’s words of institution, a difference that led to controversy in the fourteenth century, and, which, to a large extent, continues to have repercussions. Two modern Orthodox theologians in particular have reflected on the implications for how the different understandings bear on the question of women’s ordination to the priesthood.
Elisabeth Behr-Sigel (1907-2005) was a prominent female Orthodox theologian. At a young age, she converted to Orthodoxy. She was the author of numerous books on Orthodox spirituality, an instructor of theology at St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris, and was involved in numerous ecumenical discussions between Orthodoxy and other churches. Later in her life, she became interested in the role of women in the Orthodox Church, and, particularly, the issue of women’s ordination. Her essays on women’s ordination have appeared in two books: The Ministry of Women in the Church and The Ordination of Women in the Orthodox Church. In the “Preface to the English Edition” of The Ministry of Women in the Church, Fr. Thomas Hopko (who certainly did not agree with her views on women’s ordination) described Behr-Sigel as “Eastern Orthodoxy’s premier woman thinker. . . . Madame Behr-Sigel provides insights to be reckoned with in an intelligent, clear and forthright manner [which] makes her work all the more valuable.” In the “Preface to the French Edition,” Metropolitan Anthony Bloom wrote: “The Orthodox, and Roman Catholics, too, must rethink the problem of women in the Scriptures. They must not make hasty statements about her being and work in the work of salvation to which God has called us to be witnesses.”
Kallistos Ware (b. 1935) is an English bishop in the Orthodox Church, who was Spalding Lecturer of Eastern Orthodox Studies at the University of Oxford from 1966 to 2001. Ware is the author of numerous books on Orthodoxy, and is best known as the author of The Orthodox Church. As noted above, Ware was one of the contributors in an early series of Orthodox essays on the ordination of women entitled Man, Woman, and Priesthood. In this essay, Ware objected to the ordination of women on the grounds that the priest is an icon of Christ. Since Christ is male, the priest has to be male. By the time that the second edition of the book was published, Bishop Ware had changed his mind, and his new essay “Man, Woman and the Priesthood of Christ,” was reproduced in Elisabeth Behr-Sigel’s book, The Ordination of Women in the Orthodox Church. Ware writes: “Since then my views on this issue have altered. In 1978, I considered the ordination of women priests to be an impossibility. Now I am much more hesitant. . . . What I would plead is that we Orthodox should regard the matter as essentially an open question.”
Much of what Behr-Sigel writes touches on issues already addressed in previous essays in my own series: the proper interpretation of Scripture, especially the Pauline epistles, as well as the historical tradition of the church. Behr-Sigel notes that the Orthodox Church (in a manner similar to what has transpired in the Roman Catholic Church) no longer upholds the traditional historic arguments against the ordination of women. As in the Roman Catholic Church, women are now allowed to play many roles in the church, including that of teaching theology. (The Orthodox are not Protestant hierarchical complementarians.) She writes:
The idea of the physical and intellectual inferiority of women has been an uncontested axiom for a long time. . . . Today this idea has been discredited, at least in those societies that have been influenced by Christianity. . . . [T]he arguments put forward today against the ordination of women are by and large no longer the same as those used in past centuries. Among contemporary Orthodox theologians, we hardly hear any more arguments based on the inferiority of women and the hierarchy of the sexes . . . or the responsibility of Eve in the Fall.
Behr-Sigel notes that when the issue of women’s ordination was first raised, the Orthodox were caught by surprise, and not prepared. At least one early response suggested that the problem had to do with the ritual impurity of women during their monthly biological cycles. Bishop Ware comments on this: “Some maintain that women cannot be priests because they are morally and spiritually inferior to men, and also because they are physically impure during certain times of the month.” Ware insists that this simply will not do as a Christian theological argument: “It is abundantly clear from Christ’s teaching in the gospels and from the decisions of the apostolic council in Acts 15 that the Old Testament prohibitions concerning ritual impurity are not applicable within the new covenant of the Church.”
Despite some initial stumbling, the Orthodox (again in a manner similar to the Roman Catholic Church) finally endorsed two new arguments against the ordination of women: one based on the theological symbolism of Christ’s masculinity, and the second based on the question: “In what sense does the priest represent Christ? Since Christ is a man, can a woman be empowered to act liturgically as his priestly icon?” In this regard, Ware complains that Orthodox theologians too often take over their arguments wholesale from other Christian traditions: “How hard it is for us Orthodox to speak with our own true voice! . . . all too often we have borrowed our theological categories from the West, sometimes using Roman Catholic arguments (especially when opposing Protestantism), and sometimes using Protestant arguments (especially when opposing Roman Catholicism).” The argument based on Christ’s masculinity and the celebration of the Eucharist is one such example: “Orthodox opponents of the ordination of women have often relied, for example, on the papal statement concerning women and the priesthood Inter Insigniores . . . without enquiring how far the conception of priesthood assumed in this document in fact corresponds to the Orthodox understanding.”
Behr-Siegel suggests that the question of women’s ordination concerns two very different notions of the church:
The question of the status of women is thus placed in relation to ecclesiology and more precisely in relation to two conceptions of the Church as they coexist, more or less inside all historical Churches. The one is patriarchal and hierarchical, and the other is conceived and lived essentially as a mystery of communion. This latter is a communion of persons equal in dignity, and indignity, and saved only by grace. At the same time, each person is ineffably unique and called upon to serve God and men according to his or her own vocation and special charisms. These are certainly colored by the person’s sex but not determined by it.
Behr-Siegel’s and Ware’s arguments for a reconsideration of the Orthodox objection against women’s ordination are as follows:
As do Roman Catholics, the Orthodox recognize that the word “priest” has three different meanings. First, there is the priesthood of Christ. Ware states: “One, and one alone is priest: Jesus Christ, the unique high priest of the new covenant . . . is the sole true celebrant of every sacramental act.” Second, there is the priesthood of all baptized Christians: “All are priests: by virtue of our creation in God’s image and likeness, and also by virtue of the renewal of the image through baptism and anointing with chrism (Western ‘confirmation’), we are all of us, clergy and laity together, ‘a royal priesthood, a holy nation’ . . . set apart for God’s service.” Finally, there is the special sense in which the word “priest” is used of ordained clergy: “Only some are priests: certain members of the Church are set apart in a more specific way, through prayer and the laying-on of hands, to serve God in the ministerial priesthood.”
The distinction between the priesthood common to all Christians and the unique priesthood of the ordained has been crucial to the new Roman Catholic argument. Sara Butler emphasizes that Catholic opposition to women’s ordination is rooted in an understanding of ministry not shared by Protestants: “[T]he ministerial priesthood is a distinct gift, different ‘essentially and not only in degree’ (essentia, no gradu tantum) from the common priesthood.” The ministry of the ordained is “offered not on the basis of the sacraments of initiation, but on the basis of the sacrament of Holy Orders.”
The Orthodox, at least as represented by Behr-Siegel and Ware, do not view the distinction between baptism and ordination as a fundamental warrant for not ordaining women because, in celebrating the Eucharist, the priest acts as a representative of the entire church. Behr-Siegel draws a close connection between the common priesthood received in baptism and the special priesthood of ordination: “By the fact that all members of the Body of Christ are intimately united to the head of the Body, Jesus, they participate in the priestly life and the sacrificial death of the Redeemer . . .” The close connection has to do with the public nature of worship. In worship, the priesthood of the ordained clergy is essentially representative of the common priesthood of all the baptized gathered together:
The liturgy celebrated by the eucharistic assembly is a public act of worship offered to God by all together. The ordained minister together with the faithful celebrates in Christ by the Holy Spirit and in communion with the whole catholic Church of the saints of all times . . . The consciousness of the royal priesthood of the people of God in no way, however, implies a negation of the special priesthood . . . It rather situates this priesthood in its proper place: not above but within the Christian community. . . Their priesthood is not different from the priesthood of believers, but they have received a special mission. They are called by God and the sacrament of order is the efficacious sign of this call, to express and exercise the universal priesthood. They are the instruments of this priestly and invisible grace of which the total Church, laymen and clerics, men and women, is the depository. . . . They re-present, make present, the unique mediation and the unique mediator [Jesus Christ] for the assembly of the faithful. But those who attend the liturgy are not present as though at a show. . . . [I]n principle, it is always the whole community that implores the grace of being united by the Spirit to whom who “offers and is offered.”
Ware does want to “preserve a proper line of demarcation between the second [common] and third [ordained] forms of priesthood, between the ontological priesthood of baptism and the ministerial priesthood of order.” Concerning the universal priesthood, Ware insists that “man and woman are equally priests, by virtue of the common humanity that they both share.” In a statement that iniitally seems similar to the Roman Catholic position, Ware states: “[T]he ministerial priest derives his priesthood not by delegation from the people but immediately from Christ.” Ordination creates a special relationship to the priesthood of Christ in that “in the eucharist, as in all the sacraments, it is Christ who is the true celebrant: the visible officiant acts only in Christ’s name and by his power.” However, that the priest acts in Christ’s name does not mean that the priest possesses any authority or power of his own:
The sacraments, then, are always actions of Christ, who is made present in our midst by the Holy Spirit. In the strict and proper sense, the sacraments are performed not by the priest but through him. . . . The priest at the Divine Liturgy is not “another Christ,” and the sacrifice that he offers, in union with the people [my emphases], is not “another” sacrifice, but always the unique and unrepeatable sacrifice of Christ himself.
This notion of the public nature of worship, along with the insistence that the priest acts “in union with the people” is a reflection of the Orthodox understanding that, in presiding at the Eucharist, the priest acts in persona ecclesiae (in the person of the church). Ware contrasts the Western with the Eastern understanding: “Thus at the consecration in the Roman rite, as commonly interpreted, the priest represents Christ to the people, but at the consecration in the Byzantine rite the priest represents the people to Christ.” Ware argues that this is why the East does not adopt the “westward position” at the prayer of consecration – “[I]t is more appropriate for the priest to face eastward, as the people do, for at this point in the service he is standing not on the Godward but on the manward side.”
Ware contrasts the Eastern understanding of eucharistic consecration with that of the West: “In the medieval West, as in most Roman Catholic thinking today, the priest is understood as acting in persona Christi. [When the priest says the words of institution,] he speaks these words as if he were himself Christ; or rather, at this moment Christ himself is understood to be speaking these words through the priest.” In contrast, in the Byzantine rite, throughout the eucharistic prayer, “the celebrant speaks not in persona Christi but in persona ecclesiae, as the representative not of Christ, but of the Church.” The words of institution “form part of the all-embracing narrative of thanksgiving.” Ware states: “The priest, acting in union with the people and in their name, thanks God the Father for the blessings of creation, for the saving incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ, and in particular for the institution of the eucharist; but at no point in all this does he speak as if he were himself Christ.” When the priest recites the epiclesis, he prays “in union with the people and in their name,” addressing God the Father to send down the Holy Spirit to consecrate the elements of bread and wine: “At this crucial moment as throughout the eucharistic prayer, he is not Christ’s vicar or icon, but – in union with the people – he stands as a supplicant before God.”
Ware is emphatically clear. There are moments in the liturgy in which the priest acts “in Christ’s name,” for example, when he blesses the people with the sign of the cross, but, Ware insists, “at no point in the actual prayer of consecration does he speak in persona Christi.” Ware reiterates: “At the most important of all priestly acts, then, the recitation of the eucharistic anaphora, according to the Orthodox understanding the celebrant does not serve as an icon of Christ.”
Similarly, Behr-Siegel also insists that the priest “is not seen as possessing an independent power”; Rather, the priest always acts on behalf of, and as a representative of, the church:
He is a priest within, and not above or independently of the Church, which is made up of women as well as men. It is on behalf of the ecclesia that, according to the words of the Byzantine epiclesis, he prays to the Father to send his “Spirit on us and on the gifts we offer.” Elders, presbyteroi, or priests are the visible instruments of the invisible priestly grace entrusted to the whole Church, lay persons and priests. . . .
In what sense, then, might the priest “represent” Christ or act as an “icon of Christ”? According to Behr-Siegel and Ware, the priest “lends his hands and voice” to Christ. Behr-Siegel asks:
What is the meaning of this “representation” of Christ by the priest? According to the Orthodox understanding, the priest is not “another Christ.” He is only the instrument that mediates the personal and invisible presence of Christ . . . Now the priest mediates the action of Christ not by his masculinity but by pronouncing the very words of the Savior over the holy gifts. . . . The priest is thus the spokesman for the eternal Word. He lends his voice to the Word.”
As an icon in this sense, the priest is not himself “another Christ,” but rather points away from himself to Christ: “[A]n icon is not a lifelike portrait; nor, on the other hand, is the priest an icon in the literal, technical sense of the term . . . It is as he repeats the words spoken by Christ at the Last Supper, as he repeats the gestures, that the priest points to the invisible spiritual presence – in and by the Holy Spirit – of the one High Priest, Christ . . .” Ware insists that the Eastern fathers did not understand the relationship between Christ and the priest to lie in any notion of physical resemblance:
It is obvious that, when St. Theodore the Studite and others term the priest or the bishop an “imitation” or “icon” of Christ, they cannot mean that there is a physical resemblance between the two. The priest does not “represent” Christ because he has a beard or black hair, or because he is about thirty years old. . . . The Fathers never interpreted liturgical typology in such exterior and materialistic terms as that. A painted icon is indeed intended to bear a visible resemblance to its prototype; but the priest is not a painted icon.
Neither the masculinity of Christ’s own sex nor of the priest’s sex is pertinent in itself. Ware points out that the church fathers had very little to say about the theological significance of Christ’s masculinity. The particularity of the incarnation demanded that Jesus Christ had to be born at a specific time and place, and that he had to have a particular sex. He could not have been both male and female, and he was indeed a male. However, according to Ware, the theological significance lies elsewhere: “What matters for [the church fathers] is not the fact that he became male (ανήρ, vir) but the fact that he became human (ἄνθρωπος, homo).”
The eucharistic prayer of the priest does have representational and symbolic value. Insofar as the priest acts on behalf of the church, he not only speaks Christ’s words, but also represents the church as the bride of Christ. As the priest lends his hands and voice to Christ, he also lends his hands and voice to the church. In neither case is the sexuality of the priest a determining factor. Behr-Siegel writes:
Thus the symbolic mediation consists in the action of the priest and in the words of the divine Word pronounced by him, or rather pronounced “through him” and placed on the bread and the wine. . . . Moreover, the priest lends his voice and suppliant hand to the Church as well, that is, to the Bride, according to the symbolism of marriage. He lends himself to the Christian people whose common priesthood he activates in communion with Christ’s unique priesthood. According to Orthodox sacramental theology, the epiclesis is the summit of the eucharistic prayer, and in this invocation of the Spirit, the priest asks that the Holy Spirit be expressly sent “on us” and on the gifts here present. The priest is the voice of the Bride longing for union with the Bridegroom. Here also, and even more so, the symbolism of sex does not determine his role.
What implications might be drawn concerning the question of whether women can be ordained to the presbyterate? Both Behr-Siegel and Ware claim that there are no apparent theological reasons that women cannot be ordained as priests. Granted that, in reciting the words of institution, the priest is a “spokesman for the eternal Word,” who “lends his voice to the Word,” Behr-Siegel asks: “Can this voice not be a feminine one?” In the celebration of the Eucharist, “the priest not only represents Christ, but by saying ‘we,’ he also lends his voice to the Church. He pronounces the epiclesis in the name of the gathered assembly, in communion with the universal Church.” In the marriage symbolism of the Church that is often used to justify a male priesthood, the church as the people of God is the bride of Christ. What implications can be drawn from this two-fold male and female symbolism of Christ as bridegroom and the church as bride?
The Church performs the eucharist and believes that Christ is living and present through the Holy Spirit. Christ acts as the one High Priest who both “offers” and “is offered.” The ordained minister does not produce the Lord’s real presence. . . . he “loans his tongue and his hands” to the Lord but also to his Church which is called to be the temple of the Holy Spirit. If this is the essence of the Church’s faith as witnessed to by the words of the liturgy, is not the maleness of the priest thereby relativized?
Ware asks similar questions: “If the priest represents Christ not through physical characteristics but in an inward and spiritual sense, does the priest necessarily have to be male in order to fulfill this representative role? . . .While affirming, then the character of the ministerial priest as Christ’s icon, I do not find that this in itself excludes women from the priesthood.” Ware also points to the symbolic imagery of the church as the bride of Christ. If a male priest in invoking the presence of the Holy Spirit in the epiclesis can act as a representative of the female bride of Christ, why could not a female priest speak as an “icon” of the male Christ?
Since the priest in the Divine Liturgy is a living icon of Christ the bridegroom of the Church, does it follow therefore that the priest must always be a man? Can a woman represent the bridegroom? . . . [T]here is no intrinsic absurdity, provided that we make proper allowance for the subtlety and polyvalence of symbols. After all, when we speak of the Church as bride, this implies that there is a sense in which all of us – men and women alike – are feminine in our relationship to God. If men can represent the Church as bride, why cannot women represent Christ as bridegroom?
Two Roman Catholic Responses: The Loss of the Holy Spirit
Yves Congar (1904-1995) was a French Dominican priest who was made a Cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church in 1994. Congar was an active participant during the Second Vatican Council. Much of his later work focuses on the Holy Spirit, whose role he believed had been neglected in much Western theology. In his three-volume work, I Believe in the Holy Spirit, Congar sympathizes with the criticism that Roman Catholic theology has tended to substitute the pope, the virgin Mary and the sacrament of the mass for the Holy Spirit. Much Roman Catholic theology has shown a tendency toward christomonism, an insistence on the importance of Christ, but “a rather disturbing absence of any reference to the Holy Spirit and the Church.” Concerning the Eucharist and Roman Catholic theology, Congar writes: “[T]he part played by the Holy Spirit in the Eucharist . . . . has hardly been developed.”
In the third volume of I Believe in the Holy Spirit, Congar focuses on “theological dialogue between Orthodox Christianity and Roman Catholicism.” At the end of Congar’s discussion of the disagreements between Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism concerning the Eucharist (already discussed above), Congar provides suggestions for reconciliation. An implicit christomonism is corrected by the notion that the Eucharist should be understood in a trinitarian framework, and that the role of the Holy Spirit should not be neglected. (Congar does not explicitly address the question of women’s ordination, but his discussion certainly has implications for it.)
Concerning the disagreement about whether the priest acts as a representative of Christ or a representative of the church, Congar writes: “The priest represents not only Christ, the sovereign high priest, in whose person he acts, but also the ecclesia, the community of Christians, in whose person he acts also. He therefore acts in persona Christi and in persona Ecclesiae.” Neither aspect can be isolated from the other. If one emphasizes Christology (as does Rome), then “the in persona Ecclesiae is situated within the in persona Christi.” If one emphasizes the Holy Spirit (as does Orthodoxy), then “the in persona Christi is more easily seen as situated within the in persona Ecclesiae . . .”
It is important to understand that the priest does not consecrate the elements by virtue of a power that is “inherent in him” or that is “within his control.” The “power” received at ordination is a gift of the Holy Spirit, exercised in communion with the church in the celebration of the Eucharist. This becomes clear in the Eastern rites, where the epiclesis is spoken in the plural voice, “indicating clearly that the whole community invokes the Spirit.” But even in the Latin Roman canon (eucharistic prayer), the words offerimus (“we offer”) and rogamus (“we ask”) are prayers addressed in the plural. Congar suggests that exclusive Western emphasis on the words of institution has led to a “devaluation” of the rest of the eucharistic prayer. In consequence, “the sense of the unity of the eucharistic prayer as a whole has been endangered.” Western language concerning the priest has also often been misleading: “Statements . . such as sacerdos alter Christus [“The priest is another Christ”], have to be understood in their true sense, which is spiritual and functional, not ontological or juridical.”
Edward J. Kilmartin (1923-1994), was a Roman Catholic Jesuit priest and liturgical theologian who was Professor of Sacramental Theology at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology, Professor and Director of the Doctoral Program in Liturgical Studies at the University of Notre Dame, Professor of Liturgical theology at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, and Professor at Boston College. He also served as executive secretary of the United States Bishops Conference Committee for Dialogue with the Orthodox Church.
Kilmartin’s approach to liturgical theology focused on ecumenical trinitarian theology and the role of the Holy Spirit in the liturgy. In a manner similar to Congar, Kilmartin believed that Western theology had neglected the role of the Holy Spirit in the liturgy. In particular, he believed that the deficiencies of Western eucharistic theology needed to be corrected in light of more trinitarian and ecclesiological Eastern and patristic theologies.
Kilmartin distinguished two essentially different eucharistic theologies in traditional Roman Catholic (and modern Western) accounts, on the one hand, and Eastern Orthodox accounts, on the other. In traditional Roman Catholic theology, sanctification of the elements takes place through the personal mission of Christ actualized through his minister acting in persona Christi as he speaks the words of institution. Insofar as the priest represents the church, he does so because he first represents Christ who is the head of the church. This Western understanding neglects the role of the Holy Spirit. Since the Holy Spirit is not understood to have a “personal mission” in Western theology, the Holy Spirit is understood to be present either by “appropriation,” or as given by Christ. In contrast, in Eastern Orthodox theology, the priest, speaking as a representative of the church (in persona ecclesiae), invokes the Holy Spirit in the epiclesis, who brings about Christ’s presence through his personal mission.
Kilmartin was critical of what he referred to as the “average modern Catholic eucharistic theology,” which displayed a “weak integration of the elements that go into the construction of a systematic theology of the Eucharist”; this theology was a “product of the Thomistic tradition but certainly not equated with the eucharistic theology of St. Thomas Aquinas.” Kilmartin claimed that the “prevailing official Catholic eucharistic theology that [had] its roots . . . in the 12th and 13th centuries no longer does justice to [the] central Christian mystery.” It had the following characteristics:
First, this “average Catholic eucharistic theology” has “no grasp of the literary structure and theological dynamic of the Eucharistic Prayer.” The modern Catholic theology isolated the “words of institution,” formulated as a “moment of consecration.” The words of institution are “posed in the air without access to the other elements of the structure.” Kilmartin characterized this as the “product of a splinter tradition of the Western Latin Church,” which emphasized the Christological dimension to the neglect of ecclesiology and the role of the Holy Spirit and the trinitarian dimensions of eucharistic theology.
A consequence of the isolation of the words of institution is that the actions of the presiding minister are understood to be those of “enacting a drama” in which the minister plays the part of Christ, while the congregation is an audience observing the drama – this, in contrast to an understanding the presiding minister as leading a prayer on behalf of the church as the gathered Christian community.
In consequence, this eucharistic theology isolates the presiding minister from the community of faith. The presiding minister primarily represents Christ, and only represents the church insofar as Christ is head of the church: “[E]cclesiology enters by the back door, or is equivalently absorbed into Christology.” This theology also elevates the role of the priest insofar as he is not perceived to be acting with and in the church as one who is also himself a recipient of Christ’s presence. In this theology, “the Eucharist appears to be a sacrament celebrated in the Church for the sake of the Church, but not precisely the sacrament of the Church.” The classic illustration of this isolation of the presiding minister from the community is the scholastic conundrum whether an errant priest could consecrate the bread in the shop window of a bakery.
In contrast to the “average Catholic eucharistic theology,” Kilmartin proposed the following alternative:
The sacraments must be considered within a salvation-historical, trinitarian and ecclesial context: God’s self-communication has occurred through historical events and persons, but God has uniquely communicated himself to humanity through the mediation of Jesus Christ, the Word become a human being. This divine self-communication has a trinitarian structure located in the personal missions of both the incarnate Son and the Holy Spirit. The incarnate Word is not only the Father’s communication to humanity, but also, in his humanity, the perfect response to the Father, made possible by the special mission of the Holy Spirit, who sanctified the humanity of Jesus Christ. Through the gift of the same Holy Spirit, the church is enabled to participate through faith, hope, and love in what the Father has done in Christ for the world’s salvation.
In the liturgical worship of the church, Jesus Christ, who suffered and died, and is now risen and glorified, is personally present to the church. The sacraments are acts of the risen Christ in which “Christ is united to the Church, not identified with the Church.” At the same time, the Holy Spirit acts as the “bond of unity” between Christ and the church. “The Holy Spirit, whom Christ possesses in fulness, was sent by him from the Father to form believers into the Church.” Thus the notions of Christian worship and celebration of the sacraments presuppose a trinitarian and ecclesiological structure: “What sacraments manifest and realize is the Church in its deepest being, namely the communion of life between the Father and humankind in Christ through the gift of the Holy Spirit, which entails sharing of life in faith between those who participate in the mystery of the shared Trinitarian life.”
This salvation-historical, trinitarian, and ecclesial structure of worship is shown in the content of the classical eucharistic prayers of the patristic and (particularly) Eastern churches. The classic prayers of both the Eastern and Western churches have a structure of anamnesis (remembrance) and epiclesis (petition). The narrative of institution forms the center of the prayers, and provides the warrant for the epiclesis of the Holy Spirit, the request for the sanctification of the gifts and the communicants. The literary structure is that of a unified prayer to the Father (as creator and giver of all gifts), in thankful recognition of his action in Christ (anamnesis), followed by a petition (epiclesis) that the faithfulness of the Father to his people would be expressed through the sanctification of the Holy Spirit, through whom both Christ is brought to the communicants (through the sanctification of bread and wine) and the communicants brought to Christ (request for sanctification of the people).
This salvation-historical, trinitarian, and ecclesiological structure of worship has the following implications for understanding of the role of the presiding minister of the Christian community who leads in celebrating the Eucharist.
First, the eucharistic prayer is not a drama, but a prayer spoken on behalf of the entire gathered community of the church. In Kilmartin’s words, “The Eucharist is not a dramatic representation of what Christ did at the Last Supper. Rather, it is the Eucharistic celebration of the Church, the Body and Bride of Christ.” The “words of institution” cannot, then, be separated from the eucharistic prayer as a whole, and the priest is not to be understood as if he were playing the role of Jesus Christ in a drama of the last supper; rather, the words of institution are part of a prayer that the presiding minister is praying on behalf of the gathered church: “Christian liturgy differs from sacred drama not merely because of the mystery content but because the presence of Christ and his saving work takes place through rites which are a form of expression of the faith of the Church.”
Second, sacraments exist for the building up of the church, and it is the risen Christ himself who is “actively present as head of the Church and high priest of the worship of the earthly Church.” Thus,
the “eucharistic community enacts its worship in, with, and through Jesus Christ . . . in the sphere of personal communion with Christ, grounded on the one participation in the one Spirit of Christ . . .” “Liturgical actions are, first and foremost, a special form of expression of the faith of the Church.” While worship is only possible because the risen Christ is present as the head of the church, the “active subject” of Christian worship is the “concrete eucharistic assembly”; According to Kilmaratin, “The liturgical community itself is the proper active subject of the sacramental celebrations”; the celebration of the Eucharist is “the corporate act of the ecclesial community . . .” Sacraments are thus “acts of the Church as such, not merely acts of the minister of Christ in the Church .. .” Why then ordination? The pastoral office is an “essential structure” of the church, established by the Holy Spirit to serve for building up of the local community of faithful Christians. It is exercised through word and deed, through preaching, teaching, charitable service, and through leading communal worship: “Ordination equips the minister to preside at sacraments in which the whole community is the integral subject.”
This salvation-historical, trinitarian ecclesial eucharistic theology has implications for understanding the role of the presiding minister of the entire gathered community, which is the primary subject of worship, and in which the celebrant’s role cannot be separated from or considered independently of the gathering of the church in worship. The priest does indeed have a representative role, but the presiding minister acts first as representative of the church’s faith, and thus primarily represents the church.: “[T]he presiding priest acts as representative of the Church’s faith and therefore the faith of the local community.” Kilmartin notes that this is evident in the content of the eucharistic prayer, in which “eucharistic worship is an activity of the whole Christ, head and body”: “By expressing the faith of the Church as formulated in the symbolic language and actions of the liturgy, the minister represents the Church, speaking in the name of the believing Bride of Christ.” (In celebrating the Eucharist, the priest thus acts in persona ecclesiae.) The priest also represents Christ, but only as first representing the church: “[T]he minister appears to be, in all liturgical activity, the representative of Christ because he represents, in virtue of ordination the community of which Christ is Head. . . . [H]e represents Christ because he represents the Church of which Christ is the Head.”
This understanding that the presiding minister represents Christ insofar as he first represents the church has implications for the issue of women’s ordination – implications that Kilmartin did not hesitate to endorse. In an early essay considering the nature of “apostolic office,” he insisted that “one cannot situate the peculiarity of ordained ministry in the unqualified concept of representation of Christ”; rather, “the ordaining minister must function in such a way that his instrumental task is not separated from an ecclesial context. . . . [T]he minister must represent the faith of the Church in order to serve as minister of Christ.” As he wrote elsewhere, Kilmartin emphasized that ecclesial “office directly represents the faith of the Church and only to this extent can represent Christ.” It is “[b]ecause the office bearer represents the Church united in faith and love in his role as leader, [that] he represents Christ.” Kilmartin drew the relevant implications concerning women’s ordination: “Since the priest directly represents the Church united in faith and love, the old argument against the ordination of women to the priesthood, based on the presupposition that the priest directly represents Christ and so should be male, becomes untenable.” Rather, “the representative role of priest seems to demand both male and female office bearers in the proper cultural context: for the priest represents the one Church, in which distinctions of race, class, and sex have been transcended, where all are measured by the one norm: faith in Christ.”
In two other essays, Kilmartin focused specifically on the question of women’s ordination. In an essay entitled “Bishop and Presbyter as Representatives of the Church and Christ,” he addressed Pope Paul VI’s Declaration, Inter Insigniores, the first appearance of the Roman Catholic argument that women cannot be ordained because they do not resemble a male Christ. In his response, Kilmartin refers to the “common” teaching that the priest “denotes Christ’s activity” at the “moment of consecration.” Kilmartin complains that this teaching “totally neglects the structure of the eucharistic prayers of the East and West as well as the epicletic character of these prayers.” To the contrary, he points out that all the activities carried out by priests express the faith of the church. Ordained clergy do act in persona Christi, “[b]ut they do so since they represent the one Church united in faith and love.” In presiding at the Eucharist, “priests represent the whole Church and so connote Christ’s activity. They act in the name of the whole Church and so serve as transparency for the grounds of unity and activity of the whole Church: Christ and the Holy Spirit.”
Kilmartin makes his point by referring to the structure of the eucharistic prayer, and particularly to the epiclesis. As a whole, the eucharistic prayer “denotes the action of the Church, which, in turns, connotes the activity of Christ.” Since, in celebrating the Eucharist, priests “act in the manner of the whole Church,” and the whole church is composed of both men and women, Kilmartin states that “it is not immediately clear why maleness is required in this ministry to preserve the proper symbolic correspondence.”
Kilmartin addressed the issue at greater length in his essay “Full Participation of Women in the Life of the Catholic Church.” In this essay, Kilmartin notes that “[t]he current theological arguments raised against the ordination of women to the ministerial priesthood in official Catholic circles are rather weak.” He recognizes that the “current official Roman Catholic position” excludes women only from pastoral functions that are “sacramental,” that is, celebration of the Eucharist, confirmation and penance. The key argument against the ordination of women in modern papal encyclicals “speak[s] of the priest as representative of Christ.”
Kilmartin insists that this argument makes the “typical mistake of traditional scholastic theology.” It fails to “use the liturgy as a true source of theology.” As well, it discusses the representative role of the priest in relation to Christ apart from his role in representing the church, and as a member of the church. According to Kilmartin, the “christomonism” of scholastic theology fails to “articulate the pneumatological and ecclesiological apects of ordination”; it “lacks a Trinitarian perspective which gives due consideration to the role of the Spirit.”
In contrast, in a “more ample christological, pneumatological and ecclesiological theology . . . the priest emerges as directly representing the church united in faith and love and so representing Christ and the Holy Spirit, sources of unity and faith of the church.” Given this realization, the traditional argument that the priest directly represents Christ becomes “difficult.” Kilmartin writes, “Logically an appeal to the representative function of the priest would seem to support the view that women should be ordained. For the priest must be seen as representing the one church composed of males and females and so the Lord of the church and the Spirit who grounds the unity of faith and love.” Furthermore, following the symbolic argument to its logical conclusion “would seem to end with a preference for females, given the traditional role awarded to the Holy Spirit in the liturgical tradition of the ordination rites.”
Two Anglican Theologians
Robert Campbell Moberly (1845-1903) was an Anglican theologian who began his career as one of the contributors to the series of essays entitled Lux Mundi. He was Regius Professor of Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford, Canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, and chaplain to both Queen Victoria and Edward VI. Moberly’s book, Ministerial Priesthood, attempted to steer a middle course between the two dangers of Catholic “formalism” and Protestant “spiritualism.” Formalism tends to think of the priesthood as “mechanical,” gives intrinsic efficacy to outward performance, and understands the priest as a “real intermediary” between God and the people. Spiritualism, in contrast, reacts against formalism by depreciating all outward forms and observances.
Moberly was concerned that both the Medieval Sarum ordination rite – which preceded the Anglican Book of Common Prayer in England – and the Roman Catholic Council of Trent, tended toward formalism. The Sarum rite contains two ideas concerning ordination: the first has to do with assisting the bishop (which is an ancient understanding of ordination); the second consists of additional ceremonial actions, the point of which is to “offer (eucharistic) sacrifice.” What is missing from the Sarum rite is any notion of service for the people or any notion of self-sacrifice of the people. The Council of Trent closely connects priesthood to eucharistic sacrifice, and insists that the priest is a “mediator and representative between God and man, which is to be reckoned the chief function of priesthood.” Trent does insist that the eucharistic sacrifice is “one and the same” with the sacrifice of Calvary, but the word proprium (a “proper” sacrifice) tends to give the impression that the eucharistic sacrifice is “independent” and a “sacrifice per se.” The Reformers reacted against this language because they perceived it as meaning to “offer actual atoning sacrifices” (plural) and that it “constituted a real propitiary mediation between the lay people and their God.”
At the same time, Moberly’s own position is equally at odds with “spiritualism.” In response to the “spiritualist” question whether ordinances (such as sacraments or ordained clergy) are essential to the church’s being, Moberly replies that they are not essential to the church’s being, but they are essential to the church’s life in the sense that insofar as we are commanded by God to use them, we may not dispense with them. God may not be bound to appointed means of grace, but we are.
What then of the priesthood of ordained clergy? Rather than beginning with either the affirmation or denial of eucharistic sacrifice – the dividing issue between Trent and Protestants – Moberly finds his starting point for discussion of Christian ministry in the unity of the church: “The unity which the Church represents is the unity of God” – understood in a Trinitarian manner. The church is one because God is one. The New Testament presumes that the church is one – Moberly appeals to Christ’s high priestly prayer that “they all may be one” (John 17) and Ephesians 4 (“One baptism, one body, one Spirit, . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all”). The New Testament model for the unity of the church is the body of Christ, which is a “corporate” unity. Moberly insists that any contrast between a unity of spirit and a unity of body is not scriptural. Accordingly, he is critical of any understanding of the church (and church office) that contrasts the spiritual with the bodily, or that prioritizes the individual apart from the community.
Thus, the church is one because it is the body of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit. This applies to the church as a whole, and not to the clergy specifically. What then, of ordained clergy? What is the relationship of ordained ministers to the body as a whole? Is ministerial order a sanctified intermediary between God and laity? According to Moberly, ordained ministers are not intermediaries. They do not confer life on the body. Rather (following Paul’s analogy in 1 Corinthians), Moberly suggests that ordained ministers are organs of the body, representative for specific purposes of the power of the life of the body. Moberly states:
We think, then, of ministry, not as a holy intermediary, wielding powers peculiar and inherent, because it is Spirit-endowed on behalf of those who are not. But Christian ministry is the instrument which represents the whole Spirit-endowed Body of the Church; and yet withal is itself so Spirit-endowed as to have the right and the power to represent instrumentally. The immense exaltation – and requirement – of lay Christianity, which in respect of its own dignity cannot be exaggerated, in no way detracts from the distinctive dignity of the duties which belong to ministerial function, or from the solemn significance of separation to ministry.
Moberly corrects several misconceptions concerning the implications of a representative clergy. First, it does not follow that, because ordained ministers are organs of the whole body, that they are dispensable, or that they simply do as individuals what the entire body does together. The ministry represents the whole body; it does not follow that every member of the body is an ordained minister. Similarly, it does not follow from the representative function of the minister that each minister is a priest only in the sense that each member of the congregation is a priest; there is no blurring of universal priesthood and ministerial priesthood.
Moberly also responds to critics of priestly “sacerdotalism” who complain that priestly ministry separates the clergy from the laity. The complaint misses the point of the representative function of ordained ministry; if ordained ministers represent the body, then they are not separate from the body. At the same time, the minister’s function is representative; it is not vicarious. The minister is not more holy than the layperson. The minister simply has been called to a specific representative ministry in the church that the layperson does not fulfill.
Another commonly expressed criticism of sacerdotalism concerns the issue of sacrifice; by offering an “atoning sacrifice,” ministerial priesthood is said to create an “intermediary” between God and the laity, creating a “sacerdotal caste.” To the contrary, Moberly argues,
the Christian ministry is not a substituted intermediary – still less an atoning mediator – between God and lay people; but it is rather the representative and organ of the whole body, in the exercise of prerogatives and powers which belong to the body as a whole. . . . What is duly done by Christian Ministers, it is not so much that they do it, in the stead, or for the sake of the whole; but rather that the whole does it by and through them. The Christian priest does not offer an atoning sacrifice on behalf of the Church: it is rather the Church through his act, that not so much “offers an atonement,” as “is identified upon earth with the one heavenly offering of the atonement of Christ.”
This leads to the issue of sacrifice and eucharistic sacrifice, in particular. Moberly contrasts the sacrifices of the Old Testament, which were figurative, with the sacrifice of Christ, which is the reality: “All priesthood, all sacrifice, is summed up in the Person of Christ.” Moberly does not directly address the question of women’s ordination, but, as we have seen, the question of the relationship between the ordained priesthood and the sacrifice of Christ has been the crucial concern. In what sense does the priest represent Christ and his sacrifice? Moberly states that “the Person of Christ does not pass away from the Church. The Church is the Body of Christ. The Spirit of Christ is the Breath of the Life of the Church. Whatever Christ is, the Church is; as reflecting, nay, in a real sense even as being, Himself.” If we want to understand the priesthood of the church, we first have to understand the sacrifice and priesthood of Christ.
Moberly challenges the traditional notion of sacrifice that focuses on death; rather, Christ’s entire life was a sacrifice:
Wherein, then, is Christ a Priest? . . . how, was this priestly sacrifice offered by Him? Does it mean the moment of Calvary? . . . His entire life in mortal flesh was a sacrifice, a dying, a crucifying, so that Calvary, however supreme as a culmination, was a culmination of, rather than a contradiction to, what the life before had meant.
This notion that sacrifice has not to do with death per se, but with the giving of life is also key to understanding sacrifice in the Old Testament:
The culminating point of the sacrifice was not in the shedding of the blood, but in the presentation before God, in the holy place, of the blood that had been shed; of the life, that is, which had passed through death, and had been consecrated to God by dying. . . . It is the life as life, not the death as death; it is . . . the life, which is acceptable to God.
Accordingly, it is not Christ’s death on Calvary, but the self-offering of his life, and the presentation of that offering to his Father in heaven by the risen and ascended Jesus Christ that constitutes his sacrifice; Christ is thus a “priest for ever.”
[T]hough Calvary be the indispensable preliminary, yet is it not Calvary taken apart, not Calvary quite so directly as the eternal self-presentation in Heaven of the risen and ascended Lord, which is the true consummation of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. . . . . Christ’s offering in Heaven is a perpetual ever-present offering of life, whereof “to have died” is an ever-present and perpetual attribute. . . . He is a Priest for ever, not as it were by a perpetual series of acts of memory, not by multiplied and ever remoter acts of commemoration of a death that is past, but by the eternal presentation of a life which eternally is the “life that died.”
Crucial to the notion of self-offering is love, and self-offering of life in love would be the nature of sacrifice even apart from the existence of the sin that led to Christ’s death on Calvary. Thus self-offering in love is the essence of Christ’s sacrifice:
[T]he sacrifice of Christ . . is the aspect which Divine love takes within the sphere of certain conditions, which conditions are de facto inseparable from our life on earth as it is. The heart of what it really is, is the holy offering up of life, in love. Apart from sin it would have been all life and all love. But life that has sinned cannot offer itself perfectly to love, without dying to sin.
(It follows that Old Testament sacrifices are “external and symbolic” only, since the sacrificed animal does not voluntarily give itself in love.)
This notion of the “self-offering” of life is crucial to understanding the universal priesthood of the church. The priesthood of the church flows from Christ’s priesthood: “[W]hat Christ is, the Church, which is Christ’s mystical body, must also be. . . . [T]he Church’s priesthood being in its inner truth the priesthood of Christ . . .” If Christ’s sacrificial priesthood is found in his self-offering in love, this also must be the nature of the church’s priesthood. This priesthood has both an outward and inward element. Outwardly, the church identifies with Christ’s priesthood in the Eucharist, “which is the symbolic counterpart in the Church on earth, not simply of Calvary, but of that eternal presentation of Himself in heaven in which Calvary is vitally contained.” In the worship of the Eucharist, the church identifies with Christ’s self-offering to the Father, and is also transfigured inwardly by the presence of the Holy Spirit to conform itself to his self-offering as Christ is formed within the church through the Spirit of love:
For this identification of the Church on earth with the eternal presentation of the sacrifice in heaven, and with Him who presents the sacrifice, means the reproduction in her of the Spirit of Him who sacrificially offered Himself. It is Christ Himself who is being formed in her. It means therefore in her, as in Him, the Spirit of Love which itself, in its outward expression on earth, is self-devoting sacrifice; or conversely, the spirit of sacrifice, self-devotion, self-expenditure, which is, in the sphere of human life and duty, the spontaneous and inevitable utterance of the Spirit of Love, or of God.
The consequence of this transformation is a priestly orientation to the world outside the church:
The Church is priestly because her arms are spread out perpetually to succour and intercede for those who need the sacrifice of love. . . . [T]he Church is God’s priest in the world and for the world, alike as presenting to God on the world’s behalf that homage which the world has not learned to present for itself, and as spending and suffering for God’s sake in service to the world.
This notion of priesthood as loving self-offering in response to and a sharing in Christ’s own gift of self-offering to the church and the world, is expressed as well in the priestly ordination of the church’s ministers. Moberly states:
The priesthood of the ministry follows as corollary from the priesthood of the Church. . . . If the priesthood of the Church consists ceremonially in her capacity of self-identification, through Eucharistic worship, with the eternal presentation of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, and spiritually in her identification of inner life with the spirit of sacrifice which is the spirit of love uttering itself in devoted ministry to others, so it is by necessary consequence with the priesthood of the ministry.
The priesthood of the ordained minister is “not distinct in kind” from the priesthood of the church. Ordained ministers are priestly because the church is priestly. By ordination, they have been “specialized and empowered to exercise ministerially and organically the prerogatives which are the prerogatives of the body as a whole.” They are distinct from the laity in that “only they, and not the laity, have been authorized to stand before the congregation, and to represent the congregation in the ministerial enactment of the Sacraments which are the Sacraments—and the life—of both alike. . . .” The priesthood has a representative function in that ordained ministers “are Priests because they are personally consecrated to be the representatives and active organs of the priesthood of the Church.” Ceremonially, they represent the priesthood of the church in the “external enactment of worship and sacrament,” but there is also a demanded inwardness of the “spirit of the priestly Church.” Eucharistic leadership has its corresponding corollaries: “the bearing of the people on the heart before God; the earnest effort of intercessory entreating; the practical translation of intercession into pastoral life, and anxiety, and pain.” Moberly points out that it is this notion of priestly service for the people, but also self-sacrifice of the people, that were emphasized in the ordination and eucharistic rites of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, in contrast to both the Medieval Catholic Sarum rite and the Council of Trent, from which they were completely missing.
Accordingly, the priesthood of the laity and of ordained ministry are not antithetical, but correlative and complementary. One can magnify the ministerial priesthood, and move from there to speak of the dignity and priesthood of the laity; conversely, one can begin with the dignity of the universal priesthood of the laity, and then speak of the manner in which ordained ministers are representative of the universal priesthood. What should not be done is to discredit the notion of ordained priesthood by contrasting it with the priesthood of the body, or, conversely, to discuss ordained priesthood in a manner that isolates it from the priesthood of the laity.
How might Moberly’s discussion bear on the issue of the ordination of women? He does not discuss the issue, and, of course, it would be anachronistic to expect him to have done so. However, his discussion of priestly ministry does have bearing on the modern Catholic objections that have been raised against the practice.
First, Moberly does not simply equate the universal priesthood of the laity and the ordained priesthood, and he objects to accounts that do so – so he is not subject to one usual Catholic objection against “Protestant” accounts. At the same time, however, Moberly closely ties together the notions of universal priesthood and ministerial priesthood. He acknowledges that the ministerial priesthood exercises a representative function, but he understands this to mean that the ordained minister represents the church, and that the “ministerial priesthood” is representative of the “universal priesthood” of the church. In terms of the disagreement between Orthodox and Roman Catholics, Moberly would then hold to the position that the priest acts in persona ecclesiae (in the person of the church). At the same time, although Moberly does not speak in so many words of the priest as representing Christ, his understanding of priesthood makes clear that both universal priesthood and ministerial priesthood participate in (and accordingly act as representatives of) Christ’s priesthood. Moberly states: “[W]hat Christ is, the Church, which is Christ’s mystical body, must also be. . . . If Christ is Priest, the Church is priestly. . . .” In the same paragraph, Moberly even states that the relationship between the church’s priesthood and Christ’s consists in a participation in Christ’s person: “[P]riestliness of character is a consequence which outflows upon the Church from the Person of Christ.” Thus one certainly could make the case that Moberly understands the ordained minister to be representing not only the church, but Christ, and thus acting in persona Christi. However, Moberly puts himself at odds with the modern Western Catholic argument against women’s ordination by placing the significance of Christ’s sacrifice and priesthood not in his maleness, but in his self-offering of sacrificial love. And it is through sharing in and imitating Christ’s self-sacrificial love that both laity and ordained ministers participate in Christ’s sacrifice and act as representatives of Christ. In so doing, Moberly endorses a notion of the “imitation of Christ” that anticipates the theme of “cruciformity” that New Testament scholar Michael J. Gorman understands to be the key to the apostle Paul’s spirituality which I have discussed elsewhere in this series. Of course, although the notion of self-sacrificial love is something that is expected of clergy – and Moberly points to the Ordinal of the Book of Common Prayer as emphasizing this – it is not something that is unique only to clergy, as Moberly also points out. And, of course, self-sacrificial love is certainly not exclusive to males.
The Very Reverend Dr. George R. Sumner was principal and Helliwell Professor of World Mission at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto. He was ordained to the priesthood in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts in 1981, and elected bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas, TX in 2015. Sumner’s book, Being Salt: A Theology of the Ordered Church, is (in a manner similar to Moberly) an attempt to “move beyond the impasse of Catholic and Protestant perceptions.” Sumner’s task is to “give arguments which appeal to the heart of the Gospel itself to defend orders, traditionally understood, without claiming that such orders are themselves mandated by Scripture . . . ” His goal is to “chart an evangelical course leading to the predetermined catholic harbor . . .” In addition, Sumner intends to “subvert” the “common yet unhelpful antinomies in discussions about ordained ministry” that set functional vs. ontological, lay-oriented vs. clerically-oriented, and “the priest in persona Christi vs. the priest in persona ecclesiae.”
Sumner states that any understanding of priesthood will have to take into account the three parties of Christ, priest, and people of God, as well as the fourth party to whom the church’s mission is addressed – the world. An evangelical understanding of ministry begins first with the gospel, but includes within that an understanding of the nature of the church. In addition, the priesthood cannot be thought of as “over against” or “in competition” with the laity. Ordained ministry exists for sake of the laity: “It is for the laity, both practically and symbolic that, that priests serve in the Church.”
Sumner describes the church christocentrically:
Hidden presently in the Church, Christ speaks His promise, as Word and sacrament, across time and space until He returns. [Sumner’s emphasis] . . . Christ is present in the Church . . . [b]ut this presence is always hidden, veiled, for the Church is yet a sinful creature, slothful, disobedient. It not only sits at supper with Him, it also walks along unable to see who walks beside it.
This simultaneity of both the risen Christ’s presence to the church but also his hiddenness within that presence is crucial for Sumner’s understanding of ordained ministry. Following a current ecumenical consensus, Sumner affirms that the church practice for which the minister is ordained is “presiding at the Eucharist.” Both Catholic and Protestant traditions define the nature of ordained ministry in terms of the “liturgy of Word and table.” In the Catholic tradition, Thomas Aquinas wrote that the priest is “ordered” to the celebration of the Eucharist; the Lutheran Augsburg Confession insists that the church is present where the Word is rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered. To understand the nature of the church, in order to understand the purpose of priestly order, it is necessary to look “at what happens in true preaching and right celebrating.”
According to Sumner, the ordained minister serves three basic functions. First, he or she “points to the Word” . . . Second, the “priest serves as a sign of the promissory, avowed nature of the Christian life.” Concerning this second role – “The Priest as the Sign of the Oath” – Sumner states that the “priest is a symbol of this aspect of hope by which we live. He or she is called to remind the whole Body of the reality of indwelling, of the permanence and durability of that hope.” Third, the priest “focuses on the renewing remnant within and for the Church . . . while they remain loyal to the Church in which they are in orders.” Concerning this third role – “The Priest as Church in Miniature” – Sumner notes that the “Church is the tension-laden relationship between structure and moments of renewal, the latter represented by missionary or ascetical orders.” Priests are both servants of the Church and representatives of its tradition, but also should point to the Lordship of Christ and his gracious action.
It is the first role, that of “point[ing] to the Word,” that touches most directly on the role of the priest in terms of the “liturgy of Word and table,” and it is this first role that is crucial for the Catholic debate about the ordination of women. (Unlike Protestant arguments that focus on questions of authority, Catholic objections to women’s ordination would likely not object to lay women fulfilling Sumner’s second and third functions of ministry).
The starting point of Sumner’s argument is christocentric, and specifically concerns the presence of the risen Lord when the church gathers to worship. Sumner insists that we must take it as “basic,” that “Christians address their prayers to a Person, Jesus Christ.” This means that “Jesus is alive, that He is an agent in His own right, and that language addressed to Him, must for all its subtleties, be understood in a realist manner. . . .That Jesus risen is present is the starting point for reflection . . .” At least one implication of the risen Christ’s presence is significant for questions concerning the role of the priest in leading worship. The church is not Jesus: “It means that who and what Jesus is cannot be so readily absorbed into who and what we are. . . .”
When the church gathers to celebrate the Eucharist, it tells the story of this Jesus who is alive, “the story of the saving death and resurrection of Jesus.” It is the Jesus whose story is told in the gospels, who is the true prophet, priest, and king. However, Sumner notes, Jesus fulfills these roles in a paradoxical manner:
He fulfills these offices in the most surprising and counter-intuitive ways. He is proven king as He surrenders all power in obedience to His heavenly Father. He is the true priest even as He Himself is killed . . . He is the true prophet even as His own disciples sleep and eventually flee . . . He Himself is king, priest, prophet in disturbing ways that undo the pre-existing orders of rule and sacrifice in the very moment that true rule and sacrifice are established.
This paradoxical nature of the traditional three-fold office is reflected in the paradoxical naure of ordained ministry; in presiding at the Eucharist, the priest points away from his or her own identity to the identity of the risen Christ who has died and risen and is now present with the church. The office of the priest is symbolic and representative – representative not, however, in a straightforward manner, but rather in what Sumner identifies as a “counter-symbol.” Because only the crucified and risen Jesus Christ is the true prophet, priest and king, the ordained priest can only represent Christ by pointing away from himself or herself (as does John the Baptist in Grunewald’s famous triptych) to the crucified [and risen] Lord:
The priest who stands at the table and reads that communion prayer, in the service of this surprising Priest and King, in spite of all appearing, reinforces that he or she is neither, all in the service of pointing to Him. And by so doing he or she is proven a fitting symbol of priestly offering . . . He or she is, then, a kind of counter-symbol . . . And all this is done to the service of the One who is the real and Only Priest, who redefines, fufills and ends all priesthood in Himself. The minister at the table is a counter-sign that works by its own displacement, by becoming a great finger stretched away from oneself and toward the dying Jesus at the center of the Church’s life.
The priest’s role is not then, one of power; rather, the model for the priesthood is that of an “icon,” pointing not toward himself or herself, but to the other of the crucified Christ. In terms of symbolism, the priest is first a symbol of the church: “The priest exists to show the Church something about itself, to reflect back its proper and necessary nature as a body turned toward Jesus Christ.” The priest is then both an icon and not an icon of Christ: “The priest is not an icon of Christ, but rather of the Church as it seeks to attend to, imitate, be the Body of Christ.” One could say then, that the ordained minister represents both Christ and the church. The priest represents Christ not by him or herself being another Christ (an alter Christi), but in pointing away from himself or herself to the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ who is the head of the church which is his body. The priest represents the church insofar as to be the church means to be the body of Christ in a manner that imitates Christ in his own self-effacement. Sumner states in a footnote that “the priest by this account is in persona ecclesiae rather than in persona Christi, though the element of nuance comes in the fact that the ecclesia is defined by its attention to its Lord.”
The ordained priesthood is then, by its very nature, paradoxical. In performing the role of the priest, the priest acknowledges his or own incapacity to play that role. The priest is not Christ, but points to Christ: “The priesthood is by its very nature an ironic office, a role of self-evacuation by which the priest points away . . . toward . . . Jesus Christ risen and present both in the Word the priest truly proclaims and the sacrament he or she rightly observes, for it is, after all His Word, and His table.” In pointing toward Christ, the priest plays a representative role on the part of the church, for it is the church’s own vocation to point away from itself toward the risen Christ who is the source of its own life as it is joined to him as his body:
The priest is the member of the Church charged with the task of pointing away from himself or herself so as to point toward the One by whom and for whom the Church exists, the risen and present Jesus Christ. He or she serves as a referent to Him. . . . Thus she or he does not have a priestly ministry, so much as a priestward one, a ministry of redirection, recasting and escort.
Finally, Sumner addresses the question of priestly authority. The priest has authority, but again, the model of authority is based on the iconic role of the priest’s ministry. Any authority that the priest has is not based on any personal capacity, but is delegated by the crucified and risen Christ, and must be modeled on his own self-effacement. The priest’s authority is entirely derivative:
Authority must be defined with respect to Jesus Christ alone, for He as Word is the divine auctor and He has done the decisively saving deed to which the Church is obliged to offer its “Amen.” . . . The Church exercises legitimate authority as it points towards its Lord as the body’s Head, and so claims a derivative and dependent authority.
A Reformed Contribution
Thomas F. Torrance (1913-2007) was an ordained minister in the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian), a world-renowned theologian, and Professor of Christian Dogmatics at New College, Edinburgh. He was the author of numerous books, and one of the translators of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics into English. Torrance was an ecumenical theologian, and was consecrated an honorary Protopresbyter in the (Greek Orthodox) Patriarchate of Alexandria in 1973. His many publications included works in ecumenical theology, patristic hermeneutics, trinitarian theology, Christology and the atonement, as well as the relation between theology and modern science.
Torrance’s contributions to a discussion of ordained ministry and the priesthood occur in several of his ecumenical essays as well as the book Royal Priesthood, which was first published as a contribution to discussions between the Church of Scotland and the Church of England concerning ordained ministry and the episcopate.
A central theme of Torrance’s theology of worship and the Eucharist is that of the “vicarious humanity” of Christ and its crucial significance for the church’s participation in Christ’s priesthood: “[T]he key to the understanding of the Eucharist is to be sought in the vicarious humanity of Jesus, the priesthood of the incarnate Son. Eternal God though he was, he condescended to be our brother . . .” Torrance found this theme in the theologies of church fathers such as Athanasius and the Cappadocians, but especially in the anti-Nestorian and anti-Apollinarian theology of Cyril of Alexandria. Cyril understood not just that the church worships through Christ, but that the church worships with Christ. In the incarnation, the Son of God assumed not simply a human body, but a complete human nature, including a human mind. During his earthly ministry, Jesus as human was anointed with the Holy Spirit and prayed to and worshiped God the Father: “Cyril laid emphasis upon the human agency of Christ fulfilled within the measures of what is truly human, and not least in prayer, worship and adoration of Christ in which he become one with us . . .” After the resurrection and ascension, the risen Jesus Christ permanently retained his human nature, including his human mind, and exercises his priesthood by interceding for the church and by offering worship to God the Father: “Since the Son of God was made priest in that he was made man, without ceasing to be God, he fulfils his priesthood as one who receives as well as one who offers prayer.” Accordingly, the church’s worship is a participation in the worship of the risen Christ:
Jesus Christ ascended to the Father [is] the Mediator of our worship in mind and soul and body in union with him. It is as our Priest, with all his human condition in body, mind and soul which he took from us, with his human worship and prayer in which he assimilates our worship and prayer in his name, that he appears in the presence of his Father and fulfils his heavenly ministry as Priest over the House of God.
Torrance believed that there had been an unfortunate loss of this crucial insight of the significance of the human mind of Christ as well as his vicarious humanity as mediator of the church’s worship in the subsequent development of Christian understanding and practice of worship after the patristic era. He refers to the work of Roman Catholic liturgist Josef Jungmann’s The Place of Christ in Liturgical Prayer for documentation. Jungmann pointed out that in the early liturgies of the church, prayers were addressed to God the Father through Christ as the one mediator between God and humanity; later, especially from the Medieval period on, prayers were directed to Christ himself. The consequence was that Christ was thrust up into the majesty of the Godhead in a way that diminished and even virtually eliminated the biblical and patristic focus on the high priesthood of Christ and his human mediation of prayer to God the Father. This led to a kind of Christological “monophysitism” (the absorbing of Christ’s human nature by his divine nature), or what Torrance referred to as “Apollinarianism in the liturgy”: “[T]he humanity and mediatorship of Christ recede more and more into the background and the poor creature at worship is confronted immediately with the overwhelming majesty of God.”
Torrance insisted that this loss of Christ’s human mediation had disastrous consequences for worship: “[T]he Church’s understanding of the Eucharist becomes seriously deficient whenever it loses the biblical and early catholic emphasis upon Christ praying and worshipping as one of us, and yet on our behalf, as an essential part of his vicarious obedience in the flesh.” In particular, there arose a demand for other mediators to make up for the human priesthood of Christ: “[A]bove all the Church was thrown back upon itself to provide a priesthood which could stand in for Christ, and even mediate between the sinner and Christ . . . ”
Torrance developed a corrective theology of Eucharist and ministry that focused on the unique mediation of Christ’s priesthood in his human nature, and the church’s worship as a participation in Christ’s vicarious worship on our behalf. In the second edition of Royal Priesthood, Torrance wrote that he was “concerned with . . . the biblical and ancient catholic understanding of the royal priesthood of the Church incorporated into Christ as his Body, and of the priesthood of the ordained ministry of the Church . . .”
Torrance’s theology of worship is both christocentric and trinitarian. Torrance’s christology includes the themes of incarnation, and the notion of Christ’s priesthood as self-offering on our behalf: “The starting point must surely be the Incarnation of the Son in which he took our human nature, healed and sanctified it in himself that he might offer it up to God in and through his own self-consecration and self-presentation to the Father on our behalf.” Risen and ascended to the Father, Christ is the unique Mediator of the church’s own worship:
Jesus Christ ascended to the Father [is] the Mediator of our worship in mind and soul and body in union with him. It is as our Priest, with all his human condition in body, mind and soul which he took from us, with his human worship and prayer in which he assimilates our worship and prayer in his name, that he appears in the presence of his Father and fulfils his heavenly ministry as Priest over the House of God.
Torrance’s theology of worship is christocentric, but not christomonist; in a manner similar to the Orthodox and Catholic theologians already examined in this essay, Torrance points to the Holy Spirit as the ground of union between the risen Christ and the church:
It is through this Jesus Christ that we worshippers have access by one Spirit to the Father, and repeat the “Abba, Father” of Christ echoed in us by the Spirit who is imparted to us by Christ. Through his Spirit Christ dwells in the Church which is his body . . . through which he acts as our Mediator, Advocate and Priest, representing us before God . . .
The church has access to Christ through the Spirit because it is the same Spirit by whom Jesus Christ prayed and lived as a human being during his earthly mission that he has sent to dwell in the church. It is the Spirit who enables the church to participate in God’s love which was embodied in his incarnate Son so that the being of the church is love through participation in Christ. The church’s worship is thus a participation in Christ’s own worship through the Holy Spirit, grounded in the communion love between the trinitarian persons: “The communion of the Spirit gives the Church to participate in the concrete embodiment of the Love of God in the Incarnate Son, so that the essential nature and being of the Church as love is its participation in Christ the New Man.”
This union between Christ and the church is an “ontological fact,” in which the church becomes the body of Christ because it is united to and participates in Jesus Christ’s crucified and risen vicarious humanity through the love of the Holy Spirit: “When we speak of the Church as the Body of Christ we are saying that it is given such union with Christ that it becomes a communion filled and overflowing with the divine love.” The primary sacrament is Jesus Christ himself, the Son of God who became incarnate and joined himself to our humanity, and joined the church of God to himself as his body: “[T]he sacraments have to be understood as concerned with our koinonia or participation in the mystery of Christ and his Church through the koinonia or communion of the Holy Spirit.” As we are baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, God the Father, through the Spirit, unites us to Christ and his faithfulness and obedience to the Father, which becomes the ground of our own faith. Baptism is not an act of our own faith, but an act of God in which “we rely . . . upon Christ alone and his vicarious faithfulness.” In the Eucharist, we share in the “whole Christ,” through the communion of the Holy Spirit. Insofar as the celebration of the Eucharist is an act of worship, it is the church’s sharing in the risen Christ’s own worship:
[T]he mystery of the Eucharist is [to be understood] in terms of our participation through the Spirit in. . . the whole Christ, the incarnate, crucified, risen and ascended Son . . . It is Christ himself, in his paschal mystery, who constitutes the living content, reality and power of the Eucharist . . . In so far as the Eucharist is the act of the Church in his name and is also a human rite, it must be understood as an act of prayer, thanksgiving and worship . . . but as act in which through the Spirit we are given to share in the vicarious life, faith, prayer, worship, thanksgiving and offering of Jesus Christ to the Father, for in the final resort it is Jesus Christ himself who is our true worship.
Thus, as Torrance writes,
Jesus Christ is himself our prayer and worship. We worship God and pray to him as Father only through the mediation of Christ our High Priest . . . we worship and pray to the Father in such a way that it is Christ himself who is the real content of our worship and prayer: we offer Christ to the Father through our prayers, for in the Spirit the prayer that ascends from us to the Father is a form of the self-offering of Christ himself.
This understanding of worship as the church’s sharing or participation in Christ’s own worship on our behalf has implications for a theology of ordained ministry. In worship, the church offers nothing of its own, but always prays with Christ. The pattern of the church’s worship is that of the pattern of Jesus Christ’s own life and ministry as the suffering servant: “The conception of the Suffering Servant is the great characteristic of the Church’s ministry, and it is that which above all determines the nature of priesthood in the Church.” The church shares in the risen Christ’s worship by always pointing away from itself and pointing to Christ, much as John the Baptist points away from himself to the crucified Christ in the famous triptych by Matthias Grunewald.
That the office of ministry consists in pointing away from oneself to Christ is shown first in the significance of the apostolate. Jesus Christ is the primary apostle in that he represents God not only in his ministry, but in his very person. He is God incarnate. To the extent that the apostles represent Christ, they do so in that their own persons “retreat into the background” as they proclaim Christ’s message. As do previous authors in this essay, Torrance distinguishes between the general priesthood of the church and the special priesthood of ordained ministry. The priesthood of all Christians is grounded in baptism, while the ordained priesthood or the presbyterate is oriented toward the celebration of the Eucharist. The “real priesthood” is the priesthood of the entire body of the church, but within the church, there is also a “particular priesthood,” whose function it is to minister to the body. Arising from the Eucharist, the “special institutional priesthood,” is “a special gift of the ascended Lord for the Church for its mission . . .”
The pattern of this priesthood is the same as that of the priesthood of the church as a whole – an imitation of the “suffering servant” ministry of Christ: “The form of this priesthood in the Church derives from the Form of Christ, the incarnate Son of God, as the Form of the Suffering Servant who came among us not to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.” The ordained ministry is in “no sense an extension of the priestly ministry of Christ or a prolongation of his vicarious work.” Ordained priesthood takes a “diaconal form.” The priest does not act as a substitute for Christ or in his place:
It is not [a priestly ministry] in which as celebrants we act in Christ’s place so that we substitute for him or displace him; rather is it one in which we serve his vicarious Priesthood, in accordance with the biblical principle “not I but Christ” (Gal. 2.20). What we do in eucharistic thanksgiving is to hold up before God the Lord Jesus Christ in his atoning sacrifice and take refuge in his presentation of himself, and of us in him, before the Father, for he is both the one who offers and the one who is offered.
This notion of ordained ministry as patterned on the suffering servant ministry of Christ has implications for the issue of women’s ordination. Torrance complained that both advocates and opponents of women’s ordination suffered from the “serious misunderstanding” that the ordained priesthood was concerned with power, specifically the power of celebrating the Eucharist. To the contrary, the ordained priesthood has to do with “a self-abnegating form of ministry in which it is not the priest but Christ himself who is the real Celebrant – so that like John the Baptist the priest must retreat before the presence of Christ . . .”
Torrance also accused opponents of women’s ordination of holding to a faulty Christology. What matters about the incarnation is not that Jesus Christ is male, but that he is a divine person who has assumed a complete human nature:
Although Jesus was of course physically male, divine nature and human nature, divine being and human being, were perfectly and indivisibly united in his one incarnate Person, and it as the incarnate Person of the Son of God, not as male, that he is our Lord and Saviour. . . . Moreover, the mistaken idea that it is not the priest as person but as male who can represent Christ, not only involves a form of Nestorian heresy in dividing between the divine and human natures of Christ, but conflicts sharply with the great soteriological principle of the ancient Catholic Church that “what has not been assumed has not been saved.”
That is, if what is significant about the incarnation is that Jesus Christ is a male, then the priest who acts in persona Christi would have to be representing a human male person, since an ordained human priest could not represent Christ’s divine person. However, to assert that Christ has a human person would be the heresy of Nestorianism – that Jesus Christ is not the divine person of the Word who has assumed a complete human nature, but a human person who had a special relationship with God. Moreover, if what is significant about the incarnation is that Jesus Christ is male rather than that he is human, then the Word’s assumption of a human nature would save only male human beings. Indeed, the focus on Christ’s male sexuality makes essential what is actually an accident of human nature (since human beings come in two sexes, but both are equally human), something that distinguishes one human being from another, rather than that which is truly essential, and which all human beings have in common. If Jesus Christ is to save all human beings – male and female – then what is essential about his humanity is that he is human, not that he is male.
The above rather lengthy discussion has focused primarily on questions concerning sacramental theology because the primary Catholic objection to the ordination of women has focused on the eligibility of women to exercise the sacramental role of presiding at the Eucharist. If ordination is oriented toward the preaching of the word and the celebration of the Eucharist, then questions of sacramental theology must be addressed. The crucial questions for a catholic theology of the Eucharist have to do with participation in the priesthood of Christ. What is the relationship between the general priesthood of the church and Christ’s priesthood? What is the relation between the special priesthood of the ordained ministry and the priesthood of the church? What is the relation between the special priesthood of the ordained ministry and the priesthood of Jesus Christ?
The beginning of this essay makes clear that Thomas Aquinas’s theology of priesthood and sacrament was crucial for the rise in the Western church of the notion that the ordained priest participates in Christ’s priesthood by acting in persona Christi as the ordained minister says the words of institution when he celebrates the Eucharist. Given that in Thomas’s earliest discussion of eucharistic theology (in his Commentary on the Sentences), he echoed the historic position of the church that the priest represents the church (acts in persona ecclesiae), it might be helpful to ask what accounted for the shift to the new position that the celebrant represents Christ. An overlooked possibility could be that Thomas was simply looking for symmetry in his account of the sacraments. Given his adoption of the Aristotelian distinction between form and matter as a way of articulating a theology of the sacraments, the assumption that the matter of the sacraments consisted of the physical element, while the form consisted of specific words, leads to the question, “What are the essential words in the celebration of the Eucharist?” If water is the matter of baptism, and the trinitarian formula constitutes the form, then, given that bread and wine are the matter of the Eucharist, might not the words of institution constitute the form? Thomas’s formula that the priest acts in persona Christi would not then reflect so much a concern for the uniqueness of priestly ministry in contrast to the general priestly ministry of the church as a concern for the similarity between the two sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist in sharing a similar form and matter. This concern for similarity is paralleled by Aquinas’s discussion of sacramental character. Both baptism and ordained ministry have in common that they bestow a character that is essential for participation in worship, a character that is a participation in the priesthood of Christ, and is common to all the baptized. It is not ordained male clergy who alone participate in Christ’s priesthood and represent Christ, but all baptized Christians, women as well as men.
At the same time, as shown above, the reduction of the form of the Eucharist to the repetition of the words of institution has unfortunate consequences. It leads to an understanding of priestly ministry in which the ordained minister is isolated from the congregation, in which the essential role of the congregation in the worship of the church is neglected, and the priest’s role becomes that of enacting a drama, of acting the part of Jesus Christ at the Last Supper. In addition, the resulting eucharistic theology is christomonist, separating the work of Christ not only from its ecclesial context, but from its salvation-historical and trinitarian context. The role of the Holy Spirit and the church disappear. This theology also reflects a truncated notion of the eucharistic prayer, in which the structure of the prayer that surrounds the words of institution is reduced to something like liturgical window dressing. If all that is really important is the words of institution, then the rest of the liturgy is dispensable – as often became the case in those Protestant churches that, despite their rejection of Roman Catholic doctrines of transubstantiation and eucharistic sacrifice, reduced the celebration of the Lord’s Supper to a repetition of the account of the Lord’s Supper, and, specifically, to the words of institution.
Within the last generation, mainline Western churches – both Roman Catholic and Protestant (Anglican, Lutheran, Reformed, Presbyterian, Methodist) – have adopted new worship texts including revised eucharistic rites, and these rites are patterned on the earlier eucharistic prayers of the patristic era, reflecting more the traditional eucharistic theologies of the (Eastern) Orthodox churches than the historic post-Medieval Western churches. They include eucharistic prayers that reflect the structure of anamnesis (remembrance) and epiclesis (petition), which frame the account of the words of institution. These prayers include an epiclesis as an invocation of the Holy Spirit to descend on the elements of bread and wine in order to enable worshipers to be united to the risen humanity of Christ as they receive the body and blood of Christ through consecrated bread and wine, and so become the body of Christ as the church. Similarly, modern eucharistic ecumenical agreements speak in language that corresponds to the viewpoint of the Orthodox and Reformed Churches, and is less at home in traditional Anglo-Catholic, Lutheran or Roman Catholic theologies. They speak of a presence of Christ “through the Spirit.” Nevertheless, the new Catholic argument against the ordination of women – whether embraced by Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans or other liturgical church bodies – objects to the ordination of women on the grounds that the priest acts in persona Christi, reflecting the later Western Medieval position that equates consecration with the ordained minister’s pronouncing the words of institution rather than with the church’s invoking of the Holy Spirit.
What implications might a more salvation-historical, trinitarian understanding of eucharistic theology have for the ordination of women?
First of all, the celebration of the Eucharist should not be understand as the isolated act of the ordained minister over against the worshiping community. The eucharistic prayer is not a drama in which the priest acts the role of Christ by reciting the words of institution. Rather, the eucharistic prayer is the prayer of the church, in which the gathered community addresses God the Father, reminding him of his saving deeds in creation, the calling of Israel, and the saving incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The words of institution are at the center of this prayer and are a reminder of Christ’s promise to the church that he will be present whenever the “church breaks this bread” and “drinks this cup . . . in remembrance of me.” In the epiclesis, the Holy Spirit is invoked by the entire church to descend on bread and wine to enable Christ’s presence. The ordained minister has a special role, speaking the words of the eucharistic prayer on behalf of the church in a prayer that begins and ends with the words “we” and “us.” In praying the words of the eucharistic prayer, the presiding minister represents the church and acts in persona ecclesiae.
Is there a sense in which we can also speak of the ordained minister acting in the person of, or as a representative of Christ? Here is where the theologies of ordained ministry of Moberly, Sumner, and Torrance prove helpful. As Torrance makes clear, the historic church’s understanding of worship is that the church’s worship is always a participation in the vicarious worship of Christ in his ascended human nature. The church has no worship of its own to offer – not even the worship of a special class of ordained ministers. Rather, the church shares in Christ’s priesthood by pointing away from itself to the saving, life, deeds, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The pattern for the church as a whole is the cruciform pattern of the suffering servant, and this is the pattern of ordained ministry as well.
It helps, as Sumner suggests, to think of the priest as an icon of Christ. The apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4, “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” (vs. 5-7). The priest is not Christ. The priest is a jar of clay. The priest represents Christ primarily in pointing away from him or herself, by pointing to Christ. But the priest also represents Christ in that he or she shares in Christ’s suffering. Paul continues to write, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed, perplexed, but not driven to despair, persecuted, but not forsaken, struck down, but not destroyed, always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” (vs. 8-10). So the priest does represent Christ, but as an icon. The priest is an icon of Christ who points away from himself or herself and his or her own competence to the competence of the crucified and risen Christ. It is Jesus Christ who saves, not the priest. But the priest also takes up the ministry of Christ after the pattern of Christ as Servant, and that will mean suffering.
The ordained minister thus represents both Christ and the Church. As Congar pointed out (in the discussion above), if we focus on Christology, then “the in persona Ecclesiae is situated within the in persona Christi.” If we emphasize the Holy Spirit, then “the in persona Christi is more easily seen as situated within the in persona Ecclesiae . . .” Even here, it is crucial to emphasize what it means to represent or act in the person of Christ. In a previous essay, I discussed the significance of Ephesians 5 within the context of what Michael Gorman has referred to as the apostle Paul’s pattern of cruciform spirituality. In Ephesians 5, Paul includes his well known analogy between marriage and Christ, identifying the church as the bride of Christ. In this passage, Paul makes clear that the submission expected of wives to husbands is the same submission that is expected of all Christians to one another, and the model of behavior expected of all Christians is modeled after Christ’s own self-sacrifical giving, as exemplified in the paradigm passage of Philippians 2:6-11, in which Paul identifies the love of Christ with the “self-emptying” (kenosis) that prefers others over self, taking on the form of a servant that leads to the cross.
Could a woman lead the church in worship and act in persona Christi? One might better ask whether a man could lead the church in worship and act as the church’s representative in persona ecclesiae? As the priest prays the eucharistic prayer, he or she places the words of the church in his or her own mouth. Modern eucharistic prayers all begin and end with the words “we” and “us,” and even in the ancient Latin liturgy, the priest prays in the person of the church insofar as he says “we offer” (offerimus), not “I offer” (offero) (see above). Insofar as the New Testament identifies the church as the bride of Christ (Eph. 5:22; Rev. 22:17), it might seem more appropriate to ordain only women. Since the church contains both men and women, it is certainly appropriate for a female minister to pray those words on behalf of the church.
However, insofar as Christ’s servant ministry is the pattern for all Christians, it is also the pattern for all ministry. Insofar as the role of the ordained minister is to point away from himself or herself and to point instead to Christ, it is not his or her sex that is significant because it is not his or her own person that counts, but the person of Jesus Christ. If a male priest can represent the female bride of Christ, then certainly a female priest can represent Christ himself in that the priestly role of ordained clergy is one of self-abnegation. The model for ordained ministry is that of Jesus Christ’s suffering servanthood – the model for all Christian discipleship to which all baptized Christians are called, both men and women. In its worship, the church does not rely on its own identity or accomplishments (including gender or sexuality); the church has nothing of its own to offer; the church’s worship is entirely a participation in the worship of the risen Christ, and finds its identity entirely through participating in the vicarious humanity of the incarnate, crucified, and risen Christ. As it is for the church, so it is for the ordained minister. The ordained priest represents Christ as did John the Baptist – by pointing away from him or herself to the crucified and risen Christ.