Monday, November 16, 2009

What did Jesus do?

You can still see them in Christian stores, though they're past the peak of popularity now--those little bracelets with the letters W.W.J.D. printed on them.

Some Christians have adopted the phrase "What would Jesus do?" as a sort of catchphrase, a rhetorical device designed to make the believer stop and think before he or she acts, to make sure the intended action is in line with what our Lord would want or approve of. In a limited sense, this is a good impulse, inasmuch as it encourages moral behavior and careful adherence to Christian principles in our daily lives.

Other times, though, the phrase may not be helpful. It can even be manipulative, used to put guilt on a person for choosing to do something completely harmless (say, attending a high school football game instead of a Bible-study class). The implication that Jesus would never do something as "worldly" as attend a football game ignores the fact that He did, in fact, spend plenty of time outside the synagogue or Temple; He dined with sinners, He spoke to crowds, He entered Jerusalem in a triumphant procession. If "What would Jesus do?" becomes, instead of an honest impulse to introspection, a club used to beat others over the head and manipulate them, then it's not a good thing. And if it's merely a cutesy slogan without any introspection behind it, it's really not a good thing.

While I appreciate the sincere faith of many who ask themselves "What would Jesus do?" I think there is a better question that more Christians ought to ask themselves. This question is simply, "What did Jesus do?" The Gospels tell us what He did; the remaining books of the New Testament also reveal to us His desires for His Church. If we ask what He would do but ignore what He did do then there's a good chance we're overlooking our best clue as to how He wants things to be done.

One thing Jesus did do was to ordain men to His priesthood. He conferred upon them the ability to re-create His sacrifice on Calvary in an unbloody manner, giving them the power to confect the Eucharist, to say the words of consecration so that the bread and wine upon the altar becomes His Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, the food of grace that feeds our souls and strengthens us for our earthly struggles. He gave them, also, the power to forgive sins.

To no others did He give these gifts. No one else among His followers was ordained in this way during His earthly life. Specifically, Jesus ordained only men, who then ordained others, laying their hands upon them and conferring upon them this Sacrament of Holy Orders, so that they, too, could stand in Christ's place at the altar of sacrifice, and repeat those efficacious words: This is My Body...This is My Blood.

If we are going to ask, "What did Jesus do?" when we consider the question of women's ordination, we are left with a clear answer: He did not ordain them.

He did not ordain them, in spite of the fact that He was never really constrained by the times in which He came. Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well; He dined with tax collectors and prostitutes; He forgave the woman caught in adultery; He numbered women among His followers. But when He gave the command to His apostles, "Do this, in remembrance of Me," only the Twelve were with Him. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, number 1577, puts it this way:
"Only a baptized man (vir) validly receives sacred ordination."66 The Lord Jesus chose men (viri) to form the college of the twelve apostles, and the apostles did the same when they chose collaborators to succeed them in their ministry.67 The college of bishops, with whom the priests are united in the priesthood, makes the college of the twelve an ever-present and ever-active reality until Christ's return. The Church recognizes herself to be bound by this choice made by the Lord himself. For this reason the ordination of women is not possible.68
Some who agitate for the ordination of women dismiss out of hand the fact that Jesus did not ordain His mother, Mary, Queen of Priests, to the priesthood herself. But it is an intriguing fact, nonetheless. Jesus clearly loves His mother; His words to her on the Cross, when He entrusts her to St. John (and to the whole Church) are one of many examples of this love. But He did not ask her to be a priest--she, the only sinless woman. Are we to say that He was more concerned about the conventions of the times than about His own mother?

Today, in the Fort Worth Episcopal diocese, a woman was "ordained" as a priest:

FORT WORTH — When word got out that Susan Slaughter would make history on Sunday by becoming the first female priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, church members began asking, "What will we call you?"

Episcopalians often address male priests as "Father." They sometimes call female priests "Mother," followed by their first or last names. Not for Slaughter.

"I think being called Mother Susan or Mother Slaughter sounds kind of officious, creating a kind distance," she said. "I’m open to suggestions, but, for now, just call me Susan." [...]

Slaughter’s belief that God was calling her to the priesthood began in the 1980s. She talked about it to the Rev. Courtland Moore, then rector at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Arlington, where she was a parishioner. And then she summoned the courage to meet with Bishop Clarence Pope, an adamant opponent of the ordination of women.

"He just told me that was not an option," she recalled. "He felt that women were not supposed to be priests. He said there were other roles for women. He encouraged me to continue being a wife and mother."

Pope, who has joined the Roman Catholic Church, opposes women’s ordination on theological grounds.

The Fort Worth Diocese, under Pope’s successor, Bishop Jack Iker, continued to prohibit female priests even though the Episcopal Church approved them in 1976. There are now more than 2,000 female priests serving in the church, and the presiding bishop is a woman, Katharine Jefferts Schori.

More and more, the Pope's wise actions in regard to the Anglican Communion seem like the chance of a new beginning for those Christians who disagree with their church's decision to ignore what Jesus did and attempt to ordain women as priestesses (I'm sorry if the term offends, but just as a female can't be "Father," so can she not really be "priest," as the term was always used exclusively of males). If we think we can remain Christian while ignoring, again and again, what Jesus actually did, then we will soon find ourselves, like some of Flannery O'Connor's fictional characters, stuck in the "Holy Church of Christ Without Christ."

14 comments:

Scott W. said...

At my Catholic High School library, I stumbled upon a book from 1976 called What would you like to know about the Catholic Church? by Father Kenneth Ryan. One letter was a loaded question about communion for non-Catholics and essentially asked what would Jesus do? (the implication being that He would give them communion. Fr. Ryan rebuked him and said he disliked when the Holy Name is used for repartee. That struck me because 30+ years later the WWJD as a rhetorical device has become as natural as breathing and it has caused me to think that perhaps it shouldn't be.

Todd said...

Actually, Erin, women are ordained priests, as their respective Christian traditions hold. A priestess is something entirely different and brings with it certain pagan connotations.

That said, we all know Roman Catholics and Orthodox do not ordain women. There's no need to be insulting of those who do not follow Christ as we do.

Rev Slaughter was ordained an episcopal priest. That;s all that need be said on the matter.

Rebecca said...

Erin I only have one little disagreement with your wording, towards the end, where you say that some Churches ignore what Jesus did, and ordain women as priestesses: you should say, instead, that some churches ignore what Jesus did and pretend to ordain women as priestesses. No woman has ever been ordained a priest, or a priestess, because it's impossible. Make it clear that this is not just illicit but totally invalid. Todd's misunderstanding illustrates the point.

Todd, even men are not ordained priests in the Anglican Church anymore, since the form was changed so as to become invalid and the line of succession was broken, unless they go out of their way to be ordained by an orthodox Bishop--but even apart from that, any attempted ordination of a woman, even by an ordained Bishop using the proper form, would be invalid.

Red Cardigan said...

You're right, Rebecca; I've changed it. Thanks! :)

Red Cardigan said...

Todd, I'm not trying to be insulting.

The word "priest" has had masculine connotations for many centuries, dating back to pre-Christian times. The word "priestess" was the female form of that word.

This isn't like the adding of "ess" to words that didn't necessarily connote males in the first place; this is an example where there was thought to be a difference between a priest and a priestess, in terms of their roles in various religions.

It makes as much sense to call a woman a "priest" as it does to call her "Father." This is more a grammar/word usage issue to me than one of political correctness; I hate much of what so-called "inclusive" language has done to the clarity and beauty of written and spoken English, and wince as much at a sentence which says, for example, "The priest blessed her flock" as I would at a sentence that said, "The teacher called his class to order, and then she asked his students to take out their homework so she could grade it." Sadly, I've seen some "inclusive" texts do the latter, and I find the former just about as jarring.

When words have specific gender connotations, we should respect those. "Priest" has been a masculine noun for centuries, and "priestess" has been its feminine counterpart. If today's priestesses don't like the ancient pagan connotations of that word, that is their problem.

c matt said...

You would think, in determining "what would Jesus do?" you would naturally start with "what did Jesus do?"

Todd said...

This is sort of like the discussion point, "If the KJV was good enough for Saint Paul, it's good enough for me."

There was no such word as "priest" in pre-Christian times; English hadn't even been invented yet. The word "priestess" as such, is a feminine diminutive construction in a language that didn't even exist when Jesus was alive. In addition, nouns in English, unlike other languages, do not have gender. The associations are entirely cultural not linguistic.

What you are saying is that Anglicans do not have Catholic priests, and that is true enough.

I don't see this as a matter of pc (except for those who insist on the term "priestess") as much as it is a case of good (or bad) manners. When my brother refers to aspects of his Episcopal parish as "priest" or "mass" or "eucharist," I don't have a driving need to correct him: I know his understanding and he makes a distinction in my Catholicity.

The thing is that Anglicans and Episcopalians ordain men and women to their priesthood, they use a liturgy very close to the Roman, and they even wear Roman clerical garb. And there's nothing any Roman Catholic can do to change that.

Magister Christianus said...

Just as there can be no such thing as "homosexual marriage," for no legislative act can change the definition and nature of spiritual reality, so there can be no such thing as a female priest. Of course, there are many arguments for female elders, female deacons, female pastors, and female preachers in Protestant churches. I think there is a strong biblical case against these as well, but it is increasingly difficult to make such arguments in the Protestant world where there is no such thing as apostolic succession.

Todd said...

Going back to the definition of a priest, a cultic person who prays on behalf of or in the name of a religious group, it would seem clear that females may certainly be a priest. The determination that God would not listen to women speaking on behalf of a community is not made on this planet, but by the Almighty.

That said, I don't understand how some Catholics get all in a twist over Anglicans or others referring to their spiritual leaders as priests. They don't accept papal authority. They obviously don't think twice about invalid orders. In a phrase, they just don't care about Rome.

They will continue to call men and women who lead their communities "priests," and nobody can or will stop them.

It seems petulant for some Roman Catholics to be dissatisfied with their own Church pronouncements to the point where they feel the urge to add their own. Does Pope Benedict refer to ordained Anglican women as "priestesses?" Do sensible Catholics go to Epicopalian churches and yell out during liturgy, "invalid orders!" or stuff like that?

Can you convince me this isn't one more instance of otherwise faithful believers just wanting to be more Catholic than the pope? Because that's how it looks to me. And if I think this discussion is all about being impolite, you can imagine how the Anglicans might take it.

c matt said...

Well, Todd, there was no Anglican Church around when Jesus walked this Earth either. I don't really get your point. Priestess is a perfectly good English word to refer to a female who has received ordination or exercises such an office. English wasn't around when ancient pagan Greeks had females offering whatnot to their gods, yet we still refer to them, in English (which has now been invented - yay) as priestesses. Precisely because English words don't have gender, it is a reasonable adaptation so you know that one is referring to a female who has been ordained. That's all it means - don't know why it gets your knickers in such a bunch.

And in particular when discussing ordination among those religions that do and those that do not recognize women's ordination, it is quite useful to distinguish between male and female ordained by using the term priestess for the latter.

c matt said...

That said, I don't understand how some Catholics get all in a twist over Anglicans or others referring to their spiritual leaders as priests.

Doesn't bother me how they refer to themselves. I will keep using the term priestess because it is more specific, and therefore conveys more information and is therefore less confusing. They may know what they mean or intend by priest, but that does not necessarily mean the same thing to all people. Priestess clarifies it for most, if not all.

Todd said...

Nice try, c matt, but it would be entertaining to see what sort of reaction you'd get in your neighborhood and start referring to people as nursesses, teacheresses, clerkesses, lawyeresses, secretariesses, bus driveresses, and the like. Does this mean Sarah Palin is a former governess?

The original story Erin quoted referred to "priests" and since I'm not wearing knickers, my guess is that it's more a bother for y'all than it is for me.

I usually tender the respect others are owed and call them what they want to be called. It generally doesn't hurt me. My mother encouraged good manners, and I can't say that's a bad way to go.

Last word; I'm out on this one.

eulogos said...

But Todd,
Priesthood is a job where gender is of the essence.
A teacher can be either male or female.
Even a nurse can be although most think of a female so that men in nursing are often referred to as "a male nurse." (One male nurse told me he had been called everything from 'orderly' to 'little boy nurse.')

A priest is an icon of the Son of God.

A woman just can't be that.

A woman can preach and a woman can minister to people and a woman can even lead. Some female clergy are very good at these things. But they can't be specifically what Catholics mean by "priest."

While not priests, some female Episcopalian clergy are genuine Christians who preach, teach, minister, comfort, and lead. Priestess is an uncomfortably pagan thing to call one if you know one up close. Minister is a pretty good word that lots of Protestants use.

Susan said...
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