When I was an Anglican priest and the feminists were arguing for women’s ordination, those who were opposed used the theological argument that the fatherhood of the priest was an indispensable part of a patriarchal system of belief, and that the patriarchal system of belief was indispensable to the Judeo-Christian revelation. In other words, in the family of faith, the priest represents God the Father, and a female can’t do that. Tinker with the symbolism of priesthood, and you tinker with the revealed faith.
The feminists countered by saying, “This is not a theological argument. We have no problem with the revelation as it stands. Instead, this is simply a matter of justice. This is about equal rights. That’s all.” So, eventually, they won the argument, and the Anglican Church voted for women priests. Almost immediately, the feminists began to tinker with the liturgy to make it “non-sexist.” Prayers to “God the Father” were changed to simply address “God” or “Almighty God,” and “Father” or “Father in Heaven” was altered to “Almighty God.” The changes were subtle and slight to start with. Then they began their revision on the hymns. Any references to God as Father were changed. If they hymn was too grounded in the Fatherhood of God, it quietly disappeared from hymnals altogether.
The next revision was to excise references to God as Son. An alternative Trinitarian formula was offered: Instead of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” it was suggested that we say, “Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.” New revisions of the prayer book started to include new “female-friendly” psalms and canticles. Not only were feminist-friendly Scripture passages — like the ones personifying Divine Wisdom as female — turned into canticles for worship (no problem with that, necessarily), but sections by much-loved female spiritual writers from the past, like Julian of Norwich, were incorporated and structured as “alternative canticles.” In addition to these innovations, completely new compositions by feminist theologians were also interpolated. You can see the slow drift: Include new scriptural canticles, then include non-scriptural material from the Sacred Tradition, then weave in new material that will eventually become part of the Tradition.
The feminists had promised that their argument was not theological, merely pragmatic and egalitarian. “Women will make good priests,” they said, “and it is unfair that they should be barred from ordination.” However, the argument became theological because it was always theological. The traditionalists understood this from the beginning, and the saavy feminists did too — but they understood that their case for ordination would be derailed if they hinted that they wanted to unseat God the Father completely.
In his new book Criticizing the Critics
, English Dominican Rev. Aidan Nichols outlines
the case against the feminist theologians who wish to get rid of patriarchal terminology and so get rid of patriarchy altogether. The feminists argue that patriarchy is a culturally determined part of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and as such it is expendable. God as Father originated in a patriarchal culture. It worked then; it doesn’t work now, as we don’t have a patriarchal culture anymore. Therefore the patrimony of patriarchy should be scrapped.
Father Nichols stops them in their tracks with a trenchant argument. First of all, he reminds us that, if we believe in a revealed religion at all, it is revealed by God within the times and cultures of human history. In Galatians 4:4, St. Paul teaches, “In the fullness of time God sent forth his son born of a woman.” Locked within this short phrase is all the theology that unseats the feminists.
The first part of the phrase — “In the fullness of time God sent forth” — teaches us two things: first of all, that the Christian faith is revealed, not relative. God sends forth His word into the world. The entire Judeo-Christian story is one of God revealing Himself to His people. The second thing this teaches us is that God reveals Himself “in the fullness of time.” In other words, He reveals Himself when it is right and through the correct human circumstances — including the circumstances of place and time and culture. To put it bluntly, God revealed His Son Jesus Christ into the world in the first century through the Jewish people, because that was the very best time and place and culture for His self-revelation to take place.
If this is true, then we cannot dismiss the cultural milieu into which Jesus Christ stepped onto the stage of human history. Does this mean we must all speak Hebrew or Greek, wear long woolen robes, and live like first-century Jews? Of course not — but there are certain attributes universal to the human race that were in place at that time that are woven into the human condition at a very basic level of physical, spiritual, and mental reality. One of these essential basics is gender and the intricate relationship of the individual to the family — including the father-child relationship.
This brings us to the second part of the phrase in Galatians: “God sent forth his son born of a woman.” Locked within this simple phrase is the realization that God’s self-revelation is inextricably bound up with His relationship to Jesus Christ as father to son — and therefore bound up with the father-son relationship. Father Nichols explains that this must be so, because the revelation of the Father through the Son is not an arbitrary revelation. It is not chosen because He just happens to be speaking to a patriarchal people, but because the father-son relationship is the essence of God Himself. The self-revelation of the Father through the Son is exactly that: a revelation of God Himself at the most profound level.
Finally, the revelation of God the Father through the Son is accomplished “through a woman.” The crucial role of the Blessed Virgin Mary is thus introduced into the divine economy of redemption as a non-negotiable. Her particular role reveals as much about God the Father and God the Son as it does about the Blessed Virgin herself.
Father Nichols points out that the relationship between the Father and the Son takes us to the very heart of the mystery of the Holy Trinity, and therefore to the heart of the mystery of God Himself. God is who He is, because He is in a relationship with three persons in one. The great I AM says, “I AM because I AM in relationship.” Furthermore, this relationship is essentially a filial relationship: It is the relationship of one who begets the other. It is the relationship of father to child. God the Father’s identity is defined and revealed by the fact that He is Father to the Only Begotten Son. Therefore, the fatherhood of God is not a culturally determined and anachronistic fossil from a patriarchal age that we have outgrown. Instead, it is a characteristic at the very heart of the essence of who God is.
Arguments for the ordination of women may be conducted on sentimental, egalitarian, and utilitarian lines, but once they stray over the border into theology, they must come face to face with the innate patriarchy of the Judeo-Christian revelation. A patriarchal element is of the essence of historic Christianity and, no matter how unpopular, is indispensable.
Of course, to assert the primacy of patriarchy is not to condone the abuses of patriarchy — the abuse of women or the overreach of power-hungry men who use patriarchy to consolidate their control. God the Father sets the example of a servant patriarch who gives all for those in His care. Jesus Christ reinforced that model in the story of the loving father in His parable of the prodigal son. This is the sort of father whom earthly fathers are meant to be, and this is the picture of the Heavenly Father, to whom each of us prodigals is on the journey home to meet.