Who's Afraid of Female Priests?

In Christian art, including Michelangelo and Hollywood biblical films, the maleness of God has long been highlighted. Seldom has there been a depiction of deity or spiritual strength that remotely suggested a woman like Eleanor Roosevelt or Marian Anderson, Helen Keller or Barbara Jordan.

However, extraordinary change was in the air in July 1974 when 11 women shattered tradition by being ordained Episcopal priests. Ironically, I became involved when invited -- as a male -- to write a cover story about it for groundbreaking Ms. Magazine. From my perspective, by following the anthropomorphism that depicted God as male, the church failed in its witness to God and came close to committing institutional suicide. The idea of receiving the Host from the hand of a woman apparently confronts some people with grave difficulties. Could this stem from the life experience of praying "Our Father who art in heaven" while one was mentally on one's knees before a male God? Was the male priest before whom one knelt in church to receive Holy Communion a surrogate figure of a familiar bearded and patriarchal God?

Implicit in priesthood for 2,000 years has been its maleness. This is threatening because of fear: (1) acknowledging and dealing with the female side of life, (2) facing up to and revering the female aspects of God and (3) the decline of massive masculine power. Here's an example. Moving into new language and concepts, priesthood as an "area of artistry" has been suggested by James Forest of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. I find his words prophetic and think they should be emblazed on the walls of seminaries. He wrote: "It is an essential art, an ability to show the rest of us that strawberries and us and planets and spider's web and the invention of such words as love and mercy all have to do with -- what phrase to use? -- the Lord of the flowers, Yahweh, the presence we know as love, as the deep, fear-erasing appetite for justice, the capacity to forgive."

As I wrote in Ms. Magazine, when the priesthood -- long seen exclusively as an impregnable historic male preserve -- becomes fully integrated, we'll be a new people. But whenever any parish, anywhere, continues to invite young boys to serve as acolytes in its rituals, yet fails to extend a similar invitation to girls of the same age, the sin of discrimination is perpetuated again and again.

I believe that a priest must be less and less a privileged member of an elite, more and more a brother/sister in an open community. Priesthood itself cannot be a cause of separation between people, but rather unity. So priesthood needs to be continually validated in life, discovered anew in relationshiip with others. "Worker priests" in France and elsewhere have been role models for this.

Jesus said "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!" Jesus wept for Lazarus, he related easily to women as women; on the cross he was neither angry nor a stoic. His male and female aspects were manifested simultaneouslly. He revealed the capacity to give and receive love.

Changing minds and hearts will take a while -- it might not happen until people experience God through a human being whose female side is dominant. But to storm the walls of the priesthood is a revolution in the relations between the sexes. For when a priest is a woman, even God is no longer a male. Then we must really see that our rigid sex roles are to be discarded, for we are persons with acceptably different parts of our natures -- and we are free even as God is free.

Christian baptism means complete, not partial, church membership. Any kind of churchly caste system is on the shakiest theological grounds. A baptized Christian -- female, male, black, white, lesbian, gay, Latino, Native American -- is equal to any other baptized Christian as a member of the Body of Christ. Period. Digression from this truth is heresy. Sometimes, when it forgets this, the institutional church can seem similar to a medieval pope who, clothed in furs and hanging with jewels, tries to make up the princely mind whether or not to turn the next dismaying corner into the preceding century.