Much of the debate over the acceptability of women as priests or bishops, and of those men who ordain women (or, eventually, are ordained by women) seems to me to be only superficially to do with genetics.

Really the debate is about what is meant by “ordination”.

Until the two parties to the “women as bishops” debate have sorted this out, and understood what the other party thinks, there can’t even be a proper argument, let alone a constructive solution.

If I think we’re arguing about one thing, and you think we’re arguing about something else, even the very best outcome is mutual puzzlement.

So here’s what I think ordination is about:

In the New Testament, there seem to be three named “orders” of people appointed as leaders within local churches: deacons, priests and bishops.

Deacon is the English translation of the NT Greek diakonos, which means a servant (though the NRSV translates it as “minister” in Romans 12:7)

Priest is the English word derived from the Greek presbyteros, which is the comparative form of the adjective presbus, meaning “old”. So presbyteros literally means “older” – and so also “elder” in the sense of ‘long standing member of a community looked to for knowledge and wisdom’

Bishop is the English word derived from the Greek episkopos, which means “one who looks over” – exactly equivalent to “superintendent”, or “overseer”.

The first, and biggest, problem is that the English word “priest” is also used to translate the Greek word hieros which is the person who was appointed in the Jewish temple to make sacrifices and so on.

So English introduces a confusion which doesn’t exist in the Greek – and which would never have occurred to the New Testament writers – between two completely different functions. For the New Testament writers, every single Christian is a hieros priest (see 1 Peter 2:5), but some are additionally appointed as presbyteros priests for the good governance of local congregations (see, for example, Acts 14:23).

The New Testament, then, speaks of the first leaders appointing servants, elders and overseers. There is nothing mystical about this – talk of ontological difference is spurious except in so far as it emerges from and translates into functional difference.

This appointing is not referred to in the New Testament as “ordination”. The word which is thus translated (in, for example, Acts 7:53) means something like “arranged that way”. What the NRSV translates as “ordination” in 1 Timothy 5:22, in the Greek  literally says “lay hands on” – a phrase used elsewhere to mean quite different things (for example Acts 8:17, 9:17, 19:6).

So I believe that “ordination” has acquired a load of baggage which would have been completely alien to the New Testament writers, and that “deacons, priests and bishops” should be seen as people placed in particular roles, by the church, for the church. None of them “represent Christ” any more than any other Christian. None of them perform sacrifices, because no more sacrifices are needed (see Hebrews 10:12). None of them are needed as intermediaries between others and God, because Christ gives us all immediate access to God. They are about serving, holding the wisdom of, and overseeing, the local Christian community,

Why, then, exclude women from any of those roles?

Some claim that Jesus choosing his 12 apostles was equivalent to ordaining them, and because they were all men, this set an irrevocable pattern for ordinations. However, Jesus also “appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him” (Luke 10:1 & parallels). There’s no evidence that those seventy were all men, and given the number of women who are recorded as being in Jesus’ group of companions, common sense suggests that they would have been included in the seventy.

Some claim that Jesus breathing on his disciples (John 20:22) was equivalent to ordination. However, there are a few problems with this:

1. Thomas wasn’t there.

2. The group Jesus breathes on are called “disciples” (verse 19). Although John speaks of “the twelve” he never uses the word “apostle”. The word “disciples” is sometimes used in a way which seems to mean the twelve; it is also sometimes used in a way which unmistakably means a wider group.

So it is not clear who was in the room when Jesus breathed on them, and there’s no evidence that they were all men.

3. Everywhere else in the New Testament, appointing people to roles in the church is done by laying on hands, not by breathing.

It seems to me that the only leaders Jesus appointed (call it ordained if you like) were the Apostles, and their roles was specific, time limited, and very different from the roles of servant, elder and overseer which were needed in local congregations.

Some quote 1 Timothy 3:2 “Now a bishop must be above reproach, married only once…” This is a slightly disingenuous translation from the NRSV – the Greek says “the husband of only one wife”. However, this verse on the face of it does seem to be talking about polygamy, and to use it as the base for an argument against ordaining women is at best unwise.

In summary, deacon, priest, and bishop to me are roles to which people are appointed by the church for the sake of its own good order. The New Testament evidence as to the nature of those roles, and the people who were appointed to them in the early Church, is tissue thin. To use that as a basis for building arguments against appointing women to those roles today seems to me to be absurd. The evidence that Jesus welcomed women as his followers in equality with men far outweighs any possible basis for excluding them.

Finally, some might argue that Tradition means we shouldn’t have women priests or bishops. Even without some ambiguous areas in the New Testament (Junia among the Apostles, for example), “We’ve always done it this way” is never a good argument. As far as I’m concerned, if Scripture and Reason agree, Tradition is outvoted.

I know many will disagree about everything I’ve written, but at least we will be able to have a real argument!

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