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Ordination of women in the LCA - Yes or No?

Positive Ecumenical Consequences of Ordaining Women
Maurice E. Schild, Luther Seminary

The most obvious positive implications and consequences of the Lutheran Church of Australia ordaining women can be expected to take shape in relation to Protestant sections of the ecumenical spectrum. The decision would be undoubtedly welcomed among the many churches on this Lutheran-Reformed-Anglican wing who have themselves moved to ordain women in the twentieth century. It would mean joining members of the Reformation family in this issue and acknowledging that they had appropriately gone ahead in the right direction. Such a scenario would of course impinge on Lutheran self-awareness and identification in church terms in Australia and globally, with perhaps further consequences.

In what follows four areas are indicated in which impulses and implications embedded in a decision to ordain women in 2000 AD might be expected to work themselves out. They would seem to lie in

  1. what might be termed Lutheran family relations,
  2. what appear as stereotypical ecumenical alternatives, and
  3. the ecumenical use of Holy Scripture.
  4. A final area of concern would relate to possible consequences of Lutheran Church of Australia support for the ordination of women in the Oecumene as ‘the whole world’.

Each of these issues is only briefly addressed.

1.  Family relations
More than two-thirds of the Lutheran World Federation member churches — and over half of the world’s Lutheran communicants — ordain women. Moves go back as far as 1933 in Norway; Denmark permitted ordination of women in 1947. Whereas Czechoslovakia opened the doors to the study of theology by women as early as the 1920’s (Bachmann: 308), ordaining came only in 1951. Sweden has ordained women since 1959. Lutherans in France began to do so prior to 1962, and by 1968 nearly all of the German Churches were doing so. Currently eleven women hold leadership positions on the level of bishop or president of their churches1 (the same figure as that being cited for the Anglican communion at this year’s Lambeth conference).

The Lutheran Church of Australia belongs to the minority of Lutherans not ordaining women. A change would certainly be noted. It would then appear, for instance, at least to the majority of interested churches and to many Australian Lutherans, that there is one hindrance the less to us taking up full membership in the Lutheran World Federation. I think that would be a correct perception. For, though the non-ordination of women causes no veto to membership from the side of the Lutheran World Federation, Australians tend to read the clear Lutheran World Federation official support for their ordination as another reason for to continuing to stand on the sidelines of the Federation. It would be liberating, by contrast, to be able to take a clear, positive stand inside the LWF and therewith have relations with the majority of the world’s Lutherans normalised. We would learn, others would learn.

The implications of this step for other members of the Lutheran family who do not ordain women and to whom we are close, for various good reasons, might also be positive. I shall return to this below.

2. Stereotypical ecumenical alternatives.
A church which thinks of itself in traditional and conservative terms is not expected to ordain women. Such a step would therefore spark considerable and necessary rethinking, both outside and within our own walls.

a)  The extra-mural area.

Christians tend to see each other as belonging to churches which fit and exemplify certain predetermined contrasting patterns or schemas. Though these may undoubtedly have greater or lesser validity, they need to be kept under constant review and called into question. Otherwise they may be perceived as final and could come to constitute a factor resistant to the life-giving Spirit moving freely through the one church of God, which is always in need of reform in response to the voice of the gospel.

In May Pope John Paul, speaking to a group of bishops visiting Rome, said that churches which ‘set sacramentality at the heart of the Christian life, and the eucharist at the heart of sacramentality’ generally reject women’s ordination. ‘Conversely, Christian communities more readily confer a ministerial responsibility on women the further they move away from a sacramental understanding of the church, The eucharist and the priesthood’ (The Tablet, 2/06/98). If that is true in a general way, it should become untrue at least in all those Lutheran churches which ordain women. Are they not confessionally bound not to fit that schema?

b)  The intra-mural sphere.

Rethinking in our own circles, triggered by the decision to ordain women, would have to take up the challenge, and not — by failing to do so — make the women of the church somehow guilty of diminishing full appreciation of the sacraments, of the Lord’s Supper in particular. We hear the warning and would heed it: by confessing with renewed faith, joy, and commitment the rich grace of Christ in his real presence in the sacrament even if, just as much if, such communion and its celebration is presided by a duly ordained and called sister in the Body of Christ. Or should confession of the sacraments be seen to depend on gender!

Because the popular over-simplification reckons with the reverse, the ordination of women in a confessional Lutheran church would need to have positive implications for the effort and earnestness with which the means of grace are applied and celebrated. To ordain women is thus in no way to avoid responsibility when it comes to real reformatory, evangelical, Catholic, sacramental theology in teaching and practice. Rather, the opposite is the case.

The Lutheran Church of Australia would be eager and obliged to take up such a challenge and therewith in practice to give visibility to our continuing confessional position. Indeed, instead of fitting into a schematic stereotype there would be some joy in making desirable ecumenical implications real. For the gender issue is not and must not be read as divisive of the church of Jesus Christ. Any such reading is to be challenged in the name of the gospel.

3.  Use of Scripture
The two texts that are said to prohibit the ordination of women, 1 Corinthians 14:33–38 and 1 Timothy 2:11–14, are pastoral directives for specific places and occasions. I also learn that the difficulties I have understanding them have something to do with their brevity and lack of clarity. And I affirm and appreciate that church doctrine cannot be based on unclear texts. Which is not to say suddenly that Holy Scripture, ‘a spiritual light far brighter than the sun itself’ (LW 33,91), is unclear. On the contrary, as the humanist, Erasmus, heard, and we have all had reason to learn that ‘the seals have been broken, the stone rolled from the door of the sepulcher, and the supreme mystery brought to light, namely, that Christ the Son of God has been made man, that God is three and one, that Christ has suffered for us and is to reign eternally’ (26). One must note well what that clarity is about. Things unclear are either to be clarified from this light, or they are not what Scripture is about for us.

To see Christ in this way as the centre and Lord of Scripture is an issue of ecumenical importance. If our church ordains women, we will, God willing, get a chance to make that even more plainly apparent.

The Questions would be: How can a church with a strong doctrine of Holy Scripture dare to ordain women? Surely not by espousing a literalist interpretation of those select passages. It is in fact vitally important that we be seen not to do this, though it may be just what is expected of us in a period when in wide circles serious Christianity is equated with ‘fundamentalism’.

Followers of the greatest expositor of Scripture since Augustine have a real responsibility to other parts of the church to differentiate between the King of Scripture (who claims it all) and what is on the periphery of the canon or is timebound. For it is not as though Luther operated with his principles of interpretation hidden away, though his church soon became coy and tried hiding them and prefers to be not much bothered by them. Luther included his prefaces to the Bible in all the many editions of his translation and parts thereof which came out during his life-time. They were removed by others, whose children then soon forgot that not everything in the sacred volume is on the same level, that there are some real ‘knots’ even in the New Testament, and that these levels, lines, and knots may unravel or change but — a crucial point — that the gospel, the good news of our salvation from the powers of sin, death, and devil, gratis for Christ’s sake alone through faith, remains forever. It emerges even new from Scripture and remains the clear light determining the interpretation of Scripture.

The Lutheran Church of Australia ordaining women would mean that we refuse to be impeded in mission by two somewhat very knotty texts and fail at the same time to see other parts of Scripture which also deserve to be listened to very carefully on this matter. For our Lutheran friends, indeed for the rest of Christendom, it may not be unhelpful to see us in this ordination issue taking a cue from the gospels and Jesus’ words, and from his inclusive ministry and risk-taking affirmation of women. In this field it is correct to restate the insight: it is good that the women did not remain silent on the central events of our salvation. They remain the prime and first witnesses of the miracle of Christmas, the dark death of Good Friday, the ‘ever so unbelievable tale’ of the first Easter. They were apostles to the apostles, in truth.

In Martin Luther we have had the best reminder of how absolutely vital, because of this communication, is this word which calls for and calls forth faith. Thus: ‘John’s Gospel and St Paul’s epistles, especially that to the Romans, and St Peter’s first epistle are the true kernel and marrow of all the books’, writes Luther; ‘. . . the books that show you Christ and teach you all that is necessary and salvatory for you to know, even if you were never to see or hear any other book or doctrine’ (LW 35, 361,362).

A decision to ordain women can occur with integrity only if we bring into view the Marys and Marthas and Salomes, and the Samaritan women and Junia (and quite a few others whose names we know from the New Testament). They too voiced the news and indeed brought apostles and villagers or heathen out to have another look at this taboo-breaking Jesus, this tomb-breaking Christ, and to listen again to him; or then, after Pentecost, to listen to him in them. Some of these women were apostles, disciples certainly, and they belong to the mission history of the early church. If conservative, confessional Australian Lutherans ordain women, they will be reminding everyone in the Oecumene who cares to listen that we do not push all those ‘women accounts’ in the gospels and elsewhere away into the area of metaphor, or regard them as mere children’s stories. Rather — and we would like it ecumenically noted — we take the step, with a good conscience in view of a wider reading of Scripture at its core.

One consequence more: our confessional fellow Lutherans who do not ordain women may be asked to understand us in this way and, putting the best construction on our actions, may themselves feel challenged to revisit the issue. This may in fact not be unwelcome in the membership, say, of the Missouri Synod, or in the Independent Lutheran Church (SELK) in Germany. There too, it is understood that with this question of the ordination of women — and this makes it different to the matter raised by the Reformation — the gospel itself is not at stake (Stolle: 85), and that this matter cannot be the test for church fellowship (ibid 84). For true fellowship it is enough to agree on the gospel and the administration of the sacraments (Augsburg Confession 7).

4. Ecumenical ideals in the real world
Though not a direct argument of the ordination of women, the following comes into view among positive consequences of doing so (and would therefore require consideration in discussions). Furthermore, if one of the five meanings of the word ‘ecumenical’ points to ‘the whole (inhabited) world’ (Rahner: 423), including the world and ethics beyond the church, then the decision to ordain women may work for good also in these ecumenical dimensions. To acknowledge the true status and dignity of women in the church in this way may, it is devoutly to be wished, have a flow—on of good effects in an unjustly unequal world. At least we would then not be working in the other direction. Rather, such a step by the Lutheran Church of Australia could help lessen what has been called ‘the great irony’ in the sphere of gender relations, namely, that ‘the Christian ideals of freedom, reconciliation, and equality are being discovered and practiced outside the church more than within it’ (Stephen Barton in Grenz and Kjesbo: 179).

Footnote

  1. The current listing supplied by the LWF offices in Geneva is as follows:

President Ilse Labadie (1986), Evangelical Lutheran Church in Suriname, (reelected in 1997)

President Victoria Cortex (1990), Lutheran Church of Nicaragua Faith and Hope

Bishop Maria Jepsen (1992), North Elbian Lutheran Church, Germany

Bishop April Ulring Larson (1992), Evangelical Lutheran Church of America

Bishop Rosemarie Kohn (1993), Church of Norway

Bishop Andrea DeGroot-Nesdhal (1995), Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Bishop Lise-Lotte Rebel (1995), Church of Denmark

Bishop Sofie Petersen (1995), Church of Denmark (Greenland)

President Josephine Tso (1996), Evangelical Lutheran Church of Hong Kong

Bishop Christian Odenberg (1997), Church of Sweden

Bishop Caroline Krook (1998), Church of Sweden

Bibliography
Bachmann, E. T. and M. B.fa
1989 Lutheran Churches in the World: A Handbook, Augsburg, Minneapolis.

Grenz, Standley and Kjesbo, Denise
1995 Women in the Church: a Biblical Theology of Women in Ministry. Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove.

LW = Luther’s Works, American Edition.

Rahner, Karl
1981  Encyclopedia of Theology, third imp, Burns & Oates, London.

Stolle, Volker ed
1984 Frauen im kirchlichen Amt? Oberurseler Hefte, Oberursel.

‘Tablet’, at: http://www.thetablet.co.uk

 


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