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MAN, WOMAN, AND PRIESTHOOD
(Edited by Peter Moore, SPCK London, 1978)

7. Psychological Aspects
(Gilbert Russell and Margaret Dewey)

GILBERT RUSSELL (b. 1909) read medicine at Edinburgh and theology at Cambridge. As a missionary priest and doctor in China he worked mainly among lepers. After three years as vicar of St Peter's, Harrow, he returned to medical practice in various psychiatric hospitals, and was from 1948 a consultant psychiatrist in Harley Street until he became Rector of Bentley, Surrey, in 1972. Author of "Men and Women" (1948).

MARGARET DEWEY (b. 1923) is a graduate of Harvard and Melbourne Universities. She was Principal of Janet Clarke Hall, University of Melbourne, 1959-63, and Warden of the Association of Missionary Candidates for the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, 1966-71. She is an Associate of the Society of the Sacred Mission, and is a contributor to the Lambeth Conference preparatory volume "Today's Church and Tomorrow's World".

 

It is common ground that the discussion is not about women as preachers, pastors, teachers, and prophets: they are these already and have long been so. The question is simply whether womanhood is an appropriate carrier of the sacramental and symbolic role of the priest. Churches which have, historically, had little interest in that aspect of priesthood have few, if any, objections to ordaining women.

The General Synod of the Church of England decided that it could not see any fundamental theological objection to the ordination of women. But theology does not exist in a vacuum: even the Queen of Sciences does not float six feet above ground with no visible means of support. The support comes from a variety of other sciences and disciplines, different in different ages. For the Jews, it was history; for the Fathers, logic; for the Schoolmen, philosophy. In our day it is largely psychology and social anthropology. Doctrine is derived, or at least refreshed, from a number of sources, just as religion is composed of a number of layers— beliefs, rituals, organizations, psychic dispositions both conscious and unconscious. To abstract and isolate any one of these will seem to the analysing intellect no more than its natural task; but within a living religion it may be experienced as the separation of joints and marrow.

It has been said that those who oppose the ordination of women make insufficient allowance for the new awareness of a sexual spectrum, as against earlier notions of paired, and equal, opposites. One must ask, first, whether this awareness is in fact very new. It might, for instance, be maintained that only our post-Kinsey world could have been persuaded, by the cachet of scientific inquiry and formulation bestowed upon it, that a 'great leap forward' had occurred. A more realistic appraisal sees only sharper definitions of well- and long-recognized types, for whose appearance in earlier times there is ample evidence in history and literature.

Secondly, what is the precise relevance of the spectrum approach? The fact (if it is a fact) that 'effeminate' men are often drawn to the priesthood is not eo ipso an argument for extending the facility to 'masculine' women. In any case, how are these 'states' to be defined on the spectrum? We should not fall into the error of identifying them by outward and physical characters. Some males, most 'feminine' in disposition and attitude, are husky creatures with huge chests and beards, while some women hide strongly aggressive drives beneath charming, seductive exteriors. Moreover, 'inner' and 'outer' do not invariably fall into neat categories, such as opposition and compensation. We are more complex than that.

The fact that the whole debate is about the ordination of women (tout court) shows by how little, in our day-to-day attitudes and relations, we have been detached from the two primary categories. The first woman to enter an English theological college as a candidate for the priesthood will presumably be asked (and be proud!) to state her sex as female—not to indicate a point on a scale. And even those who assert that the latter course would be preferable, were it but practical, could hardly claim that to register one's sex as 4, 5, or 6 on a ten-point scale registered at the same time a victory for the ordination of women!

When we turn to more profound psychological factors, we must take account of the great shift in Christian experience if it were to be mediated by a female priesthood. For it is fact, not fantasy, that whereas encounter with a male priest activates in the psychic hinterland of the worshipper images of great antiquity and power —the Lawgiver, the Shepherd, and the King: Moses, Aaron, Elijah, David, back to the mysterious Melchizedek—the encounter with a woman in the same priestly role activates a different order of images altogether. No one can make this happen or prevent its happening. It is as remote from conscious control as a chemical reaction once the ingredients are mixed. In the case of the woman priest, the images so activated belong to the mother-archetype; and it is now widely accepted that this image is inimical to spiritual growth and freedom in those exposed to it. This is so whether the image be of a positive type (the consoling, nourishing, and protective mother) or negative (the devouring or destructive mother). The first enfolds the 'child' in a seductive embrace; the second annihilates him as a separate, responsible being. He is either lulled or quelled. That is why a 'child' (of whatever age), if he is to grow up, needs a father to lead him away from the blandishments of the 'best', as from the tyranny of the 'worst', of mothers.

The most basic fact of our existence is that we are born of woman. The impact of father-figures belongs, overwhelmingly, not to our infancy but to our childhood, when speech makes possible both verbal communication and rational thought. They speak the Word with authority and (in the normal, creative tensions between the generations) evoke opposition and so the discovery by the child of his own identity. Mother-figures reign in the pro-verbal layers of personality laid down in infancy, where their domination, if it persists, hinders the crucial psychic birth, without which one who has not been 'reborn' must remain, in some respects, infantile.

Yet the father's presence in the family is essential for the child even before the stage of verbal communication, though it operates (so to say) at one remove. If he is, from the beginning, the primary object of his wife's affections, he provides for the child a natural, albeit unconscious defence against the danger of being swamped by the flood tide of maternal emotion.

On the other hand, true fatherhood is obscured, and our image of God distorted, by a human father who fails in his natural role; who passively lends support to a mother required—by her husband's weakness or sloth—to become the dominant parent ('Do as your mother says'); or whose masculinity is so insecure that he 'throws his weight about', in the family if not elsewhere. Fathers who do not accept their own vocation compel reluctant and enable determined wives to attempt to assume it for them—an attempt which, even when it achieves a partial success (and it cannot be more: fathers and mothers are not, alter all, interchangeable), must also permit the return of the archetypal mother who, by possessing a woman created for human partnership, establishes her baleful dominion over the family.

Hebrew religion well understood these dangers, as early as the time of the call of Abram. Abram means 'the father is exalted' (see Gen. 17.5)—a revolutionary declaration in a matriarchal society, signalling the crucial break with Great Mother religion.

It appears even earlier—indeed, in the beginning. 'Because thou didst hearken to the voice of thy wife . . .' Adam is rebuked first of all not for his disobedience, but for being a henpecked husband. It might be plausibly argued that this was the essence of his disobedience: he had failed to be what a man was created to be vis-à-vis a woman.

Is a 'bad' father, then, not as bad for the child as a 'bad' mother? The answer is No. Simply by being a father, he represents a phase in the child's development which carries him into the world, beyond the reach of the mother, good or bad. This is not, of course, a mere matter of personalities, but one of archetypes; and at that level a good mother, like a bad mother, must in the end be 'bad' for her child, in a fashion not true of even the bad father. Psychologists differ about many things; but upon this fact there is almost universal agreement. Its bearing on women's priesthood is plain enough.

Civilization may, from one point of view, be defined as cultural conquest of the Great Mother. In place of the immemorial cycle of custom guarded by women, men learned new modes of activity to compensate for the loss of their 'hunter' role and their lack of woman's fecundity. The problem of civilization was that of the male in society. The basic function of women remained unaltered: physically, it was so largely determined by nature that it could not be changed; socially, it had too many advantages for change to seem desirable. One of the social and psychological functions of a masculine priesthood, Jewish and Christian, has been—as both cause and sign—to establish a balance: an institutionalized male equivalent, supernaturally sanctioned, to the natural and numinous power of the mother-figure. The balance was often precarious; and it would be disturbed by the ordination of women at levels which do not seem to be guessed at by those whose concern is 'equality', and superficial notions of it at that. The profound and vital equality between the sexes was established first at the creation, and second when men became priests—a development that restored the original form of humanity, lost while the cult of fertility and the feminine, of woman and earth, remained paramount. (Of course there have been other distortions since then; but none that either was, or could have been, rectified by the making of women priests.) The current view that women should be ordained because nothing less will secure for them natural justice, is contradicted by almost all that we know of the way in which human societies grow and cohere. It is differentiation that has, from the begmning, been both the mode and the instrument of successful change. Assimilation of roles (which in this context is what is meant by equalization of status) must diminish that interaction between 'unlikes' on which all progress depends. Movement in that direction is simply regression.

These human facts are mirrored in our perception of God. He is not, to be sure, either male or female. If he is God, he must transcend all gender. But if he is to manifest himself to his world, still more be incarnate in humanity, it can only be as a male or female person. He chose, as it happened, to manifest himself as male. The reason has been made clear. Most of the ancient world lay in the close embrace of the Earth-Mother, who in her manifold cults was propitiated and honoured simply because all life depended upon her bounty. The great merit of Judaism was that it opposed to this universal cultus the worship of a God whose 'masculinity'— to our eyes often repellent in its aggression and ruthlessness— matched and mastered the compulsive and seductive qualities of the Great Mother. The locus classicus for this epic encounter is the confrontation of Elijah and the priests of Baal, in which the prophet sought to persuade the Israelites that 'seedtime and harvest' were already built into the system and required no fertility rites to keep them so. Only the victory of Yahweh over the Earth-Mother could have freed the energies bound up in the yearly 'round' for new social, cultural, and religious advance.

'Very well', you say. 'I concede that this may have been so. But surely we live in a totally different world in which such considerations no longer apply?' We submit that they do. It has yet to be shown that there is, in the field of religion, any alternative to the cult of the Great Father save that of the Great Mother, in one of its many forms. That we, in the western world at least, are moving back into a period of Great-Mother worship is almost too obvious to require demonstration.

Female priesthoods belong to Earth-Mother religions. In some polytheistic cults, male and female priesthoods exist side by side. But one unchallenged conclusion emerges from all the evidence: that in monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity, Islam—in which God transcends the created order and is not merely identified with it, priesthood is male, and male only. (1)

If then God, as Christians are bound to encounter and to envisage him, has to be male, that fact must bear on the ordination of women. It is often argued that because priesthood represents the whole human race before God, not only men but women ought to belong to it. But the 'whole human race' was always, and is, represented by the male priest alone: he cannot choose, or be chosen, to stand for less than an undivided humanity already redeemed, in principle, by the passion of Christ. The corollary is this: if the creative and redemptive Logos is bound to be 'masculine' towards us, we, the Church—and by extension mankind— are bound to be 'feminine' towards him. The theotokos, most venerated of all archetypes, projected upon and at the same time realized in Mary of Nazareth, is also the type of the Church, which brings forth the Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Our Lord sums up in his Person the whole of humanity, woman as well as man. But the Logos-made-flesh is a man, not a woman. The Orthodox wisdom sees the priest as an icon of Christ the Bridegroom, and the Church as the Bride—as she appears in the Bible and all manner of Western liturgies. A woman may symbolize the Bride of Christ; she cannot symbolize the Bridegroom.

The most eager advocate of the ordination of women does not claim that, in the Church Catholic, women have never been represented by the priest at the altar—only that modern attitudes require a more 'balanced', or more 'complete', representation. But would it (if women were priests) be more complete? There is, in principle, only one priesthood ab origine, that of Christ himself: no Christian disputes this. And none, so far as we know, believes the atonement won by him to be in some sense defective because he was male only, not male and female. If he represented only one half of humanity, how was the other half saved? That Priesthood of his is reflected on earth, through time, by visible human beings. No woman can do this as a man can do it, since Christ is beyond contradiction male. 'Simply because she is a woman?' Simply because she is a woman.

The anguished and outraged cries which greet such a statement spring from the (false) conviction that it implies some disparagement of women as women. It does nothing of the kind. It has nothing to do with value: it is solely a matter of gender. Nor has it anything to do with status. It was right for women to seek admission to the professions precisely because it was only notions of status that kept them out. This, on the other hand, is a question of function. Confusion between the two has bedevilled and often destroyed tens of thousands of marriages in our time—the peace of which depended (had husband and wife but known it) on the full acceptance and honouring by each of the other's natural role, and on the God-given difference between them. No one but the most bigoted Women's Libber thinks it degrading for a wife to have rather more to do with the home-making than a husband has. But the suggestion that it is provokes grievances, anxieties, and resentments which simply do not exist where the difference is given full value. When status enters the door, nature flies out of the window.

The confusion of sexual roles goes even deeper. How often is it assumed that aggressive attitudes adopted by women who fight for their 'rights' (to the vote, to abortion, to ordination) are simply the counterparts of those displayed by men, in pursuit of theirs? But (to defer for a moment the question, what constitutes 'rights') aggression has some distinctive undertones when it appears in women, even when their aims must command assent. When a man's aggression goes beyond proper bounds, it is, so to say, 'bad' rather than 'dark' (if those terms are used to differentiate conscious from unconscious feeling). It represents an unjustified or excessive use of his primordial function as hunter, guardian of wife and children, or (to enter the realm of myth and metaphor) 'slayer of dragons'. It is an unwarranted extension of his natural role, not the adoption of a role which does not belong to him. Woman's aggression, however, is part of her 'dark' side—of that which has had to be largely repressed in order to make her a woman, not another kind of man; and when it returns it is charged with the primitive quality of the unconscious world to which it had been banished. It is not just 'male chauvinism' which finds more unnatural an all-out fight between women than such a fight between men. A woman's role is not one whit less positive for being more passive—as, for example, when she is the 'wise woman' whom men can consult or not, who is not clothed with institutional authority. This is why seeress and prophetess were highly regarded in Israel, and the priestess was not. There is much which men (and some women) want to receive pastorally from women; but it cannot be given by anyone who is experienced as a threat. This is why so many, both men and women, find it difficult to work under a woman executive. However tactful and wise, she is never far from the risk of evoking in her subordinates buried infantile fears which bedevil relationships, in spite of much good will and earnest endeavour on both sides. To be under a woman-in-authority is to re-enter—at a level which, being unconscious, is not amenable to rational explanation and control— the experience of being once more a dependent child.

To say, 'Why can't grown-up people behave more sensibly?' is to miss the point: they are trapped in a situation where willy-nilly they feel that they're not grown up. You don't tell a child he can easily jump a fence, simply because an adult can jump it

Thus the well-intentioned attempt to 'be rational'—and no more—about the ordination of women is bound to limit our understanding of what is involved. Priesthood must operate far below this level. Of course all human personality, including our Lord's, is a mixture of masculine and feminine. Jesus once likened himself to a mother-hen; and much that priests do—and much that they do unconsciously—springs from this 'feminine' source. It does not, however, follow that women could do it better, or even as well. They activate, as we have seen, the dark side of the Mother, that which is, in the last analysis, hostile to growth. (It sometimes seems that she must be the First Cause of that striving for 'liberation' in the name of which modern women have thrown away so many freedoms.) In all the mythologies—though a man must blush to say so—the saviour-figure who slays dragons and casts out devils is always male.

The strength of women—at any rate of all women who wish for fruitful co-operation and lasting relations with men—lies precisely in what was repressed, that they might become women. There are physical analogies. If it were possible for a woman to control those organic, hormonal processes by which her more masculine characters (body-hair, musculature, parts of the sex organs) are discarded in the course of her evolution as a feminine being, and she chose not to discard them, she could hardly expect to succeed in relations with men as well as her sisters who opted for femininity. At the organic level, such choice does not exist—the question is settled by genetic factors alone. But the special characteristic of that hierarchy of functions by which human beings are constituted is that the higher the level of organization, the greater the freedom to choose. Except within narrow limits, no woman has the power to select her physical type. Even her personality, at least in its main contours, is determined very largely by interaction between repression (i.e. an unconscious but natural selection which enables some qualities to appear as manifest attributes of a particular woman and prevents others from doing so) and the environment— principally, of course, its emotional features—which brings that mechanism into play. So much is true in principle of every human being. But above and beyond these levels there is a real freedom to choose what sort of people we shall be—though the choice may only be 'freed' by deeper That 'under-achievement' which has become a battle-cry in the war of the sexes corresponds to a true instinct in women who wish to be women, not counterfeit men. And— what is still more important—women may freely choose to side with that instinct instead of rejecting it, and so discover a kind of fulfilment not to be had except upon those terms.

We have lately been told, by those in the best position to know, how difficult it now is to place women workers in parishes. And it is suggested that this is an argument for ordaining them. But if there is so much prejudice against women lay workers, how much more is there likely to be against women priests? If one of the reasons for ordaining women is that they may feel themselves to be valued, we must make sure that they will. The ground of the opposition in the parishes is, at this point, irrelevant. It may be blind prejudice, or native wisdom, or sheer ignorance. But if women are not in fact wanted (for whatever reason) they will feel unwanted. As The Ordination of Women to the Priesthood (GS 104) put it (p. 51):

Would parishes accept women as rectors and vicars? And if not, would not ordination be particularly cruel to women since opportunities that are not now open to them because of their non-priestly status would then be denied to them on grounds of sex and personality? Prejudice, if it exists, would simply be transferred one stage further on, and might well be more hurtful since the Church as a whole would have salved its conscience by giving 'equal opportunities' to women, in theory at any rate.

We have known many people aggrieved and frustrated because they could not be ordained. Most of them, naturally, were men. Why is their frustration something they must (as they are often reminded) accept and learn to live with, and women's not? And if it be argued that the rejected men had at least been through the formal selection procedures, we can only say that, in our experience, this often increased their vexation. Holy Orders are not a right (even for men!), still less a means of celebrating sexual equality or redressing an ancient wrong. Indeed, our contemporary dilemma calls for a movement in exactly the opposite direction. 'More and more it is becoming understood that Western civilization is showing a brittleness due to hypertrophy of masculine aptitudes. At the rise of the feminist movement it was hardly suspected that this movement was not a remedy for the disease but in fact an extension of it, for it sought to bring women into the characteristic masculine ways of handling life.'(2) The ordination of women, if it comes about, will of course be consequence rather than cause of that secular trend. Nevertheless, it will add its own weight and momentum.

We must add (with diffidence and reluctance, because it is almost sure to be misunderstood and very likely misquoted) a final comment which, if true, is of great importance. We have known, some of them very closely, a number of women active in this campaign. (Some of them, rather oddly, are self-confessedly not Christians at all.) With few exceptions, their deepest desire was to be not priests but men—though naturally they were unaware of this fact when they first espoused the cause of ordination for women. Those who became aware of it lost all interest in the question of ordination. That, we submit, is a matter of really profound significance for this debate. It would be, to say the least, ill-judged to alter the whole basis of the ordained ministry, and the manifold psychic structures that underlie it, to meet the claims of women who appear to lose their zeal, and indeed their interest, in this cause when they come to know themselves better.

Change is a law of life; and death is a good example of change. Continuity is also a law of life; and it may be—it often is—a lifepreserver.

 

FOOTNOTES

1. Cf. V. A. Demant, Why the Christian Priesthood is Male (2nd edn, Church Literature Association 1977), p. 6.

2. Ibid., p. 11.