Monday, 2 June 2008

On the Ordination of Women Part III: The Fatherhood of God

The early trinitarian debates gave the Fatherhood of God a quite specific nuance that cannot be ignored in the ordination of women debates. In the debate over the last few decades it is worrying when people make God the heavenly image of the patriarchal father-figure. It is also worrying when people extend this to some inherent connection between human fatherhood, the fatherhood of God and male priests. Or worse, a crass linear course from the maleness of the language of 'Father' when applied to God to the need for a male priest. The first and determinative meaning of the 'Fatherhood of God' should be derived from its trinitarian meaning. In the Trinity, the Fatherhood of God is about finding identity in relationship. This is not a patriarchal idea. And it is a long bow to draw to get from this to an only male priesthood.

'Father' is a naturally relational term. It makes no sense apart from reference to a child. This is why the orthodox maintained the eternal fatherhood of God. God cannot be considered apart from the Son. (There was never a time when God was not Father, implying that intra-divine relationship lies at the very heart of divinity.) Furthermore, the Father's eternal identity comes from the relationship with the Son. Identity and relationship are not related in inverse proportion. The more we pronounce the identity of the Father the more the relationship with the Son is affirmed.

If priesthood is about safeguarding the Fatherhood of God, then priesthood cannot be about representing patriarchy. The eternal Fatherhood of God is non-patriarchal despite the exclusive male terms of Father-Son (although not Spirit, but it is a bit amorphous granted). If we are to take this trinitarian meaning of the Fatherhood of God seriously then priesthood is not about maleness, not about patriarchal power, but about relationship-in-identity. This makes a lot of sense to those who are ordained. We are not submerged into a congregation or the wider church. We retain our identity, but we retain this identity precisely because we are related to the body of the church. We are not priests to the world, but priests in the church. (As far as I am aware, in the New Testament the word for 'priest' is applied to Jesus and the church, not to the ministers of the church.) Lose our relationship to the wider body, and so our identity as priests gradually dissipates.

Fudge this first meaning of the eternal Fatherhood of God in the theology of ordination and the whole Christian paradigm unravels. It undermines the Trinity for one thing, which is not good. But also our vision of salvation is transformed into an alien understanding. Christianity believes in a salvation that is both relational and personal, without in anyway diminishing our identity or our relatedness. The eternal Fatherhood of God ensures this understanding is rooted in our theology of God. The same goes with the diverse gifts of the Spirit that are given for the unity of the body. (See 1Cor 12) The diversity of gifts is not a hindrance to unity, but the instrument through which the Spirit brings unity. Again, without the eternal Fatherhood of God the basis for believing this is slender.

From this vantage point the ordination of women, at a minimum, is not prohibited. But let us not be so churlish. The ordination of women makes the priesthood more diverse by including both sexes of the human race. And with this diversity encompassed in the unified office of priest, the eternal Fatherhood of God is proclaimed. And this is utterly congruent with the cross (as it should be) as revealing of the Father ('those who have seen me have seen the Father'), for it is on the cross that the unity of humankind is achieved. That unity is expressed in a priesthood open to women and men.


  1. But it sounds so patriarchal.

  2. And it puts a lot of people off exploring what could be their greatest resource in combatting patriarchy. I have a theory that most of the progressives in the church have rejected the doctrines of the trinity and incarnation for surface reasons, but have retained a theology that is utterly saturated with the point of the doctrines. They replace the doctrines with insipid pretenders that cannot carry the language and hope as expressed in the Trinity and the Incarnation.