This article was first published at “The Bloviating Ignoramus,” a blog for politics and culture.
I understand the Church of England’s stance against the ordination of women as an example of blatant gender oppression by a male-dominant Church that participates in the perpetuation of inequality. The Church of England’s recent decision to not ordain women to the bishopric is a last-ditch effort at an antiquated and dehumanizing view of half of the human race, despite the fact that it is a flawed system of voting. Our Orthodox Tradition, with its statute against female ordination, implies that women are not inherently equipped with the natural qualities, from G-d, that would enable them to perform the duties associated with ordination. To manifest the consecration of the elements, which is essential for salvation, one must naturally be a male? Such a position has been the tradition for nearly 2000 years. As I am thinking about this, I am nearing tears and laughter simultaneously. Either this is a ridiculous, ill-thought concept or it is a profoundly brilliant, yet oppressive, tactic to establish male dominance.
I have determined that bureaucracy has influenced the Church’s position on the ordination of women to the Holy Priesthood and Bishopric. According to Weber’s characterization of Bureaucracy, “full-time, appointed, career employees who labor in a hierarchy under a regime of specialization and rules,” the Church is the personification of the idealized bureaucratic organization. In the Bureaucratic Structure and Personality (1940), Robert Merton opines that bureaucratic organizations possess principal traits of the bureaucratic personality, namely the inability to adapt to a changing situation, an inappropriate need to over-stress the rules, a tendency to remain with what has always been, and a dehumanizing element of the intended clients. Merton’s thesis makes sense when seen through the eyes of the Church, which shows us the nature and truthfulness of the bureaucratic personality and how it applies to the ordination of women.
Merton’s observation is that the organization, because of the particularized characteristics of the work, is incapable of adapting readily to changing situations. The work of a priest or a bishop, among other endeavors, is to take care of the congregation’s spiritual needs. One way to do this, according to the Church, is to prepare the Eucharist for consumption. Whether one agrees or not, the Church maintains that this preparation is a mystical endeavor, only to be undertaken by someone with the Church’s imprimatur. Traditionally, this particularized characteristic of the organization’s work has been carried out by males. Herein lies the problem or rather a question that needs to be answered.
Are the skills that are required to sanctify the elements only possessed by members of the male gender? The answer may have been a “yes” in centuries past. Many ancient philosophers and church fathers believed that the intrinsic nature of a women’s soul was different than that of a man’s, despite doctrine stating otherwise. Christ took the nature of a man, which led them to believe that it must be somehow better. This led to unspeakable injustices in the past, and, apparently, in the present. However, such ideation prevented the Church from allowing women into the priesthood.
Today we undoubtedly know that the obvious and truthful answer to whether or not women are capable of such work is an emphatic “no.” The reality, however, is that this organization has been incapable of adapting to the changing cultural perception, namely that women are just as capable, if not more so, to function in this capacity. An explanation that prevents this from occurring is definitely the ‘red-tape’ of bureaucracy. The way the organization functions plays a large role in the way in which it handles problems such as the previously mentioned atrocity.
The Church leadership is definitely comfortable in their position and believes that what they are doing is the best thing for the Church. The concept of risk is not in their agenda any longer. Tradition is the way of leaders. The Church does not want some innovative idea such as the ordination of women to taint their Tradition. The fear must stem from the notion of progress. If the Church allows this to happen, who is to say that it will not create a massive influx of social concerns that will inundate them, as if this is a negative thing?
With the situation transpiring in the Church in mind, Merton’s point could not be exemplified any more truthfully. The Church thinks that women, in general, are not spiritually or mystically capable of functioning within the priesthood or the bishopric. I concur with Merton that such a general belief is dehumanizing to women. The Church does not take into consideration the humanity or individuality of every female to which it denies ordination. Women have suffered terribly because of the bureaucratic personality of the Church.
The Church has refused to allow them to exist as they are and participate in the life of the Church. They inappropriately make demands that dehumanize women in order to remain within their Tradition. Anthony Downs avows that bureaucracy avoids change and grows comfortable within its antiquated claims to power and legitimacy. The Church has grown accustomed to its power over who they allow into their midst. Allowing the full participation of women would shake the settled foundations.
The bureaucratic personality denies women the right to act as themselves and forces them into bureaucratic roles wherein they have to perform as the hierarchy dictates. Kathy Ferguson states that women are frequently taught by the Church to be the “weaker sex” by learning to be a subordinate to the “stronger sex.” She calls this the process of “feminization.” It occurs in bureaucracy and the Church. Undergoing this process forces women to possess the traditional qualities attributed to women—“supportive, nonassertive, dependent, attendant to others, and expressive.” This process, she avers, allows the pinnacle of the hierarchy to remain in power by creating an atmosphere of normalcy. There is no conflict in the power differential, which leads to the continuation of the pattern.
Those within bureaucratic Church are expected to fulfill a particular role and to present a specific image. These people begin to take on certain character traits that are not indicative of who they truly are, which perpetuates the notion that the ordination of women is not an Orthodox problem. This is where the concepts of dignity and autonomy are repressed in order to present the overall image that the hierarchy desires. The problem, however, is that this process continues for so long that women eventually lose sight of their own personhood and systematically conform to the needs and desires of the bureaucracy, thus dehumanizing them. This is blatant dehumanization.
I must confess that I previously thought such a practice of rejecting the ordination of women could be justified by simply reducing the problem to the fact that it was a lingering effect of historical circumstances and socio-political influences inherent within the early Church. Given time change would come, I have always postulated. Until recently, I have honestly never contemplated the notion that it could be the very personification of evil. Had I, in all my theological education, ever given sufficient thought to the very essence of evil? Certainly it is not gender oppression? It has to be more dramatic?
I have spent years studying all the philosophical and theological arguments for the nature of evil in relation to humanity. Gregory of Nyssa, a patristic writer, argues that evil is non-being. It cannot exist in and of itself. It is simply a privation of the good. All who embrace virtue and the renunciation of the passions will, in fact, experience only the good, which is deprived of all forms of evil.
Gregory, however, would also say that evil does exist in the absence of the good. Christ’s incarnation, opines Nyssa, is the only reason we are able to escape from evil’s black hole of non-existence. His poetic explanation is not quite as satisfying an argument at this juncture as it has previously been. The question still stands – what is evil? I finally asked myself, what is the good that Nyssa vehemently defends? The good, for me, is the nature of humanity, which is in the liberty of expression and freedom of essence. Therefore, the privation of the good would, in fact, constitute a limitation or constraint of human freedom and expression. Evil is the unwarranted restraint of humanity’s essence.
Such an explanation of the essence of evil should radically alter anyone’s personal theology, or so I would certainly hope. I would avow that gender oppression, as well as any other restriction on the freedom of humanity, is undoubtedly a personification of evil and cannot be simplistically reduced to an historical anomaly that is inadvertently the result of prior dominance. The Church has had time and opportunity to change; it has refused to do so. The Church’s current practice must be reformed so that the good can force evil into non-being.
How can this gender oppression and discrimination be changed when it is so ingrained in our culture, our religion, and our thinking? The addition of women priests and bishops into the bureaucratic system will allow the deficiencies inherent in bureaucratic organization to be revealed, only if they do not assimilate into the system. Women priests and bishops will bring to the conversation the knowledge of dominance and subordinance within the interactions of the Church and will help to illuminate the notions of power and control in this bureaucratic organization. A female presence in the priesthood and bishopric can allow for serious steps to be made towards completely understanding domination and subordination in the existing bureaucratic system. This bureaucratic organizational reality of roles (men and women) imposed onto all the participants of the Church must be transformed by the insertion of women priests and bishops.
Image taken from Wikimedia Commons, a “media file repository making available public domain and freely-licensed educational media content.” The photograph is of author, activist, and Zen Priest, angel Kyodo williams.