Women and the Eucharist
On Diakonissai, Presbyterai, and Episkopai
There has been something of a eucharistic theme to my writing lately. One of the first pieces I wrote for this newsletter was on Paul’s absolutely not Zwinglian theology of the eucharist as pneumatic food and drink; later, I detailed some options for reforming the Novus Ordo to be a real liturgical culture for Latin-rite Catholics; and more recently, I advocated for the restoration of the eucharistia to its original form as an Agape Feast, synthesizing its aboriginal practice with the ritual practices of later antique and medieval Christians along the way. Throughout these entries, it has not been possible to avoid the existential connection between the eucharistic feast and the ordines of episkopos, presbyteros, and diakonos as they gradually evolved, only achieving the shape with which we are familiar in the late third century. It now seems unavoidable to me to also address the question, hinted at in some of these entries: what theological grounds are there for the restriction of these ordines to men, which is not other than to ask: what is the connection of women to the Eucharist?
To get our bearings straight, I argued here that sex and gender as we normally experience them—that is, separation and deprivation enfleshed and inculturated as inequality and oppression—is, at least according to several of the major intellectual resources of Early Judaism and Christianity, not fundamental to human nature and an economic response of God’s creative energies to the metaphysical consequences of the human fall. That is not to say—and I should write something else sometime clarifying this, which Mackenzie Amara helped me to see—that there is no archetypal value to masculinity and femininity, which as spiritual geniuses seem to me inescapable and ubiquitous, and therefore in some sense iconographically and sometimes idolatrously inscribed into our flesh. There is not one eucharistic theology for women and another for men, because sexed, gendered existence is not the baptismal life in Christ which permits us eucharistic access (Gal 3:28). In the world, our biological sex and the social roles associated with it, whether we passively submit to them or we actively exercise our agency over these things by way of affirmation or negation, prescribe a particular means by which we allow masculine and feminine archetypes to flow through us; it is not so at the mensa.
To put some teeth on this, the most typical argument against the ordination of women as presbyters beyond the simple line of “this is how it’s always been done” in Catholic and Orthodox circles—presbyters who, remember, were originally household episkopoi retconned as a subordinate office in light of the rise of monepiscopacy in Rome and Alexandria, which happened around 235 CE1—goes something like this. At the liturgy, there is a symbolic drama unfolding: the priest stands in persona Christi, as the icon of Christ in the course of the Liturgy, the Bridegroom offering himself by the repeated words of institution and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the gifts in response to the epiklesis in the transfigured elements of his Body and Blood. The receiving Church is in this metaphor his Bride: the nuptial character of the Mass or the Divine Liturgy or whatever therefore requires that the priest be male, to signify Christ the Bridegroom and the masculine archetype he relays. There is of course a dramatic and ritual logic to this idea; it is not wholly baseless as regards what the eucharistia, in its earliest foundations, is understood to be. But if this essential connection between sex and gender holds true for the priest, then it would logically also hold for the people: that is to say, if the priest must be male to signify Christ the Bridegroom who offers himself to the feminine Church in the course of the Liturgy, then it would also logically need to be the case that only women could receive the Eucharist, since only women would be sexually and generically capable of iconographically signifying the Church’s femininity. If every presbytera is de facto an archetypical oxymoron, seeking to represent a masculinity that is impossible for her to embody, then likewise every male communicant engages in an act of comparably problematic feminization by so receiving (assuming such a thing is really problematic). It is particularly interesting to hear the argument marshaled in favor of a solely male priesthood coming from many of the same quarters that so closely emphasize “masculine” men and critique the feminization of Church and culture, both in Catholicism and Orthodoxy. The very metaphor that they use to insist upon the all-male clergy is the selfsame conceptual image that insists that non-ordained men and ordained men alike inhabit a specifically feminine role in relationship to Christ the Bridegroom, with no small degree of homoeroticism between Christ and his male worshipers.
Obviously, the notion that only women can receive the Eucharist is as absurd as the notion that only men can be priests. The flaw in the logic is simply the conflation between sex, gender, and archetype: as though biological males who are gendered as men are incapable of indwelling and expressing feminine archetypes, or as though biological females who are gendered as women are incapable of the same with masculine archetypes. It is not just experience that tells us the opposite, nor just the experience of gender dysphoric and trans people, nor even the simple complexity that is already true of cisgendered heterosexual people who experience general harmony between sex and gender and fit well into social norms, yet still experience normative human ambiguities about archetypes. It is also Christian texts: martyr stories of changed gender, like St. Perpetua’s stripping in the arena to become a man, or male martyr-soldiers who become “brides of Christ” at death; the liturgical complexity of learning, as a straight man, to think of one’s self as Christ’s beloved and of Christ as one’s spiritual husband, and as a woman to think of one’s self as a “son of God” (huios tou theou).2 We know that archetypes are more complicated than our sexed and gendered identities; we know that masculinity and femininity exist, as C.S. Lewis could have told us in the climax of Perelandra, at many metaphysical levels both deeper and higher than our organic experience of them.
Equally absurd is the notion that the Christian priesthood is a hieratic office that requires the same kind of ritual parallelism as characterized the Levitical priesthood in the Jerusalem Temple, because, on this reading, it is the successor to that priesthood.3 In that context, the maleness of the priesthood reflected the sense that YHWH, the God of Israel, and the angels who served in his cosmic and celestial temples were male, or at least sexless; the priests had a responsibility to mimic that by means of the purity system, as a kind of hazmat suit for entering the divine presence. Note: I’m not knocking the Temple system; I’m pointing out that the Christian priesthood is not the Levitical priesthood, and most arguments, historical and contemporary, which seek to theologize the connection rely on faulty reasoning about Christianity’s succession to Judaism that contemporary scholarship and theology rightly reject. Christian presbyters are not the “new Levites”; Christian bishops are not really “high priests” if by that what we mean is some kind of replacement for the kohen hagadol of Early Judaism.
The first eucharistic assemblies took place when the Temple was still standing and under the presidency of people who went to the Temple on a daily, weekly, monthly, and annual basis for sacrificial worship and festival, and understood such to be in no way contradictory to their eucharistic feasting (notice that in 1 Cor 10, Paul compares the eucharist with the Temple, but only contrasts it with pagan sacrificial banquets: the first two are compatible, the latter two are not). Some of the people involved in the Jesus Movement were themselves Levitical kohanim (Acts 6:7), who would have been active sacrificial and liturgical officiants. Even on a paschal reading of the Last Supper, the narrative institution of the eucharistia, the meal does not qualify as a seder—a formal ritual for which did not yet exist in full—and is more likely a chavurah; and at any rate there is no explicit attempt to suggest in the institution narratives that the dominical chavurah has in some sense superseded Temple sacrifice. It is obvious that the point of the institution narratives is not replacement but supplementation; even at Qumran, which thought of the Jerusalem Temple as being almost wholly corrupted in its present form, the community’s worship was always the placeholder until eschatological restoration when the services maintained in the community would become the common worship of all Israel; the nascent Jesus Movement is therefore like Qumran in the maintenance of a meal that is indeed cultic and sacrificial but unlike Qumran in continuing mainstream, open participation in Temple worship. In any event, Paschal connections aside, Pesach was not the fundamental holiday on the Jewish calendar anyway: the holiest day of the year, on which the kohen hagadol was most active and relevant, was Yom Kippur (yesterday, as of this writing), and the most significant, most eschatological feast was Sukkot.4 Jesus does not cast the apostles as a new Levitical priesthood, and the apostles themselves do not seek anywhere in the Book of Acts to undermine, overthrow, or even show disrespect for the institution of the high priesthood or for the Temple (not even in Stephen’s diatribe against the Sanhedrin); so to say that the apostolic episcopate or priesthood must therefore be male in order to be Levitical and hieratic is a confusion of terms of the highest magnitude. It is misunderstanding of the liturgical, scriptural, and theological origins of the eucharist that generates the habitual rhetoric of, especially, Catholics, Orthodox, and some higher Church Anglicans about the succession between Temple and eucharistic sacrifice. I am not quite saying that there is no such relationship: Jesus, the Evangelists, and Paul all clearly do seem to understand the eucharist as a sacrifice and to be connected with the covenant sacrifice at the foot of Sinai in the Exodus, as well as with the anamnesis of the shewbread (LXX Lev 14:7). Something Temple-related is going on in the eucharist, and when the Temple fell, it was not for no reason that Christian liturgists and theologians increasingly reframed their understanding of the assembly as the successor to Temple worship (not least since they also had to provide such for continued streams of converts from the pagan world). But the connection here is too tenuous and asymmetrical to be the grounds for some kind of Levitical exclusion of women.
The notion, then, that women are somehow incapable of serving as Christ’s nuptial icon in the ritual drama of the Divine Liturgy is ridiculous; there is no theology of the priesthood on offer in the Christian Tradition which retains either logical or historical cogency to that effect. This is to say nothing of the historical baselessness of the exclusion as regards actual practice. There is not only historical evidence in the first Christian centuries for women officeholders in local Christian ekklesiai, as diakonissai (the one office that is unquestioned as potentially open to women from a historical point of view), presbyterai, and episkopai, both in name and function, but there is historical evidence that the theology of ordination which associates the priesthood with Christos ho Nymphios is relatively late, medieval, and closely connected to new trajectories in receiving and re-articulating the pneumatic character of the eucharist.5 That is to say, these offices in their original form—which are indeed closely connected to the eucharist, as the episkopos or episkopa was initially the liturgical president who hosted, funded, and oversaw the collection and distribution of food and funds at the agape feast, the diakonoi and diakonissai his or her assistants—included women; there is a traceable intellectual lineage for women’s exclusion from these roles; that exclusion is not logically justifiable. Indeed, it is fairly clear that the exclusion was effected at a time when Christianity’s apocalyptic fervor for an imminent eschaton was being curtailed in light of the necessities of conforming to Greco-Roman social expectations enough to gain some kind of intellectual and ethical credibility in the eyes of the wider culture; that is to say, the reiteration of gendered expectations in the Christian community was a consequence of acquiescence to the world order at the time. But today, as has been noted here, women’s exclusion from clerical roles does not serve Christianity’s witness; it only reinforces the widespread cultural sense of Christianity’s irrelevance.
I get that this is touchy for people; iconoclasm always is. In Orthodox and Catholic settings, especially, even entertaining the idea of a female priesthood is taboo, for the Orthodox because it seems to contradict Holy Tradition, for Catholics because, allegedly, the matter has been settled by papal fiat in Pope St. John Paul II’s 1994 Ordinatio Sacerdotalis and as reaffirmed by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and current moderate incumbent Francis. To be blunt, one of the main reasons it is touchy for people is about the underlining of power roles: the people who originally crafted an all-male clerical system are, after all, men, as are the people who tend to be the most vocal about protecting and reiterating that system, hierarchical, clerical, and lay. But I really cannot stress enough what little grounding that system actually has in Scripture. If we turn to biblical theology, the whole notion of priesthood begins in Genesis 1:26-28 and 2:4-3:24 with the supratemporal Adam and Eve,6 and only comes to exclude Eve through the curse of the fall (Gen 3:16); elsewhere in the Old Testament, holy women like Miriam and Deborah exercised charismatic authority in ancient Israelite settings prior to the stratification of Israelite society in the monarchic period,7 and in the New Testament various women in Jesus’ inner circle—including the Blessed Virgin Mary—play fundamental roles together with women in the Pauline ministry and ekklesiai like Phoebe or Chloe. True, other than Eve, none of these women are explicitly called “priests”; but as I have tried to argue, the Christian priesthood is not a simple continuity with biblical kohanim or hiereis, but rather a concatenation of various energies and activities that originally belonged to separate individuals and institutions both in Early Judaism and in Early Christian circles. If we turn to historical theology, the exclusion of women coincides with changing understandings of what the Christian priesthood is that do not match its earliest precedents or scriptural foundations.
Moderate takes do not get much of a pass here. Given the continuity between diakonoi, presbyteroi, and episkopoi in the earliest communities, it seems obvious that to ordain a woman as a diakonissa must logically entail her ability to become a presbytera and/or an episkopa; that is not to collapse the diaconal vocation into the presbytereal and episcopal, but it is to acknowledge that the offices are existentially connected by virtue of the fact that the first presbyteroi were in fact household episkopoi, to whom the diakonoi were specialized assistants (hence the special role played in older stages of the history of the Roman Church by the papal diakonoi). That is, conservatives in Catholicism and Orthodoxy are largely right about one thing: consenting to ordain women to the diaconate does in fact pave the way for their entry into higher ecclesiastical orders, whether that means a foot in the door or a burning hot knob from the fire on the other side. Certainly, the relativization of the diaconate in ordinary ecclesiastical practice is at least as old a Tradition as is the abolition of women from Holy Orders, so if appeals ad antiquitatem are all we have, then we should ignore contemporary arguments for the restoration of the diaconate’s self-possessed integrity.
Fundamentally, how we answer the question of women’s orders is about what we believe about the eucharist, the “source and summit” of the Christian life from which all ordination flows. The exclusion of women from orders cannot finally be maintained by any of the existing arguments without either acquiescing to a form of women’s inferiority or to the arbitrary dominance of a particular period in Christian history along traditionalist lines. Neither is sufficiently Christian in intellectual foundation to merit our assent.
See Alistair Stewart, The Original Bishops: Office and Order in the First Christian Communities (Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 2013).
See Jonathan Klawans, Purity, Sacrifice, and the Temple: Symbolism and Supersessionism in the Study of Ancient Judaism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
See Ute E. Eisen, Women Officeholders in Early Christianity: Epigraphical and Literary Studies (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 2000); Patricia Cox Miller, Women in Early Christianity: Translations from Greek Texts (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2005); Gary Macy, The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination: Female Clergy in the Medieval West (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008); Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek, eds. and trans., Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 2011); Ally Kateusz, Mary and Early Christian Women: Hidden Leadership(Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019); cf. Gabrielle Thomas and Elena Narinskaya, eds., Women and Ordination in the Orthodox Church: Explorations in Theology and Practice (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2020); John O’Brien, Women’s Ordination in the Catholic Church (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2020).
See Wilda C. Gafney, Daughters of Miriam: Women Prophets in Ancient Israel (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008).