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Essays

Women Priests: Faith Old and New

Women Priests: Faith Old and New
In these photographic portraits, Vicky Hodgson has chosen to portray her subjects – Anglican priests in their places of worship – wearing the humble cassock. Variations of this simple, floor-length garment have been worn by priests throughout the life of the Church. Usually black, and worn with a clerical collar, it modestly covers the body and allows the wearer to minister without distraction to themselves or others. Despite the ubiquitous, all-enveloping vestment, however, Hodgson’s photographs reveal a great deal about her subjects, not least that they are clearly all women. Confronted by these all-female figures en masse, the viewer may find the pictures rather novel, because such a collection would not have been possible in the worldwide Anglican Communion more than a generation or so ago (indeed, some parts of the Anglican Church are still without female priests). Moreover, Hodgson has captured these images in historic, holy places where their very presence would have been inconceivable to most people for the best part of two thousand years.
In these portraits we are faced with a collision of symbolic meanings and associations. We see a priest within a sacred space, both the figure and the built environment representing our aspiration toward the divine, our membership of the Body of Christ, and the weight of so many centuries of Christian tradition. We see also a woman, visibly carrying out her ministry as a child of God called to priesthood, not as an “honorary man” but with her own sexual and gendered identity that is necessarily different from that of a male priest. She is the locus, then, not only of ancient tradition and wisdom but also of newly revealed truths and meanings.
In contemplating these images of real, living women, we see people whose sex has for millennia been associated less with the spiritual and holy than with the earth and with sin, and so banned for the greater part of the Church’s life from presiding at the altar and offering the sacraments. The scriptures tell of both women and men among Jesus’ closest followers, including Mary Magdalene, the first witness to the Resurrection; and of a number of women who became prominent leaders in the first Christian communities.
For most of its history, however, the Church reverted to a patriarchal culture that found women prone to evil, inferior and subordinate to men and unfit for the priesthood. Women, through Eve, were thought to tempt men away from the spiritual and so had to be kept away from holy objects and spaces. Menstruating women were especially pernicious - variously banned from Holy Communion and regarded as subject to sexual and moral corruption. Male dominance was woven into the warp and weft of the Church institution: not only an exclusively male clerical elite, but a religious narrative largely featuring male characters that was told, written, taught, preached and interpreted largely by men.
Female priests are a new phenomenon, and still usually in the minority in Christian communities, if they are accepted at all. Hodgson’s portraits feature clerics in England and Wales, about twenty years after the advent of women priests in England, and a couple of years less in Wales. They reveal a fundamental shift in the Anglican Church’s attitude towards women, and invite us to reflect on how women’s priesthood enriches our understanding of our faith story, and of ourselves created as children of God, each with our own sexual and bodily identity, each uniquely reflecting something of the light of Christ.
Now, women priests are standing at the altar, presiding at the Eucharist and carrying out the full range of priestly ministry in Christian communities across the globe. In doing so, they are initiating new and recovered meanings to the way we understand God, the Church and ourselves.
The female priest reminds us through her own body – in a way that a male priest cannot - that women as well as men are indeed created in God’s image, that the divine can be mediated as much through women’s bodies and ways of knowing as through those of men. She brings hope for all women to come to speech as people who are equal to and yet different from men. She shows that women mediate the divine too, not by escaping from their physiological function and sexuate nature but by celebrating it in their particular way of being - different from but just as valid as the male.
The female sex is traditionally connected with earth and nature. The woman priest, then, becomes an especially potent symbol both of the brokenness of the world as it is, and the hope of restoration and healing between humanity, creation and God. In representing the sex that has historically been subject to subjugation and subordination, she stands for all those who have been excluded or discriminated against because of race, colour, age, disability, sexual orientation and so on.
The woman priest invites us also to broaden our language about God who is imaged by both male and female – not only father, king and Lord but also mother, carer, midwife. Male and female priests together express a great range of symbolic possibilities for the triune God who is neither male nor female, and who inspires us to live in loving, inclusive relationship with one another.
The presence of the women portrayed here shows that, where the Church recognizes a priesthood of both sexes, it comes closer to being a redemptive community that allows and encourages all people to flourish as children of God. To promote that flourishing, the Church needs to continue to reform its long-standing culture of male dominance and elitism. Where men are willing to share priestly ministry with their female colleagues, women will be more willing and able to participate fully in the life and witness of the Church, and so help to bring about a Christian community that is genuinely of and for all people, as was the community first led by Jesus.

Ali Green
Author of:
A Theology of Women’s Priesthood 2009 and A Priesthood of Both Sexes 2011