Ordination of Monica Kilburn-Smith - May 29, 2008

Two Models Of Priesthood -- Convergences and divergences -- Ordained ministry as envisioned by RCWP and the Dutch Dominicans

By Bishop Patricia Fresen

A Church in Crisis

Our church is in crisis on many fronts. But the good news is that responses and solutions to the crisis are emerging which are moving the church forward in the great paradigm shift which is happening in our times. It is a kairos time, “when the church is called to return to its authentic, deeper self”.

The two particular aspects of the ecclesial crisis on which I wish to focus are:
•liberation from sexism by embodying equality for women and men, especially in ministry, and
•the shortage of priests in the West, especially in Europe and North America.

We all know that official church teaching holds firmly to the view that only celibate males can be ordained and that only these ordained celibate men may lead Eucharistic and other sacramental celebrations. Women are excluded from diaconate and priestly ministry. Many parishes are being shut down, not because there are not enough parishioners but because there are not enough priests. The few priests left have to go around the parishes in turn to celebrate Eucharist and the other sacraments, and in some cases they are able to visit each parish community only once every few months. Or else, priests from the East or Eastern Europe or Africa are imported to minister in Europe and North America, and this often does not work out well. For the official church, the need to enforce their rigid model of priesthood, to insist that it is reserved to celibate males, is more important than the right of communities to celebrate Eucharist. People have a right to the sacraments, the sacraments are for the people, and the people are coming up with alternative solutions to the critical shortage of priests as well as to the unjust exclusion of women from priestly ministry. It is a scandal that “the church that speaks justice to the world, refuses to practice justice within the church itself”.

Women in Ministry

There is now new evidence that women were in ministry in the church for 1500 years. The research by Dr. Dorothy Irvin and the latest book by Gary Macy are just two examples of the growing body of scholarly literature that give ample evidence of this. Since the 1960's, the contemporary impetus for women's ordination has been reawakened in Europe and North America. In the 1990's, the group now called Roman Catholic Womenpriests (RCWP) started preparing seriously for ordination and in 2002 they found a bishop who was willing to ordain them. Several of them were subsequently ordained as bishops, so that the ordinations of women could continue. For the sake of credibility and also as a matter of justice, these women are ordained in apostolic succession. Women have the right, not only to be ordained to the diaconate, priesthood and episcopacy, but to be ordained in the same way, in the same tradition, as men. At this early stage of women's ordination, it is important, even essential, to claim this right. The sacrament of Orders is founded on Baptism, not on gender.

However, it is possible that, once women's right to be ordained equally with men, and in the same way, is more firmly established, there may be some new developments. These could include a new, broader understanding of apostolic succession (I will develop this thought a little more further on.) and also a renewed model of priesthood within a renewed church. This is already happening, both in RCWP and in the new model of ministry put forward by the Dutch Dominicans.

Different Models of Priesthood

• RCWP model

As the RCWP women and men are ordained, for they are striving to exemplify a different, renewed model of priesthood, one which is not a sellout to hierarchy and clericalism. Their structures are community - based, not pyramidal; there is no promise of obedience to the bishop but they all try to live in prophetic obedience to the Spirit; their structures and liturgies are inclusive rather than exclusive; they do not regard themselves as being members of the clerical caste in the sense of being higher or better or holier than others - (they do not believe that ordination brings about a change in essence); priesthood is in the first place a ministry, not a status - symbol and they try to live servant - leadership; they generally avoid the use of titles or clerical collars or mitres. Finally, there is no insistence on priestly celibacy: priesthood is a separate issue, a separate calling, from being married, single, hetero - or homosexual. It is very difficult to hold these two elements together: to stand within the line of apostolic succession, on the one hand, and to build and live a non - hierarchical, inclusive model of priesthood on the other. One walks a very thin line here, in fact, the RCWP community is making the road by walking it. But it can be done, it is being done.

• Dutch model

The Dutch Dominicans' document, entitled The Church and Ministry, holds many of the same perspectives and values about priesthood as RCWP. Their starting-point, however, is different. They start with the alarming shortage of priests in the parishes and they point out that the “Services of Word and Communion” led by chosen members of the parish, are usually recognized as Eucharist and many people see little or no difference between those services and a Mass celebrated by a priest. The document asks the question: Does celebrating the Eucharist depend on the ministry of ordained celibate men? Their answer is a clear NO and they point to what is already taking place in many parishes in the Netherlands and other countries in Europe, where the community calls forth its own pastors. These may be men or women, married or single, gay or straight.

What the communities are looking for are people who can be leaders within the community, people with a faith that is inspiring, people who can empower others and minister to and with them. The community chooses the person they want to be their pastor; they ensure that the person has sufficient training and they then present the person to the bishop and ask that the bishop confirm their choice, hopefully by ordination. However, they insist that, if the bishop refuses to ordain the person (most likely because the candidate is married or is a woman) “parishes may be confident that they are able to celebrate a real and genuine Eucharist when they are together in prayer and share bread and wine.”

This position has elicited much criticism. The French theologian, Fr. Herve Legrand, for instance excoriates the entire proposal as leading to schism. But Prof. Herman Haering writes: Perhaps Dutch Catholics are thinking about this point more critically and accurately than is the teaching church.”

Broader View of Apostolic Succession

To return to the question of apostolic succession, I suggest that our whole understanding of apostolic succession could be considerably broadened. It does mean that the tradition of laying-on of hands for community ministry comes down to us through the centuries from the time of the early church, and in fact goes back even beyond that. However, it need not necessarily be limited to the laying-on of hands by the bishop only. When we trace what we call apostolic succession, it usually goes back, in its written form, to some time during the Middle Ages. This is a hierarchical form of apostolic succession, passed down from one bishop to the next. It could still be accepted as apostolic succession, I propose, if the community, not the bishop, were to lay on hands, and that would fit the communitarian model. However, as I have said, I do not think we can omit the present intermediate stage of being ordained in apostolic succession, at least for women.

To sum up:

Convergences, both models:
  • are responses to the crisis in the RC church, especially regarding priesthood
  • see themselves as within the RC church, not sects, not split-off groups, although both groups are accused of schism
  • are somewhat subversive, part of an “underground church” not officially recognized, but growing among the people of God and I believe it will not be too long before these models of priesthood will replace the present model
  • have a similar ecclesiology: Church is, in the first place, the People of God.
  • have community-based, rather than hierarchical, structures.
  • have a similar theology of priesthood, one which is non-sexist and non-clericalist.
  • ecumenically inclusive.
  • include the desire for ordination by a bishop.
  • RCWP places more emphasis on apostolic succession in ordination. This is done to claim equality for women who have a right to be ordained in the same way as men.
  • The Dutch model places more emphasis on the role of the community in selecting, supporting and even ordaining the candidate. RCWP is presently also placing more and more emphasis on community selection and support.
Combination of two models, or harmonious co-existence

However, the two models could possibly be combined for the benefit of all concerned. Once a person has been elected by the community for priestly ministry in the Dutch Dominicans' model, he or she could go through the RCWP program of preparation for priesthood and be ordained by RCWP bishops. At this stage, it seems like wishful thinking to hope that local (male) bishops would be willing to ordain women who are RCWP candidates - though they may be willing to ordain the men.

Alternatively, the two models can certainly co-exist in mutual respect and support, for they embrace a similar model of church and priesthood, one towards which the church is inevitably moving. It would be a good idea to find ways for members of both groups to get to know one another better, possibly by internet and by means of a shared conference.

Evolutionary Leap?

I started by saying that we are a church in crisis. Eckhart Tolle writes: “When faced with a radical crisis, when the old way of being in the world, of interacting with one another and with the realm of nature doesn't work anymore, when survival is threatened by seemingly insurmountable problems, an individual life-form or a species, will either die or become extinct or rise above the limitations of its condition through an evolutionary leap.”

Could we be in the midst of an evolutionary leap in the life of the church? A leap which is part of the reconstruction of the church as we build the church of tomorrow, the church that we believe is closer to the community Jesus had in mind.

[Patricia Fresen, D.Th. A paper given at the CNWE Conference in conjunction with the ordination to the priesthood of Monica Kilburn-Smith, Victoria, BC, May 29th to June 1st, 2008.]

A promise of a new day: An experience

by Fred Williams

Those of us who attended the ordination of Monica Kilburn Smith of Calgary and Jim Lauder of Victoria on May 29, 2008 experienced poetry in motion. I read once that the most prophetic utterances have emanated from the most poetical minds. Truly, what we call prophecy is the ability to see through the complex machinery of the present into the true nature of events. Truth is truth and we need the humility and willingness to let our emotions play freely.

I was asked by François Brassard to inquire among our Calgary contingent, who attended this historical ordination at St. Aidan's United Church in Victoria, BC what they experienced as they were touched by the magic of the moment. Here are some reactions:

Shelagh: “The moment of seeing a woman dressed in full red robes at the altar.”

Genevieve: “Bishop Patricia holding her hands out in prayer and blessing - what a powerful image.”

Helen: “All of us sharing our priesthood. And the hymn: 'God is Here.' No doubt that God WAS here!”

Suzanne: “Being invited to the laying on of hands… I felt assured of my divinity, of my priestly right to do this.”

Marie: “Being in the sanctuary and facing the people, seeing the joy of the people at this moment.”

Angelina: “The simplicity of the moment, of it all, nothing pompous, nothing hierarchical… we all did the ordination.”

Catherine: I broke down at the laying on of hands, it was so powerful, the presence of the Holy Spirit through the people.”

Helen: “That the priests at the altar took communion last, not first. Guests are to be served first.”

Louise: “The singing of the 'Litany of the Saints,' it was so inclusive.”

Leslie: “At communion, when my two and a half year old daughter reached into the basket to take communion. It was so natural, so real.”

Janet: “At the 'Litany of the Saints,' to hear the names of Oscar Romero and Thomas Merton.

Fred: “Tears came to my eyes at the 'Litany of the Saints' when I heard the names of Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Rachel.  To me they were present in the moment! St. Francis of Assisi, too.”

[Fred Williams, Calgary, AB]


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