This testimony was published in The Tablet (29 June 1991) under the title ‘A Call I Cannot Answer’. Republished with permission of the author.
I want to be a deacon. When at the beginning of last year I put myself forward to a bishop to be considered as a candidate for the permanent diaconate, I received a one-sentence reply turning me down.
What had been the problem? Had the bishop discerned a lack of faith in Jesus Christ? Or was it that he sensed a selfish motive behind my application? Maybe my suitability was in question because of physical, mental or psychological impediment? No. I was rejected because I am the wrong sex. The bishop’s letter simply informed me that “the Roman Catholic Church does not ordain ladies to the diaconate”. No reason given. No canons quoted.
But what exactly is it that I am daring to ask for? A share in ministry. I want to be an ordained servant of Jesus Christ in the Community at the disposal of my bishop. I want to function alongside those with a mandate from the Church to teach,to lead, and to sanctify. The bishops of England and Wales have stated: “Being an ordained minister lends authority to the position and work of the deacon”. I should like to be included.
I had of course, expected the rejection, yet when it came the simplicity of it left me stunned. I was overcome with shame and guilt that I had actually had the effrontery to put myself forward. Was I just doing it to provoke? I have difficulty in describing the fine line between provocation and doing what is necessary to expose injustice.
In the meantime I have grown angry, above all at myself for succumbing to those initial doubts.I am learning to cope with reactions. There are those men and women, clergy and lay, who support the idea and tell me. Yet there is hardly a priest prepared to stick his neck out in solidarity with women who wish to be deacons. Then there are those, mostly lay people, who know with total certainty that God does not call women to ordained ministry. I listen in silence and that seems to help them.
Some opposition comes from Catholic Feminists. One said : “You’re wasting your time. They’re not going to give an inch. They’ve got too much to lose”.
Most clergy are perplexed if the subject crops up in conversation. Few have thought about it at all. One venerable priest knew all about women deacons in the early Church but argued that the only reason for women ministers was that they had been necessary for reasons of propriety in early Christian Society. In other words, there have been social reasons for women deacons. Are there none today? It is to the deep spiritual and emotional needs of women, which they can sometimes only share between themselves, that a woman deacon could minister. Mediating a different image of God, she could inspire another kind of ministry. And a Church that can be experienced as hostile to women needs a visible embodiment to the blessing God gave to female creation.
Another priest told me it was major orders women would have “to crack”. And Canon Law is unambiguous: “Only a baptised man can validly receive sacred ordination” (CAN.1024). My response to this argument is that theology on women must change first, then canon law can be amended. As long as the Church’s teaching implies that the incarnation of God as a male necessarily renders female nature inaccessible to the grace of major orders, canon law can stand unchallenged.
The fact that women deacons were ministering before the line between major and minor orders was distinct needs to be examined by theologians. The Council of Chalcedon (ad 451) stipulates that a woman deacon should not be ordained before the age of forty. I have no worry about that; what worries me is that the Church steadfastly ignores the whole tradition.
All the while I am aware that my own resources on theology and logic may equip me to tinker with the service of argument but are powerless to expose an ugly and offensive truth lurking beneath: The Church has never quite abandoned this suspicion that women have not been created in the image of God. The twelth-century canonist Gratian actually decreed that “woman is not made in God’s image”.
This malaise at the heart of Catholic Christianity is why women, like lepers of old peeping in on the action through a hole in the wall, are prevented not only from ministering as deacons but from freely channelling their energy and insights into building up the Body of Christ in many other ways.
Everyone knows that there have been ordained women deacons. Does it have to be left to an ordinary lay woman to declare the theological arguments against the restoration of female ministry unsound, and the appeal to authority unfaithful to tradition?
Our Church is too old and too wise to be clinging to such nonsense. Though I may not live to see it, women will become deacons. The only question left worth considering is, when.
See also these articles by the same author: