Woman, Women, and the Priesthood in the Trinitarian Theology of Elisabeth Behr-Sigel
Sarah Hinlicky Wilson
T&T Clark, 2015
208 pp., $42.95
From Charisms to Calling
Before she died, my friend Martha and I kept promising each other that one day we would debate—preferably over a luxurious dinner and a bottle of wine—the question of women's ordination to the priesthood. Martha was herself a priest, and neither of us had any interest in debating that as a question. To my mind, it was no question. Martha had clearly been called by God to Holy Orders in the Anglican Church. Whenever I attended a Eucharist at which she was presiding, I knew she was fulfilling her calling. On those mornings, she would walk down the center aisle of the church after pronouncing the absolution of our sins and recite what we Anglicans call the "comfortable words": the verses of Scripture that are to be read following the moment of confession and absolution, verses that assure the worshipers of God's pardon and fatherly goodness. "Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden," Martha would say as she walked among the congregation, looking us in the eye with that quirky and comforting smile she had, "and I will refresh you." "This is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received," she would continue, looping back to return to the altar, "that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners." Those moments, when through a blur of warm tears I would hear Christ's own welcome through Martha's voice, are permanently lodged in my memory, and they are part of the reason I had no interest in disputing her vocation.
What I did want to discuss with Martha, before cancer took her life, was why and how God had called her to the priesthood. I disagreed with her that the dancing, mutually indwelling Persons of the Trinity somehow modeled an egalitarian social order for the human sphere, of which women's ordination would be one instance. Aside from the historical problems with such a position (to the Greek church fathers who popularized the term, "perichoresis" didn't mean "dance"), I had theological worries about it. Too often, it seemed, Christians would embrace a particular vision of human gender relations, then—lo and behold—they would discover that the intra-Trinitarian relations themselves presage such a vision, and then, in turn, they would describe those Trinitarian relations as the rationale for the human gender relationships that prompted the whole circular pattern in the first place. I remember one night, sitting in Martha's living room with a large gathering of members of her church, listening to her try to make a case from Scripture for the ordination of women, and I thought, "No, this is all wrong. I agree with the conclusion, but I don't agree on the way to get there."
Martha and I can no longer sit down to dinner to debate the matter, and I grieve the loss of one who was not only a pastor to me but a conversation partner and beloved confidant. Still, I like to imagine the conversations she and I might have had. In particular, I like to imagine what intellectual and spiritual depths we might have explored together once I'd handed her a copy of Sarah Hinlicky Wilson's revised doctoral dissertation, Woman, Women, and the Priesthood in the Trinitarian Theology of Elisabeth Behr-Sigel. An ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in america and assistant research professor at Strasbourg's Institute for Ecumenical Research, Hinlicky Wilson has written the best account I've seen of how someone may, mid-career, come not to abandon one of her chief theological convictions but to question and ultimately abandon one particular way of arriving at those convictions.
Hinlicky Wilson's book is about the intellectual development of one of the 20th century's most prominent lay theologians, Elisbeth Behr-Sigel (1907-2005). More specifically, it is about how Behr-Sigel gradually outgrew one way of advocating for a change in the Eastern Orthodox way of understanding who was eligible for the priesthood and eventually embraced a more sensitive, complex way of advocating for it.
Behr-Sigel got her start reflecting on the issue only later in life, when she was pushing 70. She already had 43 years of theological scholarship under her belt, most of it devoted to Russian spirituality and the practice of hesychasm (a kind of contemplative prayer). But in 1976, she was invited to give the keynote address at an international gathering of Orthodox women at the Agapia convent in Romania, the first gathering of its kind, and she needed to address "the basic question of what part Orthodox women could play in church and society." It would prove to be the beginning of an exploration that she would pursue for the rest of her life.
Her tactic in the Agapia address was one she borrowed from the famous Orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov. There is, Behr-Sigel posited, a unique feminine charism or gifting that grounds whatever ministries women enjoy in the church (and there are many such, she thought—individual Orthodox women have been "confessors, martyrs, apostles, evangelists, prophets, and saints, married and celibate women alike"). Biological femininity is a sign of a particular "spiritual organ of human nature" that "might be defined as the capacity to receive divine grace." Put crudely, if "men are from Mars and women are from Venus," the argument would then be that the Church needs not only Martian but also uniquely Venusian gifts.
Although in this speech Behr-Sigel celebrated the gradual historical unfolding of the significance of Paul's words in Galatians 3:28 ("in Christ Jesus … there is no male and female"), she stopped short of endorsing the ordination of women to the priesthood. This is because "the priest represents Christ; he is the sacramental presentation of Christ, the Word incarnate who assumed full humanity in the masculine mode of being." Given Christ's male humanity, Christ's representative at the Eucharistic altar should also be male.
Yet, in that lecture, Behr-Sigel had sown a seed that would later come to trouble her. Alongside her use of Evdokimov's theology of a feminine charism, she had also made the apparently contradictory claim that Scripture contains no "theoretical exposition on the nature of women and their specific charisms." This insight—that Scripture's language of spiritual gifts and graces doesn't map cleanly onto the male-female binary—would come to loom large in Behr-Sigel's later writings on the role of women in the life of the Church. In a lecture given eight years after her Agapia address, for instance, she came clean on the limitations of her earlier approach: "[T]he use of the idea of [feminine charisms] runs the risk of being a mystification … . There is no mention in Paul's letter [to the Ephesians] of feminine charisms which would be different from those given to men." (She might have emphasized more than she did the exegetical point that wifely "submission" in Ephesians 5:22 is equally enjoined upon men in 5:21, while husbandly "love" is also expected of women in 5:2—in short, there is no special vocation of men envisioned in the epistle to the Ephesians that women don't share in, and vice versa.) What Behr-Sigel now wanted was an account of how God's call came to women, not a pre-formed understanding of "femininity" that could be used to evaluate that call in advance.
She eventually discovered such an account right in the heart of the most basic Christian—and Orthodox—doctrine, the teaching on the Holy Trinity. According to Eastern Trinitarian theology, God is only knowable in the concrete hypostases ("persons," in English) of Father, Son, and Spirit. Any access to God's ousia—the divine being—lies in our knowledge of and communion with the persons. God's whatness, the divine substance or essence, doesn't lurk somewhere behind the persons, awaiting some gnostic discoverer to locate it and access its murky depths. Or, to shift the angle, we might say that God is not enclosed in God's nature; the divine essence is not a constraining prison. It is, instead, what we must speak of when we wish to speak of the oneness of the free, transcendent divine persons of Father, Son, and Spirit. For Behr-Sigel, it is likewise with human persons: even if gender were viewed as somehow a part of a person's "essence" or "nature," it is the property of human persons, bearing the image of their triune God, to transcend their nature. This was the mature insight Behr-Sigel eventually arrived at, and Hinlicky Wilson summarizes it well: "Any attempt to invoke the 'feminine' (or the 'masculine') always ends up reducing women (and men) to mere instances of their natures, rather than self-transcending persons in God's own image." In short, women are persons before they are feminine. Or, better: women's femininity is only knowable or accessible insofar as particular women—Elisabeth, say, or Martha—transcend it by living out the particular life God has given them.
What, then, of the priest's iconic representation of Christ at the altar? If there is no specifically masculine or feminine charism or ontology, the significance of the priest's maleness fades away. What matters—as patristic Christology recognized centuries ago with its dictum, "That which is not assumed [by the Son of God in the incarnation] is not healed"—is that Christ became human, assuming and thereby healing the nature common to men and women. Although biologically a man, Christ assumed human nature in such a way as to include both men and women in his salvific work. And that means, in turn, that to refuse to allow a woman to preside at the Eucharist may be to say much more than opponents of women's ordination realize—namely, "that women are not adequate icons of Christ." The result, notes Hinlicky Wilson near the end of her book, is nothing less than "to leave both their humanity and their salvation in doubt." If women can't reflect the human nature of Christ at the altar, how then can they trust Christ's human nature to save them at all?
This line of thinking is what I wish I could have discussed with my friend Martha before leukemia ended her own earthly ministry. I would pay a lot for one more chance to eat Indian food with her and tell her about Elisabeth Behr-Sigel's theological evolution. I like to imagine Martha, loud and boisterous and never shy to voice her unpopular opinions, not being offended if I told her I didn't think God called her to the priesthood because she was a woman or because she had some special bouquet of gifts that God couldn't do without in his church or because he wanted to balance out all the headstrong male priests in our communion. I like to imagine instead her smiling—puzzled at first but perhaps, after hours of debate, coming around to see Behr-Sigel's point—when I said that he called her because he is God and she was Martha. Martha, in all her "self-transcendence as a person, in her non-reducibility to her human (and indeed, if there is such a thing, her female) nature," was the one God called. Not a generic woman, not a faceless feminine "nature," not an impersonal assortment of charisms, but Martha—to be the hands and voice of Christ for his church.
Wesley Hill is assistant professor of Biblical Studies at Trinity School for Ministry, Ambridge, Pennsylvania. His most recent book is Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian (Brazos Press).
1. I wish to dedicate this review to the memory of Martha Hughlett Giltinan (1957-2014), priest in the Anglican Church in North America, beloved friend, and colleague.
2. See Karen Kilby, "Perichoresis and Projection: Problems with Social Doctrines of the Trinity," New Blackfriars, Vol. 81 (2000), pp. 432-45.
Copyright © 2015 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.