BY KAREN ARMSTRONG
'Failed men' are now becoming priests
NONE OF THE great world religions has been good for women. Their • founders frequently had an inspiring vision of the equality of the sexes but all too often the religious institutions were hi-jacked by men.
Christianity has been no exception to this rule. Despite the fact that both Jesus and St Paul accepted women on an equal footing with men, it was not long before women became second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God. The female body was felt to be incompatible with the sacred and women's sexuality was experienced as dangerous and sometimes diabolic.
Some of these irrational but powerful fears have erupted in the current controversy about women priests. The spectre of a woman officiating at the altar fills a significant number of Anglicans with such dread that they can no longer remain within the Church of England. Some have entered the Roman Catholic Church, prepared to overlook centuries of serious ideological disagreement rather than countenance a woman touching the holy vessels and representing Christ to the community.
But is it right to make misogyny the basis of a new unity? Or is the long Christian tradition of denigrating a woman a betrayal of the Gospel, which, like our deeply ingrained anti-Semitism, we must repudiate in the name of Christ?
Jesus would surely have been puzzled by the furore over women's ordination, since, as far as we can tell, he did not envisage any form of Christian priesthood, male or female. The 12 apostles were not priests but were to represent the 12 Tribes in the New Israel of the Messianic Age. The first Christians worshipped daily in the Temple, where Jewish priests officiated, and had no desire to supersede them. It was not until the third century that Christians began to call, first, the bishop and, later, presbyters "priests" an innovation which the early Church would have found alien and unacceptable.
A priestly caste which stands between God and the congregation would have offended the radical egalitarian vision of Jesus, Paul and their disciples. Jesus went out of his way to show that women, like other marginalised groups, would be liberated in the Kingdom: Mary was the first to express this revolutionary credo in the Magnificat.
When the male disciples ran away after Jesus's arrest, the women stayed by him to the last and witnessed the crucial saving events of his death and burial. Only in St John's Gospel does the "beloved disciple" make it to the foot of the Cross. Again, the Gospels make it clear that only the women had the courage to go to anoint Jesus's body and were rewarded by being the first to see the risen Christ. They took the Gospel of resurrection to the men, who were still skulking in the Upper Room, and were thus the first Christian evangelists.
Liner Paul was emphatic that in Christ there was neither male nor female: barriers of race, class and gender had been cancelled by Christ's saving acts. In his Epistles, Paul greeted his women co-workers just as frequently as their male colleagues and made no distinction between them.
Not all the chauvinist remarks ascribed to Paul were actually his: those in the first Epistle to Timothy, for example, were not written until the second century. Even his fatuous remark about women keeping silent in church was probably a later addition to I Corinthians.
Paul's one lapse was his strident insistence in the same letter that women should wear veils when they prayed or prophesied in the assembly. But even here, Paul has no problem with women ministering publicly.
Both Jesus and Paul would be horrified by the misogynistic interpretation given to their message by some very eminent Christians. Tertullian and Jerome blamed all women for the sin of Eve: they should hide away and make themselves as unattractive as possible, lest they lure a man from the path of virtue. Marriage, both agreed, was unworthy of a Christian and equivalent to prostitution.
Augustine told his young priests to avoid all women, even if they were sick or in trouble. "What does it matter," he asked, "if it is a wife or a mother? It is still Eve the temptress of whom we must beware in all women." Whereas a man could always embody God's image, a woman's "concupiscential parts" made her an inferior representation of the divine. In the same spirit, Thomas Aquinas called woman mas occasionatus, a failed man.
This hostile theology, so far from the loving spirit of the Gospels, reveals a profound disturbance in the Christian psyche. For centuries the only good woman was a virgin: her transcendence of sexuality make her a kind of honorary man in the eyes of the Fathers. During the great witch craze of the 16th and 17th centuries, the Dominican Inquisitors condemned thousands of women to death for making men impotent, worshipping Satan and having sex with demons. This destructive fantasy, shared by Protestants, was the most explicit expression of that deep fear of the female which haunted the Christian imagination.
A religion that ostracises half the human race in this way can only alienate us from our humanity. These buried terrors were handed on from one generation to another, alongside the official Church teaching that both men and women were in God's image. But periodically, Christians rebelled against the imbalance which saw God as essentially male and the masculine as the human norm. In this persistent protest lay their salvation.
Thus in the 12th century, the cult of the Virgin Mary was developed in Europe and, perhaps, helped to qualify the cruel, macho Christianity of the Crusaders. Jung saw Pope Pius Xll's 1950 declaration that Mary was Queen of Heaven as a similar attempt to revise our conception of the sacred. Perhaps the current call for the ordination of women is another attempt to redress a wrong that has long scarred the integrity of Christendom and should be ,heeded carefully a more balanced ministry could bring us closer to a more adequate notion of the divine (which must transcend such human categories as gender) and to a fuller appreciation of our redeemed humanity. t Karen Armso-one. author of the best selling "A History of God", is a former nun.