Response to Linsley on 'Why Women Were Never Priests'

Response to Linsley on 'Why Women Were Never Priests'

Published: May 11, 2010 by Maria Gwyn McDowell

John Sanidopoulos, whose posts on tidbits of Orthodox tradition and the Saints I enjoy reading, re-posted an article by Alice Linsley today.  Linsley is a former Episcopalian priest who left the priesthood and eventually joined the Orthodox Church.  She appears to be a sort of living proof-text used by some Orthodox assure us that women are not called to the priesthood (except, as she says in one explanation of both her call and eventual departure, when men fail to serve.  Only then does God call women to serve in this capacity.)  Since my response was a bit longer than most comments warrant, I decided to post it here.  

The Mystagogy post is here, and the original post at Preachers Institute is here.

Linsley's argument rests entirely on a particular anthropological reading of priesthood and blood purity that was certainly prevalent in some of the cultures mentioned by the author.  However, her generalizations regarding all religions and the functions of female priests are certainly dubious, as is the assumption that Christian priesthood is simply a continuation of semitic priesthood.  More importantly for the Orthodox Christian, this does not reflect an Orthodox understanding of priesthood (Chrysostom, who she quotes, says nothing about blood purity in his priestly office!) - and has virtually no bearing on the historical reasons (at least those given in the Fathers) for the exclusion of women from the office.  

Priesthood within Orthodoxy has changed quite dramatically over the years.  All Christian priestly offices have changed over time - Orthodox scholars such as Afanasiev, Schmemann, Meyendorff, Erickson, Bulgakov and Zizioulas all acknowledge changing conceptions of the ordained offices.  It is one thing to argue that God initiates something.  It is entirely another to argue that God initiates it in a full and final form.

Purity, holiness and blood are indeed ancient semitic concepts.  Whether their source is immutable revelation or religious and culturally developed taboos is open to interpretation.  What we can say as Orthodox Christians is that this is not primarily how we understand purity and holiness.  Blood guilt is simply not how we talk about ancestral sin in Orthodoxy.

Holiness for Orthodox is the result of cooperative participation with God as we are transformed into the likeness of God through Christ in the Spirit.  This is deification, becoming fully human in likeness of the One fully human image of God, Christ.  The Eucharistic sacrifice, presided over by a member of the community, is no longer a literal blood sacrifice.  It is the transformed body of the risen Christ, a vehicle of our Salvation.  The Orthodox priesthood is NOT a ritualized (male) killing of a sacrificial lamb.  It is, in part, a thanksgiving that such a sacrifice is no longer required as the death and resurrection of Jesus ends such a sacrificial system.  

Further, the presence of female deacons in the altar, who received the eucharist with the rest of the clergy as was their prerogative as specially privileged and responsible leaders within the community, belies any notion that Orthodoxy has maintained throughout its history semitic notions of blood purity.  Certainly the female diaconate fell out of practice, and Theodore Balsamon asserts that it is ‘obviously’ due to menstrual emissions.  However, this was not ‘obvious’ to Christians for over a thousand years, and continues to be quite obscure for many today.  

More importantly, and I think completely at odds with an Orthodox understanding of salvation as deification, is this: What excludes a woman from imaging Christ?  Christ, the true high priest, became human that we might become divine, assumed our humanity so that it might be healed.  What then prevents any (appropriately skilled and called) human from serving as a priest?  Unless of course, we want to argue that Christ did not assume female humanity, in which case, females are not saved.  Gregory says to Cledonius, “What is not assumed is not healed.”  We give up this core understanding of Christology and salvation every time we imply (much less declare outright!) that women cannot bear the image of Christ.

Finally, the implication that female priests results in the belief that “Abortion is a blessing” is simply a non-sequitur, a empty rhetorical flourish convincing only to those who are seek to argue by demonization, not theology.  Some priests, male as well as female may hold this horrible belief, but there is no causal connection.

I trust that Ms. Linsley had good personal reasons for leaving her priesthood.  Her letters explaining her decisions emphasize her position as at odds with a number of decisions made in the Episcopal Church, and these reasons are worthy of respectful consideration.  However, her choice to leave her priesthood does not exclude all women from a call to the priesthood, any more than the call issued to some men means all men are called. The theological reasons she gives appear to be developed in order to explain the restriction of priesthood to men, but in so doing, it does not reflect an Orthodox theology of priesthood, much less reasons to exclude women.  It is unfortunate that the Preacher’s Institute thinks this is viable sermon resource, regardless of what one thinks about women in the priesthood. 


Mon, 17 May, 2010 - 12:21

"More importantly, and I think completely at odds with an Orthodox understanding of salvation as deification, is this: What excludes a woman from imaging Christ? Christ, the true high priest, became human that we might become divine, assumed our humanity so that it might be healed."

When I ask people why they do not support women priests they will often admit that Christ did take on the fullness of humanity, and that women can image Christ.

But then they pull this confusing notions about how Christ gave men and women different ROLES. Something I never really could figure out.

Alice C. Linsley

Mon, 04 Oct, 2010 - 10:37

The key to understanding why women are not called to the priesthood is the mystery of the binary distinctions universally observed in nature.  As St. Paul tells us in Romans these tesitfy to God's divine nature and eternal power.

We may want women to be priests.  We may think that it is justified by modern thinking.  We may argue that women are perfectly capable of serving in this office.  None of these are the point, however.


Fri, 03 Dec, 2010 - 21:04

Now, I am certainly not one to say that people cannot change their minds and hearts, but the real question for me here is not "Why women were never priests" but why Linsley was ever a priest in the first place, if she truly did have such reservations about women's ordination from the beginning. Her account shows a curious lack of agency - those older Episcopal male priests tried to convince her theologically and pastorally that women could be ordained! They (and the lack of good men) dragged her to the priesthood by force! It seems an incomplete picture of vocation. 

Alice C. Linsley

Sat, 09 Apr, 2011 - 16:35

Thanks for engaging this question.  I'd like to respond to a few inaccuracies concerning my anthropological research on the origins of the priesthood.

I never stated that the research pertains to any and all religion. I'm concerned only with the religion of Abraham's Horite people. The Horites were not Semites, but Nilotic. The concern with blood and the binary distinctions is found long before we can identify people as Jews or even Semites.

Christ didn't assume a female form.  He took on flesh from his mother ("The Woman" of Gen. 3:15), but he came as a man and that was what the Horites expected. The Seed of the Woman was expected to be a Man.


Mon, 11 Apr, 2011 - 13:43

Alice, I hardly claim to be an expert on the distinctions between Horites, Semites or Nilotics. Nor the prevalence of blood distinctions among ancient people groups. My concern is that these distinctions, likely accurate ways of understanding the religious practices of these ancient groups, are rarely cited as significant elements in shaping the Orthodox priesthood, whether it is populated by men or women. The arguments against women's participation rarely cite blood impurity, in part because many Orthodox do not see the menstruation as a defilement of any kind. This is a long debate in Orthodox history, one in which even Chrysostom, who had some unfortunate characterizations of women and their (in)abilities, is clear on: menstruation does not affect either their faith or ability to participate in the sacraments. His opinion is hardly universal as it is still common for women, especially Russian, to refrain from communicating during menstruation. However, this is not a universal practice and has been explicitly rejected by some patriarchates (such as the Antiochian Patriarchate).

I am more concerned with the assumption that sexual binarism (itself debatable in both nature and theology) seen in Christ becoming male (no argument from me here) implies somehow that women cannot become Christ.  Twentieth-century arguments regarding female priests have revolvled around precisely this issue, can a woman image Christ?  As theologians such as Behr-Sigel, Harrison, Karras, Ware, Bloom have observed, the ancient church makes very little of the maleness of Christ.  They understand that to do so is to threaten the salvation of women.  Theosis requires that Christ took on our full humanity.  If he did not do so, according to Gregory the Theologian, we (any human person) cannot become like God.  To declare that Jesus' maleness trumps the full humanity he took on is to declare that only males can become like God.  This has implications far beyond the priesthood.

If we are to remain faithful to the fullness of the Incarnation, we must seek to understand how it is that male and female are both in the image of God who is Christ.  We cannot then, argue that salvation based on the Incarnation of God as fully human includes women, but that the priesthood, presumabely based on this same Incarnation, excludes women.

Macrina Walker

Sun, 08 May, 2011 - 07:37

I just chanced upon this after having come across some other things by Alice Linsley this past week. I have my own issues with feminism and depending on the day am either agnostic or against the ordination of women (as priests or bishops, that is, the diaconate is clearly different) even though I am profoundly uncomfortable with some of the reasons given for not ordaining them. But reading Linsley's stuff has made me feel that there is something really odd going on, that she is preoccupied with categories that are at best marginal and at worst highly problematic in relation to the Tradition.

Forgive me if this sounds racist, but I have found myself wondering in recent months to what extent such reactions to feminism are not a particularly American phenomenon, or, perhaps rather, if it has to do with where Orthodoxy is located in terms of broader cultural shifts? I've come across things that seem to want to identify Orthodoxy with a macho maleness that strike me as not only repulsive but also just rather odd and make me suspect that there must be deep cultural things going on that make people react in such a way.


Tue, 10 May, 2011 - 22:36

Macrina, Can you clarify what aspects of Linsley's reaction you find marginal/problematic in relation to the Tradition? And are these the aspects you see as a "particularly American phenomenon"? I am intrigued by the observation, not offended. I also have read a number of articles which associate Orthodoxy with macho maleness, a decidedly odd, and yes, I think, American reaction. I would like to hear more about what you think.


Wed, 11 May, 2011 - 16:30

Yeah, I've heard that too actually, the association between Orthodoxy and male macho-ness. There was an article on an Orthodox website that was trying to explain why Orthodoxy is so popular amongst men in the military. It was explaining how the Orthodox Church was sort of like the Marines of the Christian world.

I wasn't entirely certain if the metaphor fit. Besides, I didn't know the Churches primary function was to make me feel more like a real man.

Personally the only thing I think of whenever I think of what characterizes male macho-ness it's lack of communication and snap decision making.


Thu, 12 May, 2011 - 08:09

A link? I have read something by Frederica Matthews-Green on the subject (I think), but I am curious about the marine analogy. I don't necessarily mind that the analogy is made. It may genuinely describe the experience of some Orthodox. What is problematic about any metaphor is when it excludes other metaphors. By doing so, we are claiming that there is only one way to experience our faith. This is not true now, and has never been true. Orthodoxy piles metaphor upon metaphor, allowing for a full range of faith, descriptions of God, etc. So if someone thinks Orthodoxy marshalls them to fight against whatever, and others find that Orthodoxy bathes them in sweet-smelling silence, well, it is likely true. But we need to allow the metaphors to live together.

Byzantine Jewess

Sun, 31 Jul, 2011 - 09:51

I am frankly baffled by what the Horites have to do with Holy Tradition...

From my forays into reading church law and the like, it seems part of the problem is that the Church has never worked out, whether systematically or even genuinely theologically, how to understand notions of ritual purity - especially regarding that classic trifecta of blood, sex, and women which are often lumped together. Often it seems the Church has been talking out of both sides of its mouth, to speak bluntly, on one hand upholding certain purity laws that reinforce the gender status quo and on the other condemning those who fall into "Judaizing" with their attachment to the "wrong" kind of purity laws.

Alice C. Linsley

Mon, 14 Nov, 2011 - 10:15

When I was ordained a priest in 1988 I didn't see that Holy Tradition doesn't permit this.  I hardly understood what "Holy Tradition" is because the Episcopal Church has pretty much jetisoned Tradition.

The story of how I left TEC and the priesthood and came to Orthodoxy is postd at my blog. Part one is here: