Search this Site

(Enter your email address)


 Subscribe in a reader

You can also subscribe to follow the comments.

Join us on Facebook


1. Ramifications of an All-Male Priesthood

Over the next two weeks, Brian Smith and Kristin Coffin offer a dialogue-style collaborative piece on the subject of the ordination of women in the General Church. Brian presents arguments in support of an exclusively masculine clergy while Kristin argues for the inclusion of women. The dialogue ranges over five subtopics as follows:

  1. The ramifications of an all-male priesthood.
  2. Systemic sexism in the Church.
  3. The burden of proof and the status quo.
  4. Doctrinal arguments.
  5. The role and purpose of the clergy.

They have also chosen to ignore material that Swedenborg did not publish himself in order to side-step any additional argument related to the validity of these posthumously published, theological works. This is the fourth (set of) essay(s) in the series: Women as Ordained Priests (or Not). -Editor.

Kristin, speaking on the ramifications of an all-male priesthood in the General Church

Before we discuss anything else, I think it’s important to establish that the General Church’s policy of the all-male priesthood comes with some very serious consequences. Among these consequences, I see

  1. Many passionate and talented women who feel called to the ministry, but who are rejected by their church family and intensely wounded;
  2. I see a wealth of human potential that is untapped, un-encouraged, and prematurely choked out;
  3. I see a church organization with a tremendous imbalance of power between the genders;
  4. I see psychological damage to young girls who are brought up believing that they are less capable of leadership, less relevant in spiritual things, and even less Godlike than men; and
  5. I see a systemic sexism which is so pervasive that no part of my church culture is untouched by it, and which traces back to a belief in the intellectual superiority of men and the emotional subjectivity of women.
  6. I also see an organization which has profound promise, but which is guaranteed to fail if it continues to alienate so many people in this way.

I understand that from the perspective of those who do support the all-male ministry, there would be a new set of hazards and consequences to deal with if the policy were reversed and women were ordained. However, I wonder how these new dangers and losses could even come close to those we already experience. (You may feel that I have exaggerated the damages sustained under the present policy.) I also wonder what the benefits themselves are of an all-male priesthood, which are so worth preserving that the Church opts in favor of it, despite these negative effects.

Brian, in response to the ramifications of an all-male priesthood in the General Church

You pose two key questions in relation to the list of costs you see as a result of the current General Church policy. (Readers will need to reference your list again in order to follow my specific responses).

A) Have you exaggerated these costs/dangers?

I don’t know. I think you have spoken truthfully about your perspective - one that I have heard shared by many others.

  1. I am certain that women have felt wounded by these policies. I’m not sure they have made an accurate assessment of the source of their wounds.
  2. Certainly the General Church has missed the work of talented and enthusiastic women who would like to be priests. But the question of whether this is a loss to the church and the people it serves hinges on the question of whether women make good priests, or “should” be priests in the General Church.
  3. I’m guessing that I don’t view power in quite the same way you do. I do think there have been “power imbalances” between the genders - but not necessarily resulting from the General Church’s refusal to ordain women.
  4. I think that women have grown up in the church and had the experience of feeling "less god-like than men, irrelevant in spiritual matters, and less capable of leadership." But other women raised in the same church have not had these feelings. And both men and women have picked up other erroneous messages (secular and religious) while being raised.
  5. Are the negative messages certain women heard growing up in the General Church related to “systematic sexism?” I think sexism has played a part in sending false messages. I also think that at times true messages are sent but received in a false way. Are these all a direct result of the policy on ordaining women? I don’t think so. Blame for cultural ills and false messages can be laid at the feet of parents, teachers, priests, peers, genes, hell or our broader cultural context. I think it is an oversimplification to attach these to the symbolic significance of a single policy.
  6. Perhaps the most clear issue to me is that I think it cannot be defended that “the General Church will certainly fail if it continues to not ordain women.” The General Church may fail or it may not - I have no way of predicting that, nor of establishing causation. I think it is an equally defensible (or indefensible) position to assert that the General Church will certainly fail if it starts ordaining women.

B) You also asked for an illustration of how the dangers of ordaining women might match those of continuing to not ordain women. I don’t have space left for much of an illustration, but I will offer three points.

  1. As noted above, I am not convinced that the dangers exist to the degree that you perceive them and I am not sure that the symptoms we agree on arise from the failure to ordain women.
  2. If men are better or uniquely qualified to act as priests, then the church will be better served by exclusively male clergy.
  3. Conjugial Love 125 indicates that a wife should acquire the truth of the church from her husband and that the reverse is not according to order. One of the things I take from this teaching is an acknowledgment of the masculine tendency toward apathy. It represents a serious risk to a church to have women doing all the work. Just as in relationships women are often inclined to work harder than men, the same applies in things of religion. This is why many churches are noticeably unbalanced toward female participation. A church that asks (even demands) leadership from its males, is one that does not accept apathetic disconnection from half the population.

Kristin Coffin

Kristin lives in Austin, TX, working as an assistant for the newly planted New Way Church. She grew up in Bryn Athyn, and studied religion at the college there. Kristin has great affection for Swedenborgian teachings and the General Church, and hopes to see it move in more progressive directions in the coming years.

Brian Smith

Brian continues to thrive in his marriage to Janine. He loves his growing son Kai and new daughter Adelaide. He tries to minister in Toronto, Canada where they live. He is trained and employed to study sacred scripture with the purpose of empowering people in their desire to live well. Brian enjoys complaining, reading, writing and dreaming of what could be.