5. The Role and Purpose of the Clergy
Saturday, November 19, 2011
New Church Perspective in Brian Smith, Kristin Coffin, male vs. female, ministry, ordination, organized religion, priests

Brian Smith and Kristin Coffin offer a dialogue-style collaborative piece dealing with 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.

This is the fourth piece in the series: Women as Ordained Priests (or Not). -Editor.

Brian speaking to the Purpose of the Priesthood

The purpose of the priesthood is articulated several times in the Writings along similar lines as the following: “the priest who teaches truth and leads to good for the sake of truth and good exercises charity” (Arcana Coelestia 8121).

Some passages put the emphasis on truth as the key tool which ministers use. “Ministers should teach people the truth, and in this way lead them to a good life” (New Jerusalem and Its Heavenly Doctrines 318).

Another passage distinguishes between the lay function and the priestly function as follows: “good can be inculcated in another by any citizen, but truth only by those who are ministers that teach it. If others teach it, heresies arise, and the Church becomes confused and torn apart” (Arcana Coelestia 6822).

It is the emphasis on the teaching of truth in these descriptions of the priesthood which people have read to be connected especially with the masculine function (Conjugial Love 175).

Kristin, in response to the Purpose of the Priesthood

Nowhere in his published theological works does Swedenborg discuss the priesthood in connection with gender. In none of his descriptions of the priestly office does he indicate that men are better qualified. Rather, Swedenborgian scholars have read other passages about men and women -- their complementary natures, their spiritual “orientations,” and their roles in marriage -- and extrapolated that men are probably better preachers. While the role of a priest is certainly very centered on the study and teaching of truth, the assumption that all women would fail here is tantamount to the belief that woman’s intellect is feeble and incompetent next to man’s. Her capacity to understand spiritual truth is corrupted by her passion and sentiment.

As you say, Brian, Swedenborg makes it very clear that ministers ought to teach the truth, and lead people to good by means of it. Goodness, love, charity, and affection -- these are all words which Swedenborg uses in connection with the priesthood. It would be absurd for me to claim that men are unable to contribute the “will” side of ministry. They are endowed with passion, bias, motive, desire, and feeling. These things lead some men to be terrible priests, but they are also vital if the job is going to be done well. Women are endowed with these things too. We are also endowed with discerning and acute intellects which help us through life and enable us to regenerate... just like men. By separating men and women in this way, the church is invalidating a woman’s basic rational faculty. It’s dehumanizing.

In closing, I just want to iterate that women have a vested interest in the Church organization, and they are being denied a voice in its only really influential body. And just for the record, I do not have interest in becoming a minister myself. I’m fighting for it because I see and feel an oppression of women in the General Church. Women are not invited to the leadership of the Church; their perspectives and interests are unrepresented; and what’s worse, they are considered less capable than men of understanding spiritual matters. As long as this is the reality they will always be condemned to a secondary role.

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.
Article originally appeared on New Church Perspective (http://www.newchurchperspective.com/).
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