ORDINATION OF WOMEN: Ideals For Women In The Ministry by Evelyn Underhill

Ideals For Women In The Ministry by Evelyn Underhill

from Mixed Pastures

I am opposed to the giving of the priesthood to women; for many reasons, and chiefly because I feel that so complete a break with Catholic tradition cannot be made save by the consent of a united Christendom.  Any local or national church which makes it will drop at once to the level of an eccentric sect.  On the other hand, I greatly desire and also expect an immense extension and recognition of women’s ministry in other directions than this.  Properly “rooted and grounded” in lives of real simplicity and self-abandonment, this must conduce to the well-being and enriching of the church’s life.

What, after all, is Christian ministry, male or female, lay or ecclesiastical?  It is, or should be, just the attempt of some one who cares supremely about God to cherish and help in one way or another the souls that are loved by God: to be as one that serveth.  And moreover it is an attempt that is made, not because we feel like it or choose it, but because we are decisively pressed, called, put to it.  “You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.”  The word, vocation, does not mean that we do the calling.  It is true, alas, that we often seem to see this principle ignored; but is it worth while to consider the sort and degree of pastoral work which we might do, unless we are prepared to do everything which comes our way from that center?

That real teaching saint, Father Benson of Cowley, said, “It is a sign of perfection to be willing to do anything”; yes, even under the orders of the curate you don’t much like.  Supple, equal to any burden and any job, because the burden of one’s own importance has been given up.  Surely a body of women aiming at that type of perfection would do more for God than a body of women who had achieved some particular status.  The work that endures, and that is worthwhile, comes always from an immense self-surrender; and only that kind of ministry is going to increase the power and vitality of the church.  If it is true — and I think perhaps it is true — that the movement of that Spirit within the church is opening fresh paths along which women can serve God and souls; then how careful we must all be, to balance our initiative and devotedness by great patience, suppleness, and self-oblivion.  We surely cannot wish to give up the sacred privilege of the lowest place.

I have known a few women in my life who have genuinely ministered to souls in a creative way: who truly gave the living water and the heavenly food.  They have all been extremely simple and unpretentious.  The question of status, scope, and so forth has never, I should think, entered their minds at all.  Their hidden life of love and prayer— and here surely is a capital point  — has largely exceeded and entirely supported their life of active work.  That, it seems to me, is the ministry which the church so desperately wants; and if we are ever to give it, it means that our inner life towards God must be twice — no, ten, a hundred times — more vivid, constant, and courageous than anything our active life may demand of us.  For only thus can we ever begin to learn charity; and it is only in charity that men and women can minister to each other spiritual things.

So, if there is to be a new movement in the church, a removal of barriers and a new opportunity of pastoral service for women, how terribly careful we should be that it begins in a movement of the heart; and that this movement should be, as von Hugel says, vertical first and horizontal afterwards.  Don’t you think that what the church needs most, is not more and more officials but more and more people freely self-given for love?  People who work from the center, and radiate God because they possess him; people in whom, as Saint Teresa said, Martha and Mary combine.  No use getting Martha that splendid up-to-date gas cooker if you have to shove Mary out of the way to find a place where it can stand.

Surely we want women to retain something of that precious suppleness, simplicity, and freedom which makes us tools fit for many purposes.  It is so much better just to be able to say, “Send me,” without having to add, “where I shall have my position properly recognized, or opportunities to use my special gifts.”  It is God whom we want to get recognized; not us.  If we look again at the women saints, we see that with them that is usually so.  They often had immense difficulties, emerging as most of them did within a church far more rigidly organized than ours.  They often suffered from the jealousy, misunderstanding, and suspicion of their contemporaries.  But they did feed some sheep; and that is what matters after all.  Look at Saint Catherine in her Acarie fulfilling her vocation in and through her family life, and becoming the “Conscience of Paris.”  Consider those great lives, burning which charity; let us measure our thoughts about the ministry of women by them.

So I think that efforts to defend and expand the ministry of women in the church will be useless for the deeper purposes of the Spirit, unless there is a ceaseless recognition that usefulness in religion means usefulness to God; and usefulness to God depends upon ceaseless cooperation with him.  And this again requires a sensitiveness to the interior life of prayer.  If this temper of soul, this profound humility is sought by us, then I should feel the future as regards the ministry of women was absolutely safe.  Without it, we should perhaps be wise to ponder the advice which the saintly Abbe Huvelin gave to a distinguished lady of our own communion who consulted him about her numerous religious activities: “Madame, distrust your own zeal for doing good for others.”

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