The Woman at the Altar: Cosmological Disturbance or Gender Subversion?

By Coakley, Sarah | Anglican Theological Review, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

The Woman at the Altar: Cosmological Disturbance or Gender Subversion?


Coakley, Sarah, Anglican Theological Review


Introduction and Forecast

In this paper, I wish to develop a speculative line of argument about the nature of the priesthood and its putative connection to eroticism and gender identification. And I want to do this in a way that embraces, rather than eschews, the traditional symbolism of the eucharist as the enactment of nuptial love between Christ and the church. This strategy might seem to be a high-risk one for a feminist theologian and woman priest, and indeed it is: it consciously walks right into the fanned flames of passion surrounding the question of female ordination in conservative Roman Catholic and Orthodox circles, where the very idea of women priests is still denounced as intrinsically gender disordered, indeed as cosmically disturbing to the supposedly "natural" arrangement of sex binaries.1

A much safer strategy for a feminist theologian, it would seem, would be the sanitization of this heady nexus of themes (communion, desire, priestly enactment) by repressing or de-essentializing the symbolism of Christ and his bride, the church. Such a sanitization can be attempted, and of course has been, many times over. The arguments for such sanitization are certainly not without worth, and perhaps should be mentioned here at the start. Three such lines of approach come to mind. One may either, first, on scriptural or theological grounds, declare erotic symbolism to he disconnected from the New Testament evidence about the institution of the eucharist, only later imposed as a questionable hermeneutical veneer, and now in any case inappropriate to post-Vatican II Catholic ecclesiological sensibilities about the "pilgrim church." Or, second, one may urge on moral grounds-which today of course are peculiarly pressing-that this nexus fatally confuses the arenas of sexual desire and desire for God in ways inclined subliminally to promote abuse. Or, third, one may insist on an even quicker disposal technique for the nuptial metaphor by taking a stand against it on secular gender theoretical grounds, and seeing it as intrinsically misleading precisely because it is sustaining of repressive and stereotypical "gender binaries."

In what follows, however, I shall be exploring none of these wellworn arguments, however important one may judge them to be. Rather, I want to conduct a different sort of thought experiment. I want to see what happens if we relentlessly pursue the very logic of the opponents of women priests, that is, if we look more deeply into this problematic nexus of eroticism, gender roles, and priestly mediation of Christ's presence. And (to anticipate my conclusions) I shall be arguing that it is vital so to look-rather than to look (ztoay; for when we probe the implications of the Christ/church nuptial model more attentively, and renect on how the priest acts as mediator ofthat relationship, we shall And it impossible to "fix" the priest as "masculine" alone: the conservative argument fails precisely in the complexities of its enactment. On the contrary, I shall argue, the priest is in an inherently fluid gender role as beater of the liminal bounds between the divine and the human. But in representing both "Christ" and "church" (that is the first rejoinder to the conservatives), the priest is not simply divine/"masculine" in the first over human/'feminine" in the other, but both in both. Yet this is not, as is sometimes argued, a form of "androgyny" that either Battens "difference" or down-plays erotic meaning. For in the course of the liturgy the priest moves implicitly through these different roles, strategically summoning the stereotypical gender associations of each, but always destabilizing the attempt to be "held" in one or the other.2 In short, the gender binaries that appear to be being re-valorized liturgically (God/active/ "masculine," versus human/receptive/"feminine") are actually being summoned in order subtly to be undermined.3

Finally, if I am right, a significant part of the undeniably "erotic" tug of the priest's position at the altar lies in this very destabilisation, a gesturing towards a divine "order" of union and communion beyond the tidy human attempts at gender characterization and binary division. …

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