Liturgical Life, Women in the Church

Priestly Ministry in the Person of the Theotokos and the Church

Published on: February 2, 2023
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by Grace Hibshman | ελληνικά

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Facebook celebrity Hyperdox Herman has offered ten satirical reasons for banning men from the priesthood, including:

“The physical features of the structure of the male body indicate that the man was created for hard work, and not for serving in the temple, which does not require great physical strength.”

“Men are too prone to emotions – this is easy to see by attending any football match. A priest must be able to control himself, and this is often not given to men.”

 “Caring for spiritual children is akin to caring for children, and such care is a natural ability and prerogative of a woman.”

I used to think that the kinds of reasons for excluding women from the priesthood that Hyperdox Herman cleverly spoofs were different in kind from symbolic reasons for not ordaining women. I have heard many thoughtful Orthodox Christians explain that the significance of Christ’s sex is his saving relationship to the Church, which takes the form of that of a bridegroom and his bride. The priest represents Christ in Liturgy. So, it is only fitting that a male (and not a female) priest represent Christ.

I have since learned that in addition to representing Christ, the priest also represents the Theotokos and the Church, and that it is not so obvious which of these forms of representation ought to take precedence in determining who ought to take up the role of the priest.

The priest is thought to represent the Church because the priest ministers in her place. On this view, the Church herself acts through the priest who ministers in her name, and so the priest’s ministry is an activity performed in persona ecclesiae. In Divine Liturgy, the Church through the priest stands as suppliant before God and, having remembered with thanksgiving the history of her salvation, offers herself with the gifts to God, asking that he, through the Holy Spirit, make them to be the body and blood of her Lord Jesus Christ. The narrative of the institution of the Eucharist, including Christ’s words ‘this is my body…this is my blood…’, are spoken in the person of the Church as part of her grateful remembrance (anamnesis) of God’s abundant mercy to her, supplying warrant for the audacious petition (epiclesis) that he approve her offering and make her gift into his own body and blood. In this way, the eucharistic prayers, including the narrative of institution, are understood as the prayers of the Church which the priest offers to God as her representative on her behalf, acting at all points in persona ecclesiae.

The priest is thought to represent the Theotokos on the basis that priestly ministry, especially eucharistic celebration, is an essentially Marian activity.  There is a long history of associating the priesthood with her who first brought forth the gift of Christ’s body and blood. Marian artwork from the early Church onward depict the Theotokos either wearing the garb of priests and bishops (stole, miter, Aaron’s ephod, etc.) or else performing priestly actions (holding a paten, laying Christ on an altar, etc.) The primary theological basis for understanding the Theotokos as a kind of priest are parallels between Christ’s incarnation through the Theotokos and Christ’s bodily presence in the Eucharist through the priest. The Theotokos’s flesh became Christ’s flesh through the Spirit’s overshadowing her, and the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ through the Spirit’s descending upon them on the altar. Christ took flesh through the words of the Theotokos’s fiat, and the gifts become the body and blood of Christ through the priest’s words of consecration. The Theotokos offered her son to God first at his presentation at the temple and later at the foot of the cross, and the priest offers the body and blood of Christ to the Father in the celebration of the Eucharist. The Theotokos brought forth Christ’s body and blood to the world for its salvation and continuously intercedes on its behalf, as does the priest in the Eucharist, and so forth.

In light of these ways that the priest represents the Theotokos and the Church, it’s not obvious from the fact that the priest represents Christ, that the priest ought to be male. If a male priest can represent the Church, the Bride of Christ, then by the same token why can’t a female priest represent Christ? We might ask similar questions about the priest’s representation of the Theotokos. Those who would like to continue advancing symbolic reasons for not ordaining women ought to supply clear answers to these questions. Of course, there are other reasons on the table for not ordaining women, (e.g. arguments from tradition.) I am not arguing that we should ordain women. However, as a church, especially as a church with such a rich theology of images and of the human person, we ought to be more careful about proclaiming that women are not fit to liturgically represent Christ.

Grace Hibshman is a Graduate Student at the University of Notre Dame.

Parts of this essay are adapted from the article “Why the Jesus as mother tradition undermines the symbolic argument against women’s ordination.” Religious Studies, 1-13. doi:10.1017/S0034412522000786

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.


Public Orthodoxy is a publication of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University