Recently, Professor William Witt, an Episcopalian, has introduced a novel argument in favor of Women’s Ordination.
Historically, the Western Church has held that the priest acts in persona christi, and that consecration takes place at the words of institution.
In ecumenical discussions/debates, this difference has long been a point of contention between East and West, with the East insisting that their position is correct, and that the West’s position is seriously mistaken. In ecumenically agreed statements, the eucharistic model that has come to dominate in the last half century is the epicletic one, without explicit acknowledgment that this is a move toward the Eastern position.
During the second half of the twentieth century (and, to my knowledge, not before), Roman Catholic theologians began arguing that women could not be ordained because they could not represent Christ, i.e., could not act in persona christi.
Shortly afterward, Eastern Orthodox theologians who were opposed to WO, suddenly began adopting the Latin argument about women being unable to represent Christ, without acknowledging that this was yielding to a Latin understanding of consecration that they had fiercely resisted previously.
AFAIK, no one has ever argued that men cannot be ordained because a man cannot represent the female church when the priest acts in persona ecclesiae. So, when arguing for ecumenical unity, Western theologians have increasingly adopted the Eastern model, with an endorsement of the epiclesis, and, by implication, an endorsement of the Easern position that the priest acts in persona ecclesiae.
When arguing against WO, the same theologians (and now Eastern theologians) have insisted that women cannot be ordained because they cannot represent Christ, with an implied (or rather explicit) endorsement instead of the Western position, that the priest acts in persona christi.
But, then, logical consistency is not always a strong suit when people are trying to find new justifications for a committed position when the old one clearly will not do any more. As they say, any stick will do to beat a horse.
There is a clear coupling in the West of the concepts of in persona christi and the words of institution as the central act. The Western understanding binds these two because the consecration refers to “my” body, “my” blood. That is, the priest speaks in the divine first person. This is also true in absolution. “I absolve you…” Again, the divine first person, thus in persona christi.
The Eastern position does not have a corollary necesity between emphasis on the epiclesis and the priest functioning in persona ecclesiae.
The differences between Eastern and Western traditions on Eucharistic theology are matters of emphasis and are not mutually exclusive. Prior to the schism, the differences in emphasis between East and West were well known and were accepted as different but valid. This is clear in that the comprehensive discussions of between East and West currently under way do not include these particularities of Eastern and Western conceptions of Eucharistic theology.
Differences over the formulation of transubstantiation notwithstanding, both systems are recognized by both East and West as valid. Furthermore, they are essentially differences of emphasis. Can not a priest function both in persona christi and in persona ecclesiae simultaneously? Can not the divine action at the Eucharist take place at both the epiclesis and the consecration?
There are two poor assumptions that Witt makes here:
1. That any shift in emphasis on the part of the West from the words of institution toward epiclesis implies a shift from in persona christi toward in persona ecclesiae. While Rome’s system links the two issues, the East does not.
2. If a shift toward an emphasis on in persona ecclesia is occuring at all officially (an I havent seen evidence for that), it is not in any case a denial of in persona christi, as these are complimentary conceptions, not mutually exclusive ones.
In short, my problem with Witt’s argument is the phrase “by implication:”
The argument from in persona christi against WO, still stands as it absolutely must.