VII The ambassador argument

Geoffrey Kirk considers the assertion that all the baptized (including women) act in persona Christi


The manner in which Christ is represented in the Church has been a point of contention throughout the debate about women's ordination. When Archbishop George Carey told The Readers' Digest that it was a serious heresy to maintain that only a male could represent Christ at the altar there was some surprise.

The 'representation of Christ at the altar' seemed strange language for an evangelical. Better, surely, would have been Professor Lampe's notion (borrowed, after all, from Paul himself) of the Christian as 'ambassador' for Jesus.

The role of ambassador, Lampe pointed out, was usefully gender neutral. An ambassador represents the Monarch or Head of State, but is not required to resemble him or her in any way. When a King dies and a Queen succeeds, no change of representative is required!

Ambassadorial language, moreover, applied to Christian ministry of any kind, is soundly based in a doctrine of the Word. An ambassador represents the Head of State or country by speaking on his or their behalf. The sex of the Head of State or of the Ambassador is irrelevant to the mode of representation.

The argument is neat, but inadequate.

The priest at the altar (in George Carey's terms) does not represent a nation state, or even a constitutional fiction (like the Queen-in-Parliament), but a living person who, in different ways, makes his presence felt.

In the eucharistic mystery Christ is present in the gathered community (who recognize him in each other with the traditional greeting "The Lord be with you'); in the word proclaimed ("This is the Word of the Lord', 'In the name of the Father...'); in the minister who breaks the bread; and in the eucharistic species ("The Body of Christ').

These modes of Christ's presence are complementary, not mutually exclusive. But among them the role of the priest, who represents Christ by his person and action, is focal and crucial. 

The evangelical theologian and teacher, Jim Packer, has put the matter clearly: 

'Since the Son of God was incarnate as a human male, it will always be easier, other things being equal, 
to realize that Christ in person is ministering when his human agent and representative is also male. Some will stiffen this argument by appeal to the iconic principle which bulks large in Orthodox devotion, and by affirming, as both Roman Catholics and Orthodox do, that the ordained minister (male) shares in Christ's high priesthood in a specially close way. 

'Protestants may demur at both notions, but on the common-sense principle that a male is best represented by another male there ought to be agreement; just as there should be in rejecting the thought that Jesus should be imagined as androgynous, or at any rate imagining that his maleness is not important. 

'For Jesus was not, and is not, merely a symbol of something, or a source of teaching that can stand on its own without reference to the teacher. On the contrary, Jesus is the second man, the last Adam, our great high priest and sacrifice ... and he is all that precisely in his maleness.

'To minimize the maleness shows a degree of failure to grasp the space-time reality and redemptive significance of the incarnation. The proper conclusion to draw, therefore, without in the least denying that informally Christ ministers through women no less than men, is that it is regularly better and more edifying that Jesus' official representatives in the church's ongoing life should be male: 

As Packer points out, there is a way in which the iconic role of the priest vindicates and verifies the other modes of the Lord's presence to which the liturgical celebration draws our attention, and the informal ways in which, responding to the challenge of Matthew 25.31-46, the whole community of the baptized makes him present in serving hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned.

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