The Ordination of Women
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The Ordination of Women and the Meaning of "Liberal" in The Liberal Catholic Church

Robert Ellwood, United States of America

In virtually all religious traditions -Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and the others- two styles of interpretation of the tradition can be found. One may be called Liberal, the other Conservative, Fundamentalist, Traditionalist or, in Protestant Christianity, Evangelical. The difference can be put fairly simply.

Liberals believe that the basic truths of the faith can and should always be expressed in a way that is compatible with the best scholarship, science, and philosophy of the day, so as to make it understandable and meaningful to those who are well educated in these things and are living fully the life of their times.

Religious conservatives, on the other hand, hold that faith must always be described and believed in its own language. Christians, for example, must speak forthrightly about Jesus as Son of God, about Atonement and Resurrection and the Holy Spirit, and mean exactly what the Bible in its literal interpretation is thought to mean by these concepts, without equivocation. One must practice and live the religion according to the same dictates as traditionally understood.

In Christianity, the two sides have been evident from the beginning. One can find both stands in the New Testament. Later, it certainly lay behind the division between liberal Gnosticism and the more conservative "orthodox" forms of early Christianity; and between the liberal Clement of Alexandria, who favored a Christian "gnosis" in line with the experience of the Mystery Religions, and the rigorist Tertullian. In the early modern world there were Renaissance Humanists like Ficino and Erasmus, and evangelical Protestant Reformers like Luther and Calvin. In seventeenth century England one finds the Cambridge Platonists and the Puritans. It is well known that in recent times liberal theologians like Schleiermacher and Tillich and many post-Vatican II Roman Catholics have been ranged against "neo-orthodox" theologians such as Karl Barth, Catholic conservatives, and resurgent evangelical Protestantism.

In some ways the Esoteric Christianity of the Liberal Catholic Church represents a third way, especially in its approach to scripture. Its allegorical and symbolic interpretation of the Bible is non-literalistic, and so at odds with the conservative. At the same time it avoids the negativism some find in the more extreme forms of liberal biblical criticism; it is able to find value in even the most unpromising passages, looking at them with the eye of wisdom and in light of spiritual evolution.

But I think it must be said outright that the Liberal Catholic Church was and is intended to be on the liberal side of the divide so far as the fundamental issues of the meaning of religion and its relation to culture is concerned. This has nothing necessarily to do with political liberalism, and it does not mean that we necessarily conform to anyone else's idea of what religious liberalism ought to be. But it does mean that, basically, we say religion ought to be free -the root meaning of "liberal"- and open in its interpretation of words, in its ability to change, and above all its capacity to relate to the ongoing spiritual evolution of the world, which was a primal belief of the founders of our church and of the Theosophical tradition out of which they came.

The decisive identification of this church with the liberal rather than the conservative style was surely demarcated by the change of the name in 1918 from Old Catholic to Liberal Catholic. "Old Catholic" suggests a fixation on the past, a desire to keep all as it once was; liberal suggests a mentality that is free to change and grow. "Liberal" meant that the new church was to be free and open. This meant not only free and open in the ordinary way, but in the case of this church in an even more radical sense: open to the guidance of the Masters as they use the church to help prepare for the coming of the World Teacher and the next great step in human spiritual evolution.

This attitude is evident time and again in The Science of the Sacraments, as Bishop Leadbeater speaks of "A New Idea of Church Worship", the title of the opening chapter, in which he writes of revising the Liturgy so as to retain its general outline, and "the working of the old magic," but at the same time to "remove from it all the grey of fear and the brown of selfishness" - surely, in view of modern negative ideas about "religions of fear" or of self-centredness, a liberal project.

The spiritual evolution concept that lay behind the New Idea and the new church was focused on the appearance of the World Teacher, Maitreya or the Christ, and the appearance of the next stage of human spirituality. The Liberal Catholic Church was intended to be part of this evolution. The new church was to make itself available to the use of the World Teacher, "putting itself wholly into His hands as an instrument to be used at His will."

But it would seem obvious that this instrument would not be of much value to a coming World Teacher if it were not of some flexibility and adaptability for the sake of purposes perhaps beyond our present understanding. An instrument dedicated "wholly" does not set the terms of its own use, holding out for the past like Old Catholics rather than looking with the Teacher toward the horizons of the future. Even more to the point, a church that was liberal and an instrument of a coming Teacher and New Age ought to be keenly aware of what is going on in spiritual evolution in the world around it. It should respond to it, be in front of it, interpret it, guide it.

Not all changes in the outer world are part of spiritual evolution, of course. Some may be counter-currents and negative undertows. We, having eyes to see and ears to hear, need to be able to discern the signs of the times aright. But we must believe they are there and that all that works for freedom, justice, peace, and well-being for all sentient beings is part of the evolution. It is not all religious or spiritual in the narrow senses of the words, but it all has religious and spiritual meaning, and the church must respond by interpreting the path of evolution religiously through its own symbols, showing leadership as it does.

Here is where the issue of the ordination of women comes in. In my view, one of the most profound and important of all changes that have been going on in human society over the last century or so, especially from the long-range religious and spiritual perspective, has been the changing role of women. While certainly there has been loss and gain, few would deny, I trust, that overall the changes in the lives of women over the last hundred years has been good. C.W. Leadbeater, Annie Besant, and other Liberal Catholic and Theosophical leaders in the 1920s and after were well aware of this. I have written previously in this journal of the importance of the World Mother theme to them, and their sense that its emergence symbolized a new spiritual era dawning.

I now believe more and more strongly that this evolutionary development calls for response and augmentation by the Liberal Catholic Church by means of what would be a supremely significant symbol, the ordination of women to the priesthood. It would create a powerful new sacramental thought-form in harmony with and strengthening the spiritual evolution of the planet. I believe, in light of the clear direction and spiritual dimension of world evolution in this respect, that this is what the World Teacher wants and so has now made possible.

Finally, I believe that if the church refuses to make this change it will no longer be of much value to the World Teacher, being hopelessly out of touch with the work he (or she; what if "he" is in fact a woman, an embodiment of the World Mother?) is trying to do in the world on a larger scale. This church will be discarded as an instrument in favor of other vehicles, and then would probably dwindle and die within a generation or two. There are already ominous signs in this respect.

But all the sources, such as the Mahatma Letters and C.W. Leadbeater's The Masters and the Path, suggest that the masters are nothing if not pragmatic; they are faithful to those who are faithful to them, but are far more concerned with the good of the evolving world than with particular difficult persons or institutions, and will not hesitate to use chiefly those instruments that are of most advantage to them, setting others aside.

I imagine that most Liberal Catholic priests, like myself, have known women of outstanding intelligence and spiritual development, as well as some sensitive men, who have been drawn to Liberal Catholicism, but who have sadly turned away because its unbending attitude does not correlate with what they inwardly know to be true today about religion and gender. One can say, of course, that they are wrong and we are right; but I cannot myself believe this is the position in which the World Teacher wants his instrument to be. He would rather see these valuable persons, and the instrumental church, mutually enhanced one by the other.

There is the well-known passage in The Science of the Sacraments, in which Bishop Leadbeater says: "The forces now arranged for distribution through the priesthood would not work efficiently through a feminine body; but it is quite conceivable that the present arrangements may be altered by the Lord Himself when He comes again into the world. It would no doubt be easy for Him, if He so chose, either to revive some form of the old religions in which the feminine Aspect of the deity was served by priestesses, or to modify the physics of the Catholic scheme of forces that a feminine body could be satisfactorily employed in the work."

Certainly the first possibility is evident in the growing revivals of the "old religion" with women priestesses -pagan, wiccan, classical- we see around us, and it may be that this is some part of the World Teacher's work. Mainstream Christian churches, except Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, but including Old Catholics and the Anglican church out of which most of the founders of the Liberal Catholic Church derived, now ordain women. Actually it ought in principle be easier theologically for the Liberal Catholic Church to do so than for them, since out of their once-for-all revelation they must hold that the ordination of women was actually always proper but no one realised it until now, which may suggest a poor view of the Holy Spirit's ability to preserve the church from major error through the centuries; whereas Bishop Leadbeater's words indicate a Lord of the Church who is its active Head, directing it through the ages and making important changes when, as the world evolves spiritually, it is his/her will to do so.

It may be contended that we must wait until there appears a clear sign of some sort that the modification has been done by the Lord of the Church, "when He comes again into the world". But the Lord himself, in his earlier earthly coming as Jesus, refuted this approach. He came very humbly, was recognized by few, and told us not to seek after signs but rather to read the signs of the times. Perhaps he or she is here now in some way, making the changes for those who have eyes to see. There will be no gold letters emblazoned across the sky saying, "Ordain Women!" If we do not have the sense, the spiritual discernment, the humble wisdom and the courage to see and do what the World Teacher is doing around us, no dramatic miracle would likely be of help.

We should maintain the liberal spirit by avoiding an attitude of fundamentalism even toward the writings of Bishop Leadbeater. At the same time, I strongly suspect that if Bishop Leadbeater were here today, he would recognise that the time has come for the ordination of women in the church he was so instrumental in launching for the purpose of helping the coming World Teacher. He was always, in his way, aligned to the liberal spiritual and religious movements of his time while at the same time profoundly sacramental, and he would discern the direction those trends have gone since his time; and he was remarkably sensitive to the spiritual potential of both women and men. I would not presume to speak on behalf of his exceptional clairvoyance, but I would like to think it would convey to him the a new message about the issue in accordance with spiritual realities in the millennial year 2000.

But though we do not have Bishop Leadbeater physically with us, we must above all strive to share his extraordinary courage in following the paths down which spiritual discernment led him. He was always prepared to try the new and not to hold back, even sometimes at the cost of great misunderstanding and abuse. I believe it would be better for us spiritually to risk a new move such as the ordination of women even if it should be wrong, than to fall into the even more deadly spiritual trap of excessive fearfulness and caution. The former attitude the World Teacher and spiritual evolution can use, one way or another; the latter is like dead wood, good only for the burning.

This is the sense of the way one should serve the Lord and the masters I continually get from Bishop Leadbeater's rich spiritual writings, and it reflects how he lived his own life. I hope the church finds a way so to live in regard to the important issue of the ordination of women. Without vision, the people perish.


C. W. Leadbeater The Science of the Sacraments. Los Angeles; St Alban Press, 1920.

Theosophy in Australasia March 1917.

Robert Ellwood, "The Church, the World Mother and the New Age" The Liberal Catholic, LXVI no 1 (Easter 1998).



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