Ordination as Equals

Can Thai Theravada nuns and Roman Catholic women priests shatter the clerical glass ceiling?

Victoria Rue

Ordination as Equals
Victoria Rue, a Roman Catholic woman priest, presents an engraved crystal chalice to Dhammananda, Thailand's first ordained Theravada nun.

In 1971 Dhammananda’s mother, Mrs. Voramai Kabilsingh, was ordained in Taiwan as the first Thai bhikkhuni not forced out of her saffron robes. But the Thai Sangha ignored her. They didn’t obstruct her, but neither did they offer her support. Though she established her own temple, Wat Songdhammakalyani, she did not form a sangha. In 2003, Voramai Kabilsingh’s daughter—then known as the Buddhist scholar and professor Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh—received ordination in Sri Lanka. She took the name Venerable Dhammananda and formed a sangha at the wat her mother had established. However, the Thai Sangha did not recognize her ordination, invoking the 1928 decision. And the response of many Thai monks was simply: There are no nuns in Thai Theravada Buddhism, and thus the Theravada bhikkhuni tradition cannot be revived.

There is a similar history in Christianity of women’s initial importance in religious tradition and subsequent exclusion from it. Jesus, in fact, ordained neither men nor women. He was a reformer of Judaism. The Christian ritual of ordination developed in the second century. However, there are numerous women mentioned by name in the letters of Paul, among them Junia, who is referred to as an apostle (Romans 16:7). In recent years scholars such as Gary Macy have found evidence of women deacons, priests, and bishops as late as the 12th century. Yet over the same period of time, women were gradually excluded from church leadership. It was Gratian of Bologna in the 12th century who consolidated church power and ecclesial organization with canon law. With one stroke of his misogynist pen he wrote canon law 1024, which states that “only a baptized male can receive the sacrament of holy orders.” Following his lead, the majority of canonists and theologians not only denied that women could be ordained but also believed that women had never been ordained. This is the present-day position of the Vatican and mirrors the stance of the Thai Sangha.

In 2002, the year before Dhammananda’s historic ordination, seven women were ordained as Catholic priests on a boat on the river Danube in Europe. The worldwide reaction to the ordinations of both Dhammananda and the “Danube Seven,” as they came to be called, was tremendous, both in favor and opposed. The seven women priests were excommunicated within six months. Despite this, male bishops in 2003 and 2005 ordained three women as bishops in secret ceremonies. To date, these women bishops have ordained 75 women priests and deacons in Europe and North America. In May 2008, the Vatican excommunicated not only the ordained women but also all those known to have ordained them.

Does that stop us? Hardly. Before he became pope, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote: “Over the Pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority, there still stands one’s own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, if necessary even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority.” We are following our consciences as we continue our ministries. I was among the first four women ordained in North America in 2005. Today, I preside at Masses in two California congregations: one at the Sophia Catholic Community, a house church in Santa Cruz; the other at Sophia in Trinity, in San Francisco. I am also a hospice chaplain and a lecturer at San José State University. Other women priests across the country have street ministries, small faith communities, and hospital chaplaincies. We have received overwhelming support from Catholics. But despite the historical evidence and the groundswell of support, the Vatican continues to repeat that Jesus chose only male apostles and that the institution is thus powerless to enact change.

I looked up into the face of Thailand’s full July moon. The Medicine Buddha’s white-walled temple, nestled in the rear of the Wat Songdhammakalyani property, was bathed in blue light. The male and female volunteers dressed in white, the four mae ji also in white, the two samaneris and Dhammananda in saffron— in all, some thirty people—were also bathed in the moonlight as we sat outside on the white temple steps, gratefully receiving a cool breeze. The evening’s chanting echoed across the lawn and adjacent fishpond. Then silent meditation, orchestrated by frogs.

The voice of Dhammananda called us back. Perhaps moved by the perfect sphere of the full moon, she asked us to move from our rows facing the Medicine Buddha into a circle. Once settled, she asked us in Thai and then in English what we would like to share about the day’s events. Person by person came a soft-spoken and honest sharing, like a family reviewing the day. This invitation to make a space for everyone’s voice is one example of the difference that women’s leadership can make. Because religious authority has privileged the male voice, many women are deeply aware that wisdom and empowerment occur when all are heard.

Within the two faith communities I serve, and I would venture to say among most congregations led by women priests in our movement, we strive for “a discipleship of equals.” Although the feminist theologian Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza intends this phrase to mean an end to all ordination per se, we interpret it as a democratization of both liturgical function and authority without losing the role of priest. For example, the Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass is traditionally spoken only by a priest. But in a Mass presided at by a woman priest, this same prayer is often broken into many voices—and the consecration (“on the night before Jesus died he took bread...”) is prayed by all members of the community. Women’s leadership also affects how congregations are organized: in San Diego at Mary Magdalene Apostle Catholic Community, the parish council—composed of nonordained people—makes all the decisions for the community, including the liturgy.

As we sat in Dhammananda’s office one morning after breakfast and dishwashing, she offered an everyday example of shared authority: “I am very conscious of getting people to think. For example, the other day the toilet overflowed in one of the buildings here. I asked some of our volunteers, ‘How shall we fix this? You come back and tell me, and we will do it.’ You see, our culture has always followed the monk.”

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