Ordained Ministry as Envisioned by RCWP and by the Dutch Dominicans  
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Dr. Patricia Fresen


Two Models of Priesthood: Convergences and divergences

We are a church in crisis.  Many issues which have been suppressed for too long are now surfacing and refusing to go away. There is a “growing religious cynicism, grounded in the sense that the church that speaks justice to the world refuses to practice justice within the church itself.”(1) Many examples come to mind: clericalism and the oppression of the people by the clerical caste; sexual abuse by clergy and its cover-up by many bishops, enforced priestly celibacy, the enormous decline in the number or male priests and the consequent crisis in the parishes; the decline of nearly all the great religious orders;  and of course the question of women in the church. The sexism in the church is simply unacceptable. That, in the 21st century, women are still denied equal rights with men, that the official church tries to keep them in a secondary, subjugated role and especially that they are excluded from ministerial priesthood, is almost beyond belief. But change is already taking place. The people of God are finding ways of overcoming or ignoring the unjust church laws regarding women and the church is moving forward, under, I believe, the impulse of the Spirit.  People are aware of issues of justice, especially regarding human rights, as never before. They think for themselves and they are able and willing to express their opinions and to make decisions, including about the kind of church they want to be, the priests they want to have and the kind of Eucharist they want to celebrate. There is a wonderful quotation from Pope Benedict XVI when he was Professor Ratzinger about the primacy of conscience:  “Over the pope as the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority, there still stands one’s conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, if necessary even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority.”  (Doctrine of Vatican II, vol V, Commentary, p. 134). 

In the 40+ years since Vatican II, there has been much retrogression on the part of the official church authorities, but the people of God, by and large, have been moving in the opposite direction.  Hence the widening gap between the two. 

Two responses to the crisis

Two responses to particular aspects of the present crisis have come from Roman Catholic Women Priests and from the Dutch Dominicans’ document on Church & Ministry, which was published last year and which largely reflects what is already happening in parishes in the Netherlands. RCWP addresses particularly the question of the ordination of women, while the Dutch Dominicans’ document considers the crisis in parishes because of the lack of priests. There are some very interesting convergences and divergences in the two approaches and they throw some light on a new view of the Church which is emerging amongst us. This is part of the reconstruction, the rebuilding of the church. Both groups challenge the insistence by official church authority that priestly ministry can be done only by ordained celibate men.

The starting-points of the two are, however, different:

The Dutch Dominicans start out from the situation of the Church in the Netherlands and many other parts of the world – the crisis caused by the shortage of priests, with the result that parishes are led by the people and that they have more and more Communion services.

RCWP starts out from the injustice against women in the church by denying them the right to equal ministry which should be for all the baptized. If, in Baptism, we are all equal in Christ, (Gal. 3, 27) and if baptism is the foundation of Christian life and is the gateway to the other sacraments, it is unjust that there are seven sacraments for men and only six for women.

The present women’s ordination movement had its first impulse in the 1960’s in Europe. But the group now known as RCWP emerged in the late 1990’s out of a reform movement in Austria and Germany called Wir sind Kirche (We are Church). One of the aims of Wir sind Kirche was the full participation of women in all aspects of church life. The members were tired of talking about women’s ordination: the talking had gone on for years, but nothing ever changed. They decided that the only way forward, the only way anything would change in regard to women’s ordination, was to do something about it. In the face of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (1994) and other recent papal encyclicals, there seemed to be no hope of the situation changing, at least not ´from above´. The only possible way forward was for the grass roots to start doing things differently ´from below´.

More than one male bishop was found who was willing to lay hands on these women, so that they are ordained in apostolic succession. The ordination of the Danube Seven in June 2002 is well-known. Later, several of the women were ordained bishops, so that they could continue to ordain women. The movement has grown exponentially since 2004, when the first North American women were ordained. The first Canadian woman to be ordained was Michele Birch Conery. In April this year, the first American woman bishop was ordained and within a year or two, the first Canadian woman bishop will be ordained.

RCWP not a sellout to hierarchy

This may sound as though RCWP, by ordaining women as deacons, priests and bishops in the tradition of apostolic succession, is buying into the hierarchical system of clericalism. We believe, however, that this is not the case, because RCWP deliberately sets out to live a different model of priesthood, one which is inclusive, community-based, and has as its ideal, servant-leadership.  Instead of the pyramid-shaped model where decisions are made at the top and are passed down to each lower level, according to RCWP structures, decisions are community-based and the bishop has hardly any administrative authority. Such authority is carried, instead, by an elected administrator in each region and all the administrators together form the Leadership Circle. The bishop’s authority is restricted to having the final say about the ordination liturgy and about whom she will ordain. RCWP tries, very consciously, to avoid clericalism. The RCWP priests do not see themselves as joining the priestly caste. (Some examples of avoiding clericalism are: the ordained do not usually use titles; the celebration of Eucharist is inclusive;  everyone says the words of institution at their liturgies; RCWP priests wear vestments for celebrating Eucharist but do not wear clerical clothing or collars for everyday wear and the bishops do not use mitres or episcopal chairs.) 

Dutch Dominicans´ document

In 2005 the province of the Dutch Dominicans  initiated a document entitled Church & Ministry in which they consider the question of whether celebrating the Eucharist depends on the ministry of ordained celibate men, or whether it is possible that the church community, or the pastors it has appointed, could celebrate the Eucharist themselves. 

In looking at the present situation of the church in the Netherlands and indeed in many other countries, the Dutch Dominicans point out the fundamental difference between, on the one hand the view and practice of the official bearers of authority and on the other hand the practice of those are responsible every week for the celebration in their ecclesial community. Official church authority insists that only ordained men can and may celebrate Eucharist – and this would include administering the sacrament of penance, the anointing of the sick and preaching. When there is no ordained male priest available, the laity may have a service of Word and Communion (Communion Service) but this is officially regarded as a very poor second. It is not regarded as a celebration of Eucharist. According to official church teaching, a pastoral worker or whoever leads the Communion Service cannot him/herself “transform” bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. He or she can only distribute hosts which have previously been consecrated during a Eucharistic celebration by a priest.

Many parishes and groups of people are, however, faced with the fact that, now or in the near future, an ordained priest will no longer be available and there is no hope of a remedy for this situation. Church authorities try to meet this crisis either by importing priests from abroad or by a policy of regionalization: parishes are grouped into regions, in which one priest has to make the rounds among the parishes. Many church communities are unhappy with this situation and try in various ways to evade it. A fundamental objection of such communities to this policy is that the official church is opting for a protection of the priesthood in its present form over against the right of communities to celebrate the Eucharist. 

Distinction between Eucharist and Communion Services

There is a distinction made, in the official church, between Eucharist in the full sense of the word, at which an ordained male priest presides, and a Communion Service at which someone who is not a priest presides. In a Communion Service, there are no words of institution and the hosts which are distributed have been previously consecrated during a Mass by an ordained priest. However, most people who come to church are hardly aware of the difference and they experience both forms as genuine and valuable Eucharistic celebrations. 

Dutch Dominicans´  proposal:  community appoints own priest

The way forward, suggest the Dutch Dominicans, is for the community to appoint their own leader, their own priest. This is, in fact, already happening in the Netherlands. This person needs to have sufficient training and the appointment ideally would be confirmed by the local bishop through the laying-on of hands – ordination – but if the local bishop refuses this, for instance on the grounds of the person being married, the community should have no doubt that they are, in fact celebrating Eucharist.

The two models

They share similar BASIC PRINCIPLES, such  as:

-          church seen as community, not pyramid,
-          priesthood is based on baptism and is open to all the baptized,
-          priesthood as service, not change in essence, not magic,
-          anti-clericalism, e.g. no great distinction between ordained and non-ordained;  words of institution prayed by all,
-          inclusiveness, not exclusion especially gender and ecumenical inclusiveness and even inclusiveness of other religious traditions,
-          celibacy not essential for priesthood.

Call: individual and community dimensions

Being called to priestly ministry or to any other ministry, has both personal and community dimensions. One feels within oneself an attraction, a pull, a leaning, towards such ministry. One thinks: “I could do that, I would like to do that, it seems a good way to use my talents, a worthwhile way to spend my life”. On the other hand, an individual’s call needs to be confirmed and affirmed by the community if we are to avoid self-delusion. The community aspect is very strong in the Dutch Dominicans’ model and is getting stronger in the RCWP model. 


Many of our ordained women priests have growing communities who need and want their ministry and who support them.  Marie Evans Bouclin was called to priesthood by her local CNWE community. That community has evolved into a house church and has grown from 8 to 14 members.  Marie also ministers to two other new house churches in Sudbury 

The day after her ordination in Toronto last year, she was called to serve, as a priest, the Christ the Servant community in Cobourg, Ontario. Because Cobourg is 500 Km from Sudbury, Marie needed a co-pastor. Last February, Christ the Servant community called  Kevin Fitzgerald, a bishop in a branch of the Old Catholic church, and he and Marie are their co-pastors.

Here in Western Canada, Michele Birch Conery ministers with Jim Lauder to serve several communities, in a growing ministry which is enthusiastically received and lovingly supported.  These include the following:

-          St Francis of Assisi Faith Community,
-          Oceanside Faith Community
-          Catacomb of Shekina Faith Community
-          Xristos Society Support Community
-          Ministry Without Borders Community.

In Calgary, Monica Kilburn Smith serves and is supported by the following communities:

-          Corpus Community
-          Friends of Vatican II.

In the USA nearly all our ordained women are ministering to communities who want and need their ministry. The people are ready.

Criteria for candidates

Criteria which the Dutch Dominicans and RCWP have in common:

-          The conviction that celebrations of the Eucharist do not depend on the ministry of ordained celibate men;
-          Whether candidates be men or women, homo- or heterosexual, married or unmarried is irrelevant. Of interest is whether their faith attitude is stimulating and inspiring.

Differences in requirements  (these are mostly differences in emphasis): 

-          Discernment and selection: Entry in to the RCWP program for preparation for priesthood is entry into a process of discernment about one’s call to priestly ministry. Recommendation by at least three responsible people is required.  In the DD’s model, the discernment is done largely by and within the community. (In my opinion, this is the better model of discernment regarding the person’s call to priestly ministry).
-          Ordination by a bishop: RCWP has their own bishops and ordination by a bishop is required for diaconate and priesthood. In the DD’s view, however, if the bishop refuses ordination, the candidate still becomes the priestly minister for the community.
-          Theological requirements: RCWP has more theological requirements:  a M.Th. is required if one is under 55; for those over 55, B.Th is acceptable. The Dutch Dominicans require that candidates “have expertise in using the scriptures and the material from church traditions, in order to be able to preach”.
-          Liturgical requirements:  the DD’s require that the local community should assess the candidate’s liturgical creativity, while in RCWP the candidate is required to have a sacramental mentor. However, in most of the communities served by RCWP or by priests in the DD model, there is a liturgical team.
-          Pastoral requirements: RCWP requires pastoral experience and ministry, while the DD’s have a very strong community backing:  the priestly candidate needs to be confirmed by and embedded in a community. The DD’s also require that the candidate has “a flexible talent for organization, with an eye to the chances that exist to continue what takes place in the community”.

Apostolic succession: a matter of justice for women

Personally, I think that the RCWP ordination of women in apostolic succession is an intermediate step between the present order in the church and what may emerge in some places as the community’s choice as described by the Dutch Dominicans. I believe that the reliance on being ordained in apostolic succession is necessary now for women, for reasons of credibility. If RCWP were to jump from where the church now is, to ignoring apostolic succession and if ordained women were to state: “I have been ordained by my community”, I think they would probably not be taken seriously. However, when we report that we have been ordained by bishops in communion with Rome, in full apostolic succession, we are taken very seriously, as is evidenced by the decrees of excommunication that have been issued against some of us by the Vatican and by at least one other Archbishop. If church authorities really believed, as they claim, that “nothing happens” when women are ordained, why make all that fuss, why the formal decrees of excommunication, which include all other possible punishments? If, “nothing happens” why do church authorities not simply ignore our ordinations? So the fact that we are ordained in apostolic succession is obviously very important -  for the present.

Broader view of apostolic succession

However, I suggest that our whole understanding of apostolic succession could be considerably broadened. It does mean that the tradition of laying-on of hands for community ministry comes down to us through the centuries from the time of the early church, and in fact goes back even beyond that. However, when we trace what we call apostolic succession, it usually goes back, in its written form, to some time during the Middle Ages. This is a hierarchical form of apostolic succession, passed down from one bishop to the next. It could still be accepted apostolic succession, I propose, if the community, not the bishop, were to lay on hands, and that would fit the communitarian model. However, as I have said, I do not think we can omit the present intermediate stage of being ordained in apostolic succession, at least for women. It is a matter of justice that women be ordained equally - and in the same manner - with men.

To sum up

Convergences – both models

-          are responses to the crisis in the RC church, especially regarding priesthood,
-          see themselves as within the RC church, not sects, not split-off groups, although both groups are accused of schism,
-          are somewhat subversive, part of an ‘underground church’, not officially recognized, but growing among the people of God,
-          have a similar ecclesiology: Church is, in the first place, the People of God,

-          have community-based, rather than hierarchical, structures,

-          have a similar theology of priesthood, one which is non-sexist and non-clericalist (no priestly caaste, no “change in essence” when someone is ordained;  no „magic“),
-          ecumenically inclusive,
-          include the desire for ordination by a bishop.


-          RCWP places more emphasis on apostolic succession in ordination. This is done to claim equality for women who have a right to be ordained in the same way as men. The Dutch Dominicans would like the ordinand put forward by the community to be ordained by the local bishop, but they state: “If a bishop should refuse such a confirmation or ‘ordination’ on the basis of arguments not involving the essence of the Eucharist, such as obligatory celibacy, parishes may be confident that they are able to celebrate a real and genuine Eucharist when they are together in prayer and share bread and wine” (Document, p.14).  RCWP has women bishops who have been ordained by male bishops in good standing with Rome, so the women bishops stand in the tradition of apostolic succession. Therefore RCWP still insists on ordination by a bishop.
-          The Dutch Dominicans place more emphasis on the role of the community in selecting and supporting the candidate.  RCWP is placing more and more emphasis on community selection and support but is still concerned about in claiming women’s right to ordination as a matter of justice. 

Combination of the two models or harmonious co-existance

However, the two models could possibly be combined for the benefit of all concerned. Once a person has been elected by the community for priestly ministry in the Dutch Dominicans’ model, he or she could go through the RCWP program of preparation for priesthood and be ordained by RCWP bishops. At this stage, it seems like wishful thinking to hope that local (male) bishops would be willing to ordain women who are RCWP candidates – though they may be willing to ordain the men.

Alternatively, the two models can certainly co-exist in mutual respect and support, for they embrace a similar model of church and priesthood, one towards which the church is inevitably moving. It would be a good idea to find ways for members of both groups to get to know one another better, possibly by internet and by means of a shared conference.  

Controversy sparked by the document 

The document has sparked much controversy. There was a conference in Amsterdam last November, attended by over 500 people, most of whom strongly supported the document.

But the Master of the Dominican Order and his Council have issued a statement in which they do not accept the document because it goes against church teaching. A French Dominican theologian, Father Hervé Legrand, has excoriated the whole proposal as leading to schism.  In response, Herman Haering wrote: “Perhaps Dutch Catholics are thinking about this point more critically and accurately than is the teaching church.” In February this year, Bishop de Korte of Utrecht participated in a debate with two authors of the Dominican proposal. The authors of the document say their intention is not schism, but a “determination to open the church to needed theological re-evaluation in a time of crisis.”(2)

I started by saying that we are a church in crisis.

Eckhart Tolle writes: “When faced with a radical crisis, when the old way of being in the world, of interacting with one another and with the realm of nature doesn’t work anymore, when survival is threatened by seemingly insurmountable problems, an individual life-form – or a species – will either die or become extinct or rise above the limitations of its condition through an evolutionary leap.”(3)

Could we be in the midst of an evolutionary leap in the life of the church?  A leap which is part of the reconstruction of the church as we build the church of tomorrow, the church that we believe is closer to the community Jesus had in mind?

Patricia Fresen

Patricia Fresen D.Th. is Dominican Sister from South Africa who was obliged to leave her Order when she was ordained a priest in the RCWP movement; later she was ordained a bishop. The above note was her contribution to the Catholic Network Women’s Equality Conference in Victoria, Canada, May 29th – June 1st, 2008.

(1) Ludwig, Robert, RECONSTRUCTING CATHOLICISM for a new generation, 3

(2) Tolle, Eckhart:  A New Earth, Awakening to your life’s purpose. A Plume book.

   ISBN 978-0-452-28996-3.  p 20.

(3) NCR, Feb. 22nd 2008, article by Robert McClory, p. World 17

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