Sunday, 21 February 2010

Women's ordination and the other elephant

In all the recent debates in the Church of England about women’s ordination (in which I include those going back to the eighties and nineties), there have been not one, but two elephants in the living room.
The first elephant, gradually acknowledged and initially given space, has been the indecisive attitude of the church. Women’s ordination was sold to the Synod and to the wider Church on the basis of an accommodation. Women would be ordained, but the ordination of women would involve a further process of reception. What lay behind this was a hope on the part of some that there would always be a place for opponents, and on the part of others that opposition would die out as time went on.
Now that (thanks, in part, to some judicious gerrymandering of the bench of bishops) numbers favour the ‘pro’ side, we are seeing signs of the ‘end game’ on this initial compromise.
However, as we look at the options resulting from shooting the first elephant, we must now confront the second, which is that the Church of England embraces two entirely different concepts of the ordained ministry.
At the risk of oversimplification, one of these basically assumes that the pattern of having bishops (who run, or help run, dioceses), priests (who minister more locally, celebrate the sacraments, preach and pastor), and deacons (who are probationary priests), represents the way the church long has been and forever should be. The other takes the view that these same orders are, in the form in which they are found in the Anglican Church, essentially man-made, and therefore dispensable. They may sometimes serve the Church well — they are of its bene esse (its ‘well being’) — but they are not, in their present form, of the esse (the ‘very being’).
Most laypeople, I suspect, take the former view. It is how they have always seen and experienced the Church of England, and they have never bothered to look into why this is the case. So, of course, do the Anglo-Catholics clergy, though they consciously look back to the tradition of the Fathers for a justification. But to them we must add also the Liberal Catholics, who generally take a very ‘high’ view of the ministry, even whilst they might take a very sceptical view of traditional theology.
Then we have what may be popularly known as the ‘Evangelical’ view, though it can be found long before the movement of that name, in the writings of the Fathers of the English Reformation. This group places far more emphasis on the fact (generally acknowledged by Catholics both traditional and liberal), that the New Testament displays nothing exactly like the orders we know in Anglicanism. Specifically, the ‘priest’ of the New Testament church is actually a ‘presbyter-bishop’, whilst the deacon is something entirely distinct, in no way comparable to our one-year ‘priest in waiting’. As to the bishop as the ‘area leader’ of a group of non-episcopal priests, this figure is nowhere to be found.
Like most Catholics, the early members of this group were generally happy to acknowledge that the emergence of the threefold pattern known to us from later years took place in the providence of God. Unlike the Catholics, however, they were equally happy to see it disappear, should it be found to have outlived its usefulness.
Thus, Richard Hooker wrote, in his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, that no “true and heavenly law can be shewed, by the evidence whereof it may of a truth appear that the Lord himself hath appointed presbyters for ever to be under the regiment of bishops” (VII v 8). Therefore, as far as he was concerned, their authority is “a sword which the Church hath power to take from them” (ibid).
In other words, the Church could manage without bishops — especially if, as he warned, “bishops forget themselves, as if none on earth had authority to touch their states” (ibid).
The same view is found in the writings of Thomas Cranmer, who asserted that, if necessary, the Church could start up from scratch, with the first bishops and priests being ordained by laypeople. And in a series of Questions and Answers Concerning the Sacraments, etc, he asserted that in earliest times the churches were not ruled by the Apostles, but simply listened to their advice:
... not for the supremity, impery [sic], or dominion that the apostles had over them to command, as their princes or masters; but as good people, ready to obey the advice of good counsellors.
Just as importantly, the Homilies (which form part of the historic Anglican ‘formularies’) also recognize an earlier time in the Church’s history when different arrangements prevailed. Thus,
Our Saviour Christ ... [forbade] his Apostles, and by them the whole clergy, all princely dominion over people and nations: and he and his holy Apostles likewise, namely, Peter and Paul, did forbid unto all ecclesiastical Ministers dominion over the church of Christ. (Sermon Against Wilful Rebellion, emphasis added)
In all this, of course, the Reformers were following the Continental Protestants, as was Cranmer in his revision of the service of Holy Communion and in the formulation of the Thirty-nine Articles.
Yet the Church of England never entirely shed its Catholic elements, and under the impulse of the nineteenth century Oxford Movement, reintroduced practices which had not merely been abandoned since the Reformation but declared illegal. Thus, by the time we reach the middle of the twentieth century, we have a Church which is a caricature model of schizophrenia — one side taking the Catholic and the other the Protestant view of the ministry, but both outwardly belonging to the same organization.
Moreover, as I have indicated, the demarcation is not clear-cut, for there are theological ‘liberals’ with decidedly ‘fundamentalist’ views of the threefold ministry (to say nothing of the absolute authority of bishops and the unchangeable nature of the church’s orders). And there are ‘evangelicals’ today whose views of priesthood or episcopal ministry (particularly their own!) are of a decidedly ‘catholic’ bent.
This would be bad enough, but it becomes even more complex when we add in the ordination of women, for then we encounter two quite different objections, for the Catholic objection centres on the nature of priesthood and its relationship with the sacraments, whilst the Protestant objection centres on the nature of ministry and its exercise in the congregation.
Between the two, the Catholic objection is actually easier to present. For the traditionalist Catholic, what matters is the embodiment of the truth in the person of the priest, and the validity of that priest’s sacramental ministry. For Catholics who oppose the ordination of women, the problem is not that a woman should not be a priest but that a priest stands as the eikon of Christ — the embodied representation of the Son of God.
What this means regarding gender is, perhaps, best summed up in the words of Newman’s hymn Praise to the Holiest in the Height:
O generous love! that he who smote
in Man for man the foe,
the double agony in Man
for man should undergo.
Behind this is the thoroughly biblical idea that Jesus is the man par excellence, in whom ‘man’ — the human race — finds redemption. It is an inclusive idea which, significantly, cannot be expressed in modern ‘inclusive’ language, because it runs entirely counter to the modern understanding of humanity. But in this view, the iconic status of Christ requires a man for its present embodiment. And without this, the validity of the priesthood, and therefore the validity of the sacraments, is negated.
Now, at the risk of losing the few internet friends I have left, I must say that this is an argument with which I disagree. But I can feel its force, and I can recognize why, for those who do hold to this view, the issue is so urgent.
For the Protestant, however, things are a bit more messy, and this is because he does not take the same view, either of priesthood or sacrament. Indeed, some Protestants, like Martin Luther, held that women could, indeed, celebrate the sacraments, just as they could proclaim God’s word. The Protestant objection to women in leadership (an objection which was advanced by Luther also), has to do with authority, not sacramental ministry or ontological ‘priesthood’.
The problem, as they experience it, is that in the Church of England, ordination generally not just recognizes ministry but confers authority. This must particularly be so in the case of the episcopate, where the bishop is not merely in authority over a particular congregation (to which the individual may or may not choose to belong), but over entire groups of clergy, who will be given no choice in the matter.
Now again, one may not agree with the argument, but it needs to be understood and recognized. And yet it also needs to be recognized that it is a quite different argument from that advanced by Catholics, and therefore it may admit of quite different solutions.
One unintended consequence of the current debate about women bishops, therefore, may well be to highlight these different views on ordination. For a century, the Church of England has managed to get by without confronting the issue. And whilst the status quo of a universally recognized ministry prevailed, it was able to muck along. Now that the options to compromise are being reduced, the willingness to overlook those differences may also be coming under pressure. And that may have its own unintended consequences.
Revd John P Richardson
21 February 2010
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  1. Hi John
    Your presentation is very clear. Thank you. It is interesting pondering the possibility of reversion to the days of apostles so that bishops become advisory and not directive!

  2. John, you really should move away from this awful Blogger, which just ate a long comment I wrote, despite my deliberate attempt to save it. WordPress is much better. I'll try to rewrite my comment.

    Thank you for taking on this important subject, which is indeed the elephant in the room of our previous discussions here and elsewhere, including my exchange here with Edwin.

    I disagree with you that most lay people take your former view. Some may do, because they have read Anglo-Catholic literature or have been instructed in that view by their priest etc. But perhaps as many may take the evangelical view for similar reasons. However, surely for the great majority of lay people the whole subject is incomprehensible mumbo-jumbo. They may believe (as I did as a teenager with no real informed faith) that the priest has semi-magical powers to perform rituals. But I'm sure they take no view on whether current ministry arrangements are of the essence of the church or merely expedient for it.

    Surely Newman in his hymn intended "man" in a gender generic sense. He was probably echoing 1 Timothy 2:5 KJV, and must have known that there it represented the gender generic anthropos. So anyone using this hymn as an argument for a male only priesthood has completely misunderstood it. I really don't understand the view that "the iconic status of Christ requires a man for its present embodiment", the only basis for which I find in a misunderstanding of "man" and "brother" in passages like this one and Hebrews 2:17.

    The Anglo-Catholic view that I do understand is that by tradition priests are male only and the tradition should not be changed without agreement of the church of Rome and the Eastern Orthodox churches. But I reject this view, which gives the Pope a veto over church practice, as fundamentally anti-Anglican. This argument also implies that there is no fundamental theological objection to women priests, but that it is something which the church has authority to change.

  3. Interesting comment on the ministerial fundamentalism of theological liberals. They are also inclined to be liturgical fundamentalists, which shows that their mindset is essentially legalistic and institutionalist.
    When Southwark Provost Colin Slee was a candidate for Bishop of Christchurch in New Zealand, he laid great stress on the fact that he insisted on the exact rubrics regarding clerical dress in his cathedral. So never mind the teaching in sermons or the personal lives of clergy; as long as they're in their canonicals of a Sunday, we have our priorities right.

  4. "Between the two, the Catholic objection is actually easier to present. For the traditionalist Catholic, what matters is the embodiment of the truth in the person of the priest, and the validity of that priest’s sacramental ministry. For Catholics who oppose the ordination of women, the problem is not that a woman should not be a priest but that a priest stands as the eikon of Christ — the embodied representation of the Son of God."

    Familiar with that argument, I was taken aback when an Orthodox priest (in the Syriac tradition) informed me that his church was in fact ordaining women priests (if not bishops.) Anglicans who oppose this may not find the Orthodox as univocal about this as they would like.

  5. Thanks for your naming of the "elephant", well another "elephant" in the room.

    Don, the "orthodox priest" that you refer to is not orthodox at all, and is a member of a very tiny group called Antiochian Catholic Church.

    As per the icon... It was explained to me in an ecumenical conversion. The icon is, at its best, one in which a man, who usually is served, must, before God and the community at the table, humbly offer himself in service to all. Something, they would say that woman do all the time.

    For what the orthodox fathers would say, what Christ doesn't take onto himself, he doesn't save! Which of course, he saves male and female alike!


  6. make that "conversation". Although maybe it was an ecumenical "conversion!

  7. Craig, if Christ saves male and female, then by the "what Christ doesn't take onto himself, he doesn't save" argument the human flesh that he took on is both male and female, or rather not gender differentiated. That implies that there is no need for any gender differentiation among those who represent him as priests, indeed that it is wrong to make any such differentiation because it means that the priesthood is only partially representative of Christ.

    Of course the argument you put forward about the woman serving only applies in the context of a society in which women are generally expected to serve more than men. In today's largely egalitarian society it falls. So the whole issue can legitimately be revisited in a new cultural context.

  8. For reasons that neither I nor Father Greg (ACCA) understand, he had difficulty in posting a reply. He asked me to pass along the following:

    "Peter, I think the issue is that gender differentiation is not ontological. IOW, human is human, regardless of whether said human is male or female. Remember that Christ, while male himself, assumes humanity from a woman, his virgin mother, and Paul classifies gender along with economic and ethnic distinctions, which are clearly not ontological.

    Craig+, I will leave it to others, or even to history, to determine whether or not we are "Orthodox". However, we are most definitely "orthodox". That aside, Don is right. Metropolitan Anthony and Elisabeth Behr-Seigel, both of happy memory, advocated ordaining women to the priesthood, and others today in Byzantine circles, including Bishop K. Ware and Fr. Thomas Hopko, refuse to rule it out. Among the mainstream Oriental Orthodox Churches, I would suspect that sooner or later, the Indian Church will be the first to ordain women to the priesthood."

    His own blog is at

  9. Well, Don and Father Greg, if "gender differentiation is not ontological", surely that does away with the argument that women are ontologically incapable of being priests, of representing the humanity of Jesus which is ontologically the same as theirs.

  10. Well, as a layman I've never taken your first approach (that's the way it is now, has been, and forever shall be, amen). I've always been one to question the status quo, especially as there seems to be so little biblical support for it.

  11. Anonymous, as I wrote, "Most laypeople, I suspect, take the former view," so you'd be in the other category - the minority (I suspect) who have thought more about it.