This is an edited piece requested for The Guardian that didn't get published.
“With the Church,” wrote C S Lewis in his 1948 essay Priestesses in the Church?, “... we are dealing with male and female not merely as facts of nature but as the live and awful shadows of realities utterly beyond our control and largely beyond our direct knowledge.”
These words are a reminder that current debates in the Church of England have a longer history than many realize. And they are equally a reminder that the outcome may be more serious than many think.
But I cannot myself wholly follow Lewis, who rejected women priests on the basis of their exercising an ‘iconic’ rôle in the congregation. The priest, he wrote, “represents us to God and God to us.” Yet at these words my Protestant hackles rise, for does not the priesthood belong to all, both men and women? Martin Luther, no less, wrote that, “when women baptize, they exercise the function of priesthood ... and do it ... as a part of the public ministry of the church” (LW 40:23).
Nevertheless, Luther, Lewis and I would all oppose the admission of women to the Anglican episcopate. And for myself, this indeed relates to Lewis’ belief in the iconic significance of human gender. The place to see this exemplified, however, is not in the Eucharist but in marriage.
The Book of Common Prayer describes marriage as “signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church.” There is much that could be said about this, and one of the best accounts is by the Roman Catholic author, Edward Schillebeeckx. The title of his book, Marriage: human reality and saving mystery, identifies the close connection between what is increasingly treated as an incidental aspect of human experience and the entire structure of Christian theology, focussed as it is on the need for, and nature of, our salvation.
Here, Lewis is precisely right. Male and female are discovered to be not mere ‘facts of nature’ but ‘shadows of realities beyond our control’, for in the narrative of Scripture the physical (re)unification of man and woman in Genesis 2:24 is finally identified with the spiritual union of the Saviour and the saved: ‘as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him’ (1 Cor 6:16-17, ESV).
Indeed, this theme within Scripture has profound implications which are rarely considered in Christian theology. Nevertheless, for our present purposes, the consequences are relatively familiar and straightforward, and concern polity within the family, where the male and the female are both ‘iconic’: the man representing Christ towards his wife, and the woman representing the Church towards her husband.
This is most explicitly set out in Ephesians 5, where the relationship is described in terms of ‘head’ and ‘body’, from which has been derived a concept of ‘male headship’. But it is precisely here that we find within contemporary Anglican Evangelicalism both misconstrual and misapplication.
From the Conservative side, there is a misapplication of ‘headship’ from the specific context of marriage to the general context of the Church. Thus the pressure-group Reform speaks of ‘the divine order of male headship, which makes the headship of women as priests in charge, incumbents, dignitaries and bishops inappropriate’.
Yet this is theologically clumsy, for (Thomas Cranmer and Henry VIII not withstanding), the headship of the Church belongs only to Christ. Husband is to wife as Christ is to Church, but not as vicar is to congregation, bishop to diocese — or even monarch to national denomination.
On the ‘egalitarian’ side, however, there is misconstrual, for even where the parallel in marriage with Christ and the Church is admitted (and many of this persuasion find that difficult enough), its practical implications are effectively denied on the argument that the passage calls for a ‘mutual submission’ of all Christians to one another. The submission of a wife to her husband is thus ultimately rendered indistinguishable from the submission of a husband to his wife.
Such an interpretation, however, is hard to maintain. With regard not only to the specific verses but to the overall thrust of the New Testament Scriptures, the weight of evidence is with the Traditionalist view of marriage.
Nevertheless, the application of this to Anglican ecclesiology is not straightforward.
The Church in the New Testament was not so much an agglomeration of individual believers as a ‘community of communities’ — witness the prevalence of ‘household’ baptisms. Individuals there certainly were, but people belonged to households. (This was especially true for slaves, who ‘belonged’ in both senses of the word.) And the household was not just an economic unit but a faith-community in itself.
Arguably, it is this which lies behind the New Testament injunctions about the rôles of women in the Church. 1 Timothy 2:12, for example, famously forbids a woman ‘to teach or to exercise authority over a man’. Yet the underlying rationale is the example of Adam and Eve (vv13-14), who are treated elsewhere as not just individuals but the archetypal couple. As Christ himself is understood to be the new ‘Adam’ (1 Cor 15:45), so Eve is never just ‘a woman’, but is the primeval ‘wife’.
Moreover, it must be remembered that teaching, in this context, is not the mere imparting of facts, as one might teach English or engineering. Rather, it is the imparting of what ought to be believed and practised, and therefore includes reproof and correction (2 Tim 3:16).
If this is the issue, then the primary focus of the injunctions would be the preservation of the ‘iconic’ husband/wife relationships fundamental to the households of the Church, rather than a concern about who may or may not belong to a group which would later become a separate, and professionalized, ‘caste’ within Christendom, as did the priesthood.
The problem within Anglicanism, particularly for Evangelicals like myself, is that there is no simple overlap between our traditional orders of ministry (bishop, priest and deacon) and the biblical pattern of local elder-overseers and semi-permanent deacons alongside peripatetic Apostolic teams. The modern bishop’s rôle in particular, with all its administrative concerns, is almost completely unlike anything found in the pages of the New Testament.
Nevertheless, these orders are our way of providing the ministry which the New Testament prescribes for the health of the Church, and must not therefore conflict with that aim. Thus, as, David Broughton-Knox, the former principal of Moore Theological College, wrote, ‘relationships between men and women in the congregation should not contradict relationships of the home’.
And for my own part, I find it impossible to see how a woman can be a priest-in-charge, incumbent or (especially) a bishop, whilst maintaining with a husband at home the iconic relationship of the Church and Christ, let alone modelling this doctrine to others as the Ordinal says we should. This is especially so when we consider the authority conferred on those offices by the Anglican way of doing things.
It is on this basis that I believe Evangelicals should be conducting the debate about women’s ordination and ministry. Indeed, I understand there is an ‘Open Evangelical’ book in the making which addresses precisely some of these issues.
The one thing I cannot do, and would resist within the Church, is to dismiss the Bible at this point as merely ‘culturally conditioned’. The overarching theme of Christ and the Church is too profound for that. At the end of the Scriptural canon, in the book of Revelation, we read that the age to come is ushered in with a wedding: the New Jerusalem descends from heaven ‘as a Bride adorned for her husband’ (Rev 21:2), and the ancient marana tha (‘Come, Lord’, 1 Cor 16:21) of the early Church is echoed in the invocation of the Spirit and the Bride in Revelation 22:17.
Insofar as human marriage is called to reflect this understanding of the Church in the future, so it must inform, and where necessary control, our understanding of the Church in the present.Please give a full name and location when posting. Comments without this information may be deleted.