Saturday, 21 May 2011

1975 and all that - how a bad decision undermined the debate on women's ordination

Recently I seem to have been caught up in the ‘ordination of women’ debate — perhaps because our diocesan synods are now discussing the draft ‘Measure’ put forward by General Synod to allow for the consecration of women bishops.
Two weeks ago it was the debate on Premier Radio with Christian Rees. This week I visited a parish on the south coast to talk with their PCC about the forthcoming legislation and the theological issues involved.
One of the things I have emphasised in both settings is that there is a debate to be had. I alluded on Premier Radio to my opinion that perhaps the most stupid thing General Synod has ever done was to vote in 1975 that “there are no fundamental objections to the ordination of women to the priesthood”.
Perhaps those in favour of the motion excused themselves by arguing that the key word was ‘fundamental’: there are objections, but they are ‘not fundamental’.
Certainly it would be even more stupid to say there are ‘no objections’. But even the statement that there are ‘no fundamental objections’ is blatantly not a ‘received truth’ in the Anglican Church, least of all was it in 1975.
Thus I doubt very much (though right now I am not in a position to check) that the 1975 vote was unanimous or that the debate consisted of a queue of speakers all agreeing with the motion.
This is why the wording of the motion is so iniquitous. It actually would have been better for the motion to have declared opposition to the ordination of women to be anethema — an approach which the Church has taken on controverted issues in the past. That would have had the effect of recognizing the existence of objections, but declaring them false.
However, the phrasing of the motion — “there are no” — itself creates a falsehood, for clearly there are. It is the attitude of the child playing peek-a-boo who, because it cannot see its mothers face, believes it cannot be seen by its mother. When objections are raised to women’s ordination, the response will be (as was actually stated to me during the PCC meeting), “But the Synod voted that there are no fundamental objections to women’s ordination.” I, and those who share my views, simply cannot ‘be there’ in reality because we don’t actually exist. Synod says so.
This is also why it is always dangerous to vote on a belief, rather than a course of action, and why ‘democracy’ is such a poor tool in such circumstances.
Where action is required, and where there are several choices about what to do, it may, in fact, be appropriate or necessary to take a vote, simply in the interests of doing something rather than nothing.
Even this is not a universal principle. As one writer on leadership observed, a tank in battle is not a place for taking votes. But where there is equality of decision-makers, time for reflection and yet the need for action, a vote may be the most equitable way to proceed.
However, a vote cannot make a thing true, and that ought to have been obvious to the Synod’s governing committees at the time.
Unfortunately, that way of proceeding has taken hold in the whole process, and indeed the 1975 vote is arguably the point at which it all began to go wrong, for the result has been to give credence to the idea that the theological work has been done, when it clearly has not.
In preparation for both the Premier debate and the south coast visit, I read a couple of books on the issue putting forward the ‘pro’ case. For the former it was Discovering Biblical Equality : Complementarity Without Hierarchy, edited by Pierce and Groothuis, and for the latter The Gender Agenda, by Lis Goddard and Clare Hendry.
The one thing you could not say after reading both these books is that the issues are ‘not fundamental’.
The other thing you could not say is that the issues are entirely resolved, though they may look that way from the safety of our own ‘constituencies’.
Both Goddard and Hendry are members of AWESOME, a network for ordained Anglican evangelical women, and during the writing of their book, which is a dialogue from different perspectives — Goddard for and Hendry against women as incumbents in churches — they both went to a network conference. Reflecting on this, Hendry makes an interesting observation:
Some folk [present] seemed to be totally unaware that there are other views on headship held by ‘sane and normal’ people, and that for some groups this is not the minority view. [...] It is important that women [in AWESOME] who have a high view of the Bible can take the view that I and others hold about male headship, and that this is a legitimate position. But I didn’t always get that impression from some of the folk at the conference. (135)
Now of course the same would be true if one went to a Forward in Faith rally or a gathering of Reform. We must not pretend that any section of the Church of England takes a truly dispassionate view on this subject.
But that is the problem. The Church of England has enshrined in its legislation the principle that both the acceptance of women’s ordination and its rejection are legitimate Anglican views, to be embraced and treated equally. Yet the foundation for its legislation in this regard would appear to be sand rather than solid rock — a decision by majority vote that a view held by many Anglicans lacked any substance, even whilst the very fact that a vote was taken proved that it had its firm adherents.
The present Anglican position, therefore, must be deemed either incoherent or dishonest. It is incoherent to declare that a viewpoint lacks either justification or support and then to declare that, nevertheless, it is on a par with the truth. Alternatively, it is dishonest to be saying that everyone will be treated equally when, in fact, there is self-evidently no possibility that this will be the case.
Those of us who have hoped the Church of England’s governing bodies would honour the commitments given since 1993 have probably not been clear enough ourselves about the realities of the situation. But we have taken heart from the fact that ‘incoherence’ is what the Church of England does so well.
Unfortunately, as the recent creation of the Ordinariate suggests, it is something which even the Church of England can only do for so long if the pressures become great enough.
And alongside incoherence we have had dishonesty — I refer to the exclusion of traditionalists from senior office, at first doubtless in response to subtle pressures, but now openly and overtly. Yet as with the pressures for Anglo-Catholics, this can only be maintained for so long, and the proposed legislation reflects the need to ‘move on’.
It is a principle in law that equal parties should be treated equally. Anyone reading the draft Bishops and Priests (Consecration and Ordination of Women) Measure will see that it establishes two classes of Anglican — those who will simply be able to go about their church business from year to year without the need to justify their continuance, and those who will regularly have to review and revise their arrangements with the institution.
Those accepting of women bishops will never be asked to consider whether they might be wrong. Those who are not will constantly be having to justify their position to themselves and to others.
Surely no secular legislator would allow such a situation! But in the Church it seems we can — and why not, when one point of view has neither a basis nor a constituency?
John Richardson
21 May 2011
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  1. Article XXI is clear that General Councils "..may err, and sometimes have erred..."

  2. As is the case of other situations I can think of - this is probably an example of those who are "conservative" on an issue, misguidedly trying to show charity to those with whom they disagree.

    The problem is that this particular type of charity is not reciprocated, and thus creates a situation of "assymetrical combat" in attempts at achieving legislative consensus.

    Perhaps the best solution is for conservatives to find other ways of showing charity for those with whom they disagree. The acts of love may be rejected; but we are never told to love only in ways which are widely applauded.

    I'd also suggest that given the lies and mistreatment of those communities who are not in favor of womens' ordination, a great deal of charity is now due these groups. If we can not give them the same legislative charity they gave us - let us then at least be generous in the only other form of charity understood by a primarily bureaucratic organization - financial charity. Many of them are much more Anglican than we are - believing in God, the atonement, the resurrection, etc. etc.. As we fail in our essential duties while erecting a new, experimental form of social governance, we can at least be assured that they will keep safe some of the essential qualities of what it means to be "Anglican," such as serving God and living holy lives - a thing which, I hope, we still understand in the abstract, though it may seem foreign to us "in the flesh."

    In a few decades, we may be in great need of these persons we do not regard as "sane and normal" if we are to discover we are in need of turning toward God.

    It's also rather telling of us that we are excluding much carefully reasoned argument without evaluating it, simply classifying it as not sane and normal. I.e., abandoning reason in favor of judgments relating to classes of people - "we like this kind of people - don't like this other kind of people." When it comes to religions - it does appear that we're leaning to the more dogmatic, nastier type.

    Note - I realize the words "sane and normal" are from an AWESOME representative, and from a literalist point of view, represent this person only - but they are quite good at classifying much of the argumentation we are hearing in favor of the exclusion of those with whom we disagree.

  3. Substitute the word "blacks" for women and see how it reads.

  4. Anon, by all means substitute the word 'blacks' if there is equivalence in this instance between race and gender. However, substitute the word in this sentence, "I married a woman" and you will see there is a problem.

  5. Yes, you have discovered the pitfalls of being a state church and how to legislate badly.... I wonder if Jesus is smiling (doubt it) or frowning at yet another institution restricting people from ministry (he turned the male/female thing upside down to the prevalent, ruling culture.....). How to fail and still not learn!

  6. Here in America in the 1970s, when we ordained women I asked what I thought was a pertinent question: "Why would Our Lord call women to the priesthood when we have more male priests than we have jobs for?" It's 30-odd years later and still no answer.

  7. Are you saying a man cannot be married and still be sexist and misogynistic? He can!

  8. Anon, no I'm not, but this is a conversation of the deaf and you're in violation of 'house rules' about anonymous posting. You could try reading Godard and Hendry's book to see a constructive example of how to disagree!

  9. Anonymous,
    I'd suggest that ordination and religious leadership are subject, in general, to religious directives; and that such directives are not necessarily "racist." We must remember: it is not necessarily a privilege or beneficial to be numbered amongst religious leaders; and the Catholic Church knew, for centuries, a situation in which many were ordained due more to familial pressure than personal will - people who most surely would have chosen otherwise.

    Some cultures associate the responsibility of religious leadership with only a certain tribe or race. Think, for example, of the priests of ancient Israel, who were all Levites. Since Jews accept this as a part of their history, and do not denounce Moses, does this make all practicing the Jewish faith racists? And if you do consider all practicing Jews racist, what does that make you?

    It is true that we live in a culture where personal choice is practically deified, given the centrality it holds in our rationality and discourse. But if we foist our own understanding upon persons who are adherents of religions which aren't Western in origin - such as, e.g., Christians - this most surely makes us bigots.

  10. I suppose the other thing about the anonymous comment is that one would have to attribute being sexist and misogynist to Clare Hendry, who holds much the same views as myself.

    On the face of it, however, that seems an unlikely cause for her position, not least because she is a woman.

    In that case, the automatic ascription of sexism and misogyny to myself (as a man) is itself a possible example of sexism - certainly if the reasoning goes along these lines: "If a man holds this view, it will be because he doesn't like women. If a woman holds this view, it must be something else."

  11. Well said John - after all, what's to stop anyone saying that "If a man holds the feminist view, it will be because his wife wears the trousers"!!

    Dan Baynes
    Barton Seagrave

  12. Is there any chance of an AMiA-type group setting up on the shores of England itself in order to flee the COE's apostasy?

    Joel Wilhelm

  13. Black people can internalise racism, women can internalise sexism.

  14. Anonymous - that doesn't address the issue. Yes, women internalise sexism - and I suspect that victims of racism (not just black people) may be able to do the same in their case.

    The question is whether that is what is going on here.

    Since you seem to be confining yourself to one-line comments, this 'dialogue' could take quite a while. If you want to continue, I suggest you provide a name and location, which is what I normally ask for from those who comment on this blog (see the policy at the end of the posts).

  15. Fr. A. T. Cross23 May 2011 at 05:29

    Why has no one cited Scripture or the Church Fathers in defense of their position? I was under the impression ( perhaps mistakenly ) that Church governance is supposed to be determined by Scripture, tradition and reason based on the two former criteria.

  16. Part of this is also probably due to a simple confusion of "the secular" and "the church," arising from the view that "the secular" is a kind of natural order which exists unto itself. "The secular" however is profoundly cultural and contextual. Some of the underlying questions are: "How should people with different beliefs, backgrounds, and group adherences interact in public places - in markets, in government, in employment which is aimed at cultivating the secular market as a whole, or whose primarily task is serving the entire polis?"

    Enlightenment thought is resoundingly in agreement that "the secular" (and "the civilized") do not come out of nowhere, but involve cultural forces. This is even to be found in Rouseeau. We have never, when thinkingly engaging the notion of culture or the secular, abandoned this premise; we realize how profoundly intersubjective our most basic thoughts regarding humanity and civilization are.

    When we try to view the sacred under the lens of the secular in a reductionist fashion, of course we end up with nasty conundrums.

    At this point, it's good for the person who sees him/herself defending the secular order to ask, "how am I being a Fundamentalist here? where are my prejudices, my bigotries?"

    Our most dangerous prejudices are our invisible, unexamined prejudices which we frequently formulate as slogans. This is not to say there is nothing behind the slogans. But it's of critical importance that we gain perceptual clarity about them; or if we insist too strongly upon them, we are truly acting as highly willful bigots.