In the wake of the vote against the women bishops Measure, I find myself pondering just what questions we now need to be asking. If the recent General Synod vote is to have any redeeming outcome, it will probably involve the willingness to rethink assumed theological positions.
This is certainly being urged by ‘egalitarians’ on ‘complementarians’, but there is every reason why that could be applied to all.
Without a doubt, women bishops would be an innovation in the Church of England, contrary to the entire tradition of Anglican history from before the Reformation to the present.
Such a thing might indeed be possible — some are arguing it is a gospel imperative — but by the same token, surely any position, no matter how long its pedigree or widespread its acceptance, is thereby similarly open to question (if not necessarily to overthrow).
And one such must be the nature of ‘priesthood’. In the wake of the Synod vote, blogger Revd Jody Stowell wrote, for example, of her feeling that she “simply did not exist at the same level of priestliness” as her male colleagues. Again, she said that she felt like “a second class priest”. Indeed throughout her post the underlying conviction is that she is a ‘priest’.
Yet whenever I read such language I cannot help, as a Protestant, being reminded of the words of Martin Luther: “Worthy of anathema is any assertion that a priest is anything else than a Christian” (LW 40:19).
Despite my Anglo-Catholic upbringing I have always, since my conversion, regarded it as self-evident that every Christian is fully a priest. Equally, I have always instinctively shared Luther’s view of the continuing use of the word ‘priest’ and its impact on our thinking:
... we neither can nor ought to give the name priest to those who are in charge of Word and sacrament among the people. The reason they have been called priests is either because of the custom of heathen people or as a vestige of the Jewish nation. The result is greatly injurious to the church. (LW 40:35, Concerning the Ministry, 1523)
Now of course Ms Stowell may be using the word ‘priest’ in its proper sense, as ‘presbyter writ small’. I do not need to assert any covert Romanism on her part.
But if we are to have a frank discussion of women in the episcopate, it is not inappropriate to have an equally frank discussion about all of us, men and women alike, in the ‘priesthood’ (or presbyterate) and to attempt to identify what this really ought to mean. For in following Luther’s thoughts on the subject, those functions which are reserved to the Anglican priesthood are properly seen as belonging to all in the Church by merit of their shared ‘priesthood’. Thus he writes,
... all Christians, and they alone, even women, are priests, without tonsure and episcopal “character.” [...] So when women baptize, they exercise the function of priesthood legitimately, and do it not as a private act, but as a part of the public ministry of the church which belongs only to the priesthood. (LW 40:23)
Now if we were to accept this position, I wonder what difference it would make to the debate on women’s ordination and consecration? For Anglo-Catholics, I suspect it would simply be intolerable. But would it affect the views of the proponents of women bishops if we accepted that any and every Christian, without episcopal ordination, could celebrate the sacraments and do all the other things appertaining to the ‘priesthood’?
In a way, the position is not much different, after all, to that of evangelicals like myself whose position on women being vicars and bishops is that they should not, rather than that they cannot. To say that anyone could perform these functions without episcopal ordination does not mean they should, but that is a very far cry from saying that they simply could not even if they went through the motions.
It is here, however, that we come up against the assumptions within our present framework. In its criteria for selection, for example, the Ministry Division of the Church of England insists that candidates for ordination “should be able to speak of the distinctiveness of ordained ministry within the Church of England”. This is in addition to being able “to articulate a sense of vocation to the ordained ministry” and having “an inner sense of call”.
All this, it seems to me, is likely to make any candidate for ordained ministry think that he or she is ‘special’ in a way which is not common to all believers. And this is further complicated by the fact that in Anglicanism we tie this up with the language of ‘priesthood’ — a word which, however much we may (or may not!) wish to gloss it as meaning something other than what it did under the Old Covenant, speaks of a special relationship with God and with the rest of humanity.
Now of course there is something special about the ministry conducted by clergy. But the important question is how it differs from the ministries of all believers. Are there two kinds of priesthood — one common to all and another belonging to a special order within the Church? Or are there just specialities within the 'priesthood of all believers' like there are specialities in, for example, the Navy, with some having expertise in one area, some in another, but all (like the crew of a ship) essential to the whole?
There are some who would argue that the Anglican model of priesthood provides an important link to the ‘Catholic’ Church — that our orders are a vital lifeline with the wider community of believers and with the grace of God necessary for our life in Christ.
There are others who would be dismissive of all talk of distinctions or of sacraments.
But there are others again who would regard the Anglican attitude as not so much a ‘model’ as a set of unexamined assumptions, where priests are ‘distinctive’ but no one is quite sure how, where the ministry is ‘sacramental’ but no one is quite agreed why, and where the people of God are all ‘special’, but some are not quite as special as others.Please give a full name and location when posting. Comments without this information may be deleted. Recommend: