Ordination of Women to the Episcopate
Long before women were ordained to the diaconate in this province in 1980 – ahead of the Church of Ireland 1984, the Church of England 1985, and the Episcopal Church of Scotland 1986, the Governing Body of this church in 1976 passed a motion stating “that there were no substantial theological objections to ordaining women as priests”. (As an aside, it is worth remembering that when the Church In Wales was dis-established, it accepted women as full members from the start, making the Church In Wales the first national church within the Anglican Communion to admit women to its policy making councils). In spite of the 1976 motion, however, and the 1996 Bill enabling women to be ordained priests, the same arguments against their ordination to the priesthood are still being proffered, not just arguments against their ordination to the episcopate.
This is so because the question of the ordination of women touches on all kinds of important matters. Let me list five:
- How we understand the Bible.
- How we reflect theologically.
- How we discover God’s will today.
- How we relate to other Christians and linked to it the authority of one national church to make decisions on this issue.
- The relationship between men and women and the meaning of masculinity and femininity.
First, the scriptures. The argument is that there is no authority for it within them and that St Paul’s restrictions on women’s activities in the early Christian communities to whom he was writing, are to be seen as regulations applying to all situations in the church for all time. As an example in 1 Corinthians 14, 34-35, he writes “women should keep silence within the churches. They are not allowed to speak and should be subordinate”. So also in 1 Corinthians 11:3, “The head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man and the head of Christ is God”. In other words, headship is given to the man and it is not appropriate to give it to women who have a different purpose in God’s creation. Subordination, therefore, is built into the creative order and to ordain women breaks a creation ordinance where the order is God, Christ, man, woman. It is an argument as well that is advanced in the epistle to the Ephesians and in 1 Timothy 2, 12-13 “I permit no woman to teach or have authority over men; they are to be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve”. To add to this line of thinking, Jesus appointed 12 Apostles who were all men and he did so in spite of his unconventional and original attitude to women. The choosing of 12 men was deliberate and has implications for ministry today since ordained ministry continues in some way the work of the Apostles.
What is the response to this? It is difficult to argue from scripture as to whether or not women should be ordained to the priesthood because it is not a matter that is addressed in scripture as such, and in fact there is no worked out theology of anyone’s ordained ministry as we know it, as opposed to a general theology of ministry. The only priesthood that the New Testament speaks about is the priesthood of Jesus our great High Priest and the priesthood of all believers.
What of the Pauline argument about man being the head of the woman? St Paul said “that man has no need to cover his head because he reflects the image and glory of God but that woman reflects the glory of man because woman was created from man”. He also argues that man was not created for woman’s sake but woman for man’s sake. In this argument, Paul is drawing on the account of creation in Genesis 2 where it is said that Eve was created from Adam’s rib. In Genesis 1, however, we are told that man and woman were created together “God created male and female both in his own likeness”. There is no subordination in that statement, but equality. There is therefore no universal biblical principle of male headship over women. Nor should it be argued that chronological priority should imply superiority, for in Genesis 1, animals are created before man. Does that make them superior to humans? In any case, the theological purpose of Genesis is that behind this world is a creator. We mis-use it if we distort it to make it serve a different purpose, namely the subordination of women. Some have argued, of course, that in Genesis 2, Eve is regarded as Adam’s helper. That carries no connotation of subordination either. The word “helper” is used of a superior assisting a subordinate – God is the helper of Israel.
Moreover, St Paul contradicts himself because in 1 Corinthians 11:5, he argues that “any woman who prays or proclaims God’s message in public with nothing on her head disgraces her husband”. In other words, a woman seems to be allowed to pray and proclaim God’s message in public. In Corinthians it is a question of whether she covers her head that seems to matter at this juncture. In fact, of course, women do now speak and preach and teach in our churches. Are we to prevent them from doing that? The literal argument in St Paul is not over who presides at the Lord’s table, or who baptises, but who preaches and teaches and our church allows women to do that without demur.
The Apostles were unique. No-one was appointed to replace them. You cannot use them as a blueprint for ordained ministry since the Apostles were not ordained by Jesus or given a priestly role by Him and He left no instructions as to how the church was to be organised. It is far too simplistic to make an identification between Apostles and modern day clergy in such a crude way.
Related to this biblical exegesis of male leadership a theology is advanced that the fact that God is often referred to as father in the Scriptures and that Jesus was a male necessitates a male priesthood and episcopate – the father model.
The argument goes something like this. In the Old Testament, the writers speak of God as Father because He is the Creator and therefore different from Canaanite Gods. He does not create from within himself. He does not bear and give birth to the creation. If He did, the term “mother” would be appropriate. Only the term “father” and the relationship suggested by fatherhood does justice to the action of the God of Israel for it is biological fathers who take the initiative in creating new life. They bring others into being not from within, but outside their own bodies. Judaism and Christianity emphasise the distance and difference between the divine creator and the created order. The emphasis is on the otherness of God, the divine transcendence and fatherhood is the appropriate analogy. Jesus takes this up in the New Testament and calls God Abba. The word “father” is basic to the Christian narrative and so to the bishop’s fatherly role and so his maleness. The great worry is that with the ordination of women there will be a basic and disastrous shift in Christianity’s symbol system.
Now there is no doubt that God has been spoken about in predominantly male terms throughout history. But Christian theology is quite clear that God is not actually male – he could not be that without also being physical and there is a surprising variety of descriptions of God in the Bible in terms that are not gender specific. God is described for example as fire, light, rock, refuge, an eagle, a fountain. Thomas Acquinas called all such language “metaphorical”. Only abstract words like love can be applied non-metaphorically to God he says. It was John Paul II in “Mulieris Dignitatum” who said, “God is spirit and possesses no property typical of the body, neither masculine nor feminine – thus even fatherhood in God is completely divine and free of the masculine bodily characteristics proper to human fatherhood”. In other words, we cannot define God’s fatherhood from what we understand biologically and culturally of human fatherhood. Every fatherhood is named from God the father not the other way around.
There is also no doubt that before the modern period, most generations had a particular understanding of the role of maleness based on their understanding of the reproductive system and their observation of the way in which society was structured. They assumed that the male sperm contained a complete living human being which was merely put into the female womb as a young seedling might be put into a greenhouse to grow. If the greenhouse was kept at the right temperature, a male child was born. If it was not, and something went a bit wrong, a female child was born. So people believed that women did not contribute anything creative to the production of the human species and secondly that they were themselves defective. Being defective, they were unstable and prone to emotional outbursts and lacked proper judgement. They were therefore simply on account of their physical nature inferior to men. Thomas Aquinas said that “women were defective and misbegotten”. He believed that masculinity was the norm and a female baby was a chance error in the process of procreation. Aristotle believed that the female was a defective male. All pre modern Christian writers assumed this about women and they assumed that all this was biologically and scientifically true. In that context to talk about God’s creativity in male terms was obviously natural. But as one theologian puts it “we would be unwise to base our theological conclusions on notions of pre-scientific biology which has never heard of genes or chromosomes”. Given the biological beliefs outlined above, it was assumed that the male, the superior form of humanity, best represented God’s action towards us. So when the maleness of the priesthood is discussed in the Fathers – which is seldom because it was taken for granted – it was generally defended on the grounds of the superiority of the male sex. We know now that ancient biology was simply mistaken. We know of the active role of both sexes in creating a new human being. We cannot, therefore, base our theology on the old view.
Those against the ordination of women go on to argue that nevertheless Christ became male, not by accident but by design as the Son of the Father. The priest exercises not a priesthood of his own, but is the agent through which Christ exercises his priesthood and because Christ was male, so the priest also has to be male because he is an icon of Christ. He is, if you like, a bodily reminder of the man Jesus and if a woman presides at a Eucharist, this visual link with Jesus is broken. He is an alter Christus. He takes on the role of Christ. Yet it is not simply the historical individual Jesus of Nazareth who is represented at the Eucharist but the crucified and risen Christ. And the crucified and risen Christ represents in his humanity, the whole of our humanity, women as well as men. Were this not so, women would not be redeemed by Christ. But if that is so, the logical conclusion to be drawn is that a woman as well as a man may represent Christ in this particular office if she is called to do so. And if she cannot, then she cannot be redeemed by the crucified and risen Christ either following the doctrine of Athanasius that what is not assumed cannot be healed.
As a matter of fact, it is baptism not ordination which makes each of us an ‘alter Christus’. In baptism, men and women share in Christ’s priesthood by being incorporated into him and thus share both in his royal priesthood and the royal priesthood of the whole church. Since women as well as men are baptised into the death and resurrection of Jesus and are in process of being changed into his likeness through the operation of the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3 18) and are indwelt by Christ through the same spirit (Romans 8 10) to ordain both men and women would witness to this inclusive redemption wrought by Jesus. As one theologian put it “the theological question is not can a woman priest represent a male redeemer but can an exclusively male priesthood represent human redemption?”
And in all of this it helps to remember the difference between being a representative of Christ and being a representation of Christ. No-one puts it better than the late Professor Geoffrey Lampe, “the ambassador represents the Queen. He acts in her name; he speaks for her but he is not a representation of the Queen. He does not impersonate her. He need not be a woman; nor when a Queen succeeds a King do all the sovereigns’ representatives have to be replaced if they are men, by women”. In other words, there is no need for the priest to resemble the Christ whom he represents.
Archbishop Rowan, when he was Bishop of Monmouth, put it succinctly when he said “that the Bible and the Creeds do not provide us with grounds for assuming
- That ordained priest’s relation to the priesthood of Christ is somehow different in kind from the baptised person’s relationship to the priesthood of Christ.
- That a baptised woman’s relationship to the priesthood of Christ is significantly different from that of a baptised male.
There is therefore no reason why a woman cannot be a priest or bishop.
In all of this, it is not the particularity of the maleness of Jesus either in the incarnation or at the Ascension which is significant. It is that humanity itself. In the prologue of St John’s Gospel and the Creeds, the emphasis in the incarnation is upon the word becoming flesh – a human being rather than upon the word becoming male, i.e. homo not vir. So the primary emphasis of the biblical and patristic writings is not on the maleness of Jesus but on his humanity. As one writer puts it “what is important christologically about the humanity of Jesus is not its Jewishness, its maleness or any such other characteristic but simply the fact that he was like his brethren in every respect”. The argument about representation of course raises the whole question of who can actually represent Jesus? Jesus takes a child and says that anyone who welcomes this child, welcomes him (Mark 9, 37) so children can represent Jesus as can the sick, the hungry, the imprisoned and the outcast. All these people, apparently, can represent Jesus but for some reason, women cannot.
This brings us to the question of how do we discover God’s will for our world? Surely He does so through the circumstances and events of our time and through human reason because He is, after all, the world’s creator. Up until the C19, for example, the church supported slavery on scriptural grounds. It no longer does so because it has come to realise that all humanity is made in the image of God and is equal in His sight and therefore to enslave an individual, is to diminish and degrade the divine image. It gained that particular insight from C19 social reformers. So too Galileo was condemned as being a heretic by the Roman Catholic church when he asserted that the earth revolved around the sun. Pope Urban VII said that “that was expressly contrary to Holy Scripture”. 400 years after they put him on trial for heresy, the Vatican has completed the rehabilitation of the great scientist by erecting a statue of him inside the Vatican walls. In other words, as Professor Canon David Brown of Durham University says “God’s generous activity and will extends well beyond the church and God reveals himself in all kinds of places and situations”. He goes on to argue that the Bible is full of examples of fallible human beings imposing their own perceptions as though they come from God. For him, “the ideal is to allow all available sources of knowledge of God to interact and not automatically assume the priority of one over the other”. God in other words communicates His presence to human beings in a variety of ways since He is the world’s Creator. Women today have a totally different status than the one they had in C1 Palestine. They exercise leadership and realise their potential in ways that were not possible in the past, and if that is so, that has implications for the ordained ministry of the church. As one person put it, “truths which were there from the beginning, can lie dormant until the social and psychological conditions are right for them to be perceived” or as the Jesus of St John’s Gospel puts it, “the Spirit will lead you into all truth”. The fact of the matter is that over the last 2000 years the church has made many changes in the patterns of its ministry, its liturgy and its ethical emphasises. All of these have been seen as legitimate developments as a result of changing needs and increased understanding of how the Gospel can be applied in our society. And let’s face it, there have been developments from scripture in the life of the church over the commands of Jesus, eg over his strictures about divorce and re-marriage which we have modified and in spite of his original command to the 12 not to go to the Gentiles, we ourselves now admit Gentiles to table fellowship since we are Gentiles.
What of course tips the balance of the argument for some people is that if we ordain women to the episcopate, it will have an effect on the life of the wider world-wide church. We are part of that wider Christian community and can we therefore in the Church In Wales depart from the tradition of the world-wide church without waiting for the agreement of all Christians, especially the Orthodox and Roman Catholics? Well, if this was the only matter that divided us from these communions, I would counsel caution. The Roman Catholic Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in a new document ordered by Pope Benedict XVI has repeated claims made in the 2000 Declaration ‘Dominus Jesus’ that the Roman Catholic Church alone is the true church of Christ.
The text reiterates that the Orthodox Churches who do not accept the primacy of Rome are wounded and that Anglican and Protestant communities cannot even be considered churches in the proper sense. That’s not what we as Anglicans believe about ourselves. We assert that The Church In Wales is part of the one holy catholic and apostolic church of Christ holding the Christian faith as professed in Holy Scripture and set forth in the catholic creeds. Is it theologically and doctrinally acceptable to accept unity as the value which transcends all other values and for a church to refrain from making a decision when it believes it has an urgent Gospel mandate to proceed? We are, in any event, not making a change in the order of ministry of bishops, priests and deacons, merely in the form in which it is expressed. It is merely an enlargement and extension of historic Christian ministry. It is therefore a second order, not a first order issue.
Moreover, our Constitution allows us to “make changes and alterations to our discipline, ceremonies, articles, doctrinal statements, rights and formularies”. Clearly we can’t change the doctrine of the Trinity or the person of Jesus. The catholic faith is not ours alone and we discover it in communion with the world-wide church. But that does not mean that we cannot change anything. We have used our powers in the past to make fundamental changes or perhaps one should call them developments as regards to the ordination of women to the diaconate and priesthood and the churches of the reformation have a different theology of the Eucharist from the Roman Catholic Church to say nothing of the place of the successor of Peter.
What then of the argument that there is a difference between the sexes – a difference in role and function between men and women and these roles are not interchangeable. The priesthood has been confined to men – to open it to women is to undermine this difference of the sexes given by God. Well, there are differences between the sexes but these differences must not be exaggerated. Masculine characteristics do not belong to men only and feminine ones to women only. Each human being shares a mixture of these qualities that we have come to regard as masculine and feminine. Much is made here of the headship and the authority of the man but let’s not forget the head we follow is, I quote, “the one who in the form of God emptied himself taking the form of a slave, becoming as human beings are, and chooses those who by human standards are weak to shame the strong”. Jesus therefore sees ministry not as lording it over people but as service to people and he forbids his followers to worry about rank and pre-eminence. It is ironic therefore that in arguments about ordained ministry, sometimes we turn this teaching on its head because ministry is not about ruling and governing, it is about self denying service. The one who serves washes feet. The power of ministry comes through God’s grace, working in weakness and vulnerability and to quote one theologian, “it is ironic that one who lived a life of such humility should be seen by some as instituting an authoritarian hierarchical ministry from which women are excluded because of their lowly status”. The ministry of Jesus is a ministry of servant hood and if so should women be excluded simply on grounds of their gender.
There is in all of this as well a mission imperative. At the heart of the Christian Gospel, there are values to do with integrity, justice, wholeness and inclusion for “in Christ there is no bond or free, male or female Jew or Greek”. How therefore can a church which claims to set people free, treat all as equal, yet refuse even the possibility of considering whether women can be called to the episcopate. And all of that is not irrelevant to the mission of the church for when we act in such a way, the Gospel becomes inaudible in our world. As the late Robert Runcie of Canterbury once said “it cannot be irrelevant to evangelism that so many unbelievers think that the place we give to women is absurd”.
Or as someone else put it, “how can the liberating power of the Gospel be commended to an unbelieving world by the assertion that men only can be priests and bishops?”.