Skip to comments.Women’s Ordination and the Church’s Order
Posted on 11/17/2005 3:47:55 PM PST by sionnsar
One effect of the current struggles within the Anglican Communion has been to bring again to the fore the matter of womens ordination. Not that it was ever really marginalized as a concern certainly not for the many Anglicans in especially America and in Britain who have felt betrayed and placed at odds with their own church because of the adoption of a practice they feel is contrary to the Churchs faith and scandalous to the healing of the Churchs brokenness. Many, although not all, of these opponents of womens ordination have been from the catholic wing of the church. More recently some evangelical Anglicans (e.g. the AMiA) have chosen to reject womens ordination in an organized way. Furthermore, the coalitions that have arisen to protest the acceptance of same-sex partnerships and their embrace through ordination, have brought several of these catholic and evangelical groups together, along with some who are proponents of womens ordination, in partnerships (e.g. Common Cause) whose theological coherence may, not only on this issue, prove wishful thinking.
It is at least because of this growing theological incoherence of the traditionalist groups in the present Communion struggle that it is worth reflecting more broadly on the matter of womens ordination. There is lurking confusion over just what the opponents of ECUSAs sexual revisionism really stand for, especially because, although they all claim that, for instance, ECUSAs General Convention is walking apart from the faith of the Communion (or perhaps already has), there is intense disagreement among self-styled orthodox Anglican on a matter deemed, by some anyway, to be critical to orthodoxy. Who can one trust with the articulation of a battered faith when its blustery defenders are publicly excoriating each other over womens ordination? As someone who accepts womens ordination, yet stands strongly opposed to ECUSAs path into the wastes of doctrinal and disciplinary autonomy, I have come in for my share of criticism from opponents of womens ordination. Not to mention the fact that I am married to an ordained Episcopal clergywoman. Called by some a priestess, with all the deliberate implications of pagan blasphemy associated with female sacral leadership, my wifes connection (by marriage anyway) with my own writings has, for many, covered them with an aura of hypocrisy at best. Thus, I try to make sense of all this even in the midst of what I hope is a cooperative ministry on behalf of our Communion.
Some introductory points
There are two introductory points I would first make in light of the present dispute itself. First, the term orthodox is probably not a good one to apply, not just to the opponents of same-sex affirmation, but to any church group of the moment, no matter their self-descriptions. What counts as orthodox in a collection of Christian groups that number in the dozens of thousands today? Certainly I would be loath to call myself orthodox in any definitive way. According to whose universal standard? I have argued elsewhere at greater length that orthodoxy makes sense within authoritatively organized communities that persist over time. (See my essay, Apprehending the Truth.) It is a term that Eastern Orthodox Christians can perhaps more rightly claim for themselves, on a genealogical basis anyway, and it has functioned in this regard, even within the larger Christian arena unattached by origin to Eastern Christianity, as a kind of recognized trademark. Roman Catholics too can apply the term with some coherence within the context of their own magisterially organized community of discourse. But its use is, nonetheless, highly contested by other Christian groups (not least by the Eastern Orthodox, whose alliance with Roman Catholics tends to crest at that point when they can both happily distinguish themselves from Protestantism). The term orthodoxy has, in any case, been more popular among Protestants than Catholics in the West. And what is one to make of that? Finally, I am at a loss as to what orthodoxy might mean for Anglicans in particular, whose authoritative community persisting over time is precisely what is at issue today. Whose authority? Whose history? In the realm of the divided Church, orthodoxy is a stimulating invention. Perhaps one day it will be a healing rediscovery. For my part and in the meantime, I prefer the term conservative, which at least takes seriously the essential dynamics of history that, for better or for worse, shape the churches in which we live.
Secondly and this is related to the first point we cannot treat the question of womens ordination solely in terms of an abstract question of doctrine, nor engage disputants around this matter solely in terms of their relationship, as opponents or proponents, to womens ordination. The origins, developments, and current effects of womens ordination have taken place within the context of a variety of Christian communities themselves shaped by histories of perception and reaction. The abstract theological questions are and need to be raised and dealt with in these contexts; but the contexts nonetheless insinuate themselves into the questions themselves. It is a challenge for all of us, therefore, simply to think through these matters coherently in a way that can make a modicum of sense across communities.
To give an example from my own case: it is hard for me to consider my acceptance of womens ordination as activism, nor should it be so considered by others. I married my wife because I loved her, not because or in spite of any imposing reality brought to bear by the conflicted question of womens ordination. I did not ask myself if, by living with her, I might be joining myself to a blasphemer or if by sharing holy communion with her I might be casting a shadow upon the sacrament (let alone if I might be furthering a prophetic movement into a new just ordering of ministry). Indeed, these questions didnt arise because (hard as it may seem to those whose Christian lives in ECUSA have been so entwined with this struggle) I had never heard them asked. I was simply unfamiliar with their bite.
I became a self-conscious Christian, after all, only as an older teenager (in the Roman Catholic Church), and joined the Episcopal Church serendipitously after a family move. There were not many women priests around in the late 1970s in any case, and the churches I grew and learned within were places where the question was not debated. Neither was seminary training in the inter-denominational setting of Yale a place where the topic engaged students theological worries. When I went to work in the Anglican church of Burundi, I found several women students in the theological college where I taught (neither recruited nor encouraged by ECUSA elements, since I represented the first American partner in this place), one the daughter of a prominent archdeacon, the other a quiet and humble young lady who, although later ordained, has never functioned as a priest in a notable way. But even here, although womens ordination was something new and practically tentative, it was not disputed. Not until, having married, I met persons who refused to receive communion from my wife at local churches, did I first encounter and engage the people for whom womens ordination was profoundly problematic and offensive.
And so I have had to learn the sensibilities and arguments of opponents only retrospectively, from within a context of normalcy with respect to the acceptance of womens ordination. That has not been easy. But it is not impossible either. On the one hand, I have done precisely that with respect to homosexuality, having been raised in a context, both culturally and ecclesially, where it was not challenged and in many cases actually embraced, and having only gradually come to a place where I have re-learned and appropriated the traditional Christian outlook on this matter. On the other hand, I am well aware that such relearning is not something to take for granted; and this applies not only to those in the current sexuality debate with whom we disagree, but to ourselves. How shall we gauge the distinction between normalcy as an historical condition, and tradition as something divinely entrusted to us through and despite time? Even our arguments about pure doctrine are often difficult, from our side, to purge of the simply accepted and unconsciously engrained. Precedent, however continuous, is not, after all, the same thing as a sacred deposit. My own reflections on womens ordination, therefore, are neither orthodox nor certain, that I admit. And they are unabashedly grounded in a marriage whose contours of, what I hope is, a faithful mutual subjection perhaps inform my hearing of the Scriptures more idiosyncratically than perhaps they should. Caveat lector.
The shape of the present essay
Now let me turn to the actual matter at issue. In doing so, it is not my intention to provide examples of good or bad women priests, or to cull the proclaimed experience of proponents and detractors. I could do that, of course, and in my case find much good though also some bad as with all examined cases of almost anything. The issue is not whether familiarity breeds either respect or contempt, but whether we should accept familiarization at all as a touchstone for truth. So I will first look at the question of whether it makes any sense to bundle the controversies over sexuality and womens ordination together, as aspects of a single or at least essentially related set of concerns. This will serve as a way of locating the question of womens ordination. Then I will turn to two typical ways of ordering the arguments about it. From both of these efforts, finally, I will try to gauge what Anglicanism has done in ordaining women priests, and place that in the context of the Churchs strange calling in these days.
Are the debates over womens ordination and homosexuality analogous?
The bundling thesis has been shared by both liberals and anti-womens ordination traditionalists together, although with opposing conclusions. The liberals bundle the two issues together as elements of a single and evangelically demanded movement of inclusivity for until-now marginalized groups of people, long refused ordination because of prejudice against some aspect of their created being. Anti-womens ordination traditionalists have bundled the two issues together on the basis of their shared ontological incompatibility with sacramental realities (whether the ordained priesthood or marriage), incompatibilities that a rights-driven culture, infiltrating the Church, has wrongly sought to deny and overcome. Both groups reject the distinction that some, like myself, would make between the two issues, claiming that such distinctions involve special-pleading that masks hidden interests.
I confess, however, to being deeply skeptical of the bundling thesis. There does seem to be a fundamental distinction between the questions of womens ordination and homosexual affirmation by the church, and it is one most people intuit. A failure to make the distinction, it seems to me, too readily permits one to stop short of addressing the main issues at stake in each matter (and, frankly, to divert discussion to cultural criticism rather than theological argument).
My own spiritual director is a Roman Catholic priest, a member of a religious order, and obedient to the teaching of the Vatican. I am not sure what it means that he is willing to give so much time to a priest who is in settled separation from his own Catholic church and its universal claims. However I did ask him, near the beginning of our relationship, whether it was a problem to him that I should be married to an ordained clergywoman who celebrates our Eucharist. He said it was not. The topic was not pursued until later, when in the course of a discussion on the sexuality debates rending our church, I asked him point blank the following question: I am married to someone whose ordained ministry your church does not recognize and indeed whose ministry your church repudiates on clear theological grounds. Yet you do not counsel me somehow to alter this relationship or to persuade her to desist from her ministry. Yet if I came to you as a man living in a same-sex partnership you most assuredly would urge me to bring that relationship to an end and to reorder my own ministry. Why is this? The casuistic reply, in this case, was clear enough: marriage vows require me to respect my relationship and in large measure sanctify it through the natural sacrament of its fulfilment even in the face of actions perhaps contrary to religious truth. Yet in the case of a gay partnership, it is the natural relationship itself that has failed to be fulfilled, and the commitments made within it cannot bear the weight of that failure.
The bundling thesis simply does not explain this kind of distinction. It is not just a case of there being a hierarchy of wrongs, with womens ordination a little less onerous than gay partnerships. As my director pointed out, my own priestly orders as an Anglican are also not recognized by his church, and in some real sense I stand towards the sacraments in as perverse a way as does my wife. (Actually, this question is, from a Roman Catholic perspective, is more complicated than it might seem.) But, in any case, the issue here lies in a religious realm that, however ultimate, cannot trump the realities of the created order that image the sacramental signs of consummated beatitude. I suspect that my director can be my director only because the Roman Catholic Church recognizes the fundamental created good in a free religious conscience, a good that derives from the natural order that is Gods and out of which alone the particulars of articulated religious truth can grow and emerge. This recognition, to be sure, has come late to the Roman Church (not until the later 19th century); but it is one that is founded nonetheless on a long-developing tradition regarding religious freedom. And on that basis he can counsel me responsibly within the realm of Christian fidelity, as a married couple, in which both I and my life live and live with a set of religious commitments that, even if mistaken, are to be respected and perhaps might even contain within them some seed of integrity which God will use and which he must treat gently.
The perversion of religious truth that my own Anglican orders, not to mention my wifes, may in fact embody, falls, in this perspective, within a realm of providential religious history in which Gods will might, through any number of processes (evangelization, crisis and illumination, study, etc.) lead us to its correction in our own lives, sustained by the fundamental goods of Christ already at work in our beings through our marriage. The point is that this is exactly what cannot be said of a same-sex partnership (at least within this outlook): broken off from the grace-providing character of created sexual union and the vows upholding this, religious truth is simply something that works, not from within partnership in se, but only from without the framework of a natural life ranged against its own nature.
If womens ordination, in this light, is wrong, it cannot be on the same fundamental basis as homosexual partnerships are wrong. For the former would exist as a practice at odds with a religious truth that, for all its supremacy, cannot overwhelm the grace of created nature; while the latter falls outside that nature altogether. Ontology is not the issue: in an historical world of created being, everything, including choices and practices, is ontologically defined. Rather, this is merely to say that, if we are to address the matter of womens ordination, we must do so within a framework of revealed truth (what has God told us about this matter?), and not primarily on the basis of speculations regarding the order of creation (what does it mean to be a man or a woman?). They are obviously not unrelated questions, and their answers must necessarily impinge upon each other in this case. But they are questions nonetheless that are distinctly approached. Furthermore, we are permitted to address the question of womens ordination precisely as a reality whose historical nature, exercised by the free religious conscience, cannot simply be rejected a priori because of its asserted (rather than carefully examined) inconsistency with elements of that revealed truth we must weigh its place within the outplaying of the Churchs life as the she herself discerns the Scriptures.
Finally, we might note that the bundling thesis takes another, more procedural form: once womens ordination was accepted by Anglicans out in front of the rest of the major catholic traditions (Roman and Eastern), the argument goes, anything incoherent with catholic truth became possible. This is the negative aspect of this form of the thesis. The positive (more liberal) aspect would say, if Anglicans can accept womens ordination, despite the reactionary foot-dragging of Catholics and Orthodox and without their cooperation, there is no reason not to move ahead with same-sex affirmation. This is obviously a political observation, rather than a theological argument. But politics is not unrelated to the Churchs real life and her prudential decisions, and there is some force to the observation. Still, as I will point out later, given that the two issues are quite different in their theological reach, and that this difference depends on the status of the Scriptures in relationship to each, it was not really possible for Anglicanism simply to put aside the question of womens ordination because of its political challenges if in fact the Scriptural question had been pointedly (and politically) posed. Now, it is also true that the political nature of this argument is transformed into a very theological one, if we actually consider the ecumenical interdependence of our churches to be central Christian vocations. Personally, I believe we should. But we have not, we did not, and still we do not. And that is a fact from the perspective of every church that itself has some interest in the question of our priesthoods in general.
Arguments against womens ordination
The negative arguments that churches have deployed with respect to womens ordination have in fact been distinct from those deployed on the matter of homosexuality. And where they have been allowed to overlap somehow is precisely where they have been most garbled. Examining these negative arguments is where I now turn, and I will do so typically, rather than in detail. My purpose is simply to attempt to clarify the theological contexts in which the question of womens ordination tends to be addressed, and to see how we might responsibly navigate them.
In general, the negative arguments have fallen into two categories: Catholic arguments regarding representation and gender, and Protestant arguments regarding Scriptural explication and inference. It is not that the Catholic arguments are decoupled from Scripture (the notorious 1976 Pontifical Commission sought to deal with Scriptural authority on the question head on); rather, and in view of what some Catholics admit to be Scriptures inconclusive first-order evidence, they do not hinge upon discrete exegesis but deal with Scripture as a kind of thematics. Nor is it the case that Protestant arguments have no overarching theological vision (in fact, some of them circle around to places that merge, at least popularly, with Catholic themes); rather, they are generally driven by Scriptural detail in the first place.
1. Catholicism and Representation
Let me begin with the Catholic argument. This can be summarized generally as follows: women should not be ordained because the priesthood is a fundamentally representative function (iconic in the language the New Testament) that formally depicts the actions of Christ (and the apostles subsequently) in the sacramental actions of the Eucharist. It is the fundamental aspect that is key here, for it seems to demand physically gendered embodiment: Jesus and the Apostles maleness is part of the essential detail being represented in the priesthood.
The argument is straightforward, but it depends upon a complex history of ecclesial development and theological reflection, one in which we can trace an evolving way of ordering the Churchs ministry and sustaining it through the gradual application of a range of Scriptural detail. The latter includes the reappropriation, by the 3rd century already, of Old Testament figuration centered around the sacrificial cult, where priesthood has been subsumed, not only to Jesus own death (as in the Letter to the Hebrews), but to the Churchs representation of it in the Eucharist especially. This development is deeply and broadly Scriptural. But it is Scriptural in an increasingly elaborate figural sense, in that it is not constituted by a set of practices that grow out of the exegesis of Scriptural texts deemed to treat ordained ministry explicitly, but rather out of a complex gathering of texts (mostly from the Old Testament) around an already evolving practice. In this sense, the argument depends, as it is admitted by the Roman Catholic Magisterium, upon Tradition an infallible source of divine revelation distinct from Scripture, though not contradicting it, according to RC teaching -- rather than upon the direct articulation of Scriptural texts (see John Paul II, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis , which, referring to an earlier 1975 letter of Paul VI, places primary emphasis upon the Tradition on this matter).
The representative argument is tied most explicitly to the priests role in imaging Christ, but also in the priests role in succeeding the apostolic role of the 12 disciples. The celebrated 1976 Vatican teaching on womens ordination, Inter Insigniores, provides a rich example of this argument, and trades heavily on the notion of the priests Eucharistic role especially as a sign of Christs person. That person is, in the representative role of the priest for the Church, essentially male, an argument sometimes based on an application 1 Cor. 11:2-16, where men are assigned a certain priority over women based on the order of their creation. The theory here is that the Incarnation was properly given in the form of human maleness, because the first Adam, as a male, stood in a unique role that was comprehensive of his race. The priest is a sign of this Christic racial representation, and such a sign, following Aquinas, must necessarily involve a natural character of resemblance in order to be effective as a sign, It is this character of resemblance that demands the priests maleness (see Section 5, and official commentary).
It seems as if sacramental realities especially demand this naturalness of signification, for, more than other Christian symbols, they are effective signs which, as part of this effectiveness, fulfill a role of narrative representation. Hence a good deal hinges on the dramatic persuasiveness of the details given in the sacraments they are to bring to life in a new way the actual realities of Christs own life and action. In this light, for instance, the use of wine is not only helpful, but necessary to the anamnesis of the Eucharist; Coca-Cola will not do. Likewise, water is necessary to baptism, not Handiwipes. Were these not sacraments, the exigency of naturalness would presumably be less demanding (i.e. crosses can be made of things other than wood). The sacrament of ordination, in any case, is tied to an apostolic figure, as well as to the work of the eucharistic sacrament, and is thus doubly linked to the demand of the natural sign as it figures the reality of the divine grace that is given.
How does this argument hold up? There is obviously something arbitrary about what counts as a necessary natural detail: why not only circumcised Jewish-Christian males as presiders at the Eucharist? why not the actual number 12 as a kind of quorum? Or in baptism, why not the rivers and immersion of the Scriptural narrative (as, in fact, some churches insist)? And how exactly does what is natural apply more directly to the sacraments than to other representative elements of the Christian life the use of spittle in healing, psalmic recitation and its instrumental or choreographed character? It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the necessity of the details, in this case, is a retrospective evaluation of the actual trajectory of practice tradition in a formal sense. That is to say, there is nothing intrinsic to the principle of signification, sacramental or otherwise, that logically leads to the exact construal of Eucharistic celebration as bound to the maleness of its presidency.
Indeed, the appeal to Thomistic/Augustinian categories of representation arguably obscures the actual character of the icon symbology upon which the entire assertion of a male priesthood is purportedly founded. If the priest somehow represents the person of Christ in the Eucharistic celebration as a particularized icon, is there not a general construal of Christic representation that can and perhaps ought to govern our understanding of this specific case? And if so, what is it? Are there non-natural representations of Christ in the Church that do not depend on physical resemblance? And if so, how do the demands of natural representation relate?
The New Testament is certainly full of examples of Christic representation of a general (though critically ultimate) kind. And these examples are not bound to the details of sex in any way. Most basically, all Christians, by virtue of baptism, are called into a process of conformance to the image [eikon] of Christ (Rom. 8:29). This image is given both as a destined end (1 Cor. 15:49) and as the ordered shape of ongoing transformation (2 Cor. 3:18; cf. Phil. 3:21). Together, they draw the Christian, through this conformance, into the complete restoration of the created image of God as originally purposed (cf. Col. 1:15; 3:10).
The ramified New Testament discussion of imitation [mimesis] derives from this basic divine movement towards Christic conformance. The apostolic life is one of imitating Christ to the point of bearing His wounds in ones own body (cf. Gal. 6:17; Col 1:24) and so sharing the common vocation with all Christians as a kind of example (cf. 1 Cor. 11:1; 1 Thess. 1:6; Tit. 2:7). This, in turn, is made possible by the prior fact of Jesus own assumption of likeness [homoioma] to human flesh, in the form [morphe] of servitude in love (cf. Rom. 8:3; Phil. 2:7).
The nexus of these realities of representation eikon, morphe, mimesis, homoiomarefers to the configurating vocation of the Christian destiny itself: becoming like Christ, the One who has become like us (1 Jn 3:2). And clearly this an encompassing calling, proclaimed to all and sundry. If anyone would come after me, let him and surely her?!? deny himself and take up his cross and follow me (Mk. 8:34); Have this mind among yourselves which you have in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men and surely, women?!? (Phil. 2:5ff.).
Noting the actual form represented in this configuration the servant or slave is critical to answering the question: are there, nonetheless, sex-specific sub-forms to this over-riding figure? One might, for instance, point to Ephesians 5:21ff. for just such sex-specificity: the wife takes on the form of subjection, while the husband is called to take on the form of well what, exactly? If one wants to say, the husband takes on the form of Christ, who gives himself up in love, in what way is this finally specific to the male Christian vocation? Not only is the form of subjection already Christs own for all of human creation (and cf. 1 Cor. 15:28 as its final term), but the form of self-giving is already given as a calling to both men and women within the larger configurating reality of Christians life (being a servant or slave for all). Similarly, the position of the spousal Church in the Ephesians schema is also comprehensive of men and not only of women, as membership in the body is explicated elsewhere and summarized in e.g. 2 Cor. 11:2 and finally, of course, Revelation 21. So that, on the one hand, the overriding form of even the marriage relationship is categorized as that of mutual subjection in general (Eph. 5:21), while the representational character of the mystery or sacrament of marriage is given, less in the gendered roles of each partner, than in the constituent reality of male-female marriage itself, established by God in creation (Eph. 5:31).
The challenge to any claim that would somehow limit the configurating vocation of the Christian to specific sub-forms, is how to justify the criteria for such limitations without inventing some new standard extra Christo, that is, external to Christ Himself. Thus, we find arguments for sex-specific configuration on the basis of supposed realities like receptivity or immanence and creative fruitfulness and transcendence, or even dependence and representativeness, which female and male existence somehow properly embody as complementary aspects of the one Christ. (Cf. John Paul II in Mulieris Dignitatem, 10, 29; Jennifer Ferrara, Ordaining Women, in First Things [April, 2003], pp. 33ff.; H. U. von Balthasar, Wer ist Kirche? Vier Skizzen, Freiburg 1965, p. 24; Elucidations, trans. John Riches, London 1975, p. 150). Much in these discussions is quite stimulating, and in the hands of someone like John Paul II, beautifully illuminating of profound aspects of human life, even those we struggle to know better as deeply informative of our actual existence as men and women. But the question is not whether reflections on the feminine and the masculine are properly challenging, but whether they can ever be theologically definitive in the history of Christian practice.
For what the application of speculative criteria regarding the character of women and men ends by accomplishing is the elevation of abstract human conceptions into a place of created essence. This is a theologically pernicious move in two ways. First, it transforms modes of thinking (how shall we describe the feminine and the masculine?) into divinely willed realities (God has created not only men and women, but something called the feminine and the masculine). Second, it subjects created particularities who is Jesus Christ? -- to universalized abstractions (He is the embodiment of the masculine). Both of these moves could tend towards the idolatrous, for they invent and posit, literally, a tertium quid e.g. immanence, transcendence, the receptive and the creative, maleness and femaleness between the referents of the configurating reality of Christian and Christ. Thereby, the entire Christian revelation is potentially (and really so in many cases) subjected to a (Scripturally) extraneous system of philosophy, social ordering, and finally mythology. Colossians 2:8ff., within a clear Christological outline, provides a kind a warning about this danger, a danger that finally issued in the full-blown insertion of mediating realms of reality characteristic of Gnosticism. The invention of such mediating realities is the bane of liberalism as a metaphysic, whereby abstracted principles (e.g. justice, love, inclusivity, etc.) take the place of particular relations. Trinitarian theology has been ravaged by this practice, through which the divine persons and their relations have in fact been hijacked by and reduced to abstracted functions and attitudes all conveniently representative of ideological commitments. Indeed, the practice, in our day, is widespread across the board, pursued as much by the feminist defenders of womens ordination who appeal, with a different thrust, to the realities of Jesus feminine characteristics as a justification for their program.
It is not that the ordering reality of masculine and feminine characteristics is a conceptual impossibility. It could be so; and the application of such purported systems of ordering has been made over centuries within the Church, as in many other spheres, with varying degrees of acceptance and fruitfulness. But is the articulation of such a reality essentially bound to the truth of the Christian faith, first; and even if it were, is it directly bound to the shape of the ordained Christian priesthood itself? John Paul IIs reflections on sexuality collected in The Theology of the Body certainly represent some of richest explorations of this topic in the last century. And they positively challenge modern sensibilities precisely on the level of sexual difference and relation. But they do so on the basis of a Scriptural description of creation that informs marriage and celibacy, not the priesthood per se. And the nuptial symbology that he rightly finds embedded in creation and redemption is granted its embodiment in the forms of human relation that derive from its literal root in sexuality, not in ecclesial discipline. Gay sex is a bar to ordination, not because a practicing homosexual (in or outside a blessed partnership) cannot be validly ordained or cannot validly preside at the Eucharist, and hence in fact be a priest, but because such sexual practice stands in contradiction to the truths of human creation and destiny that are granted in the form of sexual being given by God to humankind. The bar is based on the scandal of religious hypocrisy. It remains to be theologically established that the exercise of the priesthood by a woman could constitute the same or an analogous violation of created being. To do so, one would have to establish that presiding at the Eucharist, for instance (or, to point to other roles, teaching the Christian faith authoritatively), is bound to a created male role, somehow continuous with begetting children and the form of masculinity that supports this. This cannot be done, as I have argued, without the invention of realities that mediate Christian configuration, and that, as it were, interpose themselves as criteria of conformance within the otherwise direct vocation to put on the new nature of Christ Jesus created after the likeness of God (Eph. 4:14; Rom. 13:14; cf. Rom 6:1ff.).
Only the assertion of an actual revelatory tradition, distinct from Scripture, could found such an interposition authoritatively, by, in this case, explicitly tying the shape of the ordained priesthood to a range of criteria, including the figurative application of Old Testament cultic forms to the Christian ministry, otherwise unavailable to theological presupposition. And while that may indeed be acceptable to Roman Catholics, it is not so to Anglicans, for whom the Scriptures must provide a final ground of authority. We shall turn to the question of Tradition in a moment. For now, it is enough to say that the Christian priesthood within Anglicanism is dependent upon a rather loose set of Scriptural demands whose concrete application in terms of pragmatic shape rests upon an inexactly understood historical process. Within the reformed character of Anglicanisms catholic self-ordering, the priesthood as an ecclesial office has always stood in the shadow of, rather than figurative continuity with, the one priesthood of Christ Jesus (as enunciated, for instance, in Hebrews especially). That is to say, for Anglicanism the full range of the Old Testaments priestly reality has not been reassembled, as it were, in the Christian Churchs life in a Roman Catholic sense and according to self-sufficient systems of refiguration. Rather, it has been completely subsumed in the act and person of Christ, without remainder. In response, the Christian presbyterate, according to Anglicans (by and large) is called to the proclamation of Christs person, and to the building up of the Churchs participation in this Person, within the whole of the body the Church in its single Christian priesthood of self-giving in the form of Christ (John 2:21; Col 1:24; 1 Pet. 2:5). Anglican priests can certainly do no more than serve and build up this corporate priesthood of the ecclesial Temple of all believers, who encompass both male and female. Rather than representing Jesus, they represent the Body of Christ that is the Church, whose own representation of Jesus they serve. For Anglicans, priestly hierarchy, if you will, is mediated by the faithful life of the Church, and does not derive directly from Jesus. This has always proved a frustrating element of Anglicanisms reformed elevation of Scripture as the Bodys formative reality, as many of Cranmers theoretical ruminations on orders have shown.
With respect to the question of womens ordination within Anglicanism, in any case, final authoritative deference could only be made to the deontic purely obligating character of a divine directive, such as Scripture alone might give. That has been a more particularly Protestant move, but it has revealed, just here, a broad scope for contestability and therefore uncertainty.
2. Protestantism and Scriptural detail
The Protestant approach to the question of Womens Ordination, then, searches for clear direction from the Scriptures on the matter itself. But what exactly is the matter itself vis a vis the Scriptures, since the Scriptures themselves do not in fact treat of the ordained priesthood in terms of eucharistic presidency or, in any explicit way, of sexual differentiation on this score? This has always been the challenge of the deontological approach in this debate: because the actual shape of the ordained priesthood/presbyterate at least as received within the original Reformation traditions is not something directly describable in New Testament terms, the arguments from Scripture on womens ordination must deal with a complex and often controversial orchestration of inferences (e.g. from discussions of marital relations and hair-length and divine imaging) and silences (e.g. women are never mentioned as being bishops or elders). It is a process of argument seemingly custom-made for debaters of the caliber of Richard Hooker and Thomas Cartwright or Walter Travers. Alas, the clarity of conclusion to this debate is today as uncertain as were many of the Anglican-Puritan controversies of the 16th and 17th centuries.
There are, of course, some crucial Scriptural texts that all arguments on womens ordination must confront, such as 1 Corinthians 14:33-37 or 1 Tim. 2:11-15, which openly command women (or wives) to be silent within church gatherings. There are also other texts that speak of the relationship of male and female to one another, from the creation accounts in Genesis 1-3, to discussions of marriage and divorce by Jesus, to Pauls own comments on sexual relations between men and women (e.g. in 1 Corinthians 7 or Ephesians 5). There are also texts, of a kind of evangelical (and perhaps confessionally traditional) proclamation that relate the distinctions between male and female to encompassing salvific realities, e.g. Galatians 3:28 and its relatives, like Colossians 3:11. Finally, there are hinge texts, that overlap these themes somewhat elusively, like 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. I am not either expert enough nor is there space here to engage in the exegetical details of these passages. To be sure, such an exercise is demanded for anyone committed to understanding the Scriptural challenges that are a necessary part of the Churchs decisions around womens ordination. But suffice it to say that the confronting of these texts by communal examination has not yielded consensus of interpretation. Study commissions among more conservative traditions, from the Roman Catholic to the Christian Reformed Church to the Anglican Mission in America have deemed the Scriptural evidence, in its own terms, to be inconclusive on the question of womens ordination, largely because of what are viewed to be seemingly irreconcilably diverse claims within Scripture itself, that demand for their resolution some imposed hermeneutic principle whose intrinsic Scriptural ground is not self-evident. Churches like those noted above have therefore deferred to other authoritative criteria for the main justification of their disciplinary decisions (in these cases, from prohibition to local option to provisional local restraint).
The distinction between Roman Catholic and Protestant methodologies on the question of womens ordination should, therefore, not be too starkly drawn. For although the conclusions may differ, it is just the deferral to extra-Scriptural frameworks of authority in the face of the inconclusiveness of bare exegesis that all these traditions hold in common. Indeed, those Protestant groups that have maintained a prohibition against womens ordination have done so using many of the same mediating figures that Catholics do, if applied in quite different ecclesial settings. The conceptual reification of Scriptural references to men being the head of women (e.g. from 1 Cor. 11:3) into a principle of male headship that orders the shape of the churchs practical life and sacramental life is just such a move. One also finds the use of categories like submission and complementarity, initiative and creativity applied sex-specifically. The same questions we might raise about Roman Catholic method in this regard are pertinent here, although within the realm of purportedly sola Scriptura analysis, the deployment of non-Scriptural categories raised to the status of a created metaphysics seems particularly uncomfortable.
The exegesis of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 in this context provides a typical example. Paul exhorts the Corinthians to maintain the traditions he has delivered to them. He then details one area of concern in this regard: women who pray or prophesy with their heads uncovered. In defending the tradition that would prohibit this, he makes use of a variety of arguments. Working backward, these include ecclesial precedent (v. 16), the natural fact that long hair on men is degrading but that long hair on women is honorable (v. 14f.), personal intuition on this basis (v. 13), an unelaborated concern over the angels (v. 10), the order and distinctive referents of male and female glory which may also imply a distinct manner for each sexs imaging of God (v.7), and, most extensively, the specific ways in which women and men relate to each other and to Christ through a hierarchy of heading (vv. 3-6), which involves somehow the presence and length of ones hair. No one has claimed (or certainly been granted to have made) a definitive interpretation of this concatenation of arguments by Paul. Nor to have located exactly the authoritative status of the traditions to which Paul refers. The meaning of head has been debated authority or temporal origin; the significance of hair-length and its relationship to creation and honor or shame has been argued; the theological purpose in assigning the image of God to males, but remaining silent on the matter of female imaging, has been hotly disputed; the reference to the angels in particular has been intricately and variously explicated; the scope of natures teaching on the question of hair length has been pondered over. Finally, the seeming contradiction between the setting here women openly praying and prophesying and Pauls later exhortation that women are to keep silence in the churches (14:34), has been the matter of much speculation.
Augustine (cf. De Trinitate 12.7ff.; 13) approached this text by launching into an elaborate exegesis that asserted distinctions between women as images of God only qua human beings but not as female in their own right, and men as embodying a maleness that itself constituted Gods image directly. And upon this, he derived distinctions between female ways of thinking (human-oriented scientia) and male-ways of thinking (God-centered sapientia). These kinds of explications indeed do provide a kind of coherence to the passage that otherwise seems a heap of mysteries. But the coherence is gained by the multiplication of entities that have no direct basis within the text (sex-specific modes of thinking, distinctive ways of imaging God, etc.). Calvin, on the other hand, after discussing a number of possibilities around these issues, concluded that the discerning reader should come to the decision, that the things which Paul is dealing with here, are indifferent, neither good nor bad; and that they are forbidden only because they work against seemliness and edification. This represents, perhaps, the kind of move Hooker would make, realizing that, in their opaqueness, the texts must be read within the context of a local meaning whose applicable breadth must, for the moment, remain unapprehended, and whose exact authority must therefore be allowed to settle within the context of the churchs own obedience to the clarity of the Scriptures as consensually received within the realities of historical circumstance. On the specific question of ordination, it is simply not clear that the Scriptures are directive at all.
The point here, however, is not that, in their opaqueness, the pertinent texts are irrelevant to the Churchs life. There are, after all, a number of constants that override the debated details. One is the ongoing differentiation between men and women. Opponents of womens ordination are certainly right in pointing out that, whatever the opening up of Christological conformance to men and women together in a comprehensive way, the actual distinction between the two is well-affirmed and maintained in Scripture. The fact that these distinctions are not clearly defined, except in their physiological detail, does not negate their significance. More than anything, they undergird the Scriptural focus upon the divinely ordered character of sexuality within the context of marriage, child-bearing, and family life (this is so, even and especially in relation to the particular vocations of celibacy and virginity). The opacity of the details of differentiation within this focus leads, therefore, to a kind of mutual humility that in fact coheres well with the configurating vocation given to all Christians, to be subject one to another (Eph. 5:21). Even if they cannot be generalized, the differences encountered in any given male-female relationship will need to be acknowledged and submitted to in a radical fashion. Rather than holding rights over others, or in the place of others, within the context of male-female marriage, these rights are given over to the other (1 Cor. 7:4) in a stark relationship of mutual subjugation. There is nothing egalitarian about this, except in the universal reach of servanthood, and the details of sexual difference remain firmly implanted in each particular relationship as the soil within which the work of self-giving grows.
Anglicanism and tradition
Let me now turn to the question of how Anglicanism has chosen to move within this broad Scriptural field. For it might be supposed that Anglicans have simply deployed their own authoritative criteria within the debatable range of Scriptural description, and that these criteria, after all, are rightly articulated in terms of deference to tradition. But this is not the case, despite the claims by some Anglican parties to maintain a kind of primitive practice congruent with this or that period of the early Church. Certainly for the original Anglican reformers, what counted as an authoritative tradition was really a practice from the past that rightly embodied a faithful engagement with the authority of the Scriptures themselves. Thus, Cranmers celebration of the olde fathers was based, not on the fact that they belonged to a privileged dispensation, but that they, in fact, provided good examples of Scriptural faithfulness (though by no means uniformly). Tradition, in a positive sense, was that which allowed the Scriptures to live.
This is a very different understanding than Roman Catholicisms, which has defined Tradition as a living transmission, accomplished by the Holy Spirit [ that is] distinct from Sacred Scripture, though closely connected to it, and that represents the oral (as opposed to written) form of apostolic preaching passed down to and through the Church, guaranteed by the continued conversation of God with the Spouse of his beloved Son (Universal Catechism, 76, 78, 79). On the basis of such a Tradition, of course, the construction and application of systems of reference and figuration, by which reified aspects of femaleness and maleness order human activity, can be used to explain the prohibition of womens ordination. And they can do so by relating and clarifying texts of Scripture in a coherent and directive fashion.
But within Anglicanism, Traditions (plural, as opposed to a generalized singular) remain authoritative only so long as they uphold the congruent and non-repugnant living authority of Scripture. They may do so locally, and hence diversely, in that the circumstantial histories of the Church are indeed embraced by the broader realities of Scriptures reach; they may also do so provisionally, since these histories themselves change. (See Article XXXIV of the Articles of Religion). It is not so much that time and circumstance can render Scriptural interpretations that once were coherent suddenly repugnant with their text, in and of themselves. But it is the case that, especially within the opaque fields of some Scriptural texts, historical experience provides varying fits to the range of possible interpretations. As the Scriptures cease, for a variety of reasons, to live within and mold the Church according to the form of Christ, traditions change.
This is arguably what has happened with respect to womens ordination within Anglicanism. (By contrast, this is what has not happened with respect to the demands for lay presidency at the Eucharist, made e.g. by the Diocese of Sydney a matter that might arguably rely upon Scriptural latitude, but that has not even remotely achieved any historical impetus.) As a church committed to the supreme authority of Scripture as the rule and ultimate standard of faith (Lambeth Quadrilateral), Anglicanism has had no stand-beside framework of adjudication for Scriptural debates, frameworks that could provide the missing referents that might untangle various threads of teaching on matters of sexual distinction as related to the priesthood. The church has lived with traditions regarding ordination that, to be sure, date back to the earliest church and that were shared with the great traditions of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy (although even here, with e.g. the adoption of married bishops in the 16th century, the demand for conformity with these traditions was already mitigated). But confronted with a growing sense, emerging in the 19th century, regarding the incongruity of certain Scriptural texts within the actual life of the church one embedded in a host of changing social relationships the church was gradually driven to re-read these Scriptures on the basis of their actual directing character. And since -- in either the Roman Catholic or the Anglican view tradition does not mean precedent, the question was newly posed as to what the Scriptures actually mean on this matter, and how their authority is to be maintained within a context in which women in fact have taken roles that simply contradict the explanatory frameworks traditionally used to uphold the prohibition (e.g. distinct female modes of thinking, distinct female modes of decision-making, etc. that somehow are incoherent with the priestly office). A long history, furthermore, in which women actually functioned, in their monarchical roles, as heads of the Church, provided the challenges of the present with some particular context.
The Reformed character of Anglicanism meant that the question about Scripture, once posed, could not be avoided simply on the basis of tradition itself. And once posed, (in fact, posed again and again, over decades) the question was dealt with, however messily, through the conciliar means that Anglicanism has, in its evolution, favored, with the result that the traditions have altered in the face of the apprehended demands of a living Scripture. They have done so, not everywhere and not in the same way, and not conclusively for some. But the open path to such uneven alteration was given, and given as a reflection of a Scriptural engagement whose bearing upon ecclesial identity was deemed coterminous. This has been termed a process of reception.
Neither proponents nor opponents of womens ordination within Anglicanism have been entirely happy with this method, such as it is, in which historical questions have, as it were, hitched themselves often uncomfortably to the dynamics of Scriptural reading, and then made their rounds through a sequence of sometimes ill-adjusted councils, themselves struggling with the Scriptures. But the method is an identifiable one, having been normatively outlined in The Windsor Report. Furthermore, it is a method that is discriminating, for it yields outcomes that are by no means uniform. In this light, for instance, there is certainly a deeply felt difference within the Anglican Communion at large over the status of the arguments regarding homosexual partnerships and those pertaining to womens ordination. For homosexual partnerships are perceived to aim directly at the Scriptures themselves they contradict (so it is felt) the consensual reading of Scriptures continuously living sense,
and hence seem to stand in a condition outside a world creation itself, as Christians have seen in of Scriptural congruence. That has been the consistent result of the method. But womens ordination has been generally perceived to be less about the direct bearing of Scripture than about an ecclesial context in which Scripture is in fact heard as living. The former is perceived to be an assault upon Scripture, while the latter is perceived to be a depature (not necessarily negative) from tradition. Given this distinction one that, granted, Catholics could not make Anglicanism has responded to the question of womens ordination, it seems to me, appropriately through the somewhat patchwork reorganization of ecclesial ordering and relationship that its conciliar structures permitted, with whatever ongoing unease and patience (although a large majority of provinces in the Communion now accept it). At the same time, the Communion has also been singularly insistent that the matter of same-sex activity and partnerships cannot be treated in the same way, simply because its direct Scriptural bearing is not subject to conciliar compromise.
Discerning the orders of the Church
More recently, a number of conservative Global South Anglican Primates whose own provincial practices around womens ordination diverge, sturdily announced that differences around this subject should not prevent a common cooperation and ongoing communion founded on commitments to other Scripturally-grounded Anglican affirmations (Pittsburgh, November, 2005). Whether this hope can be practically fulfilled is not for me to say, although I opened this essay stating a fear that such fulfillment is not something that can, at present, be predicted with much certainty. Still, it was the context of this stated hope by the Primates that I want to emphasize: a larger church in disarray, both politically and doctrinally, and the still pressing demands for a mission in service of the Gospel that can touch a broken world. This is more than a why cant we just get along plea that after all, is what any number of leaders have voiced in an effort simply to put aside all differences without distinction and ignore the causes of disarray altogether. Rather, the statement reflected, I believe, a double sense: first, that the structures of the Anglican Communion had acted in as acceptable a manner possible around the difficult issue of womens ordination, and that its method should still be trusted; and second, that the disarray of the Church in the face of a divine vocation places a certain tentativeness upon those particular convictions of ours pragmatic and dogmatic that are engaged with intractably unresolved Scriptural directives. One might well wish that many things had been pursued differently in the past, that choices had been studied more fully, or agreement more carefully researched on a number of questions. But in times of ecclesial disarray, the lines of ordered decision-making are not only difficult to discern or follow, they may indeed have disappeared altogether. Other Christian virtues come to the fore and must come to the fore.
On a broader scale, the question of orders within the Church is profoundly problematic in itself, and its resolution deeply compromised. I have already alluded to the fact that Anglican orders among men, let alone women are not recognized as valid by the largest streams of Christian tradition Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox. And we are still in a situation where many Protestants understand catholic orders, by contrast, as themselves either contradictory to the Gospel or at least impossibly corrupted and misleading. What might it mean to recognize or fail to recognize the orders of someone within this kind of contested context that stands, frankly, as a mysterious negation of Christs one Body in its outworking in love? Some years ago, in reflecting on the question of the divided ministry, I wrote the following:
There can be no question at all that separated orders are given with the intent to maintain separation, even if there may also be the intent at some point in the future to remove obstacles to unity. No one can ordain ministers in a separated church except with the intent to sustain, in some basic fashion, that separation. To the degree that ordination is the one sacrament that pertains in a primary way to the apostolicity of the Church, given in its unity in Christs love, its administration in the context of deliberated disunity cannot but radically divest its outcome of its ostensive purpose (The End of the Church: A Pneumatology of Christian Division in the West [Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1998], p. 194f.).
All of our orders recognized or not by whomever stand in the shadow of a great judgment upon the very way we accept and contribute to the structural diseases of our churches. The point however is not that, in this light, the Church should grind to a halt, and cease her work, in her many aspects, places, and structures; or that ministry, ordained or otherwise, must cease because of its mutually contested character and deliberately divisive character. Rather, we are to face our situations with as great a degree of humility as possible, navigating the historical press of our varied and often tangled ecclesial existences carefully but also with a certain lightness of touch. We are inevitably being forced to reconstruct our ministries, and from a human side no less, that will not prove without disturbing challenge, especially as our convictions and efforts come up against the realities of Gods judgment and refashioning. It is not so much that womens ordination has caused a mess; rather, there is and has long been within the Church of Christ a knot of confusions, and we are in various ways trying to find our way out.
Anglicanism has itself hoped its method of Scriptural subjection and historical discrimination might prove helpful, not only to its own members but to other Christians, in the long scramble out of Christian disarray. The process of reception should, therefore, be considered less as some invented procedure of pneumatic revelation. Surely it is not this. Nor is it a cover for any and all human innovation in the case of same-sex affirmation, the Communion has rejected reception as a process pertinent to the subject matter. Reception is, rather, the description of the ad hoc way by which a divided church lives with the authority of Scripture in as historically sensitive and virtuous a way as possible under the circumstances. Women and men who engage this way are, to this degree, being faithful. We are not asking Roman Catholics and others to agree with us, but rather to engage in a like vocation, whose end point will certainly leave us all in a different place than we are now. While opponents of womens ordination may well feel that Anglicans have gone backwards in this hope because of this development, that is by no means clear, at least from an historical perspective. We are in the midst of the times, not outside them, and if Scriptural conciliarism, for all of its give and take, cannot lead us, the times themselves may simply prove overwhelming. That, it seems to me, is the greatest threat of the moment: that Anglicans themselves abandon what small measure of discerning life in communion we have been granted.
Excellent and thought provoking, as much of Radner's works are.
This is an interesting article.
I quit reading at that point, and classed him as a liberal in self-denial.
Orthodoxy is defined by the scriptures. They are the universal standard.
You and I may have disagreements about what parts of the scriptures are saying, but anyone who willfully disregards the teachings of the scriptures is not orthodox in Christianity. For Anglicans, the secondary test for orthodoxy should be adherence to the 39 Articles. For other protestants, you can measure orthodoxy by adherence to their historic secondary standards: Westminster Confession, Belgic Confession, Canons of Dordt, etc.
It is generally safe to conclude that one who claims that Orthodoxy can't be defined is not.
" I quit reading at that point, and classed him as a liberal in self-denial."
Read the rest of it. Its worth the read and as anyone around these threads will tell you, I hardly qualify as a religious liberal, in denial or otherwise. I also qualify as "Orthodox" by most anyone's standards! :)
This is a fantastic article, a little long, but full of great information.
I went back and quickly skimmed after reading your comment. Clear scripture which doesn't support his position is dismissed as 'opaque'. "The point here, however, is not that, in their opaqueness, the pertinent texts are irrelevant to the Churchs life. "
He doesn't deny that he is calling them opaque, just emphasising that that is not his primary point.
He needs to exercise his spiritual duties as head of the household, and tell his wife she needs to quit her job.
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