MAN, WOMAN, AND PRIESTHOOD
(Edited by Peter Moore, SPCK London, 1978)
PETER MOORE (b. 1924), after studying at Christ Church, Oxford, and at Cuddesdon College, was ordained in 1947 as Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, and has served in parochial ministries in town and country, as Chaplain of New College, Oxford, and Canon Residentiary of Ely. Closely associated with the liturgical movement, he was for eight years a member of the Church of England Liturgical Commission. He is author of Tomorrow is Too Late (1970) on the Taizé Community. In 1973 he became Dean of St Albans.
The immediate reason for this book is the fact that the Lambeth Conference in August and the National Synod of the Church of England in November 1978 have on their agenda the question of the ordination of women to the priesthood. There is great danger in haste, particularly when the matter to be discussed is in fact secondary. The danger is that there will not be time to discuss the real issues at stake, and a decision upon the secondary one will be made without having time fully to uncover the basic questions raised.
The proposal to ordain women to the priesthood is more fundamentally subversive to the ordering of the Anglican Church than anything which has happened since the Reformation. Indeed it is a proposal to change the Anglican Church so radically that, on the explicit statement both of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, it will place novel and serious obstacles to unity. This alone would be reason enough to plead for time. After many years of patient discussion, the Church of England is nearer de jure recognition by traditional Catholic Churches than ever before. Already it has in many respects de facto recognition. An ever-increasing number recognize our ministry, and that so many feel so strongly on the subject of intercommunion witnesses to this fact. Nor is this merely a matter of convenience. It is supported by theology and is a significant part of the grace of contemporary Christian experience. Why should this be put at risk by an act which, for the first time since the sixteenth century, firmly aligns the Church of England with the Protestants? There is here a clear choice. Our present position is ambivalent, but may claim some Pauline precedent in its practicality. In a very real sense the vocation of Anglicanism has been that of a bridge-Church between two poles. The proposals would demolish that bridge and so leave the sides wide apart. Presumably those in favour of the proposals accept this fact; they cannot deny it, since it is stated quite clearly by Rome, by the Orthodox, and by the Old Catholics. Are we all fully aware of the gravity of the ecumenical situation? There is little evidence to answer in the affirmative, since we are still often concerned with secondary issues. We cannot refuse to examine the fundamental ones and retain integrity of any kind. Two major issues must be faced and resolved before any other decisions can be taken.
(1) Sexuality. In an age which is suffering from an obsession with sex, the Church is apparently turning its back upon these issues. To face them will mean hard work, heart-searching, and for some an exercise in Christian charity and open-mindedness. But we cannot continue to ignore that which is at the top of the country's agenda. For too long we have been lulled by the phrase that the world is our agenda. It is past high time that we took it seriously in that case, and there would be a number of critical issues which are of common concern upon the Synod's timetable. This would be a vitalizing change of affairs, for the councils of the Church would be dealing not with relatively unimportant domestic matters, but with those issues which face the man in the street who is no longer in the pew. It might also give a clue to the reason why he is where he is. Newspapers and bodies concerned with social health are full of today's issues of pornography, child abuse, and sex, whether in acceptable or unacceptable forms. The problems of society largely derive from views or acceptances of sex, whether in the family as the basis of family life or outside it. Women's Lib is part of the backlash of unexamined repression, and it is no less dangerous here to confuse cause and effect than in the matter of women's ordination. Argument on both issues tends to be at a merely superficial level. It can have disastrous consequences both for society and for the Church if it remains as shallow as it has been in the past. Christians should be bold enough to face the issue, even if they are not bold enough to tackle it. Few things could contribute more positively to the new society for which all are groping than a re-examination by the Church of its teaching about sex in the widest sense. It would bring male and female into focus; assert basics for family life again; and point to new insights in charity for those aberrations which tend to be condoned by a false liberalism based upon a refusal to face facts recognized by scientists as well as theologians; Christians as well as agnostics. Of course it would be an enormous task, but so is the task of living and, come to that, dying. We cannot refuse to take account of either. Here is true social responsibility and the proper activity of those who claim the name of Christ: to examine the fundamental issues at stake and to have some illumination upon them from the God whom we recognize not as mere detached creator, but as loving the universe he has made and to which he has offered hope—not to call it redemption —Christ.
Here is a vast minefield to be explored under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We should not be deterred by its magnitude if we pay more than lip service to the assurance of the help we have. Nor should we prejudice it by facile decisions which ignore the real issue. For too long the Church has been content to give old answers to new questions or, worse still, to fail even to hear the questions that are being asked. In the present discussion they are wide-ranging and vital. They concern the happiness of all God's creatures—not that minute group who are Anglicans. For they concern life in all its fullness and difficulty. Have we the courage to face the real issue of the Christian view of sex and so speak significantly to our contemporaries, whether Christian or not, or are we going so totally to identify ourselves with the contemporary scene that we too fall victim to instant decision-making?
It is for this reason that we begin our consideration with a glance back to our roots. St Peter, who like so many in our own time lost his life for the faith, wrote to his contemporaries as heirs of the children of Israel upon whom the mantle of God's choice had fallen (1 Pet. 2.9). And just as no man can understand himself without taking into account the inheritance which he must shoulder, so if the Christian Church is the new Israel it can only be understood in the light of the old. Dr Sacks' contribution (ch. 3) gives us those roots and places them in the wide context of the role of women in Judaism. And women can scarcely be thought of without the associated consideration of men—which all quite naturally leads to the family and its life. I believe this to be totally relevant to our particular concern. We are challenged to re-examine the role of women, not merely whether they can become priests. Let us hope that we have the wisdom to recast the timetable in the light of the significance of the issues raised. Women priests don't really concern many people in the world today. But the role of women is of universal concern, and it is to that that we should turn our attention. One of the most significant contributions that Judaism has made to society in whatever age and whatever place, has been its unshakeable trust in the revelation of God and his care for his people. Often in appalling suffering for which the nominally Christian world must take responsibility, this faith expressed itself in family life which necessity has often made introverted, and shines as a reflection of the true light down the pages of history. As it shines it reveals, even if it does not judge, the witness of other traditions. Perhaps God is speaking to us in the confusions of the present issue and calling Christians and, immediately, Anglicans to take up the challenge and to bring forth out of its treasure things both old and new. It is certainly heartening to read of the positive tradition of Judaism still among us, and to ponder its dynamic. In an age of rootlessness which is searching for significant tradition, we have much to offer if we have the courage to dig deep enough.
(2) Authority. Here is a second burning social issue, and it can be no surprise that it is also the concern of Christians, not to say the Church. Whether our concern is with vandalism, minority rights and racism, or merely devolution, society is chronically vexed by the nature of authority, its derivation and its manner of exercise. Trades unions, government, political parties are deeply involved, and the struggle of their involvement is a parable upon the problem. Christians too live under authority; so do Anglicans, though they have never been precise about its nature. Compromise has seen us through—until the last twenty years. The Book of Common Prayer has been the accepted norm and provided adequate common ground for a variety of different accommodations. That is no longer the case, for although it remains it is not realistic to call that normative which is largely unknown. Society, as well as financial resources, has radically changed in the last quarter-century, and it is not only the sociologists who ask searching questions. We live in the age of Robinson and Wiles, Kung and Balthasar. Questions have been asked and we must find replies even where we haven't got the answers. The Anglican-Methodist proposals were in some sense a response to a situation of impatience, and they foundered. The proposal to ordain women is of the same order. What is the nature of authority in the Catholic Church? This is no new question for Christians. It was raised in the earliest days of the faith for instance by St Paul, St Peter, the Donatists, and many others. In a sense it is a question as old as the hills and as fresh as spring flowers, for it is always being asked and from time to time being answered. Occasionally question and answer get out of series and the old answer is given to the question put in a new way, and so it fails to satisfy. That is what has happened to the concept of mere 'apostolic succession' in the contemporary discussion about authority. We have come to understand authority as a complex, many-stranded cord, each strand of which needs to be kept in tension with the rest. Apostolic succession is a strand, but it is not the only one, and the solution arrived at in South India is an example of how it has been accepted that the cord can, in exceptional circumstances, survive intact in spite of a temporary deficiency of strands. All simple answers are dangerous, and there is no space here to examine the nature of authority in the Church. But it is a basic issue raised by the present pressing problem and cannot be swept under the carpet.
The issue is clearly raised by those who state that in other parts of the Anglican Communion there exist validly ordained women priests, and who go on to say that the matter has already been settled by this fact. This begs the question, and we later raise the issue whether it is within the competence of the Church to act thus; it is certainly more than questionable whether it is within the competence of a single Church to act without consultation with the others. And by others one presumably means others of the same tradition.
A great deal is said about the liberties of unity, but singularly little about the restraints it imposes. Of this every family is aware. For the good of the whole, the liberty of the individual is often severely circumscribed, surrendered on a temporary or even permanent basis. No family could survive without this, and this may indeed be the reason why many break up. Christ prayed for unity in St John, chapter 17, and it was for a purpose: 'that they all may be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me'. In practice this means we cannot all do as we like, regardless of the rest. And that applies to Anglicans who claim to be part of the Catholic Church. But some will say this begs the question! In a sense it does, for the assumption is made that Anglicans do claim to be part of the Catholic Church (they state this daily in the creed) and that this relates to Roman and Orthodox rather than to most of the Reformed Churches who have no difficulty in accepting the ministrations of women ministers. Precisely at this point another deep issue is raised, just as it is by the whole ecumenical dialogue. We must know where we are going, where we belong: on no single subject are Christians more deeply divided than on the nature of authority in the Church. And since mankind is unable to tackle all the major problems at once, it has been the mercy of the historical process that it has, by chance or providence, usually been enabled to tackle them piecemeal. Herein lies the untidiness of much of the so-called Reformation settlement. It was a settlement rather of dust than of doctrine. A fundamental change in the ministry of a Church raises an issue of authority. It is an issue which has divided men increasingly since the sixteenth century and, for reasons which may be non-theological, divides them more radically now than ever before. Serious damage can be done to our mutual relationships if we confuse the issue still further by precipitate action which ignores the wider implications of an apparently innocent decision. Here we must reflect upon our sources. Is the Church a divine or a human institution? And what is the relationship of the individual Churches to 'the Church'? The Jewish people are aware of being subject to the choice of God. This has sustained them down the centuries of persecution. In what sense is this a common tradition between Jew and Christian, and what does it say to Christians in terms of practical decision-making? This again is no novelty. But it raises in stark form the question that confronted Newman and others in the last century. Has the Anglican experiment failed? Is it, after all, just another Protestant sect? Or is it, really and essentially, part of the Catholic Church at a dramatically critical stage of its pilgrimage—for the Church is a pilgrim Church and therefore on the move—when it has to distinguish between stones and bread?
For the Orthodox, the issue before us has not arisen, and the reader will discover why for himself. It is immensely valuable to have such a distinguished contribution from an Orthodox priest which keeps a wider range than our particular problem, not least because it recalls the heritage of patristic theology on which Orthodoxy has remained more consciously dependent than modern Anglicanism. It is a double return to sources, for tbe seventeenth-century Anglican divines were steeped in patristics, and their theology benefited directly from it. The growing presence of Orthodox faithful may recall us to our common heritage.
For the Roman Catholic Church, the ordination of women is an academic issue. The Pope has been explicit on that, and this in a sense enables Roman Catholic speculation to proceed without the danger of anything happening. But the chapter with which we have been provided by so eminent a theologian as Father Bouyer has a significance far beyond its size.
The opportunity has been taken to report upon the situation in both the United States of America and Sweden. Their conditions are very different, their problems the same. Their examples are adduced here not on the ground that our experience would be similar, but to inform readers of what is happening elsewhere and to invite their prayers for other parts of the Church. Both countries have different traditions from our own, and there is a particular danger of our overlooking the differences between England and America in this respect. It should however be noted that one result of the change adopted in America has been the suspension by the Polish National Catholic Church of the Bonn Agreement which, amongst other things, meant mutual recognition of the sacraments: none can deny that the step has proved divisive.
Similarly the short chapter provided on psychological insights widens our perspectives. Here is an area which has not been much explored, and it challenges the simplistic assumption that theology provides the only relevant consideration. Indeed, it may be asked whether it is not too narrow a view of theology that is able to say 'there are no theological objections'.
The chapter entitled 'The Body is the Book' suggests further directions for exploration. Its author takes us away from the more limited and specifically ecclesiastical considerations to glimpse relevant insights from myth and poetry, and so returns to the sense of the numinous which cradled the Mosaic revelation. This area of experience, whose edges are blurred, is a vital part of discipleship, and it is suggested that the feminine instinct of intuition responds to it in a particular way. Certainly the world stands in need of this element and of a sense of wonder in the given quality of all that we enjoy. Wonder—and respect: this is the gracious response of the creature to the Creator, and also of one creature to another. It is in this spirit that we offer these essays to our beloved Church of England, and with the prayer that she may ever deepen her commitment to that Christian unity which accords with the will of Jesus Christ.