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 Body of Christ, the Church, is not ruled by what people do— or even, and more unimaginatively, by what people should do. Nor is it formed or re-formed by majority votes and decisions. It is given, made, and sustained by Christ himself, and the knife-edge of daily decision must be walked in the power of the Holy Spirit and be both informed by, and reveal, his dynamic. A deep realization of this fact uncovers, not a restlessness for immediate decision like that which chronically affects the profane world of today, but a sense of divine perspective which can redeem our frantic world. Perhaps we talk too much about the givenness of the faith and leave too little time to experience that fact. After all, time is the context in which our redemption is worked out, and so the discipline of time, of patience, is a Christian virtue. More haste less speed, as the adage puts it. And that is true as well for our spiritual discipleship as for our commercial enterprises. It is at this point that we should be prepared to take stock of our position as a Church which needs that steadying grace referred to in the Prayer Book Collect for St Mark's Day, 'that, being not like children carried away with every blast of vain doctrine, we may be established in the truth of thy holy Gospel'.
None of us denies the need for a searching examination of many of our presuppositions. But the fashions of theology have proved as variable as those of Carnaby Street, and the fact that so much theological debate is conducted under the glare of television lights rather than in the seclusion of the study is a disadvantage of our age, because processes become confused with conclusions and the critical approach appears to be merely destructive. The subject-matter of this symposium is a case in point. Pressures for change become identified with progress, false analogies are drawn between different disciplines, and the mental short cut appeals to the majority. Those of us who are opposed to woman priests find ourselves branded as male chauvinist pigs drowned, like those of Gadara, in the flood of justice and common sense: women can be doctors, judges, scholars, and their equal opportunities are underwritten by Parliament. It must be a matter of plain justice that they can and should be priests as well. Reports on the occasion of the recent visit of the American Canon Mary Michael Simpson echoed this approach. Remarks reported in the Church Times totally ignore any sense of divine order about the Church, and imply that given time, this, like other changes, will be accepted—even if it means waiting for the burial of a generation of backwoodsmen. And a group concerned which call themselves 'The Christian Parity Group' beg so many questions in their title that the issue is confused before it is faced. Yet the drift of argument remains the same: empiric, practical, and, more recently, studiously matter-of-fact. Whether priests go to women priests for confession has as little to do with the principle involved as the fact that the latter wear a Roman-style clerical collar or are 'middle-aged, relaxed, matter of fact, and, among other things, a psycho-therapist'. Equally irrelevant to the argument is the heading of the report 'Woman to celebrate "only if pastoral need arises" '. Without for one minute doubting the sincerity and personal goodness of the ladies, we may challenge the implication that these personal qualities affect the issue. A matter may be ultra vires regardless of the personal integrity of those concerned. Right and wrong, like Grace, Revelation, and Truth, do not depend upon the qualities of individuals but derive from God—they are not established by man. It is for us to enter into the sphere of revelation with humility.
What is so often overlooked is that fact that the kingdom of God is different—essentially different—from that of mankind. It embraces humanity, but does not derive from it. It shares common factors, and also marks out differences which are not judgmental. And behind and above both is the figure of God who revealed himself in Christ, having made man and woman.
Dr Mascall makes the point in 'Getting the Question Right', and Mr Beckwith explores New Testament teaching about man and woman. Not all will agree with all the conclusions drawn, but none can deny the fact that the Christian understanding of creation accepts a differentiation between the sexes, even if there is disagreement on whether or not this means subordination. This differentiation is God-given and, we may therefore presume, contains verities which we can explore but not deny.
The testimony of rabbi and Orthodox monk agrees in asserting the true nature of tradition as something handed down from person to person as a living experience which enlivens and invigorates, rather than the dead hand of legalism which enervates, and finally kills, the spirit of man. It is here that Christians face a danger which is too seldom recognized. The world about us—of which we are naturally part—has been so busy getting rid of traditions for a great variety of reasons, sociological, economic, religious, political, that there is a danger that any move to abandon tradition is automatically hailed as progress. A Christian is by super-nature a man or woman of tradition who possesses something which can only be retained by being handed on to others. In this sense Christian tradition is like the roots of a tree, which exist precisely to enable the tree to come into leaf and flower next year. When roots restrict they fail, and the tree becomes stunted. There is a danger that we become Bonsai Christians, prematurely aged and miniatured—caricatures of what nature, or supernature, would have us be. Our proper concern with political and social involvement must not preoccupy us at the expense of Christian doctrine. There is a givenness, not only in our human condition but also in the Church of which we are members, which we must respect. And as we ignore the condition of being human at our peril (no need to look far for evidence of this) so too we must respect the supernatural order of the Church which subsumes the human by virtue of the incarnation—he took our nature upon him and became man. This is a fact which must be faced and has hitherto been the source of gratitude. There is evidence that this gratitude has now in some quarters given way to grudging. The fatherhood of God and the sonship of Jesus Christ have become to some an embarrassment rather than a joy, and some theologians—as well as hymnodists—are seeking not only to play down, but even to eradicate what they regard as a false sexism in the tradition of God the Father and the Son. This is not mere speculation, but heresy, and needs to be recognized as such, even in this topsy-turvy world.
A faith founded upon revelation (and in this sharing a fundamental truth with Judaism and Islam) has, by that fact, set some limits to the areas of acceptable speculation. We no longer work upon hypotheses like those which exercised the minds of ancient philosophers, but claim to rub shoulders with those who had heard and seen and looked and touched the life that was made manifest (1 John 1.2). It is to his image that we strive to be conformed rather than a desperate sameness which seems to have more of Buddhism than of Christianity.
We have been largely concerned with Christian ministry—the manifestation of divine authority in Christ through the Church. Ministry is therefore in these terms always relative: it relates away from whoever is minister to Christ himself, and there follows a need for congruity between the exercise of ministry and its source. Politically the Crown is neither male nor female, so the Sovereign can be either-though that has not always been the case, nor is it always true everwhere today.
God has been revealed as Father, and unless we accept the current heresy of rejecting that, we must accept it. The minister of God stands for Christ, in the place of Christ—God help him. The proposal which has occasioned this book would radically affect this symbolism, accepted for nearly two thousand years in the Christian Church and for much longer in the total history of God's people, as witnesses the Jewish tradition. This fact needs to be savoured carefully in the light of what the psychologists have to say, as well as the theologians. The process of savouring takes time, whether of a meal or of a doctrine, and it is not clear why unity should be sacrificed to haste on so basic an issue. We need time for the strident voices clamouring for change to moderate, and time totally to disentangle the theological issues from the political ones, characterized at their extreme by Women's Lib. It is true that we live in an age of instant decision, instant food, instant demands. The Church must beware of so identifying itself with the contemporary scene that it falls victim to a similar state of mind.
Nor can symbolism be dismissed as part of the panoply of outdated ecclesiastical tradition. We live in a generation sated by symbolism—but a new form of symbolism which is different from the old. It is a symbolism of shorthand and immediacy rather than of the eternal. No one can drive a car for more than a few yards without being confronted by a veritable confusion of symbols; they abound on advertisements whether on hoardings or television screens; and they play an ever-increasing part in our life on computer or film. We take symbols for granted, and they take us over in the process. Symbolism has survived in the Church, but it relates to the eternal rather than the stock market. Much of it has lost its relevance, though perhaps less than people think. It cannot be swept away or ignored without leaving a perilous vacuum, the more dangerous because not immediately recognized.
Without symbolism much of the Bible would disappear. Revelation and symbolism hang together in a relationship which cannot be altered merely because it is inconvenient. We must be ready to make the effort to understand the traditions we inherit before we can make decisions about which, if any, are expendable. The pendulum of fashion swings from one extreme to the other, and the recent changes in liturgy have uncovered almost as many problems as they have solved. If everything is to be understood, let alone easily understood, then there is neither need nor place for faith. And it is with faith, which spans the bridge between the known and the unknown, that the Christian message is concerned.
There remains the question, what will happen if the proposal to ordain women as priests is accepted by the Church of England? It is easy to over-dramatize; it is no less easy to be complacent. The issues raised are fundamental, and people find themselves honestly and sharply divided. If the proposals were accepted it is certain they would divide a Church which has gained in recent years a greater measure of unity than it has experienced for centuries. This alone would be desperately sad and its consequences can be neither foreseen nor evaluated. A self-infiicted wound takes a long time to heal, since the consequences are psychological as well as physical. The proposal would be to change the accepted order of two millennia—and so the burden of proof of need and propriety rests upon its proposers. Already a number of Anglicans have declared their inability to accept this change, and presumably there are several options open to them— how many would actually stand up and be counted cannot be foretold.
Were the pressure for change successful, there would seem to be three possibilities for the future for those still opposed to the change:
1. Some would doubtless remain members of the Church of England while at the same time in conscience bound to refuse the ministries of women priests. It would seem that for this group the problem would be most painfully experienced, since it raises the question of whether the making of women priests, however inadmissible that may be, actually invalidates the ministry of the rest. This is not a matter of mere expediency. It is a matter of authority. Is a valid ministry negatived by the subsequent action of the Church which is contrary to the expressed mind of Catholic Christendom? This brings us back to where we started, the question of the nature of authority in the Church. Ministry is a many-stranded cord, and few today would feel satisfied that it depends merely upon a single strand, e.g. apostolic succession viewed at its most mechanical level and devoid of that context which gives it significance. If ministry is a many-stranded thing, and if each of these strands signifies something necessary, how then can one strand (or several) supply the detect of any other? And if the ministry is that of the Church and not of the individual (and much less that of the congregation), how can it be said to survive with integrity when the decision of the Church on ministry is rejected by some of the ministers as, in such a situation, it would be? The issues raised are formidable indeed, and not amenable to being easily or speedily dealt with. To ignore them is to make a decision, not to avoid one. The decision which would be implicit in such inaction would be unilaterally to accept a further fragmentation of authority within the Catholic Church. Furthermore, the unity of Anglicanism has, until now, rested upon a Common Prayer Book and common order rather than a common body of doctrine. If, however, the two former disappear (and we have already noticed that one, the Common Prayer Book, has virtually gone already), what is there left positively to hold Anglicans together except a nationalism of a Lutheran rather than Catholic character? The situation is confused by the haphazard spread of Anglicanism in Europe. Already there exist two parallel jurisdictions, English and American; and the continuing witness of our sister Old Catholic Church adds a third. The mere co-existence of mutually recognized jurisdictions does not challenge the validity of any one of them—although that appears to be the official reaction to the unhappy developments in North America. While none would seek to justify what has happened there, it is another thing to deduce from facts a theology which renders the smaller section unacceptable to the larger. There may well be other factors, but they have not been mentioned. And while the issue can never be the mere survival of Anglicanism, it is not improper to ask what the implications of all this are for us. We can recognize other traditions without denying our own, and there remains a valid contribution for Anglicans to make over and above ethnic grouping. It is true that the varied response of different provinces of the Anglican Church to the challenge of women priests tends to confuse rather than clarify the issue. But it is not right therefore to argue that all must fall into line with the innovators.
2. There would probably emerge in England, as has already happened in the United States, a latter-day non-juring type of Church. This would be lamentable, as it would be a further fragmentation of that unity for which the stand was made, yet in a manner which defeated its realization. The possibility of such a phenomenon cannot be discounted, but it would be ephemeral, and unlikely to survive more than a generation. Christians have already rightly feared schism, even more than heresy. It would be profoundly sad if, at this stage of the ecumenical movement, the Church of England were to give cause for this to appear.
3. The third possibility open to those unable to accept the departure from traditional order would be to feel driven to throw in their lot with the only practical alternative, and that must mean the Church of Rome since, unlike America, there is no native Orthodox Church as an alternative.
The use of the word 'driven' is intentional, for those who choose to be Roman Catholics presumably are so already. There are still many reasons why Anglicans are not Romans, and the situation recalls that of just over a century ago when the Old Catholic Church on the Continent was formed by those unable to accept the Infallibility Decree of 1870. Were the Church of England to change its order in a way which altered the present fine balance between Catholic and Protestant (and so repudiate what seems to many to be its ecclesiastically ambivalent birthright), they would feel no option remained but to join the Roman Church. This would be a searing decision, especially for those whose love of and service to Anglicanism spanned not just a lifetime but many generations. Many pray that they may be spared such a decision. But if it comes it will be faced in the knowledge that truth must be followed where God leads.
These pages reflect a wide spectrum of concern centring around the immediate proposals. They are offered in the hope of stimulating thought, and if there are certain areas of repetition, that in itself is no bad thing. Truth can be proclaimed in different ways and does not suffer from exposure. We suggest further directions for exploration which challenge the view that 'there are no theological objections to women priests'. It all depends on how narrow is your theology, for the proposal cannot be considered apart from the family, which is very much a subject for theological study—and which cannot be brushed to one side. The issues here are legion: not only theological but sociological and financial as well, and the proposals challenge the traditional view of the family. This challenge may be not only right, but vindicated; it cannot, however, be ignored and shouted down. Christians, inheriting as we have seen a long tradition within revealed religion, retain a view of family life which recognizes difference. The roll of mother may change in detail, but remains basic in fact, and psychologists seem to be leading a return to awareness of the givenness and goodness of much that we have taken for granted. The function of woman in the family is not ended with the birth of children, but continues long after their entry into adult life, not only in relation to them, but also in relation to her husband, who, in western civilizations, is seen as the (not exclusive) bread winner. And just as the full-time ministry requires an availability which ill-accords with other whole-time employment, so the role of mother in a family imposes certain limitations upon her freedom of action. This is no argument against the ordination of women, but it is a very real argument for examining woman's and man's role in the family. Where there is the blessing of children, both parents cannot simultaneously engage in full-time jobs. Anthropologists will point out that in different civilizations the roles of mother and father vary—in some, indeed, the father looks after the children while the mother works to support them. This has not hitherto been the accepted custom in western Europe and, if it is to be radically changed, such change must be faced responsibly. There remain the alternatives that women in the ministry should be restricted either to the unmarried or to those without responsibility for children—though that does not account for their husbands even so! These observations, for they are not put forward as arguments, point to one critical area of investigation—the family. Until the Church faces that, it cannot proceed on the superficial grounds that a woman's personality is 'most appropriate to her position, and that it seemed "very natural" that she should be a priest'.
It is a sad fact that proponents of things tend to think of their opponents in negative terms, and this we would particularly reject. Much that has been written concerns the positive role of women in the Church today, and this we heartily endorse. It is also true that there is an observable reluctance on the part of some to accord women their proper place in the Church, its ministry, and affairs.
The New Testament and the experience of the Church from earliest times to the present day bear witness to the essential contribution of woman to a full discipleship. We entirely reject any suggestion that the views represented in this book support the idea of second-class membership for women in the Church of Jesus Christ; nor does a single word written support the idea of a male-dominated society. What, however, we do believe, in common with three-quarters of the total number of Christians throughout the world, is that the tradition of a male priesthood rests upon other than subjective considerations and has to be evaluated in the context of an unbroken tradition, for the abandonment of which insufficient evidence has been adduced.