An Anatomy of Error XII
IN January last this Anatomy began with an important question about the authority of scripture. We asked if there was any conceivable or imaginable scriptural evidence which might, at any stage, have changed the minds of proponents. Our sad conclusion was that there was not. Those who had already chosen to disregard clear and repeated dominical teaching about marriage and divorce, we concluded, would be content to ignore scripture – or directly to contradict it – on other matters.
We came to that conclusion, of course, some time before Gene Robinson explained to the Episcopal Church of the United States that acceptance of his consecration followed logically from the antecedent and general acceptance of remarriage after divorce. Robinson, however, could not have made our point more clearly.
‘Scripture says to be remarried after divorce is adultery,’ he told the Washington Post, ‘but in this country, we put tradition together with our own experience of formerly married persons who have found a second marriage to be a blessing. We went against Scripture and 2,000 years of tradition by relaxing those rules and allowing remarriage. We used our own experience and reason to come to that conclusion.’ And so…
Now, in December, we need to ask – and answer – an even more fundamental question. Is there any point in continuing to argue with the advocates of the ordination of women as priests and bishops? Is there any remaining common ground? Anglican liberals have, for time out of mind, made dialogue their strong suit. And talk there has most certainly been. But what evidence is there that this talk has been a real meeting of minds? Is a change of heart on their part – arising from rational argument in respectful dialogue – likely or even conceivable? From bitter experience, we must conclude that it is not.
The first reason for so concluding is the practical irreversibility of the action taken.
It is one thing to entertain a radical opinion, it is quite another to graft it purposefully into the sacramental life of the universal Church. Many of those who have argued for women’s ordination done so on the assumption that it could one day be reversed; that it was subject to ‘an open process of reception’. To undo it, Dr Christian Baxter told the Forward in Faith deputation to the Rochester Commission, would be merely a matter of ‘housekeeping’. Her view was that the decision might be overturned much in the way in which the monarchy was restored after the interregnum – Noll replaced by Charles, and everything back to normal!
But of course, as every schoolgirl knows, it was not.
And in any case the difficulties in reversing so radical a change in the sacrament of Orders are more than historical. They are both theological and deeply personal.
Dr Baxter clearly did not see the problems of validity and continuity. What to say of the eucharists celebrated and the absolutions pronounced by those of whom it would be claimed that they had never been priests after all? And what to say to the women who had exercised a priestly ministry in the mistaken confidence that God and the Church had called them to that role? And what to say to traditionalists scandalized by the theological levity of a Church which could create such doubt about the authenticity of the sacraments it exists to minister and guard?
The Macbeth problem
The second reason for concluding that a change of heart based on rational argument is unlikely is the mendacity which was required to justify the innovation. In the first place the innovators, to coin a phrase, are in so deep that to go back were as tedious as to go o’er.
Scripture has been traduced, and now its authority is openly denied. The history of the first three centuries of Christianity has been unrecognizably distorted. Ecumenical projects of long-standing have been wilfully wrecked. The Leonine view of Anglican Orders has been cheerfully adopted, and the claims of Saepius Officio scorned and rejected. The bonds of Communion among the Anglican Fellowship of Churches have been impaired (and, in all probability, permanently fractured). By the so-called ‘doctrine of reception’, private judgement in orders (and who knows, as yet, what else?) has been willingly introduced. By the so-called doctrine of Provincial Autonomy local option solutions have been declared an essential characteristic of Anglicanism. One could go on.
The catalogue of attendant innovations and deleterious consequences can seem unending. The truth is that Anglicanism has been changed and changed radically.
Worst of all, women’s ordination has established a principle which, though it has not yet received a name, is set to govern it for the foreseeable future. It is the principle that the innovator has but to act unilaterally to gain acceptance. What three retired bishops did in Philadelphia, any bishop can now do anywhere. And some assuredly will.
It is no exaggeration to say that the present turmoil in the Communion springs directly, logically and inevitably from the arguments used to support the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate. That innovation opened, as we can now see, a basic fault-line in Anglicanism. For no-one, on either side, in this seismic phenomenon can that be comfortable. For those, like Rowan Williams, temperamentally and theologically located on very the fault line itself, it must be a daily agony.
But there is no going back – and precious little room for dialogue. Gene Robinson, with the destructive gentleness of which is he is so eminently capable, has epitomized the futility of dialogue in a single phrase: ‘Just simply to say that it goes against tradition and the teaching of the church and scripture does not necessarily make it wrong.’
To have said that is to have said all. It is to have demolished at a stroke all possible lines of communication, because, for those of us opposed to recent innovations, fidelity to scripture and tradition, and ecumenical sensitivity to the mind of the great churches of East and West, is an integral part of being a Catholic Christian, in this or any age. To deny and deliberately to overthrow the authority of scripture, as the tradition has received and interpreted it, is not experiment; it is apostasy.
The appeal to ‘contemporary experience’ above scriptural authority (the methodology upon which the arguments for women’s ordination and for homosexual practice are both ultimately based) is a priori unacceptable to orthodox Christians. In a recent interview in The Church of England Newspaper George Carey put the matter with stark clarity: ‘Experience you see is not a fourth way of doing theology. Experience is a very important test, but experience itself can be very poor, it can be a false guide.’
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