Loaded dice

John Hunwicke on 'heads I win, tails you lose' theology


Frankly, I do not think we have a snowball’s chance in wherever of winning the argument about women bishops. Since I wa1st January 2005s privileged to be a participant in the Forward in Faith working party called ‘Shadow Rochester’, and I think (well, I would, wouldn’t I?) that our Report was a very good job, my pessimism may surprise you.

Let me explain.

I believe there are two main types of Christian thought. There are those who are committed to the faith. So if the world is in disagreement with the faith, then the world is wrong. Others give priority to signs of God’s guidance in the fashions of the world. For them, if the world contradicts what we have previously assumed to be Christian teaching and practice, then we should have a new look at Scripture and Tradition and see whether they might give different answers. This is the style of the ‘German Christians’ of the thirties, including some of the best minds of the decade, who ‘asked Scripture new questions’ and found that it ‘affirmed’ rather than condemned the fashionable Nazi ideology of ‘Aryan’ racism. It is a matter of priorities: which do you take as your starting point? God’s revealed word or God’s revealing world? And if you follow the world, and the world, this decade, believes in equality (understood in a particular way) and ‘Women’s Rights’, that’s it.

So I don’t think we have the tiniest chance of winning this argument because the world has already told our opponents what the answer is, and they have accepted that answer. Sometimes both sides may appear to be talking about the same things – Scripture, Tradition – but, unlike us, they are not in the business of open enquiry.

Convenient preclusions

Their minds have already been closed – Mummy has told them what to think – and they will manipulate logic and evidence accordingly. Firstly, they will seek for evidence to support their prevenient conclusions. But if the evidence is inconvenient, they will try tampering with it. So, given the lack of scriptural evidence for women bishops they move on to ‘The Trajectory of Scripture’. This means that there are no women bishops in scripture but there are pointers to women bishops. Then, if even that trajectory doesn’t quite deliver the goods, they fall back on disregarding Scripture altogether, as it was written a long time ago and the world has changed. Jesus and Paul were blinkered patriarchalists.

What all this amounts to, of course, is a constant shifting of the goalposts. That is why I say that we are involved in an argument we can not win (at least, not until the world provides our opponents with some new and different bandwagon) True, they will argue vigorously with us about whether there was a ‘woman apostle’, and it will be jolly nice for them if they can prove that there was, but it won’t actually matter to them if there wasn’t. ‘Ah well’, they will sigh, Jesus and Paul were unable to rise above the mindset of their time’. They will strain every muscle to show that there were women priests and bishops in the first centuries, but they won’t care if they lose the game: they are capable of saying one day, ‘We should have women bishops because the early Church did and the early Church is our guide’ and then, tomorrow, ‘it doesn’t in the least matter that the early Church never had women bishops because of course the early Church was biased.’ Argument, evidence, logic are for them tricks done with mirrors.

Gentile men prefer blondes

Favoured ploys are to invite us to ‘apply a new hermeneutic’ and ‘to ask the text a different question’. Another dodge is to replace the New Testament with fantasy. Here again, the Nazi ‘German Christians’ were here before them. Did you know that Aryan tribes had invaded north Gallilee and that Jesus, so far from being a Jew, was as purely Aryan, as tall, blond and athletic, as Hitler himself? No? You’re obviously not asking the text the right questions or else not being hermeneutical enough. Evidence?

You want evidence. You must be a Jew. Were you aware that Mary of Magdala, who was a big Salted Fish executive, was in partnership with Joanna, who was even bigger in the tourist trade organised by King Herod and that they got to know Jesus when he took a vacation job as resident faith-healer at the spa at Tiberias? That the two ladies then went apostoling and when Joanna’s husband suddenly died (too much salted fish?) she married a new one and changed her name to Junia and popped up (Magic! Didn’t I tell you it’s all done with mirrors?) in Romans 16? No? Evidence? You want evidence for all this? Isn’t that just like a man? You feel threatened by women’s demands for equality, and probably also by their menstrual blood, and you start howling for evidence!

Try for conversion

Fathers, sisters, brothers, I ask you again: how can one do business with people like this? They have their little magic machine which enables them by a twitch upon a button to shift goalposts in a split second ‘... fifty yards back ... a hundred yards to the right... I really meant feet not yards ... 90 degrees round and back-to-front ... haha tricked you there ... half a mile behind you and on the left ...’ we, on the other hand, labour under immense disadvantages. We are happy with the goalposts we’ve got: the Great Tradition, expressed in Scripture, embodied in the life of God’s ancient covenant people and then of his Holy Catholic Church. Fuddy duddies that we are, we actually believe in reason, logic, in the rules that demonstrate whether a conclusion follows from premises. We aren’t interested in avoiding facts by using trendy jargon ... trajectories and hermeneutics, or whatever. Anybody, of course, can invent jargon. Make it sound a bit Greek or Latin and 99% of your readers will clam up instantly because they’ll be afraid of being shown up as ignorant. (How many of the bystanders were bold enough to admit that they could not see the emperor’s new clothes’?) So, when these people get you into an argument about women bishops, they, like the Yanks going into Fallujah, are bound to win because they have the superior weaponry. We are under orders to deny ourselves the luxuries of deceit and trickery. We deal with reality – God’s reality – while they have moved all the arguments into sci-fi realms of virtual history, virtual theology, and virtual logic. So they won’t listen – their ears are closed – but we will keep on saying: God is father and not mother, men and women are equal but different, complementary rather than interchangeable: as old Israel descended from twelve patriarchs, so the Lord chose twelve males to be the foundations of his new Israel; the Church has followed Scripture in seeing the bishop as the father of God’s household; when heretical, eccentric sects experimented with priestly women the great Church dismissed the aberration with contempt; and our major ecumenical partners are treating our own current Anglican aberrations with the same contempt.


John Hunwicke is a retired priest in the diocese of Exeter

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