Women Bishops

Stuart Seaton assesses 'The Call'

 

Many presentations of the orthodox position on the ordination of women begin, like Pope John Paul’s apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis or Forward in Faith’s report Consecrated Women, with Jesus’ choice of men only for the members of the college of the twelve apostles. It is therefore revealing that in The Call for Women Bishops, this important question is responded to in a footnote of only forty-four words by Rosy Ashley:

41. His choice of male apostles was symbolic of the twelve tribes of Israel, which he had come to reach (Matthew 15. 24), excluding both women and Gentiles. However, this has not disbarred male Gentiles from assuming all levels of church leadership and equally cannot disbar women.

But there is surely something wrong with this argument. Consider the bizarre result it yields if we substitute ‘Zoroastrians’ for ‘women’:

His choice of male apostles was symbolic of the twelve tribes of Israel, which he had come to reach (Matthew 15. 24), excluding both Zoroastrians and Gentiles. However, this has not disbarred male Gentiles from assuming all levels of church leadership and equally cannot disbar Zoroastrians.

Now since it is self-evident that Zoroastrians cannot be Christian priests (I assume it is still self-evident to Anglicans that Zoroastrians cannot be Christian priests), it is obvious that the form of Ashley’s argument leads to false conclusions.

If we wanted to make good the argument, we would need to consider what it was about Gentiles that meant they were excluded from the Twelve but were able to be included in the later priesthood. Ashley hints in this direction when she mentions the twelve tribes of Israel. God had made a covenant with the Israelites which was sealed with sacrifice. The Gentiles however were outside of this covenant:

11Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called "uncircumcised" by those who call themselves "the circumcision" …12remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. 14For he himself is our peace, who has made the two [i.e. Jew and Gentile] one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility…17He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near… 19Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household. (Ephesians 2)

Clearly, if the Gentiles were ‘excluded from citizenship in Israel’, ‘foreigners to the covenants of the promise…and without God’, they could not be included among the number of the twelve. It is impossible for a person to be a minister of a divine covenant to which he does not belong. But Christ changed all that on the cross, by offering a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world and creating the New Covenant for Jew and Gentile alike. Consequently, the Gentiles ‘are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household’, and if they are now fellow citizens and members of God’s household, then the precise reason for their exclusion from apostolic ministry has been removed.

It is obvious why the Gentiles, who by definition were outside of the covenant of Israel, could not be included among the twelve. But women were already part of the covenant of Israel, so there must be a different reason for their non-inclusion in the college of the twelve. Since the non-inclusion of women among the twelve was not for the same reason as the non-inclusion of the Gentiles, women cannot now be included in the apostolic ministry on the same grounds as the Gentiles. So Ashley’s argument fails.

Unfortunately however, what has been said so far about Gentiles applies equally to Zoroastrians, so while Ashley’s argument does not in fact support the ordination of women, it does support the ordination of (male) Zoroastrians! It would be possible to close this loop-hole by pointing out that Gentiles only become members of the New Covenant when they receive the offer through faith (which Zoroastrians, by definition, fail to do). But we are now far from the argument originally put.

To be fair, there is a better argument in this neighbourhood Ashley could have used. Perhaps it is an indication of the lack of theological vigour in the politically correct, majority driven, contemporary Church of England that it was felt this forty-four word footnote would suffice to answer such a significant argument as the practice of Christ. At any rate, with arguments like these it would seem that The Call for Women Bishops is a mere whimper, and Adams’ claims in the Afterword that traditionalists are simply ‘misogynists’ reflects her own prejudices. If supporters of women priests are serious about providing a theological defence of such ministries, they need to do better than this.

 

Stuart Seaton is parish priest of St Peter’s, Bushey Heath

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