Theological argument

The Bishop of Lincoln, the Rt Revd John Saxbee considers hat it is that makes an argument theological and what criteria we should use to weigh the arguments of others

 

This is a crucial question, as the debate about women bishops wends its way through the Synodical system. Let me attempt an answer.

To be truly a theological argument, whatever the subject matter may be, the object of the argument must be God. For the argument to be essentially a Christian theological argument, then whatever the subject may be, the object of the argument is God as initiator of all being, ground of all meaning and revealer of all truth in Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Christian theological argument, with the good news of God in Christ as its object, will remain restless until all has been revealed, and so it will resist closure until God is all in all.

The key terms and texts of Christian theological arguments are contained in Scripture, and this incomparable treasury of wisdom and truth has been entrusted to the Church to guard, share and pass on – not in a vacuum, but in social conditions and cultural contexts ever changing through time and space.

Subject or object?

Now, for Anglican Christians, Episcopacy is clearly an expression of this treasure entrusted to the Church, but whilst it will have its honoured place within the subject matter of theological argument, it can never be its object. That exclusively belongs to God, and we risk idolatry or worse if we mistake the subject matter of theology for its object.

That is why theological arguments about who can and cannot be bishops are essentially subjective, and cannot be objectified without subverting God as the only author and finisher of our faith. It is this subjectivity which must at least make the ordination and consecration of women possible, and given that theological arguments in this area are subject to the challenges and opportunities of changing times, then it is perfectly legitimate for theologians to argue that such a development has become a matter of urgency, or even necessity.

However, the crucial issue for Christians remains the objective reality of God as creator, redeemer and sustainer of life. For all that we may argue for women’s consecration on cultural and contextual grounds – and I would certainly marshal such arguments in the interests of effective mission in the twenty-first century – the crucial criterion remains whether this development will further enrich the treasury of truth entrusted to the Church.

Because of what I know and believe about God revealed in Scripture, interpreted by tradition and encountered in lived experience, I can only conclude that this treasury cannot be complete when women are canonically inhibited from expressing their priestly and episcopal gifts.

Emphasis on God

My acquaintance with the fundamentals of anthropology, sociology and historical theology all support this conclusion, but it is the belief that God will be glorified that matters most of all. This is because God is the object of all theological argument, whether the subject matter is to do with the ordering of society, the ordering of worship or even the ordering of Bishops, Priests and Deacons.

Of course, to acknowledge that arguments about the ordination of women are necessarily subjective is to concede that my convictions as to its appropriateness must be subject to the same constraints as are applied to those trenchant in their opposition. That is why I committed myself to the Guildford process, and remain committed to going forward on the basis of ‘the highest possible degree of communion in the Church of England.’

Sadly, the highest possible degree of communion may prove to be not very much, given that the response of Forward in Faith to the TEA proposals argues for an effective severing of communion as the only way to secure sacramental assurance.

And that brings me back to God. It seems to me that unless sacraments are objectified, and are thereby elevated to a status reserved for God alone, the only assurance which matters is the assurance that God is God.

Any argument to the effect that sacramental grace is withheld by God from those opening themselves to receive from him in faith and trust may be logically defensible, but theologically it is an argument which settles for something rather insipid when somewhat richer fare is the object of our longing.

Transcending the human

Arguments for and against the consecration of women as bishops have been well rehearsed over recent years, and an effective summary and evaluation of them is available in the Rochester Report. But ultimately they are to be judged on the basis of what kind of God it is who emerges from the several arguments on offer. For example, a God whose assurances of sacramental grace depend upon the exclusion of women from priestly or episcopal orders is a subject worthy of study, but surely not an object of worship.

All other arguments pale into relative insignificance once this definitive insight, centred on the very nature of God as God, moves from the background to the foreground of our thinking and contemplation.

God has been the subject of study, speculation and disputation since the dawn of human history, and it seems to me that virtually all the arguments for and against women bishops are subjective in that sense of the word. But when we focus our attention on God as the object of our prayer and praise, then all our disputes and disputations become subject to a theological perspective which surely transcends these all too human distinctions and discriminations which we have for so long held to be definitive, but which we now know to be but half-way houses for pilgrims journeying towards the object of all our wonder, love and praise.

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