the way we live now
Geoffrey Kirk on a recent attempt to develop an argument in favour of women's ordination on the basis of the primacy of mission
Graham Leonard, when Bishop of London,
famously said that he had heard many arguments in favour of women's ordination
and not yet a good one. Twenty years on the question must still be: are there good
arguments for ordaining women to the priesthood, and if so, what are they?
By good arguments, of course, I mean arguments which are from and within
the tradition; arguments from Scripture and from the church's own
A paper that attempts to develop just such an argument
(originating from a parish of the Anglican Church in North America) has been
doing the rounds on the internet (www. christchurchplano.org/leaderboard/
womens - ordination-paper/).
It begins from a conviction about the primacy of
mission, recalling the line taken by George Carey in the English General Synod
debate of November 1992. Carey said: 'We must draw on all available talents if
we are to be a credible Church engaged in mission and ministry to an
increasingly confused and lost world. We are in danger of not being heard if
women are exercising leadership in every area of our society's life save the
The argument is a simple one. The New Testament, it is
claimed, gives no clear guidance about the role of women in the life of the
Church. The frequently cited passages in I Corinthians and I Timothy are
addressed by Paul to a local situation, and not intended as universal
prohibitions. Jesus himself never addresses the precise issue. No firm
conclusion can be drawn from his choice of twelve male Apostles, since the
choice was not principled but pragmatic: in a patriarchal society the
proclamation of the Gospel would have been inhibitedby female apostles. Paul
puts the matter succinctly when he says that he has ^become all things to all
men, that I may by all means save some' [I Cor. 9.22]. The contemporary
Church similarly has the freedom to dispose things
inessential to the core Gospel in a way appropriate to the ambient culture.
All this, if true, seems reasonable enough. Asked
about Rowan Williams' vision of a two-tier Communion, the Presiding Bishop of
The Episcopal Church said something similar only the other day. 'We don't all
believe everything in the same way she said. 'We never have and never will.
There are parts of the Anglican Communion that don't ordain women and think it
wrong to do so, yet we remain in communion and relationship and in mission
But there are problems which seem to me to be grave
The first and most fundamental is that such a 'mission-centred'
approach in no way addresses the fundamental concerns of Christian feminists.
They do not believe (and, in the end, will not accept) that women's ordination
is a second order issue. For them it is a fundamental matter of justice. For
them the kerygma stands or falls on how Christians deal with this issue. In
describing her own position on women's ordination Daphne Hamspon writes:
'By an 'ethical a priori' position I mean to indicate
that certain principles are held to be an a priori and not subject to
qualification. One considers oneself able to be a Christian while holding to
these principles because one believes that these very principles are
fundamental to Christianity, or at least not incommensurate with it.'
Rather amusingly they are thereby driven to answer the
question of the relationship between the presbyterate and the episcopate in a
way which they might otherwise find incongenial. Is a bishop a presbyter with
special functions; or is a presbyter the delegate or vicar' of a bishop for
certain purposes? Their heart, one suspects, is with the former. The logic of
their present argument obliges them to the latter!
Related to this question of the nature of the
presbyterate and the episcopate is the most radical and least persuasive of the
conclusions they draw. It is that a principle of provincial, diocesan and even
parochial autonomy in the matter of orders derives directly from the concern to
preach the Gospel effectively in a particular culture.
They write: 'We believe it is compatible with the
mission-oriented approach we are following because it allows local churches to
adapt their teachings and practices in the manner they determine best suited to
the proclamation of the Gospel within the local culture, as long as those
adaptations do not contradict the teachings of Scripture.'
So much for the universality of orders and their
function as effective signs of the Church's unity, locally, universally and
diachronically! One wonders, with such a doctrine of orders, why women would
struggle to be admitted to them.