the way we live now

Geoffrey Kirk explains why and how supporters of women’s ordination seek to base their argument on the basis of historical precedent


Through my letterbox in the days after Christmas dropped a remarkable book. I pride myself on a fairly comprehensive collection of the literature of women’s ordination – three and a half shelves of it, from the dizzy intellectual heights of Rosemary Radford Ruether and Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza right down to Lavinia Byrne and Margaret Webster. But this slender volume was of especial interest.

Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History [ed. Madigan and Osiek, John Hopkins University Press, 2005] is claimed to be a complete compilation of all the literary and epigraphical evidence for ordained women down to about 600 AD. Needless to say it makes fascinating and instructive reading. But more than that: it raises some fundamental questions about the nature of the arguments in favour of women’s ordination and the place of such scholarship within them. In short, if, as some protagonists like Daphne Hampson have vigorously maintained, the primary arguments are ethical a priori arguments, why bother with what will turn out at best to be doubtful and disputed history?

That is the fundamental, but not the only question. For the matter goes deeper. Whilst it is natural for Christian conservatives to seek (and rely on) precedent, it is strange that modern, open, inclusive Christians should do the same. Why do they not put the past behind them and reach out to a future of infinite possibilities? Why, uniquely among theologians (and even liberal theologians), are ‘primitive’ and ‘early’ terms of approbation?

 The reason, for both liberals and conservatives, is not far to seek. Christianity is, by its very origin and nature, an historical religion. But it is not ‘historical’ in the sense, I suppose, that everything could be so described. It is not merely that Christianity began at a particular time; rather that Christians believe that God is differently related to some particular historical happenings.  The God who is the Lord of History reveals himself in some events in a way that is not true of other events or eras.

For both liberal and conservative Christians this presents an obvious problem. Times change. How can believers in the twenty-first century relate to events and thought patterns necessarily embedded in the cultural norms of the first? Once there has developed what was absent in much of Western intellectual history, an analytical and critical historical method, the problem becomes acute. American college kids who go around in tee-shirts asking ‘What would Jesus do?’ are asking the million dollar question.

For the proponents of women’s ordination the problem is more acute than for most others. For though Jesus said little about the role of women and nothing about their ordination, the New Testament evidence seems to accord women a role in the community of faith which precludes leadership or oversight. So what to do?  The weight of evidence is clearly against the innovation; and yet to strike out on an entirely new path would be to betray the character and genius of the religion. In effect it would be to become, as Daphne Hampson has described herself, post-Christian.

The course that the advocates of women priests have chosen is three-fold. They have questioned the evidence usually cited, introduced new evidence of their own, and created a conspiracy theory to account for the misinterpretation of the first and the suppression of the second. - have done so, one would think, in full awareness that all three approaches stretch credulity somewhat. Conspiracy theories, after all, are the discredited baggage of all attempts to overthrow established orthodoxies –from 1789 to 1917. It will not do, moreover, simply to discount as later interpolations, passages of Scripture that are inconvenient, or to import contemporary categories into an historical context.

Most of the ‘evidence’ provided in Madigan and Osiek’s meticulous compilation, for example, suffers from this last fallacy and from our continuing inability to determine what, before about 350, were the formal patterns of Christian ministry. What did it mean for Paul to call Phoebe a ‘deacon’? Were deacons, male or female, ‘ordained ministers’? As A.G. Martimort says in his exhaustive study of 1982, ‘It is not enough that texts are available which attest to the existence of deaconesses. We must attempt in each instance to understand who and what these deaconesses were and what their functions were. For the historical reality about them was constantly shifting and unstable.’ And the same might be said of presbyters (though here the evidence for female presbyters is tenuous indeed).

Madigan and Osiek themselves say: ‘As so often in church history, the sources do not tell us what we would most like to know.’

I will be bold and say that all this scholarship, though well intentioned, is misguided. It is, so to say, the wrong way up.  The primary question, then and now, is not whether women were or can be deacons or presbyters, but whether they can be bishops. And on that more crucial matter, one text from Ignatius of Antioch about the bishop as type of the Father is worth more than a thousand fragmentary tombstones from Asia Minor, describing Leta, Martia or Guilia as ‘presbytera’, or even ‘Q’ as ‘episcopa’. ND

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