the way we live now

Geoffrey Kirk argues that Liberals are both confused and contradictory when they consider their anthropology


Nine hundred words is not much – not much, that is, in endeavouring to plot the internal contradictions of the case for women’s ordination. Some of last month’s Way We Live Now fell to the editor’s axe (as happens from time to time). So he has helpfully allowed me a second bite at the cherry.

It is, after all, not merely in Christology, Mariology and Ecclesiology that the proponents of the priesting of women are confused and contradictory. They do no better with their Anthropology. You would think that they would at least be in agreement about their attitude to women; but not so. There are, it seems, two schools.

The first school holds that men and women are basically interchangeable (‘the same thing with different fittings’ in someone’s memorable phrase). The consequence of this belief is that the ordination of women can and does add nothing to the priesthood. Nor does it change it in any significant way – just as the appointment of female train drivers has no perceptible effect on the way in which trains are driven. There can thus be no reasonable and logical objection to women’s ordination.

The second school teaches just the opposite: that women and men are essentially different, that they bring to everything different gifts and abilities, and that the priesthood is ‘incomplete’ without the contribution women could make. This attitude is both persuasive and problematic: persuasive because it seems to offer something new and exciting; problematic because it opens the way to the assertion that women and men have differing aptitudes which might render some roles or tasks more suited to one than the other.

As in the case of differences of Christology, Mariology and Ecclesiogy, it is abundantly clear that, though either school of thought might provide some basis for the ordination of women, they cannot both be right.

The argument from sameness necessarily roots itself in an uncritical embrace of modernity. The present is the only age which has made so bold an assertion about the relationship of the sexes. The difference of the sexes – their antagonisms, animosities and misunderstandings, as well as their mutual tenderness and spousal complementarity – has been the great theme of art and literature in every generation.

It is a remarkable claim that, whatever may have been thought in the past, we know better now. It has, moreover, extensive implications for the way we read Scripture. Because Scripture employs, in its own way, the basic themes and images which have animated secular literature, it would be hard to insert this functional equivalence into it without doing it serious violence.

There are also implications for moral theology. ‘One of the functions of human marriage’, said C.S. Lewis, in a reference to the fifth chapter to the Ephesians, ‘is to express the nature of the union between Christ and the Church. We have no authority to take the living and sensitive figures which God has painted on the canvas of our nature and shift them about as if they were mere geometrical figures.’ He concluded that this doctrine of interchangeable equivalence would inevitably alter not only our doctrine of the Church, but our understanding of marriage and of other sexual relationships. He is being proved right.

The argument of the second school, from the essential and enriching difference of the sexes, carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction. It does not follow, for example, that because women and men have different, even complementary, talents and characteristics that they are equally suited to every role and task. That will logically depend on the nature of the role. So before it can be said that women will enrich the priesthood, groundwork needs to be done. What is priesthood? What do priests do? What are they for?

In a Church where even the word ‘priest’ has been for long a cause of rancorous contention, it would be rash indeed to assume a common mind. Anglicanism, with its doctrine of provincial autonomy and its parliamentary model of governance, might seem at first sight to be the ideal arena for experiment. It proves, on closer inspection, to be less hopeful ground. Much of Anglicanism’s coherence has traditionally depended upon not asking the very questions which women’s ordination, on this view, entails and requires.

Of course an ‘enriched priesthood’ is attractive to many. It avoids the negativity towards the Scriptures and to Christian tradition, which is so alienating. It replaces antagonism with condescension – an altogether more Anglican proceeding.

But ‘enrichment’, however beguiling it sounds, implies change. A mere choice of word cannot avoid the central issue: has the sacred ministry of the Church heretofore been somehow deficient or incomplete? If so: in what ways? and how will the ministry of women fulfil, enrich and complete it? It is not hard to see that the answers to these questions will inevitably be sentimental and subjective.

What, you will ask, do these two schools of contradictory opinion have in common? The answer is simple: the desire to see women ordained. In that struggle any argument will do, however radical its consequences. It will be interesting to see them fight their respective corners when the battle is over, the goal has been achieved and all alliances are off. ND

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