the way we live now

Geoffrey Kirk highlights the flaws in the argument that only a mixed priesthood can adequately represent the Incarnate God

In the Reader’s Digest – an interesting choice for a debut appearance, especially since his only previous interview had been a minor one given to The Sun – he described the idea that only a man can represent Christ on the altar as ‘a most serious heresy. So wrote Paul Vallely of George Carey in 1991.

It may be that political reality later compelled the Archbishop to retreat from this uncompromising position. But it is one, nevertheless, which characterized (and characterizes) that of many proponents of women’s ordination. So, though much water has flowed under the Ponte Sant’Angelo since then, it is still pertinent to ask what Carey meant – and indeed whether it makes any sense.

First, note precisely what is being claimed. Not for Archbishop Carey the slovenly imprecision of some protagonists. The priest, they say, represents ‘God to the people and the people to God’. Since people come in two genders and God in none at all, they conclude that a mixed priesthood is the only appropriate mode of representation. But it is, instead, a Catholic understanding of priesthood which informs Dr Carey’s view: the priest represents Jesus – and his Body the Church, only in so far as he represents the Head. What is being claimed is that only a mixed priesthood can adequately represent the Incarnate God. Now that is quite a claim.

How, in Christian tradition, is the Incarnate One to be represented? The question is not new to the feminist crisis; on the contrary, it was a subject dealt with exhaustively by Greek theologians, from St John Damascene to St Theodore the Studite, in the seventh and eighth centuries. The theologians ofthe iconoclast movement argued that because the Divine nature was beyond representation, the Incarnation could not and should not be painted or portrayed. The orthodox replied that if the Incarnate One could

not be described (the chosen verb was perigraphein) as other human beings could, then there was something different, and indeed peculiar, about his humanity. They made a distinction between a humanity which was peculiar (in the sense of being unlike all others) and particular (in the sense of having those particular characteristics which all human persons have). The very particularities of Christ’s humanity were what, for them, guaranteed its authenticity. Humanity, said Theodore, does not subsist in a generality, but in Peter and Paul.

In the wider context of patristic Christology this argument can seem complex and abstruse. But it is in fact simple common sense. The post-Christian theologian Daphne Hampson puts it succinctly:

‘A book...On a Friday Noon, shows illustrations of Christ crucified, drawn from all cultures and times in history... But one thing these pictures – which reflect a spectrum of human art and imagination – have in common: they are all images of a man. However Christ is understood, as people take him up into their culture, or make of him what they will, they know him to be male. A woman is the ‘opposite’ to Christ in a way in which someone of another race is not.’

In George Carey’s claim there seems to be a confusion of two strictly unrelated propositions. The first is the principle that a male priesthood cannot represent Jesus because it cannot represent his ‘full’ and ‘inclusive’ humanity. The second is that a man cannot appropriately represent a woman.

But in the commonsense understanding shared by Theodore and Daphne Hampson, neither is tenable. No such thing as ‘full’ and ‘inclusive’ humanity exists (apart from its particular manifestations). And since humankind comes in two sorts, the one must necessarily be able to represent both. If that were not the case, the perennial claim of the Church that, in baptism, Jesus saves both women and men would be illusory or untrue; and the incarnation itself would be either impossible or absurd. Jesus is male (the significance of that maleness is another question altogether!) – so, all other things being equal, it is most appropriate that at the altar he is represented by a male.

We are now very close to the root of the matter. I am tempted to say that the heresy is Carey’s, not mine. It is the common heresy of twentieth-century positivism – the myth of the demythologizers, which supposes that mystery has been exploded and that the truth of things has finally been laid bare. The former Archbishop’s argument, after all, will only stand if we suppose that we know the significance of the maleness of the incarnation – or rather that we know it to be insignificant. And that is some claim. It presupposes that we have plumbed the depths of our own nature, and understood sex, that most active dimension of our being, in a way that no previous generation has claimed to do.

‘The Church,’ wrote C.S. Lewis, ‘claims to be the bearer of a revelation. If that claim is false then we want not to make priestesses but to abolish priests. If it is true, then we should expect to find in the Church an element which unbelievers will call irrational and which believers will call supra-natural. There ought to be something in it opaque to our reason though not contrary to it – as the facts of sex and sense on the natural level are opaque. And that is the real issue. The Church of England can remain a church only if she retains this opaque element. If we abandon that, if we retain only what can be justified by standards of prudence and convenience at the bar of enlightened common sense, then we exchange revelation for the old wraith Natural Religion.’

Was Lewis more of a prophet than Carey? Call me prejudiced, but I am inclined to think so. ND

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