John Hunwicke has had a change of mind about women's ordination. He now wonders whether it is a heresy or an apostasy

MAY ONE BE autobiographical? I never could understand the “theological” arguments against the ordination of women. Priest as icon of Christ? So he has to be male? But why not Jewish? Why not - if the Lord had a mole on his left shoulder - say that a priest has got to be a male Jew with a mole on his left shoulder? I had no hesitation opposing the events of November 1992 on “Ecumenical” grounds: the legislation was clearly going to be disastrous. (To this day, I have continued to wonder if the assurances the Establishment gave us about the minimal ecumenical effects of this proposal were examples of deliberate cynical deceitfulness or merely of boneheaded stupidity). But the “theological arguments” seemed so weak, in themselves, as to be almost invisible. If the Pope had woken up one morning and changed his mind, I would have heaved a sigh of relief. One potential ecumenical problem fewer! I don’t think I see it like that now. I haven’t reached a conclusion - does one ever really do this in via? - but I have formulated in my mind a “current working hypothesis”. Curiosity inclines me to wonder if there are others whose minds have changed.

“God is not masculine, neither is God feminine”, pronounced the bishops of the Church of England in 1988 (GS 829 para.42). During the period of “reception or rejection” which began in 1992, I have begun to wonder whether things are quite as simple as that. God is, of course, not truly a “Father”. Of course, he cannot be “male”. God is above, immeasurably beyond, all human thought and language. No human word, no trick of human language, can define his nature. This “Negative” theological approach, which emphasizes God’s unknowability (“Apophatic” Theology) is particularly characteristic of the Greek Patristic tradition; but too enthusiastic a commitment to a naive understanding of its principles could lead to embarrassments.

True, God is not a Father; he is not male; nothing like it. But if you cannot positively predicate “Father” of God’s Nature, neither can you positively predicate anything else about It. It isn’t good; It isn’t loving; It isn’t Creator or Redeemer. It doesn’t possess existence and It isn’t God. All such human terms of predication fall short of what God is; short not just in terms of distance, but of possibility; yet we all do predicate things of God (“Cataphatic” Theology) and we are right to do so. God is God. God does exist. He is Redeemer and Creator; He is loving and good. And He is Father.

How do we reconcile the Negative and the Positive? “Positive” Theology employs analogy, and thus avoids the pitfall of idolatry, inherent in straightforward predication. But this does not make its processes any less part of the Rule of Faith. One of the last and greatest of the Greek Fathers, St. Gregory Palamas, observed that Negative Theology does not go against or remove the need for the Positive, but shows that what we say positively with regard to God, while it is true and devout with regard to God, does not get a grip on God as it does on us. All those terms which the Paradosis, the great universal tradition of two Christian millennia, invites us to use of God are normative and prescriptive for us. They are how we are required in obedience to operate. In Hippolytus’ words, “let us believe the Father in precisely that way in which he desires to be believed... let us understand, not doing violence to those things which are given by God, but exactly as He himself wished to teach through the Holy Scriptures.”

Theologians within the household of faith are not at liberty to set up “God does not exist” under the pretext that he is beyond predication as a norm and signpost for Christian thought, prayer, theology, or liturgy. Similarly, they are not entitled to set up “God is not Father”. If they do, they are failing, in Eric Mascall’s phrase, theologizare in fide. Central to Christianity is the Fatherhood of God. It must be central, because it appears to have been a striking or significant feature in the usage and deepest self-understanding of Jesus. Although Mark’s gospel was written in Greek, for an apparently Gentile congregation, it preserves the Aramaic term “Abba”, “Father”. Although written to Greek-speaking groups, Paul’s letters to Rome and Galatia assume that they will be familiar with the word: indeed, that they themselves are accustomed to its use (particularly, Wayne Meeks has suggested, in the liminally significant context of baptism).

It is not easy to avoid the conclusion that the usage goes back to the age before Christianity broke out of an Aramaic matrix into a Graecophone world; and that it was for some very compelling reason, considered crucial to retain this Aramaicism in however alien a linguistic context.

J. Jeremias (Central Message of the New Testament, 1965, Chapter 1) argued that “Abba” was the nursery term of a toddler addressing its father; so that for Jesus to use it of the Almighty was idiosyncratically intimate. More recently, Geza Vermes (Religion of Jesus the Jew, 1993, pp 180ff; and elsewhere) has mounted a strong campaign against this “toddler” theory, and seems to have shown that the word is perfectly at home among adults and in formal contexts. (Incidentally, in so doing, he has damaged a view apparently held by some feminist circles, that “Abba”, meaning “Daddy” rather than Pater/Father, is a “gentler” and “less oppressive” term than Pater/ Father).

It remains true, however, that Greek-speaking Christians are unlikely to have perpetuated the use of this Aramaic term without the most compelling of reasons. There is another interesting aspect of “Abba”: it straddles the Synoptic and Johannine (and Pauline) traditions of the words of Jesus. Liberal biblical scholarship has - entirely properly - made much of the differences in “feel”, language, and theology between the Synoptic Gospels and St. John (and has tended to doubt whether Paul knew anything at all about what Jesus said); but John’s picture, of a Jesus preoccupied with His status as Son of the Father, is confirmed by the Synoptic (and Pauline) evidence for “Abba”.

The consequence of all this is that one cannot disentangle “patriarchy” from Christianity without unravelling the entire cardigan. The Apostolic ministry is inherently one of Missio a Deo: a sending out from God. As the Father sends His Son, so the Son sends His Apostoloi. Gregory Dix (The Apostolic Ministry, 1946 chapter IV) made much play with Shaliach as the Semitic model for Apostolos: the Shaliach was, he explained, the fully authorized and empowered representative of the One who Sends; and Dix cited the Talmud as asserting “no less than nine times” that “a man’s Shaliach is as it were himself”.

Those who criticized Dix’s position were failing to see the wood for the trees; and their descendants will have an uphill task dismissing the formidable historical and philological evidence assembled by J.N. Collins (Diakonia, 1990) to show that diakoneo and its derivatives refer to an authoritative mouthpiece and emissary. Thus Paul’s discussions, in 2 Corinthians, of his apostleship in terms of this clutch of words makes clear beyond doubt that the mission and commission are from God to mankind.

“A populo” discussions of ministry (that is, which take the Christian community as their starting point and ask by what ministerial instruments it may represent itself to God) are not talking about the central form of ministry with which the New Testament texts present us. (Indeed, I would incline to question whether they are discussing a ministerial concept found anywhere in the New Testament. Furthermore, such discussions might create their own problems. If the community, when considered in its relationship with the Divine, functions as feminine, as Spouse and Bride, most of the obvious, possible models of symbolic representation could sustain an argument that its organic ministerial representatives have to be exclusively feminine).

The Ministry which the Father has set in His Church is a ministry which expresses His fatherhood, His generative initiative. It is not surprising that Paul felt moved to express his Apostolic relationship with his laos as paternal - not paternal in the popular sense of gentle grandfatherly benevolence, but paternal in a starkly sexual and even genital sense. If it was not Paul who wrote in Ephesians that from the Pater all Patria on earth is named, he would have applauded the sentiment. It is hardly open to dispute that the Paradosis has universally felt content to see its minister in Patrial terms.

According to Ignatius, the bishop is the tupos tou Patros (Trall:3; cf Mag:3, Smyr:8). Words like 'Papa' whether used of the Bishops of Rome and Alexandria or of a Greek parish priest) tell their own tale. Authoritative documents of the Anglican tradition - the Ordinals in use at every ordination from the Sarum rite until our own generation - share this conviction that the primary Apostolic minister is “Father in God”: one who expresses, embodies, and ministers (diakonei) into the Church and into the world that Patria which is God’s and His alone. Semiology, and the methodology of sacramental symbolism and efficacy, are not always easy areas. A sacrament, the Paradosis tells us, effects what it signifies and signifies what it effects. St. Thomas Aquinas made the common-sense point that sacramental signs represent what they signify by natural resemblance. This, I presume, is why it has commonly been held that baptism must be in water and not, for example, in milk or wine. This is not because the Church holds milk or wine in contempt - far from it (just as withholding sacerdotal ordination from women implies no inferiority). As nourishment, wine and milk might be superior to water. But the root sense of baptism is washing, not nourishment. That is why wine and milk would be inappropriate matter. Indeed, if they were preferred by a group which for some doctrinal reason wished explicitly to exclude from baptism the notion of washing, the use of such substances would make it dramatically clear that the rite was not Christian baptism (similarly the sacerdotal ordination of women in a context in which a number of its strongest advocates question or marginalise the Fatherhood of God must raise in a particularly acute form the question whether such ministers are part of the Father's ministry in the Church).

Can a woman therefore be the sacrament of the Father: a signum efficax of the Patria of God? I am not closed to the possibility that there may be ways in which one could sustain an argument that a woman might indeed express and discharge the paternity of God; for example, if (skirting the problems of Cataphatic Theology) one got in place a suitably refined account of the Divine Paternity, combined with a significatory mechanism which related it satisfactory to an adequately sophisticated sort of understanding of gender-in-humanity and humanity-in-gender. But there has been singularly little evidence of widespread enthusiasm to work on such a project. Some writers may be unwilling to do so because their understanding of feminism would make it repugnant to them in any way to relate women to “patriarchy”. Others may have no inclination to attempt this particular Everest because they are simple, unreflective “rights” feminists (or their male fellow-travellers) who model their thinking on secular “rights” or “equality” feminisms, and have no apparent awareness that results achieved in that forum are at all problematic in terms of the Christian Paradosis.

Yet others may be perceptive enough to be, understandably, scared out of their wits at the thought of crawling gingerly out into such a very dangerous theological minefield. I am. But the proof of the pudding is in the edible fact that, out there in the real world, nobody - whether opponents or proponents of the priestly ordination of women - actually does regard or treat womenpriests as expressions of God’s Fatherhood. It is empirically verifiable that womenpriests are not - and do not seek to be - addressed as “father”. Rumour even has it that the womanbishop of Dunedin has been addressed liturgically as Mother in God - which, if true, is revealing.

I do not yet understand how women can be integrated into the Father’s essentially Patrial Apostolic and Priestly Ministry. As far as I can now understand the de facto situation which at present obtains in the Anglican Communion, the presence of womenpriests and womenbishops constitutes an effectual denial of the indispensable centre point of the entire Christian Mystery and Paradosis, the Fatherhood of God. I wonder if it is not so much a Heresy as an Apostasy. Anglican “traditionalists” go round gloomily moaning that womenpriests are “not validly ordained”. I wonder if this misses the real point. May womenpriests in fact be robust and real sacramental signs of a definitive turning-away from the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ?

John Hunwicke is Head of Theology at Lancing College. The first draft of this paper benefited from the acute comments of Dr Ann and Fr Simon Heans.

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