An Anatomy of Error I

For the twelve months of 2003 we will be carrying a series of articles visiting again the arguments for and against women’s ordination. To those who have been through the struggle and borne the heat of the day, this may seem superfluous – boring even.

But ten years is a long time. Priests who were not even Christians in 1992 have been ordained during that time. Adults have been baptized and members have been elected to the General Synod, who have no recollection of the arguments which took place and who were not involved at any level of the Church’s life. A generation of young Christians has grown up for whom women priests are a normal and unremarkable part of the life of the Church of England.

It is also undeniably the case that the liberal agenda (the very existence of which was being strenuously denied ten years ago) has moved on.

At Lambeth 1998 there were the first women bishops; at Lambeth 2008 we can confidently expect the first openly gay bishops and their partners. And what Lambeth 2016 will bring (or whether it will happen at all), nobody knows.

For convenience these articles will examine the arguments under headings provided by what is sometimes called Hooker’s Three-legged Stool: scripture, tradition and reason. Each section will begin with a general survey of the area to be covered and then there will follow a number of particular arguments or cases in point.

To begin, then, with Scripture.

The Bishops’ Second Report on the Ordination of Women [GS829, 1988] states more than once that scripture is the ‘controlling authority’ of the three. But whilst the whole House of Bishops was at that time agreed about this, the bishops went on to admit that ‘we differed in our interpretation of those sources.’

Looking back on the development of arguments in favour of women’s ordination over the last thirty years, we need in my view to ask whether acceptance of this ‘controlling authority’ on the part of the proponents was ever anything more than cosmetic and disingenuous. We are obliged to do that principally of course by the unfolding revelations about the attitude to scripture of many of the most ferocious proponents (Jack Spong, Richard Holloway, Charles Bennison). But it cannot be insignificant that GS829 was a ‘Second Report’. The House of Bishops of the Church of England turned to the consideration of Scripture and the Tradition (how adequately readers will judge for themselves) after they had considered the details of actual legislation.

Our question, it seems, can best be framed by asking if there is any conceivable or imaginable scriptural evidence which might, at any stage, have changed the minds of proponents. Would a direct word from the Lord, or Paul, for example, have changed their course?

The bishops of the Church of England define hermeneutics in their 1988 document:

‘It involves an attempt to perceive how a text was understood and appropriated in its original context; what significance it has in its canonical position, how it relates to the overall message of scripture; how the continuing Christian community has reflected on it and interpreted it through history and how it applies in our own time.’

As brief definitions go this is not a bad one. But is it one which has ever influenced or determined the arguments of proponents?

It is usually agreed that scripture provides no knock-down arguments. Neither Jesus nor Paul speak of ‘priesthood’ as such. But supposing they did (and Manfred Hauke believes that at 1 Corinthians 14.33–38 he has uncovered a specific ‘word’ (entole) of Jesus), would the proponents take account of it?

I suggest that the evidence is that they would not.

Two things lead me to this conclusion: their exegesis of Galatians 3.28, and their attitude to the Marcan dicta about marriage and divorce.

The appeal to Galatians 3.28 invariably takes the passage out of its context in the Pauline writings, out of its historical context in both first-century paganism and Judaism, and out of the process whereby ‘the Christian community has reflected on it and interpreted it through history’. It requires the passage to be read in conflict with other Pauline passages; it requires us to suppose that Paul stood in judgement on Jesus himself, who had appointed no women as members of the Twelve; and it foists upon Paul notions of sexual equality unheard of before the European enlightenment of the eighteenth century.

There could hardly be a clearer example of the phenomenon of ‘isolated texts read out of context’, which the bishops so decry. And yet the citation has become a mantra. In a way that does him and biblical seriousness a profound disservice, Paul has been lifted out of the Bible and onto the tee-shirts.

Consider further the Marcan discourses on marriage and divorce.

It will be objected that marriage discipline is not directly related to women’s ordination. But it will scarcely be denied that there is a statistically significant overlap between the supporters of ‘openness’ in one and in the other. The hermeneutical processes, moreover, bears a striking resemblance

Mark comes as close to a knock down argument as you could hope to get in a two thousand year old text. It is unequivocal; and it is repeated against a background of opposition from those to whom it was first said. The passage cites previous scripture and is itself cited elsewhere. Those citations in no way contradict it. Even the so-called ‘Matthean exception’ is a minor addition.

And yet liberal Christians have found themselves unable to require its acceptance in the Church. What is stated in scripture as a requirement (one of the very few, perhaps the only, example of so solemn an injunction) is down-graded into an ‘ideal’. In the contemporary Church of England, the right to dispense with a dominical ruling is placed at the sole discretion of each individual parish priest – on the advice, not of moral theologians, but of human rights lawyers.

It is not an exaggeration to say that in parts in the Anglican Communion the only places where the sort of fidelity in relationship demanded by Jesus is now seriously commended or required is between gay persons and their partners. And only then if one of them is seeking ordination, or if they wish to have their relationship ‘blessed’.

It remains to be seen how long those parts of the Communion which affirm these ‘stable, permanent, loving relationships’ will continue to require of gay people a quality of life they have long ceased to demand of others.

We begin this series, then, with the caveat that to talk about women’s ordination with reference to the scriptures is to enter upon a colloquy with the deaf. The proponents entertain a hermeneutic the first principle of which is that scripture cannot – and did not – say anything contrary to contemporary secular opinion.

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