An Anatomy of Error II

Benevolent Patriarchy

Last month we saw how liberal Christians in general, and proponents of the ordination of women in particular, decontextualize and sloganize biblical texts which suit their purposes (for example, Galatians 3.28), and relativize and ignore those which do not (for example, Mark 10.1–12).

More serious still is the deployment of a hermeneutic of suspicion which questions and rejects basic scriptural assumptions and themes. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the ‘problem’ of the maleness of Jesus.

The ‘problem’ was clearly stated as long ago as 1979 by Bishop Paul Moore Jnr, (then bishop of New York) in his book Take a Bishop like Me (New York, 1979). Moore wrote:

God as Father and God as Son invoked by a male minister during worship creates in the unconscious, the intuitive, the emotive part of your belief an unmistakeable male God (p37).

He was restating, in a rather flaccid Anglican way, the crisper dictum of Mary Daly: ‘If God is male, the Male is God.’

A defective Incarnation?

But the ‘problem’ of Jesus need not be framed in radical feminist terms; it is, in fact, endemic in the whole movement. Since it is axiomatic for supporters of women’s ordination that a male priest cannot adequately represent women, the question naturally and inevitably arises: how can a male incarnation?

As we have seen in the quotation from Paul Moore, a connection is often made with ‘inclusive’ language. Frequently, but quite illogically, it is asserted that because language about God is agreed to be analogical, analogies other than those dominant in scripture have equal authority.

Characteristically, it is ‘High Church’ proponents who encounter the greatest difficulties. They have a ‘high’ doctrine of the incarnation and a ‘high’ notion of the representative nature of the priesthood. Their programme, as Paul Moore indicates, is to use the one to mitigate the other: a female priesthood will make apparent the ‘femininity of God’ and the soteriological insignificance of the ‘maleness’ of Jesus:

When women begin to read the Scripture, when they preside at the Eucharist, when they wear the symbolic robes of Christ, this unconscious perception will begin to be redressed and the femininity of God will begin to be felt’ (op cit, p37).

Icons and persons

Such a programme, however, cannot but stub its toe against scriptural realities, where sexual imagery about God takes on human actuality in Jesus. He is ‘the image (eikon) of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1.51) and ‘the express image (c arakth r) of his person (upostasiV )’ (Hebrewa 1.3). And that icon – the renewal and redemption of the icon or imago dei of Genesis 1.26 (‘Let us make man in our own image (LXX = kat eikona) and likeness’) – is gender specific. It is definitively the image of the Son of the Father.

Jesus refers to God as ‘Father’ at least 170 times in the New Testament. His claim (taken up in the creeds of the Church – genitum non factum) is not that God is like a father to him, but that He is his Father. No one has seen God, John proclaims at the beginning of his Gospel; but the Son is, for humankind, the exegesis of the Father (John 1.18). ‘Philip, he who has seen me has seen the Father’ (John 14.9).

It was this profound understanding of Jesus as the icon of the Father which influenced John Damascene and Theodore the Studite in their spirited resistance to the iconoclasts. Because the Son makes the invisible Father visible (tangible, as the Johannine tradition has it (John 20.27; 1 John 1.1)), the Church has a duty of devotion to the visible Son. Theodore goes further and, basing himself on the Apostolic Fathers (for example, Ignatius, To the Trallians, 3.1), applies the christological terminology of Colossians 1 to the priestly ministry: ‘Standing before God and men, the priest in his priestly invocations is the representation (eikon) of Christ’ (Seven Chapters against the Iconoclasts, 4).

Theology by narrative

But it is not only elements and images within the biblical narrative that render the position of the proponents untenable, it is the very nature of narrative itself. Scripture is precisely heilsgeschicte, salvation through tales. To the conflated narratives of the Old Testament, the New Testament proposes a meta-narrative, which is set out for us in various places: Mark 12.1–12, Luke 20.9–18, Matthew 21.33–46 (Parable of the Vineyard); Acts 7.2–53 (Homily of Stephen); John 1.1–18 (Prologue); etc.

It is a tale of benevolent patriarchy in which the Father, Sovereign Creator of all, sacrifices his only Son – the Heir, the best-beloved – in order to ransom his wayward creatures. It is the story of a Son who willingly forgoes his divine glory and embraces ignominious death out of love for them and for the Father.

It makes no more sense to alter the gender references of such a story than to tell the tale of Fanny Price from the point of view of Henry Crawford and call it Mansfield Park. CS Lewis put the matter succinctly:

To say that it does not matter is to say either that all the masculine imagery is not inspired, is merely human in origin, or else that, though inspired, it is quite arbitrary and unessential. And this is surely intolerable: or, if tolerable, it is an argument not in favour of Christian priestesses but against Christianity.

Honesty is the best policy

To their credit some of the most ardent proponents of women’s ordination have seen the point of all this. Richard Holloway is now in two minds as to whether he should continue to call himself a Christian at all; Daphne Hampson, an early advocate of women’s ordination in Scotland, long since surrendered any such claim. Hampson has written:

Christians believe in particularity … Above all they believe … (that) they must say of Jesus of Nazareth that there was a revelation of God through him in a way in which this is not true of you or me. God is bound up with peculiar events, a particular people, above all with the person Jesus of Nazareth. Therefore reference must needs always be made to this history and to this person. Now I am not myself a Christian because … I do not believe that whatever I may mean by God that God was differently related to one age or people than God is related to all ages or people’(Theology and Feminism, Oxford, 1990, p8).

That many proponents of women’s ordination do not see the logic of the Holloway/Hampson position is their tragedy. That we cannot make them see the equivalent logic of our own position is ours.

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