St Anthony's Nunhead
Sunday 9th August 1998
ON THE ORDINATION OF WOMEN PRIESTS
Those who have good memories may recall William Inge of St Paul's Cathedral who was Dean earlier this century.
This is how the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church describes him:
"His grasp of the tastes and prejudices of the English mind [and] his provocative and epigrammatical manner of writing... made him one of the best-known Churchmen of his generation"
Here's an example of his writing:
"The average Englishman's religion is an assortment of half-truths maintained with obstinacy".
Now I'm sure that you and Fr Anthony would be concerned if half truths were the only things believed in and taught at St Anthony's.
For half-truths are, if anything, more insidious than total falsehoods. Why? Because they have about them an element of plausibility (the half of them that is true) which can lead you and me to suppose that they are wholly true. But in a half-truth falsehood and truth grow together in the same mind, like the wheat and tares in the parable, until eventually the whole crop becomes hopelessly corrupted.
Now God has provided us with two quite different ways of enabling us men to arrive at the truth. He's given us minds and imaginations and wills so that a lot of the truth we can discover for ourselves. From simple things like how to light a fire to the more complicated ones like how to split the atom God has allowed man over the course of time to discover more and more about the world, and even a little about the universe in which this world is located.
Let's call this first kind of knowledge Natural Science or Knowing about Nature.
But there's another, equally if not more important source of knowledge which concerns particularly our knowledge of and relationship with God himself. This type of knowledge is called Revelation. Not only is God's revelation of himself a quite different of knowledge from what we learn from Natural Science because it's in some ways more like getting to know a Person rather than a collection of facts; it also differs because it comes to us directly from God, and without such revelation we should know next to nothing about him or about the purposes for which he created us and put us on this earth: about "doing the will of God" in other words.
These two sources of knowledge, revelation and Natural Science are not two watertight mutually exclusive compartments of knowledge. We can learn a little, very little it must be said, about God by studying Natural Science; we can learn rather more about nature by considering what God has revealed to us about it, speaking as he has through his prophets, through scripture and most importantly through his Son Jesus Christ, true God and True man.
However those truths which we access by following, so to say, the "alternative" source to the main one are likely at best to be precisely the sort of half-truths which Dean Inge was speaking about.
Take a simple example. The only Law which Natural Science can bring to bear on the value of human life itself is called Natural Selection. So if you ask Natural Science the question "Should I have an abortion and kill my unborn child?" Nature can only say "Yes, if it's safe and happens to suit you"; but revelation says "Do not murder". Revelation gives a simple imperative; Natural Science, insofar as it can give any justification, suggests to the popular mind the highly questionable soundbyte "it's a woman's right to choose".
The truths which matter most, the ones by which we are meant to conduct our lives and make our moral decisions, come to us from God by revelation. What we learn by revelation could never have been discovered by ourselves using our natural wits. Indeed, as we have just seen, the full truth often runs clean across the grain of what Natural Science, left to its own devices, would suggest. Natural Science knows nothing of right and wrong, good and evil, heroism and cowardice, ugliness and beauty, compassion and cruelty. Left to its own devices it points us in only one direction: self-interest.
It follows that any attempt to know the mind of God without basing our knowledge on what God has revealed to us himself, through Scripture, through the prophets, but principally and perfectly in his Son Jesus Christ, is likely to produce, at best, only a half-truth.
It's precisely at that point that the whole debate about the ordination of women as priests went so tragically off the rails ten years ago. The whole matter of priesthood was treated as though it were a human construct, like being a a Mayor, or a Head teacher or the Director of a business. Its advocates pointed out, quite correctly, that many women could fill these posts just as well, if not better, than many men. Why then, so the argument went, should this not apply equally to the Church of God?
But to say "women can be mayors, therefore they can be priests" is precisely the kind of half-truth which Inge so rightly ascribed to Englishmen at their most obstinate. It is based on the misguided idea that Revealed Truth and Natural Science are bound to come up with the same answer in every case.
Sometimes of course they will. It would be extraordinary, to say the least if God's will and his created world were always and everywhere at variance with one another. Religions have indeed existed based on this belief and they are called Gnosticism.
But sometimes the two sources of knowledge won't come up with the same answer. Natural Science suggests one thing; God's revelation suggests another, and there may well be no way that the two can be reconciled.
Given the choice between following God's revealed will and following soundbytes, late 20th Century man will always go for the soundbyte. Why? Because soundbytes are in the first instance easier to understand than theological truth; or rather they don't require any understanding as such at all. Soundbytes are half-truths to be grasped at and applied in particular situations without too much thought. Thinking about them, even worse matching such soundbytes against the revealed will of God, quickly shows up their shortcomings. What at first sight looked so simple, an open-and-shut case, a question People's Rights and Natural Justice, may turn out, on closer inspection to have all those fatal flaws about them which are irreconcilable to the person who sincerely prays to God Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, Hallowed be Thy Name on earth as in heaven.
Some of you may have come here this morning hoping to hear a knock-me-down argument about why women priests are wrong or impossible, to be followed next week by an equally or more persuasive sermon as to why they are both possible and right. Then you can take a vote on the basis of which speaker has been the more persuasive.
But that, frankly is not the way to answer questions which have to do with the will of God, nor is it right to use the liturgical sermon for that end.
My purpose this morning has been to suggest the importance of asking the right questions when it comes to considering the things eternal of which priesthood, since it is either a gift of God or it is nothing at all, is one.
We saw a few minutes ago just how misleading it can be to apply the wrong methodology to the question we are trying to answer. At best it will come up with a half-truth soundbyte.
Now let me suggest another misleading way of thinking which has proved over and over again to provide the wrong answer to the really important questions about God and Man.
It's called "following the spirit of the age"
Every age develops its own particular flavour and prejudices, often as a reaction to those of its immediate predecessor. But as we all know, following the diktats of fashion is no more likely to lead us to discover God's will than following soundbytes. The spirit of our present age is no more likely to be in accordance with the mind of Christ that the spirit of any other age.
"By their fruits ye shall know them". If the spirit of the age has prompted our church leaders to an innovation which even the Pope himself says lies beyond his authority to do, then the benefits of our doing so in terms of a large increase in the number of people attending church, and a growing holiness amongst those who attend, would have to be overwhelming before we could draw the conclusion that our leaders have "got it right" and the vast majority of the catholic Church, now and over the last 20 centuries have been the victims of a tragic misunderstanding. It has to be said that there is no such evidence, such evidence as there is points in precisely the opposite direction.
But then, of course, the spirit of the age is an ever-changing shadow, reflecting little, if at all, the unchanging purposes of God.
We began with Dean Inge. Let us allow him the last word. This is another of his famous epigrams:
"The man who is married to the spirit of one age will certainly find himself a widower in the next".
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