Geoffrey Kirk looks at the arguments advanced in Monica Furlong’s collection of essays: Act of Synod — Act of Folly?

The dilemma which this book addresses can easily be stated: it is the problem of how to treat people who persistently refuse to acknowledge a self-evident truth [Ian Jackson, p.87]. The authors, to a person, adopt what Daphne Hampson usefully describes as ‘an ethical a priori position’ with regard to women’s ordination. The appeal of Oliver Cromwell to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland (‘I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken’) falls upon deaf ears here. Even Mary Tanner’s eirenic notion that women’s ordination might at some remote time be reversed is contemptuously dismissed. (John Baker, rather ungallantly, consigns Dr Tanner to another planet). So the problem remains: what to do with the rest of us?

The dilemma of these authors is, in truth, one with which it is hard not to sympathise. The carpet has, in so many instances, already been dragged from beneath their feet.

If they seek to argue that women’s ordination must be accepted on democratic grounds, as the will of a two-thirds majority at the end of an exhaustive Synodical process [Jean Mayland, p.66], then they have the difficulty that the Act of Synod (which they suppose to undermine and negate their position) was passed by an overwhelmingly larger synodical majority than the Measure itself.

If they accept that a democratic decision in a local Synod or national Parliament can effect fundamental changes in doctrine and order [John Austin Baker, p 38], then they must surely accept the right of an opposing party actively to work for the repeal of those changes. For how else can a Parliamentary system function?

If they claim that ‘flying bishops’ are in some radical sense un-catholic (that they undermine the authentic relationship of a bishop with his clergy and people) [Judith Maltby, p. 43], then they have the problem that every bishop of the Church of England (and, for good measure, the Prefect of the Holy Office) disagrees with them. (Even Peter Selby [p.83] has taken part in the consecration of a PEV, which in Maltby’s eyes must be tantamount to a schismatic act!).

If they maintain that a Free Province in England would introduce the divisions which exist in the Communion at large to the heart of the Mother Church [John Austin Baker, p. 38], they must surely begin by accepting that those divisions (and the provincial Autonomy which facilitates and expresses them) are the creation, not of the opponents, but of the proponents of women’s ordination. They must explain why division and provincial autonomy are tolerable in the one circumstance and intolerable in the other.

If they appeal to a growing consensus in the Anglican Communion world-wide, then they must also take account of Resolution III.4 of the recent Lambeth Conference, of the Eames Commission’s Report to which it refers, and of the Grindrod Report which preceded Eames.

At the heart of this book (in Jean Mayland’s bitter historical sketch ‘An Act of Betrayal’) is a sad chronicle of political failure. Most of the other authors, in retrospect, agree with Mayland that the Priests (Ordination of Women Measure) 1992 was fatally flawed from the beginning, and did not merit their support. (It should, amongst other things, they now concede, have made provision for women bishops, just as John Broadhurst maintained at the time!) But they supported the Measure, warts and all, as the only viable political option. And now, in one way or another they rue the day.

In the months after the Measure was passed (surely the most dangerous time for their cause, as Peter Selby acknowledges) they were inchoate and incoherent. In particular they lost ground in the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament, which was dominated, on one side of the table by Frank Field, John Gummer and Patrick Cormack, and on the other by John Broadhurst. The stumbling presentation and fractured syntax of George Carey cannot have helped. By the time the bishops were emerging from Manchester II, with tears and Te Deums, the Act of Synod was inevitable. John Habgood (whom Jean Mayland ‘with all due respect’, contends had lost his mind) met no significant opposition on the floor of the Synod. Even John Arnold voted with him. And so was defeat dragged screaming from the jaws of victory.

These essays are a belated attempt to undo the reverses of the last few years and (once more under the captainship of Monica Furlong) to renew the struggle. Judith Maltby and Jane Shaw, in particular are out to ‘up the anti’ by providing what they hope will be a searing theological critique of the offending Act.. But, alas, they can come up with nothing new. ‘Taint’ and ‘Donatism’ are the best they can manage, and both are rather tired themes.

Opponents of women priests, the argument goes, share the heretical misconceptions of an obscure group of fourth century North African schismatics named for a Bishop of Carthage. These over-zealous Christians refused the sacraments of those (‘traditores’) who had surrendered copies of the scriptures to the Roman authorities when their possession was forbidden in the Diocletianic persecution. The Donatists maintained that those who had surrendered them were in some sense ‘tainted’ or ‘infected’, and that the sacraments which they celebrated were in consequence invalid. Their opinion was vigorously opposed by Augustine, whose views are succinctly expressed in Article XXVI of the Church of England. Like the Donatists, claim Maltby and Shaw, opponents of women priests refuse as invalid the sacraments of those who have been ‘tainted’ by contact with women, and so they deny the basic sacramental principle that ‘the unworthiness of the minister hindereth not the operation of the Sacrament’.

All this is far-fetched and undocumented. The Donatists of the fourth century and the opponents of women priests in the twentieth have scarcely a thing in common – except, of course, that the fourth century Donatists (like Augustine who excoriated them) were also opposed to women priests. No one in this volume, it appears, has bothered to read the Forward in Faith Statement on Communion. But everyone here is an authority on what opponents believe and do. Poor Donatus, I suspect, is merely an excuse for introducing the delicious theme of ‘taint’.

Ever since Joan Morris wrote her paper on menstrual taboos back in the seventies, Christian feminists have been obsessed with the concept. According to currently received ‘taint’ theory, male priests are said to fear contamination by contact with ‘unclean’ females, or even with other males who have been ‘sullied’ by such contact. Sometimes, it is even thought that they suppose that places or things (chalices or vestments, for example) can be similarly soiled. Not a single text is ever quoted from any of the extensive literature opposing women’s ordination which expresses this view; but that is hardly the point.

The point is that the theory gives an appropriately anthropological explanation of what to its inventors must seem otherwise irrational behaviour. The conduct of a substantial group of people who are indifferent to a self-evident truth can now be explained. The opponents of women priests are a species of primitive animists – and the proponents, of course, have cast themselves in the role of Claude Levi-Strauss.

It is not only Maltby and Shaw, however, who choose to attack the Act by revisiting the primary arguments. Bishop John Baker chooses to revisit the argument about priestly representation.

Proponents of women priests have traditionally taken opposing views of this argument. To the view that the priest, particularly in the eucharistic celebration, represents or ‘images’ Christ (or, in the words of the evangelical J.I. Packer, ‘that it will always be easier, other things being equal, to realise and remember that Christ in person’) one group has responded positively and another negatively.

The positive (or High Church) response has been to accept that the priest is, in this ‘iconic’ sense, a representative; but to affirm that he represents what is usually called the ‘full humanity of Jesus’. It is claimed that, at the incarnation, Jesus assumed not maleness, but ‘humanity’ (an out of context tag from Gregory Nazianzen is usually appended at this stage); and that the risen and ascended Christ has no gender. The incarnate God, then, can only be fully and properly be represented by a priesthood which includes both women and men.

The negative (or Low Church) response has been to deny the ‘iconic’ model of priestly representation.. Geoffrey Lampe expanded Ephesians into a whole theology of the priest as an ‘ambassador’ of Christ (in which representative role gender was seen as an irrelevance). Thomas Torrance and others have simply dismissed the idea of representation as a development so late and degenerate as to be unworthy of serious attention. (****************).

Baker gives us a characteristically gentle version of the second option. For him the idea of priestly representation is simply ‘un-Anglican’. It has ‘come into prominence only because of efforts over the last hundred and fifty years to find common ground with Roman doctrine’. One is tempted to ask what would be left of the externals (or even the essentials) of modern world-wide Anglicanism if Baker eliminated everything in the last 150 years, which could be tarred with the same brush. He would be looking for a retirement home, one suspects, somewhere on the outskirts of Sydney!

In fact, of course, the claim to have defined the Anglican understanding of the ministerial priesthood is as absurd as the claim to be able to state the Anglican doctrine of the Eucharist. No such statements can be made because no such things exist. For better or for worse, Anglicanism is an amalgam of those who have agreed to differ on theological essentials; but who have found, notwithstanding, that they can rub along together quite nicely.

The difficulty with this otherwise desirable state of affairs is that it is, inevitably and acutely sensitive to change. Every significant alteration – especially in liturgical practice or church order – will inevitably block off what had previously seemed, to one grouping or another, a legitimate line of development. Disruption ultimately means disenfrachisement.

To propose, as Baker does in his postscript, that the solution to present problems and divisions is a return to an Anglican consensus which clearly does not exist (and probably never existed, except retrospectively in text-books) is obviously to beg the question. And to blame the Act of Synod and the opponents of women priests for introducing ‘individualism’ into Anglican ecclesiology is rich beyond Croesus..

In the present case, it was Bishop R.O. Hall of Hong Kong and the retired bishops who ordained the Philadelphia Twelve who first let the djinn out of the bottle. They canonised individualism and invented provincial autonomy at a single stroke, thus reinventing Anglicanism for the new age. Let us, at least, give credit where credit is due!

At the end of this book the intelligent reader will want to ask a single question: why do its authors so roundly reject the parliamentary means and synodical compromises which have put them where they are today?

Women’s ordination was achieved by synodical majority and provincial autonomy. It clearly depends upon a single coherent ecclesiological principle (the one to which its opponents most strenuously object): that majorities in local synods (however arrived at – for the matter has been differently arranged in different places) can decide the nature of the sacred ministry. Of course it follows that, like all other democratic bodies, those local synods may reverse their decision at will, and decide otherwise as they please. Upon that necessary understanding the Act of Synod is based. Yet no one in this book writes as though these things were the case. Why?

Because women’s ordination is for them a self-evident truth. The majorities in favour or against are, in the end, a matter of indifference. Reversal, for them, is inconceivable. Possession, for them, is more than nine-tenths of the law. This is a subject which, for them, is simply not open for debate. The only problem, for these writers, is what to do with the dissidents.

In previous generations the dissidents would have been sent to the stake. Later, a more humanitarian age would have provided young men in white coats to care for them. But what is to be done in the post-modernist now? To the dispassionate observer it is entertaining, at the end of the millennium, to see well-meaning liberals seriously considering ethnic cleansing.

But how might it be achieved without significant loss of face? That is the question. Ms Furlong no doubt has other volumes up her sleeve. So watch this space!