As the Church of England gears its self up for the celebration of the tenth anniversary of its momentous decision to ordain women to the priesthood, we at New Directions have a lot to celebrate too.
Time was when people ridiculed us and told us how wrong we were – wrong to say that the ordination of women was a christological issue; wrong to say that the feminist agenda led seamlessly into the lesbigay agenda; wrong to say that women’s ordination was an attack on the Fatherhood of God; and wrong to say that women priests would not reverse, and might even accelerate, the Church of England’s numerical decline.
People are less inclined to say all that now. At the end of ten short years we have been resoundingly vindicated in every prediction.
Exodus and Numbers
The tragic-comic antics of the statisticians in Church House, who alter the method of collecting attendance figures with the frequency with which governments once manipulated the numbers of the unemployed, are proof enough that the Church of England is still in serious decline. Despite vast expenditure on the ineffectual Decade of Evangelism, and despite the best efforts of the Springboard team (where are they now?), women’s ordination (with its much heralded release of pent-up talents and energies) has not made one iota of difference to the general trend, which was and is downwards.
The bowdlerization of liturgical and biblical texts to suit the sensibilities of feminists and their sympathizers is now so common-place as to be scarcely remarkable. The Alternative Service Book, after only two decades, must seem to many like a monument to the crass insensitivity of a bygone age. Even seasoned establishment, figures like the Bishop of Oxford (see ‘Media Watch’, page 32 in this edition of New Directions) are clambering belatedly and arthritically onto the bandwagon. This systematic attempt to poison the wells is unprecedented in the attitudes of any previous culture to its sacred books. It owes less to scholarship than to the political manoeuvrings of the late lamented Soviet Encyclopaedia.
The Gay Agenda
Wherever women’s ordination has taken off, the lesbigay agenda has swiftly and inexorably followed. The generic connection between the arguments used to advance both causes becomes daily more apparent. Three factors are of particular importance: new attitudes to scripture and hermeneutics; shared assumptions about human rights and personal freedom; and a degenerative ecclesiology.
Feminist success in rubbishing the Pauline passages inimical to women’s ministry, and the hermeneutical industry which has grown up in the extensive following of Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza have contributed a good deal to the lesbigay programme. By these means it has proved possible to find in scripture what is not there and to ignore as bigoted or irrelevant what is. The identification of Paul’s words about the baptismal covenant at Galatians 3.28 with secular notions of equality was a defining moment for this process, which came to its fruition when Bishop Charles Bennison was able to say that the Church wrote scripture and the Church can re-write it. Women’s ordination and gay ‘rights’, moreover, have come to be automatically, even casually, connected in varied and sometimes unexpected contexts – for example in the job description drawn up in the recent election for a new bishop of Washington. Meanwhile, the Provincial Autonomy which was canvassed in order to facilitate and legitimate women’s ordination has degenerated, as many predicted, into diocesan autonomy. It is now being used (for example in New Westminster, Canada) to facilitate the introduction of services of blessing for same sex relationships.
Jesus was always going to be problem for feminists. ‘How odd of God to choose the Jews’ goes the old rhyme; but how much odder – and more offensive, from their point of view – of God to bring about universal salvation through a male!
Daphne Hampson in her book ‘Theology and Feminism’ (Blackwell, 1990) was clear-headed enough to reject Christian claims about the particularity of the incarnation. ‘I am not myself a Christian,’ she wrote, ‘ because … I do not believe, whatever I may mean by God, that it could be said of God that God was differently related to one age or people than God is related to all ages or people.’ Hampson was, in fact, simply extrapolating from the radical egalitarianism which Christian feminists had read into Galatians 3.28. Not many of the sisters walked all the way with her; but she has had a host of fellow travellers. The recent survey ‘The Mind of Anglicans’ (see New Directions, August 2002) has conclusively demonstrated that women priests are consistently weak on christology – noticeably more so than their male colleagues. It is precisely what any objective observer would have expected. It is what we ourselves suggested. Now it can be seen to be the case.
No reverse gear
So we have a lot to celebrate at this tenth anniversary. But, it is bitter-sweet rejoicing. Most of us would rather that the evils we predicted had not befallen the Church we love. Perhaps some of us even hoped against hope that what the proponents claimed was really true – that the experiment was reversible.
Whether they were lying to us or to themselves we may never know. But, just as it was obvious what consequences would flow, so it ought to have been even more obvious that this engine could not be reversed. The arguments in favour of women’s ordination were so inflated, and the expectations from it so exaggerated, that it had to be portrayed as a success, whatever the outcome.
Ronald Bowlby, early in the debate, told the Synod that women’s ordination was ‘the only way, in our generation, to defend the doctrine of God’. George Carey told the Reader’s Digest that ‘the idea that only a male can represent Christ at the altar is a most serious heresy.’ David Jenkins was characteristically outspoken: women should be ordained ‘as soon as possible and at practically any cost’. ‘Women Priests – whatever the price’ was the headline of a piece by Barry Rogerson in The Sunday Times. ‘I have no doubt at all’, wrote Richard Holloway, ‘that opponents will one day be shown to have been trying to sweep back the tide of God.’
Such extravagant hyperbole leaves no room for error. ‘The arguments levelled against the ordination of women to the priesthood,’ Holloway went on, ‘though they are couched in theological, psychological, sociological and ecumenical terms are examples of profound argumentation against a self evident truth…’
All that remains for the future, then, is to ask how long it will be before the proponents feel the necessity to eliminate the rest of us. The process is already well underway in ECUSA. GRAS and the Bishop of Lincoln are itching to get on with the final solution on this side of the Atlantic. So a happy anniversary to us all!