The Equality of Love

Speakers in the debate on women bishops at a recent meeting of the Diocesan Synod of the Diocese of Ripon and Leeds pressed the matter, according to the Church of England Newspaper because it was seen as a matter of equality and ‘basic human rights’. That is certainly a point of view – and one, for those who adopt it, which trumps any argument from scripture. Clearly the opinions of DSMs (Dead Semitic Males) cannot be allowed to stand against the ethical a priori imperatives of a more enlightened era.

But Michael Adie, in the debate on November 11 1992 claimed that women’s ordination was ‘consonant with scripture’. His claim fell considerably short of the requirements of the Church of England’s formularies that anything which is to be imposed as a matter of doctrine should be ‘read therein or proved thereby’ – so acceptance of the ordination of women could never be made mandatory (a condition, for example, of membership or ministry within the Church).

But is it the case that the opinions being voiced are even ‘consonant’ with scripture? Can the notion that men are women are, to put it in simple terms, ‘the same thing with different fittings’, and that they ought to be equal and interchangeable in all social roles which are not dictated by mere biology, be said to be in accord with the anthropology of the scriptures? We doubt it. The evidence to the contrary seems to us to be very strong.

In the Beginning…

First, there is the evidence of the Creation narratives in the Book of Genesis. There sexual differentiation precedes the Fall. Like all the things which God has made, it is ‘very good’. But there can be no doubt, from the second creation narrative, that the male has primacy: he is created first, and woman from him. To him is given a dominion which is characteristically expressed by the Yahwist in the naming of the animals. Adam also names the woman – twice, as a matter of fact: he names her Woman ‘because she was taken from man’, and Eve ‘because she was the mother of all living’.

The implication here is of a wholly benevolent primacy. Clearly we are to picture a relationship of ‘sweet accord’, into which an element of rancour only enters after the eating of the apple: ‘and your lust shall be to your husband and he shall rule over you.’ The idea is one of primacy and authority so exercised as to intensify the sweetness and mutuality of the relationship.

Paul repeatedly returns to the Genesis narrative when he wishes to make clear the nature of Christian sexual relationships and relationships in general. To the Corinthians he makes a simple point, wholly consonant with Rabbinnic exegesis of Genesis 2–3: ‘For a man … is the image of the glory of God, but the woman is the glory of the man; neither was the man created for the woman, but the woman for the man’ (1 Corinthians 11.7–9). But to the Ephesians he exalts the recovery of a pre-lapsarian mutuality in Christian marriage as a model of all relationship ‘en christou’:

‘Give way to one another in obedience to Christ. Wives should regard their husbands as they regard the Lord, since as Christ is head of the Church and saves the whole body, so is a husband the head of his wife; and as the Church submits to Christ, so should wives to their husbands, in everything. Husbands should love their wives just as Christ loved the Church and sacrificed himself for her to make her holy. He made her clean by washing her in water with a form of words, so that when he took her to himself she would be glorious, with no speck or wrinkle or anything like that, but holy and faultless. In the same way, husbands must love their wives as they love their own bodies; for a man to love his wife is for him to love himself. A man never hates his own body, but he feeds it and looks after it; and that is the way Christ treats the Church, because it is his body – and we are its living parts. For this reason, a man must leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one body. This mystery has many implications; but I am saying it applies to Christ and the Church. To sum up; you too, each one of you, must love his wife as he loves himself; and let every wife respect her husband.’

Kenosis and Kephale

This passage deserves to be quoted at length because it unites in a tight and precise argument many of the great themes of Pauline Christology and ecclesiology, relating them to what he clearly supposes to be a creation ordinance about human sexuality. Here are the doctrines of incorporation into the Body of Christ through baptism; the role of Christ as kephale of that body (both its source, and its ruling authority – as Adam was of Eve); the kenosis of the Godhead in Christ, who, though higher than the angels takes the form of a slave. All this is the prime Pauline mysterion, whose implications have to be lived in order to be comprehended; and which can never be exhausted of meaning.

No reader of the account of Adam and Eve before the onslaught of Satan in Book Four of Paradise Lost (and the parallel passage in Bk I, Cap X of De Doctrina Christiana) can be in much doubt that Milton got Paul exactly right: ‘He for God only; she for God in him.’

There are, of course, enormous problems about how these biblical insights are to be applied and lived out in modern post-Enlightenment society. But there ought not, in our view, to be any dispute about the fact that they are incompatible with – indeed opposed to – the doctrinaire egalitarianism which is often espoused by the supporters of women priests. That egalitarianism is both arrogant and heavy-handed – arrogant because it fails to take account of the simple fact that all previously recorded societies have been patriarchal, and that they have accorded differential roles to women and men; heavy-handed because it lacks all subtlety and nuance in response to the human condition, indiscriminately condemning as ‘sexist’ or sinful whole swathes of activity from fairy stories to pornography.

CS Lewis put the matter elegantly at the end of his classic essay ‘Priestesses in the Church?’:

One of the ends for which sex was created was to symbolize to us the hidden things of God … We have no authority to take the living and semitive figures which God has painted on the canvas of our nature and shift them about as if they were mere geometrical figures.