Reason Unreasonable

REASON (often in its modern guise of `contemporary experience’) is sometimes taken to be the strong suit of those in favour of the ordination of women. Certainly it is true that many were swayed in the Synod debate in 1992, and before by what Roy Williamson (then Bishop of Southwark) described as `the cause of justice’. `I cannot, with any degree of integrity, challenge the injustices of society and turn a blind eye to the apparent injustice within the Church which prevents women testing their vocation to the priesthood’, said Williamson in a powerful and moving speech.

The use of reason

It needs, however, to be pointed out that such arguments are not based on `reason’ as the term was used by Richard Hooker. `Hooker’, Dr Paul Avis has written, `has Scripture, Reason and Church Tradition. However, his understanding of Reason is far from that of the Enlightenment or of modern individualism. It seems to make sense to think of reason as an indispensable instrument for interpreting Scripture and Tradition rather than as a separate source of truth.’

The argument from `justice’, however, as Daphne Hampson has pointed out, springs not from the rational consideration of Scripture and Tradition but instead from a radical ethical a priori critique of both.

Hampson wrote of her role in the campaign to secure the ordination of women in the Scottish Episcopal Church. She saw clearly that no appeal to Scripture could match the fervour of her convictions:

What was I doing in the late twentieth century, arguing that what happened in the first century was of relevance to whether or not I could be a deacon? I had never had to argue as a woman that I should have an education, become a theologian, own a house or anything else … but the problem with taking such an a priori stance is that it clashes with the nature of Christianity. For Christianity is an historical religion. Thus in consideration of such an issue … relevant factors for people come to be questions such as what was the case in the early Church, what would Jesus have done, how is God envisaged in the religion of the ancient Hebrews? (Theology and Feminism, Blackwell, 1990, pp31-32).

The use of post-Enlightenment egalitarianism (of which, of course, both the biblical writers and Hooker knew nothing) to critique the clearly expressed views of Scripture has subsequently come into its own (as many of us predicted that it would) in the arguments favouring the ordination of practising homosexuals and the church blessing of same sex unions. Here positions explicitly excoriated in scripture have been adopted as `developments’ of aspects of the tradition hitherto `latent’.

(Those interested in the process by which this has come about would do well to compare the summary dismissal of the scriptural evidence in Richard Harries’s paper on human sexuality, delivered at the meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council in Panama, 1996.with the careful development of arguments from scripture and tradition in the recent guidance on the legal recognition of same sex unions given by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.)

The nature of equality

The truth, of course, is that the egalitarianism on which this critique is based is both alien to the genius of the scriptures and unreasonable in itself. It is unreasonable because no empirical evidence – biological or sociological – exists to support it; rather the contrary.

Naturally there have been attempts to manufacture such evidence, just as there have been attempts to massage the history of Christianity in the first three centuries. (See `Anatomy VI: Morris Dancing’, ND June 2003) But the fact remains, as Margaret Meade admitted long ago (in the seventies of the last century), `there has never been a society in which men were not dominant in public affairs and the final authority at home.’ And the extravagant claims of sexual psychologists, Professor John Money of John Hopkins University pre-eminent among them, that human gender is the product of nurture rather than nature, have been conclusively discredited.

`Beyond the four basic reproductive functions (impregnation, menstruation, gestation, and lactation), nothing – nothing – of the differences between the sexes is immutably ordained along sex lines … As long as the four basic reproductive functions are allowed for … no particular gender stereotype is unalterable. A society has almost unlimited choice of role design or redesign’ wrote Money in 1981. But his experiments in `gender re-assignment’, though written up with confident enthusiasm, proved disastrous. Mercifully no-one (or almost no-one) in the medical profession thinks and acts now as Dr Money thought and acted then. A great deal of human misery has thereby been averted.

These simple facts throw us back, it seems, on the position taken, at the time of the American Revolution, by an anonymous contributor to the Gentlemen’s Magazine. (Was it Edmund Burke, as some have thought?) He wrote:

Mr Jefferson has told us that all men are created equal. In what are they equal? In height? In intelligence? In wisdom? In physical strength? In spiritual attainment? The meanest ploughboy knows that in these things they are different Mr Jefferson would have done better to have asserted, not that all men were created equal, but that all men were equally created.

Church Order

CS Lewis in his ground-breaking essay `Priestesses in the Church’ applied the same wisdom to matters of church order:

As the State grows more like a hive or an ant-hill it needs an increasing number of workers who can be treated as neuters. This may be inevitable for our secular life. But in our Christian life we must return to reality. There we are not homogeneous units, but different and complementary organs of a mystical body. Lady Nunburnholme has claimed that the equality of men and women is a Christian principle. I do not remember the text in scripture nor the Fathers, nor Hooker, nor the Prayer Book which asserts it; but that is not here my point

The point is that unless `equal’ means `interchangeable’, equality makes nothing for the priesthood of women. And the kind of equality which implies that the equals are interchangeable (like counters or identical machines) is, among humans, a legal fiction. It may be a useful legal fiction. But in church we turn our back on fictions.

One of the ends for which sex was created was to symbolize to us the hidden things of God. One of the functions of human marriage is to express the nature of the union between Christ and the Church. 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.