Why, asked Austin Farrer in a sermon preached in Pusey House years ago, is ‘primitive’ a term of approbation among liturgists? It is a good question; and not only about liturgists.

The new primitives

Nobody, except an enthusiastic antiquarian, cares a fig about primitive medicine or primitive agriculture. No one in their right mind would want to live in a primitive society – with a deficient diet and the absence of dentistry. And yet the feminist movement, both beyond and within the Christian churches, has devoted a great deal of fruitless energy to the pursuit of ‘primitive’ origins. Various societies – from the savannahs of Central Africa to the flood plains of the Yangtze – have been said to be ‘matriarchal’.

Feminist scholars have been ambitious in their use of recently discovered documents, like the Nag Hammadi texts, to reconstruct a view of the earliest churches in their own image. The attempt has been made to show, in Michael Adie’s famous phrase, that women’s ordination is ‘required by tradition’. (‘Surely it is quite misleading to enlist tradition without qualification in favour of this legislation,’ replied Bishop Alec Graham, ‘for it is at this very point that the arguments for the legislation are at their weakest.’)

We need to be clear that what is operating here is not scholarship but mythology, or rather two mythologies: the myths of the Fall and of the Universal Conspiracy.

Conspiracy theories

Philip Jenkins, in his important book Hidden Gospels (OUP 2001, 0 19 515631 5), puts this feminist endeavour in the wider context of modern attempts to reconstruct early Christian history (or histories) from the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary and other Gnostic or heretical texts. Writers strive, he points out, to create a congenial picture of at least some sections of the early church, and then allege that a malign force (Constantine, the ‘monarchical episcopate’, etc, etc) suppressed these authentic forms (‘free’, ‘spontaneous’, ‘egalitiarian etc, etc) and substituted for them the systematic oppression of the Catholic Church.

This general mythology has its origins in the more radical wing of the continental Reformation, but it has found a very different home among contemporary religious liberals, whose fabrication of a ‘Jesus movement’ imbued with a democratic spirituality, and shorn of all supernatural claims, has allowed them to demonize the ‘institutional Church’ as uniquely oppressive and destructive of the real message of the Messiah.

‘Feminist scholars’, writes Jenkins, ‘have their own particular version of this story, stressing how this historical transition was uniquely grim news for Christian women.’ A substantial literature now argues that women played a critical role among the earliest followers of Jesus, and maintained their high position in the Church’s first century or so, until they were excluded by the growth of Catholic orthodoxy.

Obviously, these arguments have an importance far beyond the purely academic, as the existence of female prophets, presbyters, bishops, or apostles in the first centuries would destroy the ideological arguments advanced today to prevent women from being ordained in the Roman Catholic Church and the other hold-out denominations. In 1993, Karen Jo Torjesen published a book entitled When Women Were Priests, with the polemical subtitle, ‘Women’s leadership in the early Church and the scandal of their subordination in the rise of Christianity’.

For feminists, of course, this ‘scandal of subordination’ is the result of a universal male conspiracy. For writers like Lavinia Byrne (see Woman at the Altar: The Ordination of Women in the Roman Catholic Church, Mowbray 1994) it is men who are the ‘explainers away’ of the ‘Hidden Tradition’.

Myths of the authentic

This mythopoeic and selective dialogue with the past has a number of interesting features, not least of which is its innate tendency to dogmatism. Like the radical reformers of the sixteenth century, who portrayed the Roman Church as an intolerant autocracy, and replaced it with a narrower autocracy of their own invention, Christian feminists are intent upon imposing their own view on others. Theirs, they suppose, is the authentic voice of Christianity. It has been muted since before the New Testament was written, and is in consequence obliged to shout from the roof tops.

‘The End of Silence’ (title of a book by Karen Armstrong, the final chapter of which contains Armstrong’s condemnation of Forward in Faith) has issued not in a tolerance of different views and voices, but in the stentorian proclamation of a new ‘orthodoxy’. Those most actively involved in the creation of the Fall/Conspiracy myth are, quite understandably, those most implacably opposed to any provision for, or acceptance of, the defeated opinion.

This is precisely what one would expect; but surely there is more to follow. Two equal and opposite characteristics mark those who appeal to ‘primitive’ authority as the arbiter of doctrine. Either they are fossilized in the polity which they suppose themselves to have found at the farthest reaches of the tradition (but which, in fact, is their own creation and a product of their own age and clime); or they are condemned to a whirligig of incessant change.

Gnostic reconciliation

Those of us who are content to let history sift our doctrine, and hold to a gradualist view of development can live in the present at peace with our past. But those who embrace the Myth of the Primitive have either to stick to their guns – ending up as doctrinal anachronisms, with an antipathy to zip fasteners; or to admit what is obvious – that the ‘primitive church’ was a varied and various phenomenon and that you might as well move gaily from one ‘primitive Christianity’ to another: a little Ebionism today, a little Manichaeism tomorrow, and as much of any given form of Gnosticism as one can take at any given time.

Elaine Pagels and a number of other feminist writers seem to be attempting a reconciliation of these opposites. ‘I don’t see a picture of a golden age of egalitarianism back there’ writes Pagels. ‘I see a new, unformed, diverse and threatened movement which allowed a lot more fluidity for women in certain roles for a while, in some places and not in others’. What inevitably results from this amalgam is the extraordinary view that everything is and ought to be permitted, unless it was the majority view of the past two millennia (which is taken to be sufficient evidence of its heterodoxy).

It was noted long ago that the ‘Search for the Historical Jesus’ has produced any number of Jesuses – all of them firmly rooted in the opinions and prejudices of those who claim to have unearthed them. The feminist search for ‘Roots’ is no less fraudulent; but it has, with the ordination of women, stepped beyond the realm of opinion, and grafted itself to the very structures of the Church.