Geoffrey Kirk looks at some very weak arguments
No authority whatsoever
‘Ut igitur omne dubium auferatur circa rem magni momenti, quae ad ipsam Ecclesiae divinam consitutionem pertinet, virtute ministerii Nostri confirmandi fratres (cfr Lc 22, 32), declaramus Ecclesiam facultatem nullatenus habere ordinationem sacerdotalem mulieribus conferendi, hancque sententiam ab omnibus Ecclesiae fidelibus esse definitive tenendam.’, said John Paul II in 1994. And that is how it is likely to remain. Let the Next-Pope-But-One (the long-awaited Liberal Saviour) wriggle out of that one!
The Roman Church, in ‘a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself’ treated the question of the ordination of women to the priesthood at the highest level and with the utmost seriousness.
Not so, of course, the Anglican Communion and the Church of England. In the communion at large a doctrine of so-called Provincial Autonomy prevailed. It gave individual local churches plenary authority over one of the principal instruments of unity – the compatibility and interchangeability of orders. That this contradicted the very nature and purpose of orders themselves did not appear to concern anyone.
In the Church of England this devolution of authority has continued until the illogic of Provincial Autonomy has degenerated into something approaching farce. The 1993 legislation placed the decision about orders in the hands of the Parochial Church Council, which under Schedules A and B could choose to reject the priestly ministry of women. The Act of Synod provided Extended Episcopal Care for those parishes whose PCCs petitioned for it.
Now some bishops, irritated that PCCs continue to pass resolutions rejecting the new orders (and themselves as purveyors of them), are seeking to ensure that they ‘consult widely in the parish’ and act on the results of that consultation before petitioning for Extended Episcopal Care. This is effectively to go over the heads of faithful church people and regular church attenders in order to embrace as definitive the views of those who are on the fringes of church life.
There is, of course, a certain logic to this. The arguments for the ordination of women from scripture and tradition are notoriously weak – proponents have been reduced to conjuring female apostles from the critical apparatus of Nestle-Aland, inventing second century concelebrations in Roman Catacombs, and fantasizing about female bishops in ninth-century mosaics. The real arguments, as the recent GRAS advertisement in The Church Times goes to prove, lie elsewhere.
As we move towards the ordination of women as bishops, these are:
the argument from justice (‘it is unjust, an infringement of their [women’s] rights, if they are not allowed to be bishops just as it would be an infringement of their rights if they were not allowed to be High Court judges, Ministers of the Crown, or Chief Executives of businesses’);
the argument that the issue is self-evident (‘this argument is the starting point for a lot of people, especially young people today. They are so used to women exercising every kind of role in our society that they simply assume that this must be right, and hence the idea that women should not be bishops would not even occur to them’);
the argument from widespread support (‘we should consider ordaining women as bishops because there is widespread support for this idea within the Church.’).
and the argument from the missiological need for women bishops (‘the ordination of women as bishops is required in order to give credibility to the Church’s proclamation of the gospel in today’s society.’).
All these arguments, it will be seen, make the ambient culture the determining factor in ordering the ministry of the Church. Like bishops who want ‘wider consultation in the parish’ before a vote by the PCC, they unselfconsciously assume that the zeitgieist is wiser than the tradition.
Bad news, good news
This is bad news. All that a church which adopts such a policy can hope for is dilution and disintegration. Which is what we can presently observe.
But there is good news, too.
AMiA (The Anglican Mission in America) is a tiny body with too many bishops which anomalously operates under the joint umbrella of two Anglican Provinces (Rwanda and South East Asia), one of which ordains women and one of which does not. It incarnates, in other words, the Anglican Lack of Cohesion. What, people have been asking, should be the future policy of AMiA in a matter which divides both the parent body (the Episcopal Church) and the Anglican Communion? Apparently oblivious to the absurdity of a splinter of a splinter assuming the authority of the greater whole, AMiA set up a commission to consider the matter.
All very Anglican, you will say.
Except that the commission in question has produced a document of remarkable depth and maturity; one which can be commended as required reading for all on either side of this protracted debate.
That the little AMiA should have produced a summary of the arguments (pro and con) superior to any so far available from ECUSA or the Church of England should be a cause of deep shame to both those bodies. That it has been produced at all is a ministry to the whole communion.
So what, you will ask (apart from its admirable straight-forwardness), characterizes this ‘Survey of the Leading Theological Convictions’? Fresh from reading it for a second time I can tell you.
Fresh and crisp
First, it takes the Bible and the tradition seriously. Both those in favour and those opposed to women’s ordination operate on the assumption that the Church already has, in Holy Scripture, an adequate and deciding guide; and that the tradition of the Church illumines and confirms that scriptural testimony.
Second, both sides of the argument are made with a freshness and a crispness which reveals a real attempt to confront the issues anew. Here are faithful Christians seeking the mind of the Father – not war-scarred theological warriors, bludgeoning one another to death with tired clichés. Whoever you are, you will learn new things from this report.
The good news is, finally, that these eirenic statements of opposing opinions have allowed the AMiA to reach a common mind. It is to reaffirm the consistent teaching of the Church throughout the ages. AMiA will phase out the priesthood of women over a period of time. No longer a splinter of a splinter, it is rejoining the Catholic Church.
Is it likely or even possible that the Rochester Commission’s Report will be so good or result in so ecumenical a conclusion? We must wait and see.
Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s Lewisham, in the Diocese of Southwark.