Tom Sutcliffe, the noted Southwark liberal, responds to last month’s challenge to ‘tell us of any positive arguments from Scripture’ for women bishops
In answer to the challenge on page 3 of the September issue, surely the primary argument from Scripture for engaging women fully in the ordained ministry depends on recognizing what Scripture is, and what relation it has with Tradition. Scripture is a body of texts that have been assembled over a period of many years in response to the perceived nature of God and Creation. The extent to which any part of those texts was produced by one mind is the debate which we call theology. So Scripture must be recognized as part of the human interpretation of (or response to) what came to be seen by people as manifestations of the Divine.
Function and purpose
Holy Orders in the Christian churches are, at the same time, both a response to and interpretation of Scripture, and in particular required by that dramatized representation of God in Christ which we call revelation and which has been the life of the Church in its various forms of activity over the centuries. Because Holy Orders are interpretative rather than fundamental – and indeed priesthood barely figures in the Bible in a positive sense without a good dose of interpretation to help it along the way – the arguments for ordaining women that can be drawn from the Bible and Tradition (considering that women do not appear to have been ordained by any Christian churches until the world had experienced the renewed view of women’s roles in life that has stemmed from the wisdom of the Renaissance and Enlightenment) must be based on the evident function of priesthood and the purpose for which Christian priests exist – in response to those particular ideas of Jesus which have been capable of institutional expression.
Hence to ask what positive arguments exist in Scripture for women’s incorporation in Holy Orders demands one ask an initial question as follows: what is there in the role of priest or bishop that cannot be performed by a woman? Is the reservation of Holy Orders to males which is historical fact in some
significant way fundamental to Christianity, or does it merely reflect the culture of orthodox Christianity and Judaism as both religions originally developed? It surely does require an element of interpretation – for example in relation to Jesus’ selection of male apostles and the reported presence of only men at the Last Supper – to make a point of the masculinity of those eligible for Holy Orders, considering the position of women in Judaism is very clear (though of course rabbinical Jews do not have priests either). So, what is it about Christian priesthood that requires its reservation to only men?
The interpretative process
Nobody has yet managed to show me what it is about priests that has to be male. I can see absolutely no reason why women should be barred from the priesthood any more than they are barred from the monarchy or the judiciary or any other profession. Indeed I think that both the Churches and the Christian religion desperately need the talents and capabilities of women in every sphere including the ordained ministry. I respect those who do not agree with me. But I also realize that they tend to regard Scripture as not just inspired texts of high quality in human language, but in some mysterious, irrational way as ‘God speaking to us through particular words.’
As a writer I am certain that all language and all writing are part of the divine function in our minds and hearts: the privilege and honour due the Bible stem from its role and nature, not its complicated literary origin. The Bible is, as I say, part of that interpretative process which we call religion rather than being some basic fundamental ideological material which we worship and vainly hope to embody. The Bible expresses belief including shared belief, and incorporates tradition. Priesthood is a part of the interpretation of Jesus’ Gospel which was his life. What is it about priesthood that can only be done by a man? Does not such an idea inevitably in our age amount to the demeaning of women?