Robbie Low on ‘women bishops’, the Word and the way forward
Later this year the Bishop of Rochester will publish his Commission’s report on women bishops. As it has already been extensively leaked, most of its conclusions are already known. The report, as I write, is in the hands of the House of Bishops and we must wait to see how much of the original theological argument and practical suggestions will remain at the end of this process.
Rochester has had an unenviable task. To him and his colleagues has fallen much of the serious theological work on women’s ordination which was never done in the lead up to the fateful vote of 1992. One of the most noticeable aspects of the 1992 debates was just how little theology was allowed to intrude. Attempts to remedy this from deaneries upwards were often met with incredulity and even contempt. The General Synod had, after all, concluded in a mid 1970s debate that there were ‘no theological objections’ to such a move. All that mattered thereafter was the mantra of ‘justice’ and ‘equality’. Those who wondered out loud whether General Synod had that kind of doctrinal expertise and competence got short shrift. Those who pointed out that the great historical Communions of Rome and Orthodoxy registered plenty of theological objections were treated to outbreaks of the dreary Romaphobia that lurks just beneath the surface of many professional Anglicans and forthright suggestions that such dissenters may be happier elsewhere. Dismissive responses to serious questions will not be as easy this time.
The 1992 decision was predicated on several popular fantasies. Feminism was compatible with Christianity. The overturning of scriptural teaching in one area would not have any effect on other issues. The liberal ascendancy would behave justly and equitably with their ‘defeated’ opponents. This would be much easier because the opponents would see the error of their ways. The Church of England was carrying out pioneering work which would come to be seen and accepted by the great Communions as valid and exemplary. The new model Church of England would attract people back to church and halt the long post-war decline. Women priests would be quickly accepted and valued by all.
None of these has turned out to be true. Feminism, the bastard daughter of Marxism, has been exposed as a wholly secular materialist venture with devastating consequences for the Church, family life, education, eugenics and demography. The overturning of scriptural authority was immediately seized upon by enthusiasts for divorce reform and homosexual practice. The liberal ascendancy, far from behaving justly, has dedicated its energy to eliminating its opponents wherever possible and excluding them wholesale from any positions of authority or influence. Far from pioneering the way for other churches, the Church of England has watched as the great Communions have firmed up against the heretical programme and ecumenical progress has ground to a halt. The Decade of Evangelism and women’s ordination, the great hopes of Anglican revival, have witnessed not an end to the decline but a dramatic speeding up. One in five Anglican worshippers has disappeared in the last 12 years. Also gone are many good priests, retired early through ill-health or simply resigned, tired of the bullying and lies that have characterized the post-1992 institution. Perhaps most poignant of all has been the persistent complaints of the women ordained. All their research and documentation indicates their dissatisfaction with the treatment they have received from their patrons and colleagues – the very people who voted for them.
It is against this alarming backdrop that Rochester is to report. With the above evidence in it might be considered timely to review the whole question of women’s ordination. After all, General Synod and Parliament were assured that this experiment would be subject to ‘reception’ theology, that is to say, only when the whole Church of God has received it will we know that it was actually right. Thereby hangs a tale. ‘Reception’ was intended, by its promoters, to be a one-way street: ‘we impose it, you accept it.’ This, it is now clear, will never be the case in Anglicanism, never mind the major churches of Christendom. That being the case, the period of reception, originally advertised as open-ended, will be closed from the moment women bishops are agreed. The doubt at the heart of the sacramental life will be irretrievably extended to the heart of holy orders. Indeed, ‘orders’ themselves will become the heart of the disorder and division and doubt which afflicts the Church of England.
Strangely, Rochester has no brief to reflect on the experience thus far and it is inconceivable that, with the make-up of his committee and the present government of the Church of England, he would dare to produce a hostile conclusion. He is aware, as orthodox argued consistently at the time, that the question of women bishops should have been resolved before that of women presbyters. That it was not was a testament to the political chicanery of some senior proponents and ecclesiological ignorance of others. It was also a telling marker to the delirious women of the institutionalized sexism they would encounter among their ‘friends’ in the House of Bishops. Men who were content to sow disorder in the parishes with their social engineering did not really want women on an equal footing in their comfortable, self-selecting and exclusive club. Many still do not for reasons wholly unconnected with theology.
The questions which Rochester must wrestle with are profound, for, as we argued all those years ago and consistently since, they touch upon the doctrines of God and creation, the incarnation, the life and mission of the Church and the central question of Christology, ‘Who do you say that I am?’
How Rochester has approached these questions we must wait and see, but an orthodox believer would be obliged to deal, at a minimum, with the following issues.
Orthodox believers will want to begin with a clear statement of their belief in God’s self-revelation in Holy Scripture. They will want to further assert that the teaching of the Church is a consistent whole, and the consistent interpretation of the Spirit-inspired Body (the Church) of the Spirit inspired Word (Holy Scripture) cannot be traduced by the political or sociological priorities of a declining part of a small and disobedient Church. Holy Scripture is neither capricious nor misleading but gives us profound insights into the divine nature for our salvation. Its details are not incidental but providential.
As all Christian ministry finds its origin and end in Jesus, we would do well to begin there.
The action and free choice of Jesus in choosing only men to be apostles is seen by both Orthodox and Catholic teaching to be determinative for the churches’ subsequent ministry. What Christ did is authoritative, normative and determinative for the Church for all ages. The will of Christ must be paramount for his body and, as Pope John Paul II recently confirmed, the Church has no authority to contradict this.
Two arguments have been mastered, by proponents of women priests, against the straightforward understanding.
1) ‘Jesus chose only Jewish men, so the inclusion of Gentiles was a similar break with the traditio.’
The first part of this argument is correct. The second part demonstrates a profound ignorance of Scripture. The creation of a new Israel on the foundation of the twelve apostles representing the tribes of the chosen unsurprisingly begins with the Jews. They also prefigured the new temple and the heavenly banquet which the Holy Communion foreshadows. This much is unarguable and foundational.
When the Church included Gentiles and ordained Gentiles to apostolic order, it did so not on the grounds of a break with the traditio but rather as its long prophesied fulfilment. The command of Christ himself to universal evangelism is brought home to apostles like Peter and Paul in subsequent visionary experiences and the witness of the prevenient action of the Holy Ghost among the Gentiles. In the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) this evidence is tested against the Holy Scripture and found to be consistent. The promise to Abraham that in him all the nations of the earth should be blessed, the consistent witness of the prophets to the inclusion of the Gentiles in the future witness and ministry of the Israel of God is conclusive for even the most conservative among the brethren. It is not contrary to the tradition but the long awaited fulfilment of it.
2) ‘Jesus could not have chosen women as apostles. The culture would not permit it.’
This is plainly wrong on both counts. The Mediterranean world of Jesus’ time was awash with priestesses of every kind of cult. Nothing could have formed a more natural bridgehead to the outside world than for a ‘new’ religion to adopt this pagan norm. That Jesus deliberately chose not to do so has nothing to do with its ‘cultural appropriateness’ and everything to do with theological truth.
Second, those who put cultural limits on Christ’s actions in this matter display an extraordinary ignorance of Scripture and a severely deficient Christology. The Gospel bears consistent witness to Christ’s radical relations with women. If, however, proponents of women’s ordination persist in asserting his lack of freedom of choice in this matter, the consequences are grave. For them Jesus Christ ceases to be the word incarnate, the Son of the Father, the divine wisdom, and is reduced to the status of a good man doing his best in culturally trying circumstances. His deeds, words, actions would cease to be exemplary, normative or determinative for the Church. This is, as revealed by the Mind of Anglicans 2002 survey, precisely the debased Christology that informs the majority of supporters of women’s ordination and consecration. Indeed, whatever else it may be, it is not Christianity.
Father and Son
The ministry of the Church is the continuation of the mission of the Son. As the Father sent the Son so the Son sends the apostles. All people, without distinction (Galatians 3.28), find their salvation in Christ. The apostle and the apostolic ministry is a particular charism within the whole ministry of the Church. The apostle, bishop, priest represents Christ to his people as high priest and bridegroom. His task is to guard the faith and ensure its succession, teach his people, ensure their unity, serve them utterly and sacrifice himself for them. He is the paterfamilias at the family table. The sex of a bishop or priest is far from irrelevant to this representation. Indeed in an age where table fellowship has been reduced to individual TV dinners and the family all too often broken fragments among which unhappy children are passed around, nothing could be more important as a sign than this traditional Christ-centred love, sacrifice and faithfulness. Few things more significantly encapsulate the fragility and fracture of modern society than the marginalization of fatherhood and the consequent incoherence of the family. That the Church, which, above all, should understand the divine pattern and origin of this calling should collude in this destruction is deeply shameful.
Those who argue for ‘mother’ at the altar and ‘mother’ in the episcopate are, unsurprisingly, most enthusiastic to re-write to God himself as mother. This is in direct conflict with the consistent and overwhelming revelation of God and Christ’s testimony to him. It is, however, all of a pattern with the theological tendencies of the modernizers, which is the replacement of the transcendent/immanent God we know with the panentheist gods (and goddesses) who are all of a piece with creation itself. In short, it is the familiar route, via touchy-feely religion, to idolatry.
The history of salvation revolves around and centres upon the sacrifice of Jesus Christ at Calvary. Within it echo the stories of Joseph (sacrifice for sin – redeemer), Isaac ( the son of man offered to God, ultimate obedience and gift) , Abel ( pure offering slain by the unworthy) and so on. The narrative of the story of redemptive sacrifice is consistently male and resonates with the pattern of human sin and violence back to Adam. These are archetypes and iconography that resonate deep in the human psyche and experience, and are simply not susceptible to a late twentieth-century makeover and feminist airbrushing. Christ’s sacrifice and the price of the Father’s offering and the cost to the mother’s heart are irreducible realities. Christ’s maleness is not an incidental but part of the way things are and the way God has provided for our salvation. God reveals himself as Father and Son and he chooses to do so through Mary. Here the truth of the complementarity of male and female is revealed and the modern heresy of its interchangeability decisively rejected. It is in the loving acceptance of the Word of God in Mary and the overthrow of sin and death in Christ Jesus that the disobedience of Adam’s transgression is overturned. We are not dealing with whether women are nicer, better, more competent than men (or vice versa) but with the very givenness of the salvation provisions of God. A careless or indeed malicious tinkering with these can have profound consequences. For example, the significance of the imagery of Christ as the bridegroom and the Church as the bride of Christ would be an early victim of feminist iconography. And what a telling one it would be. For if in persona Christi was represented by the feminine, then the vocations would be necessarily reversed. The priestess would represent the bride, the feminine, and we would be back on the short road to the pagan fertility cults which so attracted and bedevilled much of the history of ancient Israel. The Christian faith is duty-bound to retail, in every particular, the salvation history in Christ. It is not in the business of myth-making for the comfort of contemporary society.
In much modern debate ‘headship’ has been reduced to a caricature, a convenient ‘Aunt Sally’ in the gender wars. Feminists see it as a typical bit of Pauline male chauvinist piggery. Middle-class men see it as a frightful embarrassment that they would never dream of laying claim to in their own household. Some clergy think it means they can have a woman curate but not a woman Rector, some bishops think… well you can write the rest for yourselves.
In very few places is the glorious doctrine known for what it really is. Modern societies detest hierarchy, but, in the divine order of things, we cannot avoid it. St Paul tells us, ‘The head of every man is Christ. The head of every woman is the man. The head of Christ is God’ (1 Corinthian 11.3). We know then that even in a sublime relationship of the Holy Trinity there is headship. Yet there is no implication of superiority. It is a relationship of interdependence and supreme love. Indeed, the only time the word ‘equality’ surfaces in the New Testament is where we are told that Christ ‘did not snatch at equality with God’. St Paul tells us that man is ‘the image and glory of God’, yet woman ‘is the glory of man’: she is the glory of that extraordinary glory of divine creation. ‘Man is not without woman, neither the woman without the man in the Lord.’ This co-existence, mutual dependence and love transforms in the marriage bond into one flesh, and each is to ‘submit yourselves one to another in the fear of God’. The husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church. As she is subject him, so his task is to imitate Christ in his love and total sacrifice for the Church. Anyone who thinks Pauline headship is a recipe for domestic tyranny hasn’t read the book. Headship is service and sacrifice. As in a marriage, the primary aim of the father is the defence of and provision for his wife and children, to provide with his body and his skills the place in which the gifts of his beloved and their sons and daughters grow to fruition within the context of faith and moral order. The complementary gifts of men and women are part of the created order, and headship is implicit in that relationship as in the relationship with and between the divine. You cannot buck the biology or the spiritual realities. To do so, as my generation bears witness, is to sow havoc.
Differences and precedents
This key text is bandied about by supporters of women’s ordination and consecration. In Christ, they argue, all differences are thereby abolished, albeit the Church has taken 2,000 years to fully comprehend the sensational nature of this meaning. It is, of course, not a text about ordination or ministry. It is a text about baptism and about our unity and solidarity in Christ. It is inconceivable, from all his other writings as well as plain common-sense, that Paul was advocating a society in which neither male nor female existed or were of any further significance. Galatians 3.28 is a key text for the universality of the Gospel, the glorious liberty of the children of God in Christ, the potential incorporation of all in the divine heritage of eternal life. It will not support the spin put on it by twentieth-century feminism and its supporters.
With no theological leg to stand on, the women priests/bishop movement has ransacked scriptural text, early church writings, snatches of history open to reinterpretation and even indistinct murals purporting to be permed matrons celebrating communion. Their best shot so far is the reference to Junia(s) in Romans 16.7: ‘Greet Andronicus and Junias, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners, who are well known among the apostles, who were also in Christ before me.’
Because of the noun endings it is uncertain if Junia(s) is a male or female, although you may think the sense of the sentence points clearly to the former. However, the dynamite is in the bit about the apostles. Not only has Mr Junias been transgendered by the feminists into Ms Junia (all very modern) but ‘well known among the apostles’ has come to mean ‘one of the apostles’. If Ms Junia was a well-known apostle, it would have been unnecessary to mention it. Game, set and match is provided in the extensive study by Burer and Wallace. In a survey of ancient Greek usage the phrase episemoi en consistently means a ‘well known among [that is, to]’ the apostles.
A modern example: the Editor of New Directions is ‘well known among the flying bishops.’ She would consider any suggestion that she could be one of them as heretical nonsense.
If the priest is responsible for his flock he is carrying out the bishop’s ministry in his place. The earliest doctrines of the Fathers abound in powerful images of the bishop. ‘Let the bishop preside in the place of God’, he is a ‘type of the Father’. ‘Follow your bishop as obediently as Jesus Christ followed the Father.’ ‘The sole Eucharist you should consider valid is one that is celebrated by the bishop or someone authorized by him’ etc etc. Thus St Ignatius in various the letters to the early churches. The ministry of Christ mediated through the apostles and the apostolic order via the episcopate to the presbyterate. The iconography is consistent and the unity is utterly dependent upon the apostolic guardians of the faith handing on (traditio) the apostolic teaching. If they hand it over to the enemy, that is, distort, change or otherwise betray it, they become not the type of Peter but a type of Iscariot.
The ordination of women has caused all sorts of divisions and discord, priests resigning, people forced out of their parishes etc. The consecration of women will enthrone that division as a permanent fact of Anglican life. Their orders will not be accepted, the women and men they ordain will not be deemed by orthodox believers to be priests and the consequent sacraments considered no longer just doubtful but invalid. Impaired communion will degrade into excommunication and a final breakdown of the ecclesial identity of the Anglican Church worldwide.
The subject of ecumenism reminds us that there is something ironic as well as tragic about the current debate. While the liberal ascendancy will be arguing long and hard for the right to consecrate women, for the new Church of England such a debate is already becoming dated. The enthusiasm for the Porvoo agreement masked an acceptance of non-episcopal ‘ordinations’ in the state churches of Scandinavia and an interchangeability of ministries between the churches. The forthcoming Methodist agreement and, in some places, current practice of exchange of altars for non-priests to celebrate Holy Communion has obviated the need for bishops. Given that there is no Catholic doctrine of priesthood in these new companion organizations, it is difficult to see why there is such a fuss about the Sydney Diocese proposals to have ‘lay celebration’. For many, in the shape of Methodist ministers, émigré Lutheran padres and women ‘priests’, it is here already.
In the wider scheme of things the ecumenical thread is unwinding rapidly. Biblical Protestants have never had much time for the Church of England. Even less so now. The Orthodox recoil in horror at each new doctrinal or ethical deformity produced by the seemingly sex-obsessed Anglicans of the American Continent and the British Isles. Catholics are committed to an ecumenical dialogue but privately admit it is going nowhere. Those who have given their life’s work to ecumenism recoil from the facility with which official Anglicanism dispensed with its common agreements when it suited. Less charitable souls have shrugged their shoulders and pointed to the harsh but seemingly prophetic wisdom of Vatican I. The imposition of women bishops will simply confirm and finalize a long-standing drift from Catholic teaching and place all hope of corporate reunion finally beyond reach. Reunion will continue as faithful Christians move away from the Anglican Church into the historic Communions.
More worrying still is those who will be broken-hearted, betrayed, despairing and go nowhere. Their experience of Church authorities being so uniformly dishonest, they will shy away from institutional encounter again.
The CofE has, as already noted, experienced the very opposite of the growth promised by the feminizers. Twelve years has seen one in five worshippers disappear. The overwhelming majority of those have been men. As studies have shown that male church-going is the decisive influence in children, it is not surprising to see children’s attendance in free-fall over that period. The 45/55 male/female split of a decade ago is now moving to a 37/63 split of a much smaller number of regulars. Men see a decreasing place for themselves in an organization dominated by militant feminism and bloodless males. With the growing triumph of the homosexual lobby and key appointments for many of its senior supporters, men will continue to drift away and so will their children. On current trends, in a decade or so the Church of England will be down to half the 1990 figures and staffed mainly by masculine women and feminine men.