Geoffrey Kirk looks again at the claims of Michael Adie that women’s ordination is ‘consonant with scripture and required by tradition’

BISHOP MICHAEL ADIE, on whom the lot fell to propose the legislation for the ordination of women to the priesthood in the General Synod of the Church of England, began his presentation of the case with a remarkable statement:

‘The question now to be decided is whether women, as well as being Readers and deacons, should also be priests. I put to the Synod that the answer is yes; the ordination of women to the priesthood is a reasoned development consonant with scripture and required tradition’

The extravagance of his claim (unnecessarily extravagant in a Synod which was to show no vestigial interest in patristic theology) was not wasted on Alec Graham, Bishop of Newcastle (chairman of the Doctrine Commission of the Church of England):

‘I have scrapped the speech which I had written…It was the Bishop of Guildford’s speech which moved me to abandon my own, for he made some points which I venture to say deserve to be questioned. He will forgive me for speaking plainly. I hope that I heard him correctly and that I quote him correctly. He stated…that Scripture is inconclusive on the matter of the ordination of women. Surely Scripture never addresses that question? As far as I recollect that precise question is never addressed. Then he claimed that the ordination of women is consonant with Scripture. We all know that to be a matter of opinion… Then he claimed that is was required by tradition. That really is quite a claim. He conceded that the ordination of women to the priesthood is not required by tradition in the sense that it has never happened before, but tradition is not just doing what has been done before, an ever heavier load of practices and prohibitions. The Bishop maintained that the ordination of women to the priesthood is demanded by the truth, required by the truth, as it has been handed down to us. …Surely it is quite misleading to enlist tradition without qualification in favour of this legislation, for it is at this very point that the arguments in favour of the legislation are at their very weakest. I hope the Synod will not be beguiled by the Bishop of Guildford in this respect, for he begs the question whether this is a legitimate development of the tradition at this stage in our Church’s life. The answer to that, I submit is either ‘not proven’ or a straight ‘no’.

The case which Bishop Adie put, in his short opening speech, was scarcely sophisticated. He based his assertion on an particular understanding of the Incarnation and on a deliberately understated doctrine of the representative nature of priesthood:

‘Our traditional and basic understanding of the Incarnation is that in Jesus Christ, God took human nature and became embodied as a human person. He took human nature. Human nature or humanity is available in only two forms, male and female, and God, when incarnate had to be one or the other. That does not mean that, whichever he had chosen, we would for all time have a have a one-gender ministry of the same sex as he chose. God became incarnate as a man rather than a woman, but in becoming man he took human nature which comprises both male and female. For centuries we have accepted men in the priesthood as the automatic consequence of God taking human nature, but then for centuries it was only men who enjoyed education, political leadership, the vote and so on, and these have only gradually, even grudgingly become available to women. What God has made clear to us in our century is that women are not inferior to men, nor are they identical; men and women are complementary; together and equally they make up humanity. That simple but fundamental truth which God has shown to us in his world now resonates with a renewed understanding of the scriptures.’ (Verbatim Record, p.10)

This concatenation of unsupported assertions begs more questions than Alec Graham was prepared to indicate. Is the maleness of Jesus, or rather (taking due account of the omniscience and omnipotence of the Godhead) could the maleness of Jesus be insignificant in the way Bishop Adie assumes? What does it mean to say that women and men are equal but different; is this really an insight vouchsafed only in this century; and is a priesthood of both men and women a necessary or even appropriate way of expressing it? In what way does the priesthood derive from and refer to the Incarnation, and in what way does it represent the Lord’s incarnate humanity? How would a priesthood of both women and men relate symbolically to the traditional (and profoundly biblical) understanding of the Church as a nuptial mystery? And so on.

Of course it would be absurd to have expected Adie to address all of these in the time allotted, or even to expect the Synod to have dealt with them, in appropriate depth, in the debate of a single day. What is disturbing is that a debate which began with the assertion that women’s ordination was ‘required by tradition’ encompassed not a single citation from the Fathers. This startling omission is to be attributed to three main causes. The first is the general and overwhelming ignorance of patristic theology which now characterises the Anglican clergy; the second is the prevailing (and not wholly unrelated) superstition that the issue of women’s ordination was not squarely addressed in the patristic period; the third is a timid sensibility that, in a mixed forum of bishops, clergy and laity, such allusions might be thought to be tastelessly elitist.

Whatever the reasons, the references and allusions were not made. Nor were they any more in evidence in the discussion documents prepared for the General Synod in the period immediately preceding the vote. GS 829 (the bishops’ Second Report) is wholly innocent of patristic references. What the bishop’s report provides is a contemporary assessment of the scriptural evidence (with little or no indication of how that same evidence was marshalled by Christians of preceding generations) and a narrowly opinionated assessment of current social and demographic trends. (The one passage of scripture, for example, which comes closest to negating the Bishop of Newcastle’s assertion that the subject is not directly addressed in Scripture (I Cor 14: 33b ff; see Manfred Hauke, ‘Women in the Priesthood?’ Ignatius Press, 1988, pp 372 ff), is dealt with by the bishops with the utmost brevity (GS 829. paras 100-103) and apparently in ignorance of the work of Gerhard Dautzenberg (in B. Jendorff and G. Schmalenberg (eds) ‘Tradition and the Present’ [Tradition und Gegenwart] Bern and Frankfurt, 1974) ).

More disturbingly, Bishop Adie’s assertion that women’s ordination is required by tradition seems to be based on ignorance or misconstruction of the very patristic texts to which it appeals. The argument from the doctrine of the Incarnation, which is the bishop’s strong suit, was first advanced in a more explicitly patristic form by Richard Norris Jnr in a paper for The Anglican Theological Review, June 1972 (subsequently republished in ‘Feminine in the Church’, ed. Monica Furlong, 1982). It is founded on conclusions drawn from arguments advanced by St. Gregory Nazianzen in his dispute with Apollinarius. The case is very succinctly put by Daphne Hampson in her book Theology and Feminism.

‘In an article written in support of the ordination of women to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church in the United States, Richard Norris…argues that the tenets of patristic Christology are such that it cannot be said that a baptised woman is differently related than is a man to Jesus as the Christ. Indeed that to say that she was, would be fundamentally to undermine patristic Christology. The most definitive statement to which attention may be drawn in this regard is the much-quoted reply of Gregory Nazianzen to Apollinarius: ‘What is not assumed, is not redeemed’ – or in Greek, ‘not taken on, not healed’. The context was Apollinarius’ denial that Jesus’ was a humanity like ours. Gregory argues that if God did not take on a humanity like ours, then we are not redeemed; for it was through sharing our humanity that Christ redeemed it. Now if it could be said that God in Christ took on specifically ‘male humanity’, then women would be outside the scheme of salvation – and that has never been suggested. If it is to be held that both women and men find salvation in Christ, then it must be simply ‘humanity’ which is of significance as having been taken on. Norris in fact claims that in the patristic period nothing was made of Christ’s maleness, as also not for example of his Jewishness, as being of Christological significance. Were his maleness (or Jewishness) to be brought into play, Christ would not be the saviour of all. Such a Christology is in no way specifically a ‘feminist Christology’. It simply does not allow that differences of sex, as also not of race, are of significance Christologically’.

This notion probably underlies the accusations of heresy against opponents of women priests made by Dr George Carey not long before his translation to Canterbury. The Scottish theologian T.F. Torrance certainly thought so, and expands the argument thus:

‘In view of this soteriological nature of the incarnation, it is understandable and highly significant that the Augustinian conception of man apart from woman was never employed, to my knowledge, in any official council of the universal Church, as a theological reason for the claim that only a male human being may image or represent Christ at the altar… This strange pseudo-theological idea is a modern innovation evidently put forward by some rather reactionary churchmen in the nineteenth century, but has recently been revived as a convenient (although specious) argument for the exclusion of women from ordination to the Holy Ministry, and has been made to look ancient by being cast in the terms that only a man can be an icon of Christ at the altar (a misuse of I Cor. 11;7 which applies only to relations in the order of creation).

What happens here is that an old ecclesiastical convention is being put forward quite wrongly as a theological truth or a dogma of the apostolic and catholic Church. Hence I believe that Dr George Carey, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, was quite right in his assertion that the idea that only a male can represent the Lord Jesus Christ at the Eucharist is a serious theological error. He was not declaring those churches and churchmen who reject the ordination of women because it conflicts with a convention long sanctioned by catholic tradition and / or canonical authority, are to be judged heretics, but asserting that it is a very grave mistake for anyone to convert such a convention, no matter how strongly enforced by catholic tradition, into a dogma or an intrinsic truth of the Christian Faith’

These two positions, strenuously stated and endlessly repeated, have taken their place, among advocates of women’s ordination as an unchallengeable orthodoxy. But they do not bear very close scrutiny.

It is simply not true, for example, that the maleness of Christ is regarded, by Gregory Nazianzen, or any other of the Fathers as ‘christologically insignificant’. When Gregory affirmed that ‘What is not taken is not healed’ he was not thereby affirming that Jesus, in the incarnation, took to himself some general, undetached, or unpredicated human nature, such as no other human being has manifested or experienced (that would, after all, have been to sell out to Apollinarius!). Instead he was acclaiming the fully human nature of the incarnation, with all its limitations and particularities, including sex. The Fathers, moreover, never make the error of associating sex with race or culture (‘Jewishness’), as somehow incidental to ‘true’ or ‘essential’ humanity. They knew, quite clearly, that the one was pre-lapserian and the other post-diluvian.

The Christological significance of the maleness of Jesus is quite simply that it guarantees that ‘true’ or ‘essential’ humanity in a way that the qualified androgyny advocated by Norris and Torrance does not and cannot. The author of the second letter to Cledonius would have been appalled at the rash statements (‘We take it as axiomatic’, reads one pamphlet prepared to support women’s ordination in England, ‘that the risen and ascended Christ has no gender’) which have resulted from developments their position.

Nor is Torrance’s repudiation of the ‘icon of Christ argument’ any more secure. Whilst it is probably true that the phrase itself is not used in the patristic period, the idea which it expresses was alive and well from the earliest times. What is more the iconoclast controversy of the eighth century raises precisely the issues of representation with which Torrance is dealing. At root the controversy between the iconoclasts and the iconodules was Christological. John Meyendorff explains the position of the Emperor Constantine Copronymos at the Council of Hieria thus:

‘The painter, the Council of Hieria affirmed, when he makes an image of Christ, can paint either His humanity alone, thus separating it from the divinity, or both His humanity and His divinity. In the first case he is a Nestorian; in the second case he assumes that divinity is circumscribed by humanity, which is absurd; or that both are confused, in which case he is a Monophysite. These arguments do not lack strength and must have impressed his contemporaries, but they fail to account for the Chalcedonian affirmation that “each nature preserves its own manner of being”. Obviously, even if they formally rejected Monophysitism the iconoclasts supposed that the deification of Christ’s humanity suppressed its properly human individual character. They also seem to have ignored the true meaning of the hypostatic union, which implies a real distinction between nature and hypostasis. In being assumed by the hypostasis of the Logos, human nature does not merge with divinity; it retains its full identity.’

John Saward is also clear that the iconoclasts shared Norris’s superstition about Jesus having assumed a universal or unpredicated humanity:

‘Iconoclasm’s notion of an indeterminate humanity is a subtle Docetism. Universals are apprehended by the intellect; individuals are seen with the eyes. Were Christ’s nature universal and not individual, He could only be “touched” by mind and thought, and his humanity would be an illusion’

Between the arguments of the eighth century iconoclasts and those of Torrance and Norris there are clear and important resemblances. Both require a notion of an indeterminate or unpredicated ‘humanity’; the first affirms that, in consequence, there can be no representation of the incarnate Lord, the second that He can only properly and effectively be represented by a priesthood of both women and men. The peripheral arguments, moreover, in both ancient and modern situations, have an instructive equivalence.

Just as the Torrance / Norris view requires a priesthood of women and men, so it generates and sanctions female icons of the Saviour: the notorious Christa exhibited in St John the Divine, New York and its embroidered equivalent in Manchester Cathedral. Both opinions seem also to rely on the idea that the true icon of the Lord is neither a painted image, nor the priest at the altar, but the Blessed Sacrament itself. Such a view (apparently based on a misunderstanding of pseudo-Dionysius) was adopted at Hieria and expressed by Bishop John Austin Baker in a paper prepared for the Movement for the Ordination of Women.

The triumph of Chalcedonian Orthodoxy at the Second Council of Nicea (787) can surely be seen as a condemnation both of the ancient iconoclasts and of the modern ‘‘inclusivists’. The Lord’s Eucharistic presence is not an icon (as the priest or the painted panel are icons) but his real presence; representations of him in his particular humanity are not merely permitted, but enjoined by the incarnation itself, which effectively overthrows the second commandment. (The beards of icons of Christ and those of bishops and priests are not incidental to Orthodox tradition in this matter.) To Professor Torrance’s assertion that ‘creaturely images in language about God have a referential, not mimetic relation to divine realities’, one of the heroes of the iconodule party, St Theodore the Studite, roundly retorts that the priest acts ‘mimema Christou’, the very phrase which St Thomas was to translate, using its Latin theatrical equivalent as ‘in persona Christi’.

Theology knows of few, if any, knock-down arguments. But it is the tragedy of synodical government, as the Anglican Communion has developed and adopted it, that it makes decisions by majority votes (the majority, alas, differing from place to place and from time to time) in a way that encourages a desire for them. How wise, beside the extravagant assertion of Bishop Adie, seems the gentle intervention of Alec Graham: ‘either “not proven” or a straight “no”’; and how we must now regret that we did not hear the speech that he had actually prepared.

The claim that women’s ordination is ‘required by tradition’ (affirmed, as one must suppose it was, by the vote subsequently taken), and the failure of the Synod or of its House of Bishops to address the patristic evidence adequately or at all, is a very grave matter. The degree of theological levity thus demonstrated seriously undermines the claim of any member of that House to witness to the continuity in time which is the purpose and function of the Apostolic Succession.

Geoffrey Kirk is the Vicar of St. Stephen’s Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark.

This article is excerpted and adapted from his paper ‘The Language of Lite Religion’ in ‘Quo Vaditis: The State Churches of Northern Europe‘ ed. John Broadhurst, Gracewing 1996 pp154 £9.99p