In the light of Rowan Williams’ recent letter, David Dale looks again at some of the evidence used to support women’s ordination

THE BISHOP OF Monmouth’s letter in last month’s New Directions raises fundamental issues. I hope that he will accept that I write in the same eirenic spirit that he wrote and without wishing to score points – but there are points to be made if not scored.

The first is the acceptance by him that the ordination of women is not required by the tradition. It always seemed to be a meaningless use of words to suggest that it was. The second is that the Bishop points to the necessity for a theologically informed debate on the subject. The view of traditionalists is that this debate should have taken place before the innovation, not five years after it.

If anything is becoming clear it is that the doctrinal grounds for the innovation are extremely uncertain. When we come to such a dramatic change in the life of the Church the burden of proof lies with the innovators not with the traditionalists. The acceptance that the innovation is not required by the tradition (and it was always difficult to see how it was) means that the verdict falls down on the side of the traditionalists. There is then really very little further argument since there is no case for traditionalists to answer.

The weight of proof required to justify such a radical change should be very great and very obvious – and it is not. But there are arguments for the ordination of women that are deemed to be persuasive and it might be as well to deal with the two main arguments from tradition before attempting to answer the substance of the Bishop’s argument.

The only two passages which can reasonably be brought in to support the innovation are Galatians 3.28 and the three words from Gregory Nazianzen’s letter to Cledonius.

As to Galatians 3.28:

a) it does not refer to ordination but to salvation and unless the proposition is that ordination is necessary to salvation then it cannot stand as supporting the innovation;

b) to interpret it as supporting the innovation seems perverse when the rest of the Pauline teaching is so vigorously rejected. (I think that such an interpretation falls under the condemnation of Article 20, the earlier part of which was so disastrously misquoted by Dr. Carey in the debate of November, 1992.)

As to the three words from the letter of Gregory Nazianzen to Cledonius. The argument that these support the ordination of women to the priesthood isolates Gregory from a very substantial body of patristic opinion. I do not know of a single Father who argues for the ordination of women. To use these three words to support the ordination of women is untenable for the following reasons:

a) the passage does not refer to ordination and to use it as though it does or to propose that it establishes a theological principle which can be extended to ordination is to misunderstand the passage as seriously as Dr. Carey misunderstood the dream of Peter in the Synod debate.

The letter was an argument against the proposition of Apollinarius that there was, in our Lord, no human spirit (based upon an anthropology in which there is spirit, soul and body) but only the spirit of the Logos. St. Gregory says that if the Lord did not assume a human spirit then the human spirit was not healed. The misuse of this argument leads the innovators into Christological heresy and then into nonsense.

b) The Christological heresy is simple to set out and stems from the erroneous assumption that in order to heal female human nature the Lord must have assumed female human nature. But there is no such thing as female human nature. Human nature is nothing other than a set of characteristics that distinguish homo sapiens from other species. It does not include human gender difference. That is common to mammals.

The proposition that the Logos assumed female and male human nature, an intrinsically nonsensical one, leads to the conclusion that our Lord was either androgynous or that his maleness was alleged – both suggestions have been made by the innovators. And since our Lord is said to possess female as well as male human nature – a proposition that I have just shown does not make sense – it is suggested that he/she can be imaged by either a man or a woman.

But the Lord became a man. The concrete historicity of his maleness cuts through the arguments. A Jesus who can be imaged by either a man or a woman is a Jesus who does not become a real human being because real humans are either male or female. It is a Jesus who is docetic, who only appears to be human – of which more in a moment.

c) The final collapse of the argument based on Gregory’s words must come as soon as we come to a full understanding of the Lord’s saving work.

Ephesians 1.10 teaches that all things are restored to the Father through the Son; that redemption is cosmic – everything in heaven and earth. If the Lord can heal only that nature which he assumes, then we are into the further nonsensical proposition that he assumed bovine nature, piscine nature, arboreal nature et al; and that is plain silly.

I believe there may be valuable work to be done on the relationship between the teaching of St. Paul on the man as kephale and the doctrine of anakephalaiosis. What is clear is that there are no grounds whatsoever for calling Gregory Nazianzen in aid of the ordination of women.

So to the substance of Bishop Rowan’s argument; what is the soteriological significance of our Lord’s maleness?

I do not think we can say – beyond saying that if the Logos becomes really human then he becomes either a man or a woman so the particularity of our Lord’s sexuality is of soteriological significance. We can say that the purpose of God in all things is loving and redemptive, and so we can say something about the nature and quality of the reason.

In a constant attempt to play down the significance of our Lord’s maleness it is suggested by the innovators that God was conditioned by the society of the time. That requires us to believe that God can be conditioned by his creation – and I am not sure that makes sense. It ignores, moreover, the religious history of the Middle East in the first century.

In the end, however, I do not believe the question matters. I return to the concrete historical fact of the Lord’s maleness. It is what he was and is that matters. The Bishop asks for a theological rationale for the association of a male priesthood with the soteriological significance of the maleness of the Saviour. We have just seen that this significance does not exist outside the historical fact of his maleness in any way that we can show; but once the history is accepted then the theological rationale is not hard to demonstrate.

There is an understanding of the minister as representative, symbol, type or icon of the Lord from the earliest times and indeed it is used by the innovators, together with the confused understanding of Gregory Nazianzen’s comment, to justify the ordination of women to the priesthood. The appropriateness of the minister imaging the maleness of the Saviour is well presented at least twice by Dr. James Packer, but it is not easy, perhaps not possible, to present a priori, conclusive arguments from the Fathers for this

The Bishop follows a methodology which excludes a significant line of argument but I think it will explode in his face. He asks for a plain statement from a patristic writer to sustain the theological significance of the Lord’s maleness and the soteriological significance of the maleness of the minister who images the Lord. We have seen that although there is substantial patristic condemnation of the ordination of women there is no statement I know of which answers the Bishop’s question.

Let us ask rather what caused the condemnation of the Fathers and we find that it was a series of gnostic and docetic heresies of which the ordination of women was the result. Philip Lee’s Against the Protestant Gnostics sets out the effects of gnostic heresy in the Liberal Protestant Church of North America in which women were first ordained in any numbers. His book indicates as clearly as anything that the gnostic abandonment of orthodox doctrine creates the mind set which naturally leads to women priests.

The same gnostic effects are present in the Church of England with increased prevalence. We do not need to go to the Fathers for quotations but simply to see that what they condemned is again present in the Church and that the ordination of women is simply a part and symptom of gnostic heresy.

At this point the Bishop’s methodology blows up in his face; he has asked for patristic evidence to support two propositions. I do not think that we can provide it in the form he wants. But if that is his approach to the question, may a traditionalist ask for the biblical and patristic basis of his decision to ordain women to the priesthood?

David Dale is the Parish priest of All Saints’ I.O.W. in the diocese of Portsmouth.