David Mills offers a prudential argument against the ordination of women
EVERY AGE, C. S. Lewis noted in “The Reading of Old Books,” “is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. . . . Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny.”
Both sides in any debate, Lewis continued, thought “that they were as completely opposed as any two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united with each other and against earlier and later ages by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century – the blindness about which posterity will ask, ‘But how could they have thought that?’ – lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr H. G. Wells and Karl Barth.”
Every man and woman is a victim of the imagination or worldview or ideology imposed upon him without his knowing it by his place in the world. This is, if you think about it, fairly obvious. Much that is self-evident to us and nearly everyone we know is in fact wrong.
Before the American civil war, most abolitionists shared with slave owners a belief in the inferiority of black people we find appalling, and an obvious contradiction to the Christianity both professed. Both would find our toleration of legal abortion equally horrifying, and would be completely baffled by those who oppose capital punishment and yet support the freedom to abort one’s child. What even slave owners would have found inexplicable is the opinion of most academics and journalists, who see no contradiction at all between saving the life of a serial killer and condemning an innocent child to die.
In the debate about the place of women in the Church, feminists argue that women must be ordained in part by claiming that “patriarchy” or “androcentrism” has blinded most Christians, and certainly almost every Christian in power, to the Bible’s egalitarian and liberating message. (They do not seem to realize that we could claim with equal reason that they are blinded by modern egalitarianism, and by the demand of modern business for a sexually indistinguishable workforce, to the difference between the sexes.)
Having grown up in a New England college town, I am still finding, after twenty-five years of Christian faith, how secularized my mind was, and is. Assumptions everyone I knew held, and which seemed to me and all my friends and teachers as obvious as the sun and the moon, I now know to be themselves a faith commitment.
We all believed, for example, that the differences between the sexes are “roles” created by “society” for its own purposes (almost always bad) and that society had so conditioned us that we think them eternal, but that once we have seen through society’s false consciousness we can change them if we try hard enough. That some differences between male and female are intrinsic, or created, seems self-evident to me now, but when I believed they were only “sex roles,” I believed it as firmly as I believed in the existence of my fingers and toes.
In other words, though proud as peacocks, we are actually dim and simple creatures almost incapable of reading the world rightly. In our swaggering confidence in our own insight and understanding, we are like the would-be sophisticate who mistakes a Monet for a Van Gogh and pronounces French words the way they are spelled. In our rejection of our fathers’ teaching, we are like the crank who refuses to learn physics from physicists and then thinks he has invented an anti-gravity machine.
This idea offends, oh it deeply offends, Westerners (the Englishman as much as the American) brought up to believe in their ability and right to decide for themselves. A recognition of human fallibility is not a modern virtue. But we recognize its truth (or should do) when we make all our important personal decisions. We buy cars only after poring over the consumer magazines. We beg impetuous friends to wait before marrying the “wonderful” man or woman they met at a bar last week. We don’t take the recommendation of a good school for our children from someone whose fourth grader can’t spell and carries an Uzi. We don’t ask advice on race relations from a man with an unusually large supply of white sheets or a shaven head and a swastika tattoo. It would be unwise so to do, so we don’t.
This is only what scientists do, even with other scientists. When Einstein proposed his theory of relativity, some physicists leapt to accept it, but others waited. They knew that a radically new way of looking at things might be found, but they were not going to give up the tradition they had received – and which had proved itself enormously fruitful – until the new theory had successfully defended itself and proved itself superior. And in fact by resisting the new theory they had a necessary part in its testing and refining.
Eminent scientists have proposed thousands of plausible theories which did not prove true. Had their colleagues not been prudent enough to await verification, psychologists might still be reading the bumps on peoples’ heads or chemists still be trying to turn lead into gold.
An imprudent action
This applies directly to the vexed issue of the ordination of women. All I am asking is that we apply this natural prudence and instinctive testing of innovation to the question of whether we ought to ordain women or ought to remain, at least for the present, with the tradition. In a field like theology, in which the tests are much harder to read than they are in science – how, for example, are we to know when an innovation has been “received” and further resistance ungodly? – we must be all the more careful in deciding that we have seen what our ancestors did not see.
In this case I think, for several reasons, that we ought to remain with the tradition. To have ordained women as things stand in our society and (speaking as an Anglican) in our Church was simply unwise, and would have been unwise even were the biblical arguments for doing so much stronger than they are. It is unwise not only because we are too limited by our place in history to understand the question, but because our society and our Church are too deeply confused about sex and sexuality for us make a wise judgment.
If there is an intellectual orthodoxy in the West, it includes the interchangeability of the sexes and the wickedness of sexual restrictions. The differences, most people assume, are merely matters of alternative plumbing arrangements, whose distinctive uses matter only on certain special and private occasions. Almost everyone will say that a woman should not be barred from any position simply because she is a woman. This seems so blindingly obvious as to be beyond discussion.
And yet . . . are we, as Westerners and Anglicans, really the best judges of what sex and the sexual order are? Is it wise, is it prudent, is it scientific to proceed as if we were? Is it really likely that a society in which Playboy (and much worse things) is sold at the corner store next to the knitting magazines, dozens of men and women fornicate every night on television for the delight of millions, and softcore pornography generally tops the best-seller list, has seen something about sex that has escaped so many other people?
Will a society in which liberation means self-invention accept any order in the sexual life, even if the order is obvious and the fruits of rejecting it inescapable? Can we really say with any confidence that an age so darkened by sexual confusion and addiction has found the light on this one sexual matter?
And further: is it really plausible that the Episcopal Church – a Church whose leaders admit that they do not know whether or not homosexuality is a good and godly thing – has discerned the right moment to break with an inherited practice held so long and so widely and for such good reason? Is it likely that a Church with so vague and diverse an understanding of biblical authority will recognize an aspect of God’s Word other more consciously orthodox ages have missed? (This holds, but perhaps less completely, for the Church of England.)
All things considered, no. Get, as teenagers used to say, real.
Our culture clearly does not understand sexuality and our Church admittedly does not understand biblical teaching. We are not competent to make a radical break with the consensus of the past. To make a decision about sexual order and sexual distinctions in such a sexually confused society and Church is rather like trying to land a 747 without instruments in a fog bank late at night. You might do it, if a thousand factors all work out your way, but it is almost certain that you and your passengers will die in a ball of flame.
Other bits of evidence
In addition to this prudent reluctance to barge forward when our ability to tell truth from error in this matter is so limited, we have other evidence (hints, perhaps) to consider. They do not prevent us from ordaining women, but they pluck at our sleeves asking us to stop and wait and think again. I will mention just three.
First, even committed liberals now admit that the liberationist cause was, if not exactly wrong, badly misguided. The famous article “Dan Quayle Was Right,” published a few years ago in the elite journal The Atlantic by a feminist scholar, argued convincingly that most of the ideas on marriage and the family held so fiercely in the sixties – often with lots of alleged scientific support – have now proven false. They now seem to have been mainly ways of rationalizing selfishness and sloth. More and more writers – many still committed, in theory, to sexual “freedom” – have made the same point. If the liberationist crusade has begun to retreat on the matter of sexual restriction, we must ask if it ought not to retreat on the matter of sexual difference as well.
Second, we know that sexual distinction – “discrimination” in its sense of distinguishing one thing from another – is not in itself a bad thing, because God created it. A Christian must believe that God created two sexes for a reason; intended that the most profound fruit possible in any human endeavour – new human souls – be created by the interaction of men and women both playing their distinctive part; that God having designed things this way, it is fair and just that only women can conceive and carry children; and therefore that to limit one sex to certain roles and duties (and privileges) is not necessarily bad, God Himself having done it at least once.
Third, the theologians of thirty or forty years ago who are the equivalents of the present Evangelical and Anglo-Catholic supporters of women’s ordination were, almost to a man, against putting women in places of headship, and in fact thought it self-evidently unbiblical. They read the Scriptures with the same belief in its authority, the same theories of inspiration, and the same critical tools as their successors, and yet come to a different conclusion. This means, at the least, that the biblical case against is a serious one and may in fact be the truly Evangelical and Catholic one. It is not clear why we should take the word of the present innovators against that of their recent ancestors.
These hints could be expanded greatly, and they are only three among many. (We might note, for example, that some feminists and some homosexualists argue that the theological reworking needed to support the ordination of women can be applied to support the marriage or ordination of homosexual people, or that the innovators’ continual misreading of Galatians 3.28 suggests that their case is not as strong as it seems.) By themselves these hints suggest that the world is a more complex and subtle and misleading place than the egalitarians think, and that we should not be so eager or quick to change it.
This is not an argument against the ordination of women, of course. It is possible that the innovators have seen something that no other age has seen, and that the tradition really was blinded to the real nature of men and women by its place in the world, in which case the excesses of religious feminism are only what one would expect when an ancient wrong is righted.
I don’t happen to believe that, for other reasons, but it is possible. I am only describing the way a wise man or woman will evaluate such a radical change in the Church’s practice and such a radical break with the interpretive tradition. It is an appeal to the virtue of prudence, and an appeal to act in the matter of ordaining women in the same cautious, deliberate, deferential way we make (or should make) any great decision in our lives.
It is not enough to say in response that the Anglican Churches have thought and argued about women’s ordination for thirty years. Thirty years is a very short time in the development of human thought. And these thirty years have been characterized by the society’s confusion about sex and the Church’s confusion about Scripture and doctrine, which make it impossible for us to think well and clearly about either.
In a situation such as ours, it would be wise to hesitate a very long time – or, the decision officially made, to continue to resist it – before breaking with the consensus of past Christian brothers and sisters, and what does seem to be the clear teaching of Scripture.
Is it likely that our sex-drunk age has seen something about sex that other ages didn’t? Is it likely that a culture that insists on liberation from all imposed order will accept a sexual order even if it sees it? Is it likely that the Church has seen God’s will in this area when it openly admits it cannot see His will in others? I don’t think so.
David Mills is the author of the “Letter from America” in New Directions. For a short explanation of the biblical argument against the innovation, see “Women, Ordination, and the Bible” (www.tesm.edu/writings/whitwom.htm) by his colleague Prof. Rodney Whitacre of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry.