Andrew Hawes reflects on the causes and consequences of the ordination of women to the priesthood

IN JULY 1990 something happened to me. I was in retreat. It was evening. I, with twenty or so others, was praying before the Blessed Sacrament set in a monstrance on the Holy Table. I began to see someone standing behind the altar: it was a woman, of above average height; perhaps thirty years old; she was blonde. She was dressed in a full set of priestly vestments. She took hold of the Host and lifted it slowly above her head; as she raised her arms it became evident that she was heavily pregnant. She broke the bread and as the wafer cracked there was a simultaneous sound of a baby screaming in distress; present yet distant, ethereal and yet immediate. Then, after an unknown space of time, I came to myself, and I was weeping.

It was often said about men who opposed the ordination of women to the priesthood that they were “either mad or bad”. I have often thought about the lady at the altar and the cry of the unborn child. I wondered if indeed I had slipped into some kind of mental state where reality had been lost to me, or perhaps where reality had been revealed to me. The effect this encounter had on me was profound. It prompted me to explore the question of the ordination of women at a greater depth; it opened up the psycho-sexual dynamics at work in the heightening tension of that time in the church’s life.

It was ironic that MOW often argued that male opponents of the new order were in some way psychologically damaged. One pamphlet explained -“many of these men had poor and damaging relationships with their mothers.” It is certainly the case that for many men the drift into the “Yes” lobby was moved by guilt and confusion about their sexuality, and by their inability to form healthy relationships with women. The 1992 vote proved to be the great escape for middle-aged, middle-class men from an adulthood of failing to recognise, cherish and nurture the role of women in family and society. The ordination question opened up the whole murky area of men’s’ attitude to women and switched a light on in the dark rooms of malformed sexuality. The “Yes Lobby”, in support of women’s ordination, made a good hiding place.

I accepted the experience before the Blessed Sacrament as a gracious gift. The meaning of it became clear to me in disturbing lucidity. Priesthood and Motherhood are incompatible. Women priests in adopting a role ordained for men would not merely deny the vocation of the feminine in creation, they would distort it, and in due course destroy it. The brokenness’ of Christ’s Body, which would result from women’s ordination, was an act of deliberate fragmentation in which the innocent would be murdered. Darkness would penetrate the place of purest light.

Was this interpretation a self-diagnosis of madness or badness? For some time I lived in state of shock: it could not be that The Enemy had found a way to foul the pure springs of living water. I did not want to believe that the spirit, which the “majority” claimed was leading them into a new truth, was not the Holy Spirit, but one whose way is cunning and its sign is a lie.

I took no real part in the public debates before the 1992 vote, except at a Deanery level, yet I followed the national debate in deadly earnest. Everything I read and heard confirmed an ever deepening sense that the distorter and questioner of God’s Word; the catalyst of division between male and female; the tempter of Christ was active, alive and winning the mind of the Church of England. I am sure that I express the conviction of many, who like me, dare not speak of the unspeakable. At the time my courage failed me and I write now only too aware of what the response will be.

It is not necessary here to outline in detail the treatment of scripture by the proponents. It was (and is) extraordinarily simplistic and contradictory. On the one hand Paul was a misogynist, and on the other he was an egalitarian. There was hardly any serious treatment of the Old Testament, especially the early chapters of Genesis and the consequent doctrine of creation. It is in those early chapters that the fateful question was posed – “Did God really say?” The temptations of Jesus remind us too well that The Enemy uses scripture to his own ends.

Again, this is not the place to explore in depth the Christological arguments of the proponents. In the final analysis their Christology centred on the humanity of Christ as a general principle, rather than on the particularity of His maleness, which was viewed as an accident of cultural necessity. In side-stepping the sex of Jesus, which was necessary for his completeness as human, the proponents were in fact denying that Jesus Christ had come “in the flesh.” I draw the reader’s attention to the teaching of St. John (1 John 4 v 16):

This is how you can recognise the Spirit of God: Every Spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God.

He continues by teaching that such denial is the work of the Devil.

Now, looking back over ten years, the perspective affords a disturbing scene; a broken and declining church, discarded ministries, diseased and lost souls. I, along with my family, and many known personally to me, have suffered ridicule and rejection by many within the church. Is this the fruit of the Holy Spirit? Hidden behind this pervading sadness is a clear sense of a beating pulse of darkness that waxes in strength.

To many of us in the orthodox constituency the vote of 1992 was a great relief. It became very clear who were like-minded and who were not (this was not always the case previously). There was a sense of the darkness being broken – not because women were ordained, but because at last we were free to distance ourselves from people who spoke the same language but with a different meaning. It was no longer necessary to live the withering lie of full communion with those who were only too happy to see us cast off and rejected. I am sure that many readers will agree with me in acknowledging that God has been merciful to us.

There is no doubt that many women have found personal fulfilment. No one can deny the effective teaching and pastoral work of many women priests. But, in its broadest perspective, who can argue that the present state of the Church of England is the work of the Holy Spirit, the source of unity and truth? I may be mad ,and I may be bad, but I have seen the Angel of Light that is not an Angel; and I have heard the screams of the lost innocents.

I do not believe that the powers of hell can prevail against the gates of the Kingdom. But, it is cause for great pity that we have thrown away the keys.

Andy Hawes is Vicar of Edenham with Witham on-the-Hill and Rural Dean of Beltisloe in the diocese of Lincoln.