Geoffrey Kirk on some familiar arguments

There are, it has frequently been said, no knock-down arguments for or against women’s ordination. Upon that premise the so-called ‘doctrine of reception’ is founded. But the reverse proves to be the case.

Those opposed argue that orders serve two vital functions. By their reciprocity and mutual acceptability they express and effect communion between Christians across the ages and across the globe. Until recently Anglicans maintained that ‘the service of a reconciled common ministry’ was a sine qua non of ‘full visible unity’ (cf Anglican Moravian Conversations, GS 1202, pp14–15).

Similarly, orders exist to provide sacramental assurance. The continuity of orders, both by tactile succession and in sedem, assure the whole people of God that the sacraments celebrated now are those faithfully continued ‘from the Apostles’ time’.

Women’s ordination has overthrown these two essential characteristics of Orders. It was brought about by provincial autonomy and it claims for the orders it has initiated only a ‘degree of provisionality’ in an ‘open period of reception’. The ordination of women, therefore, is not an extension or enrichment of Orders; it is a distortion of them, since it could only be brought about by a denial of their very nature and function. Quod erat demonstrandum.

Those in favour of women priests also argue from first principles.

Holy Orders, they claim, exist to represent God to the people and the people to God. God, the creator of all sexuality, is himself beyond sexual differentiation. He had best be represented by an ‘inclusive’ ministry because to restrict the priesthood to men is to imply that men are in some way more like God than women. Humankind subsists in two sexes. Adequately to represent all people equally before God requires a priesthood of both women and men. As Bishop Oliver Tomkins snappily put it in a MOW pamphlet (Occasional Paper 6, 1984): ‘Christian priesthood is called to be fully human if God is to be known as fully God.’ Women’s ordination is therefore ‘required by the tradition’ (Michael Adie, November 11, 1992). Quod erat demonstrandum.

But to the second set of arguments there are serious problems.

Do orders exist to represent ‘God to the people and the people to God’? The tradition speaks of the priest as representing Christ. He acts ‘in persona Christi’ (Thomas Aquinas) ‘mimemou Christou’ (Theodore the Studite). (Both are basing themselves on Ignatius of Antioch (Trallians, i.1, 11.1; Eph i.3, vi.1 etc.)) The priest represents ‘God to the people and the people to God’ only inasmuch as he represents Jesus. He represents the people of God (the Body of Christ) precisely because he represents the Head of the Body, Christ himself, who is, at one and the same time, the human face of the Father (John 14.9). To deny that an exclusively male priesthood cannot adequately represent Jesus comes dangerously close to saying that a male Christ cannot adequately represent humanity. Which is surely the opposite of what the innovators intend.

Or is it?