Francis Gardom on how to reassure the confused

On more than one occasion recently people who are obviously sympathetic to the Forward in Faith integrity have approached me and asked whether I could supply them with a simple but convincing reasons for our belief that the ordination of women as priests is wrong.

Now one might suppose, as I did initially, that this would be a simple task. There are so many valid arguments from which to choose that this is surely only a matter of choosing the right one – having regard to the background, age and education of the people to whom one is speaking.

Not so! Although the original request sounded more like a plea than anything else, it became apparent that the arguments which I put forward were somehow failing to resonate with my audience. They evidently wanted to be convinced, but nothing I was saying appeared to be coming anywhere near convincing them.

If this is in any way true for members of our constituency (and its border-lands where many more sympathizers live), it means, I would suggest, that some thought should be given at this stage not only to asking why our arguments are falling short of their target, but also what sort of reasons might stand a better chance of resonance with them.

Had we but time enough…

Some of our more scholarly members to whom I put this dilemma suggested that we lack both the time and the patience to convince those who are for whatever reason impervious to the arguments which have been so well and so frequently rehearsed not least in the pages of New Directions. My reason for querying this stance is that, whilst it might indeed be a waste of time if one were talking with wholehearted supporters of women’s ordination as priests, those in the present instance are, by their own admission, not so. Whilst agreeing that the time is running short, one ought not to assume that every argument has been explored and expounded to its fullest extent. Which one of us has not experienced having a mental block about our understanding of some particular matter which has been eventually removed, not as a rule by the desperate teacher, however patient he or she may be, but by one of our fellow-students who themselves once had a similar mental block but who can say to us ‘… but how about looking at it this way.’ Their success in this respect is due, neither to their being more patient, or wiser, than the bewildered teacher but to the very fact that they can truthfully say, in the words of the well-known hymn:

I once was lost, but now I’m found,

Was blind and now I see.

Here it is worth taking a leaf out of Jesus’ book. Depending upon his audience, Jesus was not averse to supplying enquirers with answers which fall far short of being knock-me-down arguments. We have only to look at his parables to understand this. Whilst every parable was clearly crafted to give a simple but succinct answer to such questions as ‘Who is my neighbour?’ he did not even attempt to answer all the questions which the concept of neighbourliness raises. Those who wanted to pursue the matter further he probably referred to the teachings of contemporary scribes and the Pharisees, the ethicists and moral theologians of his day. Both Hillel and Gamaliel (who was St Paul’s tutor) were well qualified to deal with such questions.

What’s my line?

If our enquirers are in search of something quite simple, and providing they are willing to accept that a ‘simple’ answer can by no means be assumed to do justice to the question, we owe it to them to do our best to provide one. One therefore naturally asks whether any particular line, or lines, of enquiry seem to resonate more strongly than others. If we can identify these ‘resonant reasonings’, then the chances are that those of a more scholarly bent than ourselves may be able to serve them up in a much more intellectually robust form than we ourselves can manage. Our part of the task, so to speak, will have come to an end.

In my attempts to do just this, it has become apparent that there are at least three lines of enquiry which ‘ring bells’ more readily than others in the minds of this sort of audience. Let me try and describe them.

The Credal Beliefs of the Advocates of Women Priests:

The Cost of Conscience survey entitled The Mind of Anglicans demonstrated beyond all reasonable doubt that many of the strongest advocates of women’s ordination to the priesthood, and many women priests themselves, hold a very different version of the Christian faith from any which has so far been taught. Specifically, their faith (unlike ours), is often grounded not upon the profession of certain credal statements like:

I believe in God the Father Almighty;

for us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven;

[he] was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and was made man;

he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.

but consists in using such statements as a form of doctrinal underpinning to their view of social science. ‘Virtues’ become ‘values’; the welfare of the world, including that of its inanimate and sub-human members takes precedence over personal righteousness and the individual’s moral status; and ‘relationships’ are something which principally apply to our dealings with our fellow-men, and seldom, if at all, to our status with God.

The survey shows that this is indeed the case. It therefore implies, on their part, a curious disregard for the truth – the very thing which Christians, from Jesus onwards, majored on. If sound belief about God and his scheme of salvation matters so relatively little, then Christianity can be nothing more than a ‘way of looking at things which some people may find helpful’. Yet if it is nothing more than that, why should anyone trouble himself to propagate it on that basis, other than for personal gain, or out of the kindness of their hearts? Such an attitude is light-years removed from what Christians hitherto have supposed it to be – a faith which leads to salvation for those who embrace it, and the profession of which is likely, if not certain, to result in suffering, and in extreme cases death.

Their Element of Doubt and Uncertainty

The Eames Commission upon whose work the whole decision to ordain women as priests was decided should go forward stated categorically that there would be a degree of provisionality about the orders of those women so ordained, which would necessitate a period of reception during which it would be an open question as to whether such ordinations enjoyed the approval of God or not.

Those to whom I have explained this have immediately seen the absurdity of this methodology. They may have difficulty in grasping the precise significance of ‘suspending Canon B4’ which requires the universal acceptance of the orders of others; but they can see that any professional body in which a substantial body of informed opinion doubts the competence or authority of its executives to perform the tasks which they regularly undertake in the course of their duty is a profession which is in danger of discrediting itself and probably heading for self-destruction.

It needs to be stressed that what is at issue here is not the sincerity or the moral integrity of the operators, but the question of whether God has, or has not, invested them with the authority to perform those tasks. Whilst there have always been those in the Church of England who have held that the Reformation didn’t go nearly far enough, and that the three-fold ministry was an early corruption of our Lord’s plan for his Church, the large majority of Christians believe that this pattern was of divine origin. Individual provinces and dioceses simply do not have the authority to change it, least of all for the reason it happens to sit rather awkwardly with current sociological trends.

The Progressive Intolerance of Opposition

There is a curious anomaly amongst the most fervent advocates of women priests towards those who oppose them. In every case where this novelty has been tried, it has begun with a generous acceptance that those who are opposed to it nevertheless have ‘an honoured place’ within the same communion. In other words it tacitly endorses what Eames has said.

Without exception, however, this tolerance, acceptance of diversity, or whatever you care to call it has, within a very few years, evaporated and replaced by a much more strident, much less accommodating attitude. Conscience clauses have been withdrawn, opponents have been disadvantaged, and an increasingly strident opinion has been heard that ‘there is no place for the likes of you’.

Now as any student of history will know, this process is almost inevitable. For the element of uncertainty which conscience-clauses and tolerances betray is ultimately irreconcilable with the certainty with which the novelty must ultimately be accepted if it is to have any chance of survival. Indeed one applauds the candour of those who have the courage to say so in so many words. Ultimately, people like Bishop Richard Holloway and Bishop John Saxbee are only acting in accordance with their beliefs when they say, and behave as if, there is no place in their company for those who doubt or disbelieve their teachings.

This fact, once it is clearly pointed out to the enquirer and supported by sufficient evidence, resonates very loudly in their ears. Fortunately evidence is not hard to come by, and such incidents as Sam Edwards and David Moyer in the USA provide all that is necessary to prove the point.

These, then, are three possible lines of enquiry which are worth exploring further. None of them per se amounts to anything like ‘proof’ one way or the other; but unlike the more theologically-based arguments with which every Forward in Faith priest, we hope, is already well equipped, such argumenta ad homines as I have outlined above may find their target more readily than anything else.

Francis Gardom is an assistant priest in the Diocese of Southwark.