The appeal to ‘reason’ in support of the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate has distorted the very concept as it first appears in the famous three-legged stool’ of Richard Hooker. Reason has been understood not as rational reflection on the relationship of Scripture and Tradition, but as an independent source of authority based on contemporary experience. But that is not all. The cause of women priests and bishops has also been advanced by means of that great enemy of sound reason, rank dishonesty.
The dishonesty has taken many forms, but two take precedence.
Lonely as a cloud
First is the often repeated assertion that women’s ordination is a stand-alone issue, unrelated to the raft of innovations – the remarriage of divorced persons, blessing of same sex relationships, gay and lesbian priests and bishops, etc, etc, etc – often referred to as ‘the liberal agenda’.
Such assurances were routinely given at deanery and diocesan synods in the referral process of the 1993 Measure. Many people were taken in by such assurances, not least the conservative Evangelicals who voted for women’s ordination. They seemed quite unaware, at the time, that the hermeneutic which was being applied in the case of women’s ordination would resurface in a more assertive form in support of gay marriages and homosexual bishops. They accepted the assurances so readily given.
The recorded sayings of Gene Robinson are enough to give the lie to the old assertion that ‘there is no liberal agenda’.
The argument consistently applied by Robinson is both simple and flagrant. It was once claimed that the different planks of the liberal platform were supported by an exegetical method different from that employed by traditional Christians; one which nevertheless respected and upheld the authority of scripture. It is now claimed that because the Church has ignored scripture in some matters – remarriage after divorce is an oft-cited example – scripture can be ignored with impunity in other matters – for example homosexual relations. The Agenda is out of the closet with a vengeance.
The centre of the Faith
But it is also clear that the agenda is not a mere shopping list of sex- and gender- related innovations. Nor is it merely an attack on the unity, integrity and authority of Scripture, grave as that is. On the contrary it is a broad-based assault on traditional Christianity itself. The ‘Mind of Anglicans’ survey, independently conducted by Christian Research, has conclusively shown that women priests and their supporters are consistently more likely to deny or doubt basic doctrines (the uniqueness of salvation in Christ, the virginal conception and bodily resurrection of Jesus, etc, etc, etc) than are those who oppose the innovation.
What has become clear is what the opponents of women’s ordination have always maintained: that, as in the early Church, so in the present time, support for the priesting of women involves a whole mindset which is inimical to Catholic truth. The bishops of the Church of England were right (though characteristically they did not know how right they were) when in their Second Report (GS829) they explained that ‘it [the ordination of women] is seen as closely bound up with what is believed about the nature of God, about Christ and about the Church and about creation. It is thus intimately related to the centre of the faith.’
It is fascinating that in the present struggle in the United States over the appointment of Gene Robinson (a mere side-skirmish in the wider gender war) bishops like Bob Duncan of Pittsburgh are rumoured to be revisiting the ordination of women in the light of later insight and experience.
The second example of rank dishonesty is expressed at the very heart of the 1993 legislation, in the Schedules to the Measure and the preamble to the Act. Bishop Michael Adie, proposing the Measure, fulsomely expressed the desire of all to respect and to uphold the position of those who were not persuaded. The Act elaborates on assurances given in that speech. Behind both lay the ‘doctrine of reception’ which had been developed in the reports of the Eames Commission.
‘Reception’ is a slippery concept. Quite deliberately it has no defined terminus ad quem and no circumscribed locus. Are we talking of ‘reception’ in the Church of England, the Anglican Communion or the Church Universal? And what factors would indicate that such a period was at an end?
That the notion was no more than a piece of unscrupulous window-dressing is apparent from the recent statements of some diocesans. Dr Tom Butler, Bishop of Southwark, as always has not been backward in coming forward. He is for closing down the tawdry pretence now in preparation for the ordination of women as bishops (when it will prove an acute embarrassment). ‘Ten years in, it would be game playing to pretend that the Church of England is ever going to change its mind about women priests’, Bishop Tom told his Synod. ‘Thousands have been ordained. They are exercising a valuable ministry. They are here to stay.’
Play up and play the game
‘Game playing’ is an apt description for all the various devices, conscience clauses, assurances of special status, doctrines of ‘open reception’ and the like which have been adopted across the communion to facilitate women’s ordination and gain the required majorities in the relevant synods. The Scottish Episcopal Church, in this matter if in no other, excelled itself, offering an honoured and respected place ‘for all time’! Yet, everywhere, of course, conscience clauses have been summarily withdrawn, and what was introduced as permissive has become mandatory. What remains of the conscience clause (so-called) in the United States is the assertion of the Presiding Bishop that it is no longer possible for a diocese to elect a bishop opposed and for that bishop to gain sufficient agreements across the Church. The recommendations of the Eames commission were nowhere implemented except in England and Wales. They had no effect whatever in Dr Eames’ own province.
The truth is, of course, that the insincerity of such assurances of tolerance and understanding was apparent from the start. If, as Dr Butler’s predecessor, Roy Williamson, asserted in the great debate, women’s ordination is an issue of ‘justice‘ – and ethical a priori matter – then it cannot be permissive. It must be imposed. Schedules A and B of the Measure effectively suspended Canon A4 across the Church of England. Yet neither a Catholic ecclesiology nor the ethical pretensions of those in favour of women priests can for a moment tolerate private judgement in the matter of orders.
‘Game playing’ indeed! But more than that. Rank dishonesty. And if you do not believe that it is so, try a simple experiment. Explain to a woman priest of your acquaintance that whilst you cannot recognize the priesthood of women yourself, you are content with the thought that they are very nice for those who like that sort of thing.
And great will be the wrath thereof.