Stuart Seaton catches the Bishop in an offside position

At the heart of the orthodox position on women priests stands the college of the twelve male apostles. If the ordination of women is to be theologically grounded, the omission of women from the twelve needs a careful explanation. In addressing this problem, the Rochester Report takes up the thinking of David Gillett, the Bishop of Bolton. In paragraph 5.3.11 Bishop Gillett argues:

The New Testament was clearly written in a first century culture in which Jesus immersed himself. The fact that he did not choose any woman as part of the twelve is a theological statement, but not that no women could ever be allowed such a position within the kingdom of God. Rather it says that the incarnation of God’s Son was real and historical – he became fully part of the first century world and lived and spoke through that particular culture. As the incarnate Son of God he entered fully into the human experience there and then. In doing so he made quite clear the kingdom principles that would challenge his culture and ours in the coming years.

Gillett makes some important claims in this paragraph:

(a) Jesus was so much a part of his culture that his choice of men reflected not the will of God but his contemporary culture yet

(b) ‘In doing so he made quite clear the kingdom principles that would challenge his culture and ours in the coming years.’

This implies that:

(c) The Christian understanding of the incarnation can accommodate an inconsistency between ‘the kingdom principles’ that Jesus made clear, and Jesus’ own actions.

One would have thought that the complexity of this position would make it singularly unattractive: on the one hand Jesus does not do God’s will, yet on the other hand, he somehow reveals it. Complex arguments of this sort give the impression that what is involved is not a fair reading of the evidence but a marshalling of the data towards a predetermined goal. Oddly, the way Gillett links (a) and (b) (‘In doing so’) it looks as if claim (b) is meant to follow from (a). Yet not only is it unclear how Jesus is supposed to have made the kingdom principles clear while conforming to his culture, it seems as if claims (a) and (b) actually contradict each other.

If we hold that Jesus really ‘became fully part of the first century world and lived and spoke through that particular culture,’ it is hard to see how ‘he made quite clear the kingdom principles that would challenge his culture and ours in the coming years.’ Surely if Jesus was fully part of his culture, he could not reveal the kingdom principles which were not part of his culture? On the other hand, if Jesus did reveal the kingdom principles, then he was challenging his culture, rather than being ‘fully part’ of it, in which case his choice of men for the twelve need not have been determined by his culture. To hold both claims (a) and (b) appears to be self-contradictory, and since a contradiction conveys no information whatsoever, the whole argument seems in danger of collapse.

Setting aside the logical form of Gillett’s position, how plausible are each of the claims? Claim (c) looks immediately false. It gives the impression of a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ Jesus, a man trapped in the very schizophrenic double-mindedness of sin (Matt. 21.28–31 & Rom. 7.15–24) from which Jesus has come to save us.

Cultural confusion

Turning to (b), one wonders how exactly Jesus ‘made quite clear the kingdom principles that would challenge his culture and ours in the coming years,’ if such ‘kingdom principles’ are supposed to include the ordination of women. There is certainly no such explicit teaching, and as we have seen, Gillett’s claim that ‘Jesus challenged radically such [patriarchal] attitudes to women, more by his surprising actions than by his direct teaching’ (para. 5.3.11) seems to undermine claim (a). Moreover, we cannot conclude from the fact that Jesus had radical ideas concerning women that he therefore wanted them in the apostolic ministry. Jesus’ actions could also mean that although men and women are equal, there are other reasons for not including females in the apostolic ministry, just as there were other reasons for not including males in the conception of Christ.

However, it appears that the real source of (b) is not directly in scripture itself but in what Gillett calls ‘the hermeneutical lens’ of the experience of the ordination of women:

The positive experience of the ministry of women priests is a new factor in the hermeneutical task which now faces us in relation to the question of the ordination of women…We possess some significantly new and compelling evidence as part of the present context which informs the way in which we ask questions of the hermeneutical texts. (para. 5.3.3).

Faulty lens

This has meant, Gillett thinks, that no longer do people experience ‘the hesitations expressed by St Paul’ about women in the apostolic ministry. Instead they find that ‘the Biblical material so strongly supports the ordination of both women and men’ (para. 5.3.4).

There are numerous problems here. First, Gillett fails to take any notice of the fact that not everyone has experienced the ministry of women priests as something ‘positive.’ For example, there are many who for various reasons have experienced it as an unsettling disobedience to Christ and scripture, or else as a distorting of sacramental imagery. Given that these negative experiences reflect what Gillett himself calls the ‘hesitations’ of scripture, it would appear they are biblically authentic, and that therefore the hermeneutical lens provided by ‘positive experiences’ of women priests is faulty.

Secondly, Gillett’s denial that the positive experience of women’s ordination ‘is an independent counterbalancing authority’ to scripture is unconvincing in the absence of clear exegesis of actual scriptural texts. It does not necessarily follow (as Gillett implies) from the fact that women receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 2.16–18 & Joel 2.28–29) that God wants them to be priests. The pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon women is equally consistent with a Church in which women are called to exercise Spirit-led lay ministries such as prophecy. Gillett, is simply drawing a stronger conclusion from the evidence than is justified.

This leads to a third problem: does the ‘positive experience’ of women priests actually support women’s priestly ministry in particular, or just women’s ministry in general? We cannot scientifically test the sacramental validity of a priest’s ministry – therefore Gillett’s ‘positive experiences’ of women priests would in fact seem to be largely limited to those roles which they share with the laity: aspects of prophecy, teaching, leadership, administration and pastoral care for example. Consequently, while ‘positive experience’ of women in these roles supports the conclusion that women should be involved in these ministries, it is uncertain whether it supports women’s ordination.

Finally, Gillett’s use of the ‘hermeneutical lens’ appears to be disallowed by the Rochester Report itself (3.1.35). The report warns that we should ‘guard against undue subjectivity. The experience of individuals has to be tested against the more objective criteria of Scripture, tradition and reason’ (3.1.17). Therefore, ‘the issue today is whether, in the light of the order God has established for his creatures through his creative and redemptive activity, it is right for women to exercise the gifts that they have as bishops or whether they should employ them in some other sphere of Christian service. This is an issue which cannot simply be decided…on the basis of other people’s experience of their ministry – however positive that experience may have been’ (3.1.21, my emphasis). So Gillett’s attempt to use such ‘positive experiences’ as a ‘hermeneutical lens’ puts the cart before the horse: it seeks to read scripture through experiences which cannot be admitted as evidence until they have been tested by scripture. As a result of these problems, we do not have the hermeneutical lens Gillett thinks will enable us to look beyond the hesitations of scripture on the ordination of women.

Inferior choice

Establishing the truth of (b) proves to be very difficult indeed. Yet Gillett needs this claim to be strong enough to prove both claims (a) and (c). We have seen that there is good reason to doubt claim (c). Yet, it is in fact claim (a) that is the most doubtful. How does Gillett know that Jesus’ choice of men reflected not the will of God but his contemporary culture? Unless he knows with infallible certainty that it is the will of God that women should share in the apostolic ministry, he simply cannot know whether Jesus’ choice of men is part of the evidence to be assessed (and obeyed) rather than dismissed.

Gillett’s thinking appears to rest on the confused assumption that the non-inclusion of women in the apostolic ministry can only be because women were considered inferior (see para. 5.3.11). But judging by his choice of those within the college of the twelve, Jesus actually sought out those who, within his culture, were judged inferior. He picked tax collectors and fishermen, not religious experts or the social elite. In Christ, God chooses the weak to shame the strong (cf. 1 Cor.1.28); therefore, if women were regarded as inferior in Jesus’ culture that would make it more, not less, likely that Jesus would choose them. In holding his assumption that women were excluded from the twelve on the grounds of supposed inferiority, Gillett has departed from a scriptural perspective on ministry and is instead critiquing our Lord’s actions using Marxist tools.

Doctrinally, Gillett appears to hold that the very humanness of the humanity of Christ in his time and culture means he is unable to do the will of his Father. Therefore the humanity of Christ obscures our vision of the Father. This seems to be entirely at variance with NT teaching in which Jesus says ‘I and the Father are one’ (Jn. 10.30), ‘He who has seen me has seen the Father’ (Jn. 14.9) and ‘the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise. The Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing’ (Jn. 5.19-20). The Christology here speaks all the more powerfully when it is placed within the context of Jesus’ choice of the twelve. Not only was that a moment of great theological importance, it was accompanied by a night in prayer (Lk. 6.12) after which Jesus chose ‘those whom he wanted’ (Mk. 3.13). The Pope speaks biblically when he describes this as Christ acting ‘in a completely free and sovereign manner’ and observes that claims like claim (a) are contrary to the gospel record: ‘Teacher, we know that you are true, and teach the way of God truthfully, and care for no man; for you do not regard the position of men’ (Mt. 22.16). 1

Collapsed Christology

On Gillett’s grounds the doctrines of the incarnation and our salvation in Christ come close to collapse. Gillett’s position suggests that God was in Christ not doing the will of God. 2 Once again, this is probably incoherent. For if Christ was not doing the will of God, then God was not in him, and if God was not in Christ, then clearly God was not in Christ reconciling the world to himself either (cf. 2 Cor. 5.19).

From here it is easy to see that Gillett and those who support the ordination of women on similar grounds have apostatised from the faith that Jesus is ‘the Word made flesh…full of grace and truth’ (Jn. 1.14) and have instead opted for an Arian or a Nestorian Christology. In other words, they believe that there is a greater truth from which Jesus is separate and by knowledge of which we may judge Jesus’ actions to be wrong. If claim (b) remains unproven, it would even seem that we are supposed to have access to this greater truth through the exercise of unassisted human reason. This a far cry from Jesus’ teaching that ‘All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father and no one knows the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him’ (Matt.11.27) or the teaching of St John that ‘No one has ever seen God; God the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, has revealed him’ (Jn. 1.18).

In John 1.1–18 and 1 John 1.1–3, we are taught that Jesus is himself the revelation of the Father. This faith is confirmed again and again: ‘Christ is the image of the invisible God’ (Col. 1.15), ‘In these last days [God] has spoken to us by a Son…He is the reflection of God’s glory and bears the very stamp of his nature’ (Heb. 1.3), ‘For in Christ the whole fullness of divinity dwells in bodily form’ (Col 2.9–10), therefore ‘the truth is in Jesus’ (Eph. 4.21), who ‘speaks the words of God’ (Jn. 3.34), and accomplishes the work which his Father gave him to do (Jn. 17.4). For these reasons alone can Jesus be confessed as ‘the way, the truth, and the life’ (Jn. 14.6). Moreover, his becoming human was in order that he might be obedient to the Father in his humanity in a way in which we all fail: ‘For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin’ (Heb. 4.15); therefore, ‘He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross’ (Phil. 2.8).

Careless innovators

Claim (a) is clearly false. As the perfect revelation of the Father, Jesus did the will of his Father in all things and he therefore did the will of his Father when he chose only men for the twelve. This, and not the ordination of women, is the position demanded by the tradition. Consequently, we know that an all-male apostolic ministry is in accordance with the will of God and it would seem to follow that had it been the will of God to include women in that ministry Jesus would have done so. We certainly cannot say Jesus’ choice of the twelve reflected the mind of his culture rather than his Father.

Since Gillett’s kind of christological doubt in answer to the problem of the twelve is widespread among supporters of women priests, if the remarks I have made in response to (a) are correct, the ordination of women gravely undermines the Christian faith. Whenever bishops ordain women to the priesthood or women priests celebrate the Eucharist, they are eroding people’s faith in the incarnation. Whenever people receive such sacraments, they are assenting to such unbelief.

It is for rejecting this unbelief in Christ that we are in danger of being unchurched by people, many of whom have long since ceased to believe in essential articles of the Creed. The injustice of the liberal position is manifest. Whether the Church of England can survive our ejection is unclear. What is clear is that if women bishops are imposed in such a way that it is no longer possible for Anglicans to be obedient to the example of God in Christ, the Church of England will never again be able to claim to be ‘part of the one holy, catholic and apostolic Church.’ Perhaps the saddest thing is that many of those pushing for the innovation don’t even seem to care.

Stuart Seaton is parish priest of S Peter’s, Bushey Heath

1 Apostolic Letter, Mulieris Dignitatem (15 August 1988), 26.

2 Someone might object, ‘Perhaps it was God’s will that Jesus didn’t do God’s ultimate will regarding women.’ The problem here is that it assumes that treating women justly and appropriately is something so unimportant that God would waive it in some circumstances. Surely there can be few things more demeaning and violent towards women than this idea.