‘Consonant with Scripture’. This novel formula seemed like a one-off when used in 1992; yet it made a triumphant return within the recent ARCIC report
Mark Stevens investigates this ingenious phrase

There is, as you have probably observed, an ecology of doctrines of the Catholic Church not unlike that of plants and animals in the natural world. Introduce a new dogma or principle, and the law of unintended consequences will pitch in as surely as with rabbits in Australia.

Hark now a tale. Michael Adie, you will recall, defended the ordination of women to the priesthood before the General Synod of the Church of England by describing it as ‘consonant with Scripture and required by tradition.’ Those of us who hold that it is neither of those things were startled by his audacity. But we were also struck by the novelty of the formula.

Orders are of the esse of the Church. The acceptance of those ordained by the Church of England as truly bishops priests and deacons is required of all its members [Canon A4]; and yet [Art.VI of the XXXIX] the Church cannot require of its members, as an article of faith, anything which cannot be demonstrated from Scripture (‘read therein or proved thereby’). So, we opponents contended, Adie’s formula ought to be reversed: required by Scripture and consonant with the tradition.

An ingenious formula

The General Synod forged ahead regardless. To give credit where credit is due, the Adie formula was ingenious. Whilst seeming to make specific claims, it retained that degree of wilful ambiguity which a weak case requires.

The two parts of the formula were clearly intended to mollify the two principal parties of opposition. Evangelicals would be reassured that the innovation was ‘consonant with’ rather than ‘contrary to’ the plain teaching of Scripture. Catholics, with a more dynamic notion of the development of doctrine, would bow to the alleged requirements of the tradition.

Adie, of course, did not spell out with any degree of clarity what he meant by ‘consonant’ and what he meant by ‘required.’ How could he? How could the ordination of women to the priesthood be held to be ‘consonant’ with Scripture, when the only direct references in the Scriptures to the liturgical activity of women expressly forbid it? How could an innovation be ‘required’ by a tradition which had never embraced it and more than once specifically repudiated it?

‘Consonant’ with Scripture (apart from a tendentious exegesis of Gal. 3: 28, and the inventive gloss put on Gal. 4: 19 by Rowan Williams in a recent speech to the General Synod) comes down to David Gillet and his assertions about ‘a fresh hermeneutical lens’ and what the Rochester Report aptly terms an ‘overall trajectory of scripture’ [Rochester 5.3.5–5.3.16]. Even taken together they do not add up to much. Set beside the radical feminist deconstruction of biblical imagery by writers like Mary Daly, Carol Christ, Naomi Goldberg and Daphne Hampson, they seem tragically pusillanimous.

If the notion that women’s ordination is ‘consonant’ with Scripture is excessively dependent on a contested exegesis of Gal. 3: 28, in much the same way the assertion that it is ‘required by tradition’ is almost exclusively dependent on the heavily Antiochene interpretation placed by Richard Norris on the dictum of Gregory Nazianzen ‘not taken not healed’ [‘The Ordination of Women and the ‘Maleness’ of Christ,’ Anglican Theological Revue Supplementary Series 6, June 1976, pp 69-80]. The argument is that the human nature taken by the Godhead at the Incarnation must have included ‘both male and female’ – for otherwise women were not and could not be saved. (‘If you won’t ordain us; don’t baptize us,’ said some women, in a slogan reminiscent of those used in the Arian controversy.) But Norris’s argument depended upon a premise which Gregory did not share: that the male cannot represent the female. Only grant, as Gregory surely did, that Christ is the head of his Church as the husband is the head of his wife – and that both represent to the Father the whole of which they are part – and Norris has no case at all.

Our tale, however, is not about past mistakes, but about their unintended consequences. Which brings us to the latest ARCIC statement, Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ.

Article VI, through which Michael Adie uninhibitedly drove his theological coach and horses, was, of course, Anglicanism’s principal bulwark against Romanism. All the post-Reformation developments of the Western Church, it used to be alleged, fell foul of it: transubstantiation, the immaculate conception, papal infallibility and the assumption of Our Lady. They could none of them, in the words of the Article, be ‘read therein and proved thereby.’ So they were, to coin another phrase, ‘absolutely null and utterly void.’

But this position is no longer tenable. If Article VI did not hold with regard to the Orders of the Church, which effect and express its sacramental unity, then it cannot be cited, either, in lesser matters. Thus it is that the ARCIC document on Mary predictably declares the immaculate conception and the assumption to be ‘consonant with scripture’ and (nearly) ‘required by tradition.’ By a delicious irony, the very methodology which secured the ordination of women (and thus effectively ended hopes of an Anglican–Roman Catholic rapprochement for generations to come) has opened the Church of England to the Roman innovations she has vigorously resisted throughout her history.

Good for a laugh?

Catholic Anglicans might be tempted to mirth at the prospect of liberal Evangelicals now being obliged to swallow doctrines so inimical to their ethos. Serve them right, we might be tempted to say!

But this is no laughing matter; and no incident in a mere party struggle. It is another step in the gradual dismemberment of that Anglican identity upon which Catholic Anglicans have hitherto been dependent. Instead of the creation of a new Anglican synthesis, or a real realignment with the Catholic Church, the Anglican establishment seems bent on multiplying reasons for not saying ‘no’ to anything. They can do so, of course, in the certain knowledge that no one (the twin doctrines of reception and provisionality being what they are) can now be restrained from saying ‘no’ to anything they say ‘yes’ to. Such is the new ecumenism.