Jonathan Baker on the beauty of orthodoxy

By the time you read this, the General Synod will have had its first stab at debating the Rochester Report, and, in all probability, will have taken the first steps down the road which will lead to legislation to permit the ordination of women to the episcopate in the Church of England. We shall know rather more clearly how much sympathy there is for those who hold the unvarying practice of the Catholic practice in the matter of Holy Order. More importantly, we shall be in a better position to gauge how far proponents of change understand – or even are willing to try and understand – the arguments which ‘traditionalists’ hold so dear, and why they matter to us so much.

The Rochester Report, it has been agreed across the spectrum of theological opinion in the Church of England, does its very best to be fair to all sides. Arguments for and against the ordination of women are set out at length, and generally do justice to those whose views they reflect. No-one could read the report, and conclude that it does not raise a number of issues which must make any thinking ‘traditionalist’ stop and think harder. Neither could any advocate for further innovation read it and reasonably conclude that the case for women bishops was proved. If the Rochester Report were to be read, studied, pondered and discussed in the parishes and deaneries of England, then the members of the Church of England could only be the better informed and become more theologically literate in all the matters which the ordination of women puts under the spotlight.

Streets apart

Yet despite the Rochester Commission’s best efforts, there will always be a great gulf fixed between supporters of change, and adherents to the Tradition. One priest in the Diocese of Oxford – fair-minded, and ready to hear all the arguments – commented to me recently that reading Consecrated Women? and The Call to Women Bishops was to see two people passing each other by on opposite sides of the street, the one simply making no contact with the other. The reason? He explained it like this: the Shadow Working Party report (putting it baldly) began with scripture and explored the Tradition, while The Call rested overwhelmingly on personal experience and the need to correct a perceived injustice. Those two approaches, this priest concluded, could never be reconciled.

A phrase which often came to be on the lips of those of us on the Shadow Working Party’s theological group was the beauty of orthodoxy. As we went on, talking among ourselves, listening to the contributions of those who came and talked to us, and writing up those conversations into a coherent narrative, there was more and more the sense of uncovering something that had always been there, rather than creating something of our own. The excitement which was tangible as our meetings progressed was not that of explorers opening up hitherto undiscovered territory, but of the sense of a picture becoming clear, of the pieces of a jigsaw fitting into place, of solid shapes emerging where once we had only grasped outlines. We were working (and we knew this all along) with what was given. We had only to work to present it so that – we hoped – the structures, the completed puzzle, the beauty of orthodoxy would be equally clear to those who would finally read what we produced.

Suspicious minds

To work with what is given is necessarily to rule out certain critical techniques. It is to resist the hermeneutic of suspicion; in other words, it is to trust what we find in the scriptures and in the life of the apostolic community: to trust that God’s revelation of Himself will not require of us (his people) a constant second-guessing or re-writing of that revelation. (In other words, as another priest recently put it, we are not to think, surely, that at the Incarnation, God simply colluded with the unjust structures of one aspect of the particular society into which He came – its unreconstructed patriarchy – while challenging all else?). It is, equally, to rejoice in what we find in revelation, and to seek, by prayer and study, to draw out from it the riches of its meaning. God’s name is Father, commented Canon Oliver O’Donovan, in a sermon recently preached in Pusey House Chapel: and he proceeded, brilliantly, to suggest something of the significance of that given name of God. “What is the significance of the maleness of the apostolic ministry?” was the question we always understood as underlying the whole enterprise of Consecrated Women?; and not the contrary question, which fundamentally conflicts with, rather than seeks to explore, what is revealed: “Why should women not be bishops?” Behind that question, there are necessarily others: Why not a female redeemer? Why not a god who is as easily and properly called mother as father? All of this (as Peter Cornwell wrote as long ago as 1988) is like remaining on the riverbanks and trying to fish out the bits of truth we fancy1, whereas we are called to take the risk and jump into the river. Cornwell was writing of the risk of faith itself, but we can as well apply his metaphor to how we position ourselves as Catholic Christians. We stand in the midst of flowing waters whose source (we believe) are Scripture and Tradition, and whose current will bear us to our journey’s end. Or, as we wrote in Consecrated Women?:

Heart of the matter

‘The language of God in Scripture is definitive for us, we conclude, because it both forms and expresses the community of faith in which we stand. It bears more than a merely casual or transitory significance. Scriptural language – the word of God about God – invites us, with Jesus, to speak of God as Father, and to be drawn to share (by adoption) in that relationship between Father and Son which unfolds in the earthly mission of Jesus Christ.’2

And it is precisely our sharing in this relationship, we might have concluded, that will bring us to our final home in our Father’s house.

While Consecrated Women? was in preparation, I was frequently asked by those well-disposed towards the project, but who did not share many of its premises, and certainly not its conclusions, whether I was not in danger of becoming a ‘single-issue’ priest. The question was invariably kindly meant. Yet it is precisely the question which illustrates the great gulf fixed, of which we heard earlier on. The ordained ministry – the Episcopate par excellence – touches on so much of the givenness of the faith (our doctrines of God, the Incarnation, Creation, the Church, to name but a few) that it is involved (as John Macquarrie, interestingly, wrote of the future of Christian marriage)3 with the future of Christianity itself. Nothing here of adiaphora: we play with fire, for we play with something very close to the heart of what has been revealed by God.

Jonathan Baker is Principal of Pusey House

1 On the River’s Edge DLT London 1988 p128

2 Consecrated Women? p16

3 A Guide to the Sacraments SCM London 1997 p227