Vegans, viragos and other vagaries

There are, as everyone will have observed, different kinds of vegetarians. At one end of the spectrum are the stiff and doctrinaire – those for whom the consumption of another sentient being gives moral offence. Some of these are vegans, extending the a priori ethical objection to the eating of animal products as well as animals themselves.

Then there are those who are vegetarians more by sentiment than principle – they cannot bring themselves to eat meat because the sad eyes of the calf, the plaintive bleat of the lamb, etc., etc., etc., render consumption an emotional impossibility. For these people, animals are more pets than produce. Before a plate of brains in black butter they cannot help wondering what their last thought was.

And again, there are the merely squeamish. These people carry the sensitivities of ladies who like their beef ‘well done’ to its logical conclusion by not eating beef at all. Some will eat fish, some will eat chicken; but the sight of blood is a definite barrier to mastication.

Then there are the health conscious, the muesli eaters, and the aficionados of Holland and Barrett, who have persuaded themselves (or been persuaded) that meat eating is, if not immoral, then downright unhealthy.

Chop logic

As you will no doubt also have observed, these (and other varieties of vegetarian too numerous to mention) are at odds with one another. They can agree to be vegetarians; but they cannot agree about why they are vegetarians. They have, in fact, only two things in common. The first is that they are, even taken together, in a minority . The second is that, though you and I, out of mere politeness, are prepared to go to infinite trouble to cook nut cutlets for them, none of them will ever provide a piece of rare fillet steak for us – or even so much as grill us a pork chop.

How like the advocates of women priests and bishops, you will have said to yourself!

Those who advocate women’s ordination are similarly at loggerheads with one another. They simply cannot agree even about basics.

They cannot agree, for example, about the Bible. Some think that the Bible (or at least its general ‘trajectory’) supports the ordination and ecclesial equality of women. Others believe that it is irredeemably sexist – the oppressive text of a persecuting patriarchy.

Then again, they cannot agree about the Early Church. Karen Jo Torjesen presents evidence for women deacons, priests, prophets and bishops during the first millennium of Christianity; Karen Armstrong finds in the early Church examples of hostility towards women and ‘fear of their sexual power’ which show, she contends, that they were actively excluded from participating in a male dominated Church. [Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Controversial Issues in World Civilisations, McGraw-Hill, 1999] In our own dear University of Oxford one Church historian, the Revd Dr Jane Shaw, routinely teaches her pupils that the first century Mediterranean was awash with Christian priestesses, whilst another, the Revd Dr Judith Maltby remains firmly unconvinced.

(This debate about Christian origins has meanwhile degenerated into farce. Whilst a majority of scholars remains unpersuaded about even the existence of the ‘Apostle Junia’ [Romans 16;7], Professor Richard Bauckham [Gospel Women: Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels, T&T Clark, 2002] knows enough about her to furnish the plot of a Victorian three volume novel. )

Again. they cannot agree about the status of the question. Some think that women’s ordination is a ‘second order issue’ (like the exact form of the Eucharistic rite, or the celibacy of the clergy). Others believe passionately that it is a first order issue, in which cardinal dogmas are at stake: the doctrines of God, of the person of Jesus and of the nature of the Church.

Ron and regicide

Yet even those who are agreed that it is a ‘first order issue’ cannot agree about the implications or significance of the fact. ‘It is hardly possible to call to mind a single feminist theologian, whatever her phase of development may be, who does not find the image of the Father-God a challenge and a direct confrontation,’ wrote Catherine Halke in Concilium in 1981. ‘I want to argue that the only way to safeguard the doctrine of God is to ordain women as well as me,’ Ronald Bowlby told the General Synod of the Church of England in 1984.

Some advocates of women’s ordination, of course, have argued themselves into a Post-Christian position. ‘An observant friend of mine once remarked that whereas Christian feminists want to change the actors in the play, what I want is a different kind of play. ‘wrote Daphne Hampson in 1990. Meanwhile others were reviling William Oddie and his thoughtful book, What Will Happen to God [ SPCK, 1984] for no other reason than that it pointed out these confusions, contradictions and discrepancies.

Her meneutics

It is apparent to most observers that these fundamental disagreements have led to a further confusion. There is a division between those who view women’s ordination as primarily a justice issue and those who believe it to be a Biblical imperative. Admitting that the arguments from Bible and Tradition are weak or inconclusive, some have relied on a priori principles of fairness and justice. ‘Having tried to balance all the nuances of the theological and ecclesiological arguments on both sides, I am compelled by what I believe to be the cause of justice’, said Roy Williamson, in 1992. Others (albeit with ingenious caveats) have claimed the authority of the word of God written. ‘The main teaching of scripture is the essential dignity, equality and complementarity of the whole of humanity before God’, wrote David Gillet in 2003. Since the experience of women’s ordination, Gillet argued, hermeneutics has taken ‘a different shape’. That experience is ‘a hermeneutical lens in our reading of the scriptures.’

To the question posed by opponents, moreover: is women’s ordination culturally determined or culturally determinative? – does it derive from the Zeitgeist or the Heiligegeist? – proponents can give no firm or agreed answer. For some there is a merely missiological imperative. George Carey spoke, in the 1992 debate of the Church of England becoming, through women’s ordination, ‘a credible Church’. ‘We are in danger of not being heard if women are exercising leadership in every area of our society’s life save the ordained priesthood.’ For others women’s ordination is based on a fundamental principle by which both Church and society are to be judged – a principle which sits in judgement over Scripture itself.

Like vegetarians, all that proponents of women’s ordination have in common is that they are in a tiny minority (both in the historical and the contemporary Church) and that fact disposes them to intransigence and intolerance of the majority. How their divisions and self-contradictions have led to them perceiving themselves as a new orthodoxy, only they can tell.

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark