John Richardson asks whether the supposedly scriptural case for women’s ordination has really persuaded evangelicals, for whatever they might say the statistical evidence does not suggest this to be so

Tucked away within the pages of a recent offering from the Christian Research Association is a comment which ought to be of serious concern to evangelicals who favour the ordination of women. On recent trends in recruitment to the Church of England’s ministry it states,

‘There are very few Anglo-Catholic female clergy, and relatively few evangelical female clergy. Consequently the large majority of female clergy are of broad, or liberal, churchmanship, so that, as their number increases, so will the balance of churchmanships change within the ranks of stipendiary clergy.’ (Peter Brierley, Opportunities and Challenges for the Church of England over the next 15 years, CRA 2005,13)

Brierley bases his conclusion about the liberalism of women clergy on the CRA’s own Mind of Anglicans survey. But even without the evidence of that research, most of us know from experience the truth of what he asserts: generally speaking, women clergy are theologically liberal. And this calls for a response from evangelical supporters of women’s ordination.

Doubtless it will be pointed out that the presence of liberals does not prove absence of evangelicals amongst the women clergy. But we are often assured that the ‘vast majority’ of Anglicans of all shades now accept the ordination of women. So why does the churchmanship of ordained women not reflect the balance of the theological traditions?

Since, as the same document records, the percentage of evangelicals in the Church of England is rising, and since the evangelical tradition produces a vigorous individual spirituality, we should surely expect the proportion of evangelical women clergy to be similarly increasing. But as Brierley observes, the opposite is in fact the case: ‘relatively few’ women clergy are evangelical; the ‘large majority’ are liberal.

One explanation for this may be that evangelical women are indeed offering for ordination but are being turned down, whereas their liberal sisters are accepted. One suspects, however, that evangelical DDOs and bishops would quickly have something to say if they thought this was the case.

Unexpected explanation

Alternatively, it may be that evangelical women are being accepted, but are turned into liberals by the training process. Given the high percentage of women on part-time courses dominated by a liberalism that deliberately aims at broadening candidates’ views, we should perhaps not be surprised that this happens. But we still have to ask why the men seem less affected by it. And if the answer is that the women are more easily swayed, then that itself raises serious questions, either about the suitability of the women for the teaching ministry or about the usefulness of their training.

There is, however, another possibility, which is that women clergy are predominantly liberal because evangelicals are not really convinced about women’s ordination. And there is an interesting statistic which supports this suggestion.

Excluding cathedrals, there are about 160 Anglican churches with ‘Usual Sunday Attendances’ in excess of 350. The majority are growing, many of them are evangelical, and all the senior ministers of these churches are male. When pastoral push comes to shove, it seems that congregations instinctively congregate around male leadership. If, as we have been told, most evangelicals have no problem with the ordination of women, we should expect this picture to change, so that the proportion of women running larger churches corresponds to the proportion of clergy who are women. However, whilst women are found in every ‘senior’ position from dean to archdeacon, and will soon be bishops, they have yet to be found running big churches, evangelical or otherwise.

Again, it might be suggested that evangelical women decide against ordination because they worry about the opposition they might experience. This is plausible, but then we must ask why it does not affect liberals in the same way. And if the answer is that evangelical women fear opposition from within evangelicalism, then it surely suggests that the case for their ordination has not been won within that tradition.

Alternatively, it might be that evangelical women who consider ordination have too many doubts to proceed. But once again such an explanation suggests that the argument for women’s ordination has not been won, either in the hearts of the individuals most directly affected or in the minds of the existing clergy. For if a woman candidate discussed these doubts with her minister or DDO, the latter should surely be able to dispel them with the clear arguments in favour, if they exist.

Is the case being made?

And that brings us to the suggestion, indeed the suspicion, that evangelical churches are indeed producing women candidates for ordination, but that these women are not themselves evangelical at heart because their churches are fudging the scriptural argument. If that is indeed happening, then evangelicalism is in serious trouble, because one fudge leads to another, and these women will work in, and eventually oversee, evangelical congregations which will accept them as evangelicals without realizing that their theology is fatally compromised.

An evangelical case for the ordination of women (like the evangelical case for homosexual relationships, advocated by some) must deal with a small number of specific biblical passages which directly address the issue, and the overall tenor of Scripture. How well, then, is this case being made?

As an example, we might note the link on the website of the Open Evangelical group Fulcrum to a paper by the Bishop of Durham, Dr Tom Wright, entitled ‘Women’s Service in the Church: The Biblical basis.’ Yet Wright’s paper is scarcely a ‘knock down’ advocacy for the ordination of women. There is much in it that could be criticized and little in it that has become established as a classic handling of the problems around the biblical material. Indeed, he himself says it is simply ‘reflections which are…very far from complete or fully worked out.’ Yet this seems to be held up as a champion for the cause.

The point is not that Wright’s paper is contentious but (as I am sure he would acknowledge) that it simply will not bear the weight being put on it. But if not Wright, then who is the real champion of the evangelical case for women’s ordination?

Until the theological debate is more fully addressed amongst evangelicals, the ordination of women will continue to be a potential cuckoo in the evangelical nest. Some will doubtless rejoice in this, but let it not be the evangelicals themselves!