Geoffrey Kirk responds to the Bishop of Bolton’s December article but questions his interpretation of certain key texts in Genesis and the manner in which Our Lord himself understood them

Readers of New Directions will be grateful to David Gillett for a clear and succinct exposition of an argument from Scripture for the ordination of women as priests and bishops. They will also be delighted to discover that he and opponents of the innovation have much in common. Gillett rejects, for example, the radical feminist argument that ‘the Bible is so patriarchal that its witness must be ignored.’ Nor is he one who bases his case primarily on a priori ethical principles.

Nearer to home, within his own liberal evangelical constituency, he is at variance with the Bishop of Durham on the significance of Junia, Mary of Magdala and female office holders in the New Testament period. T am not convinced,’ he says, ‘that there is as much evidence as is sometimes claimed.’ Nor is he a sola scriptura man: he admits, even granting an argument from Scripture for the equality of men and women before God, that the question of orders in the Church would not thereby be conclusively settled.

Common ground

This catalogue is long enough to establish a good deal of common ground. But there is more here than mere agreement at the periphery. Gillett has demonstrated an important feature of the debate, not acknowledged as frequently as it should be, that there is at least as much disagreement among proponents of women’s ordination as there is between them and the opponents.

It has often been said that Anglo-Catholics, with their arguments from iconic representation and a representative priesthood are at loggerheads with Evangelicals who stress headship. Not so, of course. Leadership in the Church is naturally and inevitably expressed in eucharistic presidency. The role of paterfamilias as head of table in the domestic church naturally transposes to the bishop as principal celebrant of the Eucharist in the local church and as guarantor of doctrine and order.

What is seldom sufficiently remarked, however, is that women bishops are being advocated by groups whose arguments are mutually antagonistic. You cannot both affirm that women’s ordination is ‘consonant with Scripture and required by the tradition and at the same time condemn them both as malign patriarchalist constructs which must be overthrown. You cannot both affirm and deny that women were apostles, priests and bishops in the New Testament period. A pick and mix approach, moreover, which polemically adapts itself to each different audience is clearly suspect, and in reality, no argument at all.

It is to David Gillett’s credit that he has seen this. But whilst agreeing with his rejection of the most frequently rehearsed arguments in favour, what are we to make of his own position? Gillett was once an opponent (on scriptural grounds). He now passionately advocates the cause he once rejected – even though he admits the difficulty that ‘so many throughout the worldwide Church believe that the cause of the ordination of women is a misguided concept’. How are we to view this journey of faith?

The witness of Genesis

Sad to say one must begin by denying its major premise.

‘The teaching of Jesus looks to the opening chapters of Genesis to provide our basic understanding of the place of men and women in the order of things. The major weight is on Genesis 1.27… It is a theological statement of the equality of man and woman without parallel, and is the foundation stone on which we build a biblical view of man and woman in relationship to God and to each other.’

Gillett’s tone here suggests that this assertion is indisputable. And he goes on to argue as though it were. But it is simply not the case that Jesus draws from Genesis 1.27 the conclusion that Gillett would have him draw. In a rare reference to an Old Testament text, Jesus does cite Genesis 1.27 [Mark 10.6 = Matt. 19.9], not, however, to make Gillett’s point, but to assert the indissolubility of marriage.

Nor are Gillett’s other assertions about this text any more secure. He goes on: ‘Together they are to be fruitful and multiply (in which their roles will be different yet complimentary) and to have dominion over everything in the earth. This granting of dominion affirms equality in authority for both men and women: leadership and representing God in its fullness is both male and female’. To which one can only respond: not so fast!

The dominion of man and woman together (= humankind) over the natural world does not necessarily or even logically, imply that there is no intended hierarchical distinction between them. (Karl Barth, it will be remembered, citing Matthew 19.9, located the imago dei not in each sex separately and equally, but in the two together in married solidarity, and went on to claim a distinction of roles and dignity within the married relationship on the strength of Ephesians 5.22.)

Gillett goes on to talk about ‘leadership and representing God in its fullness’. But it is by no means clear that this derives directly from the text. In what sense is the commission to be fruitful and multiply and to have dominion over the other creatures a licence to represent God? We are all familiar with the loose terminology often used about the ordained priesthood by those who argue that women should be admitted to it: that the priest ‘represents mankind to God and God to mankind’. But that has never been the language of the Catholic Church, which from very early times was always clear that the priest represents Jesus, who alone is able fully to represent humanity to the Father and the Father to humankind. If David Gillett’s rather vague language about ‘representation is intended to cut directly to the representative role of the ministerial priesthood, it is a short-cut both bold and illegitimate.

After the Fall

Gillett’s treatment of Genesis 2 is brief and, to my mind, unsatisfactory. It rides roughshod over a rich and continuous tradition of exegesis. That tradition, rooted in the New Testament itself, talks of Adam as first in being [cf I Cor. 11.9-10] and Eve as first in sin [I Tim. 2.14]. Primacy here implies precedence and authority. Which is only to be expected in a culture deeply imbued with a doctrine of male primogeniture, where, in the fullness of time, the Messiah would make himself known as the Only Son of God and the first-born son of Mary. It is true, of course, that Adam is rapt with joy on the appearance of Eve (‘flesh of my flesh’) – Gillett’s ‘outburst of joy’. But it is also true that Adam names her, just as he named the animals, expressing in immemorial Hebrew fashion, his dominion and authority [cf. Matt. 16.18].

In short, though Bishop Gillett’s subsequent argument (the so-called ‘trajectory of Scripture’) depends on his having demonstrated that patriarchy is a post-lapsarian development grounded in sin, that was not the conclusion of the great tradition, nor does it accord with a plain and contextual reading of the passages in question. Genesis 1 and 2 at least as arguably present benevolent patriarchy as the natural and created state of mankind, preparing for benevolent action of the Father when he sends his Son, the Second Adam, the Suffering Servant, to redeem all the sons and daughters of Eve.

If patriarchy is not sinful, of course, then the bishop’s ‘theological vision’ (the new name for his ‘trajectory’) must sadly be viewed as something of a one-eyed squint. For he freely admits that he interprets significant portions of the New Testament in the light of his interpretation of these two brief and disputed passages of the Old.

Jesus, claims Gillett, ‘foreshadows the restoration of the wholeness of God’s creation in the way that he included women in his life and ministry.’ He simply assumes that all right-thinking readers will agree that Jesus’ record in including women is remarkable in its historical context. But do we, and indeed is it so?

We must surely seek to avoid the assumptions of nineteenth century German Protestant exegetes, who sought to blackguard the rabbis in order to demonstrate that Jesus was ‘progressive’ like themselves. In retrospect that seems tinged with more than a little anti-Semitism. And the contrary is plausibly the case. On the status of women, the Lord seems to have had much in common with his rabbinical contemporaries. Even in the case of divorce, which is often cited to demonstrate his commitment to women’s rights, he was simply voicing the views of one rabbinical school against another.

One area, of course, in which Jesus might have given his alleged convictions about male-female equality free rein would have been in his parables. But not so. In the parables of Mark’s Gospel there are eighteen main characters of whom none are women. In Matthew there are 85, twelve of whom are female (or two if you count as one the ten bridesmaids); in Luke there are 108 characters and nine women. It is not a good record for an egalitarian.

Which brings us to Bishop Gillett’s ingenious understanding of the incarnation.

‘The fact that [Jesus] did not choose any woman as part of the twelve is a theological statement,’ he says, ‘but not that no woman 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 spoke through that particular culture. As the incarnate Son of God he entered fully into 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’

Were they wrong?

Like many statements about the incarnation this one is less clear than it sounds. At its heart is a moral dilemma. Gillett’s Jesus is the unhappiest of men: as rabbi and teacher, he knows what is right and does not do it. He does not practise what he preaches. Worse still, as the incarnate Son of God, he knows what is right and cannot do it – a paradox in itself. Gillett’s Paul is similarly torn. What he proclaims at Galatians 3.28 he denies at I Corinthians 14.34ff. Only time and the wisdom of this present age can untangle these frustrated personalities and say what they really meant!

To an observer not as committed to women’s ordination as Gillett, the bishop’s confusion seems obvious. He cannot have his cake and eat it: he cannot claim that cultural conditioning is both decisive and surmountable. If Jesus and Paul are not moral beings, ones whose actions we admire and follow, they have no authority for us. When we presume to do what they intended and did not, surely we have assumed that authority ourselves?

These are some initial reactions to a thoughtful and provocative piece. This magazine has for some time been asking for a statement of the scriptural arguments for women’s ordination. David Gillett has met the challenge handsomely. The dialogue should not end there.