Geoffrey Kirk reviews another of the key arguments in favour of women bishops

The claim is often made by those who favour the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate that previous exclusion from those roles has been based on a flawed view of the roles of women and men in society. It has been assumed, on an erroneous theory of sexual complementarity, that because men and women embody human nature in different ways, they must each possess different characteristics and must therefore play distinct social roles. The view that ‘masculine nature’ is oriented towards rationality, order and decision-making (and so equipped for leadership

in the public realm), whereas ‘feminine nature’ is oriented towards love, life and nurturing (and so more suited to the private domain – to homemaking, childbearing and care for the vulnerable) is thought to be at the heart of objections to women’s ordination, and is strongly refuted as outmoded and based on unsupportable generalizations.

Two things need to be said.

First, there is no agreed anthropology relating to these matters either in society at large or among those advocating women’s ordination. It is true that some twenty or thirty years ago, there appeared to be an emerging consensus. But recent studies have tended to emphasize distinctions which affect social roles and behaviour. Among those who favour women’s ordination there have always been, roughly speaking, two parties: those who assert the essential sameness of the sexes (‘the same thing with different fittings’) and those who emphasize difference and complementarity (‘it takes two to tango’).

The second thing which needs to be said is that objections to the ordination of women are not based on any kind of anthropological observation. It is true that theologians have, from time to time, sought to explicate the Church’s consistent practice in terms of a prevalent anthropology (St Thomas, for example, famously argued that what disqualifies a woman is that she is in a state of subjection and so cannot sacramentally signify ’eminence of degree’); but it is not true that the Church’s practice derives from such arguments. The practice and doctrine of the Church derives from the fact of Jesus’ example and from the nature of the sacred ministry itself.

If the sacred ministry were merely a leadership role within a particular community, then clearly anthropological considerations would weigh heavily in deciding who might appropriately be admitted to it. But what is at stake is not simply a ‘social role’, but a sacrament of the apostolic ministry, in which those who are ordained function as ‘signs’ or ‘icons’ of Christ himself.

It is open to us to seek to explain why the second person of the Sacred Trinity chose to be incarnate as a male; but we cannot change the fact of the matter. In the words of the evangelical theologian J.I. Packer, ‘Since the Son of God was incarnate as a human male, it will always be easier, other things being equal, that Christ in person is ministering when his human agent and representative is also male.’

It is open to us to seek to explain why a male Jesus chose only men to constitute the Twelve (though theories based on limitations to his sovereignty occasioned by current mores and prejudice will hardly suffice); what we cannot do is to ignore the fact of that choice and its unbroken continuance in sacramental practice. Theologumena will differ from theologian to theologian and from age to age. The practice of the Church is not and cannot be founded on them. It relates instead to the person and actions of Jesus, which are determinative for Christian people everywhere and in every generation.

Even if it were possible to arrive at an agreed and undisputed anthropology, which fully explained the proper and natural social relation of the sexes (which seems wildly improbable), and whatever the conclusion of such an exhaustive study might be, it could not affect the issue of the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate.