Geoffrey Kirk on a recent attempt to develop an argument in favour of women’s ordination on the basis of the primacy of mission

Graham Leonard, when Bishop of London, famously said that he had heard many arguments in favour of women’s ordination and not yet a good one. Twenty years on the question must still be: are there good arguments for ordaining women to the priesthood, and if so, what are they? By good arguments, of course, I mean arguments which are from and within the tradition; arguments from Scripture and from the church’s own self-understanding.
A paper that attempts to develop just such an argument (originating from a parish of the Anglican Church in North America) has been doing the rounds on the internet (www. womens – ordination-paper/).
It begins from a conviction about the primacy of mission, recalling the line taken by George Carey in the English General Synod debate of November 1992. Carey said: ‘We must draw on all available talents if we are to be a credible Church engaged in mission and ministry to an increasingly confused and lost world. 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.’
The argument is a simple one. The New Testament, it is claimed, gives no clear guidance about the role of women in the life of the Church. The frequently cited passages in I Corinthians and I Timothy are addressed by Paul to a local situation, and not intended as universal prohibitions. Jesus himself never addresses the precise issue. No firm conclusion can be drawn from his choice of twelve male Apostles, since the choice was not principled but pragmatic: in a patriarchal society the proclamation of the Gospel would have been inhibitedby female apostles. Paul puts the matter succinctly when he says that he has ^become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some’ [I Cor. 9.22]. The contemporary
Church similarly has the freedom to dispose things inessential to the core Gospel in a way appropriate to the ambient culture.
All this, if true, seems reasonable enough. Asked about Rowan Williams’ vision of a two-tier Communion, the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church said something similar only the other day. ‘We don’t all believe everything in the same way she said. ‘We never have and never will. There are parts of the Anglican Communion that don’t ordain women and think it wrong to do so, yet we remain in communion and relationship and in mission partnerships together.’
But there are problems which seem to me to be grave and insuperable.
The first and most fundamental is that such a ‘mission-centred’ approach in no way addresses the fundamental concerns of Christian feminists. They do not believe (and, in the end, will not accept) that women’s ordination is a second order issue. For them it is a fundamental matter of justice. For them the kerygma stands or falls on how Christians deal with this issue. In describing her own position on women’s ordination Daphne Hamspon writes:
‘By an ‘ethical a priori’ position I mean to indicate that certain principles are held to be an a priori and not subject to qualification. One considers oneself able to be a Christian while holding to these principles because one believes that these very principles are fundamental to Christianity, or at least not incommensurate with it.’
The Plano paper takes no account of this fundamental position. The writers, as good evangelicals of a Stottish sort, want to affirm both women’s ordination and male headship simultaneously. As a result they end up with an attempt to justify theologically what, in the case of the Anglican Church in North America, is itself a merely pragmatic solution: women priests, but a male episcopate. They do not even attempt to explain how this renders the Christian Gospel more credible in a society which has adopted a radical doctrine of sexual equivalence.
Rather amusingly they are thereby driven to answer the question of the relationship between the presbyterate and the episcopate in a way which they might otherwise find incongenial. Is a bishop a presbyter with special functions; or is a presbyter the delegate or vicar’ of a bishop for certain purposes? Their heart, one suspects, is with the former. The logic of their present argument obliges them to the latter!
Related to this question of the nature of the presbyterate and the episcopate is the most radical and least persuasive of the conclusions they draw. It is that a principle of provincial, diocesan and even parochial autonomy in the matter of orders derives directly from the concern to preach the Gospel effectively in a particular culture.
They write: ‘We believe it is compatible with the mission-oriented approach we are following because it allows local churches to adapt their teachings and practices in the manner they determine best suited to the proclamation of the Gospel within the local culture, as long as those adaptations do not contradict the teachings of Scripture.’
So much for the universality of orders and their function as effective signs of the Church’s unity, locally, universally and diachronically! One wonders, with such a doctrine of orders, why women would struggle to be admitted to them.