How can proponents of women’s ordination attempt to take the intellectual high ground when their arguments are so weak? asks Geoffrey Kirk

There is a fairly widespread assumption in the prevailing culture of Britain that people of faith rely on dogma and bigotry and that no one with a brain can believe in God. I am exaggerating, of course, but you know what I mean.’ So wrote Jane Williams, wife of the Archbishop of Canterbury and a theologian in her own right, in the Church Times. She described attitudes to people of faith in contemporary Britain as ‘lazy’ and ‘scornful’. Meanwhile the former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, has launched a ‘Not Ashamed’ campaign urging Christians to stand up for their rights.

All this is admirable, if a little belated; but it comes strangely from the lips of two enthusiastic proponents of the ordination of women. Have they not noticed, one is obliged to ask, that laziness and scorn are the hallmarks of those within the Church who have relentlessly sought to marginalize those who in conscience disagree with them?

Accusations of bigotry, misogyny and worse have been stock in trade. If liberal ‘mainstream’ Anglicans are feeling the pinch now, they are merely experiencing for themselves the treatment which they have meted out to others.

Speaking for myself I can bear with something approaching equanimity the not infrequent insinuations that opposition to women’s ordination is akin to a sort of personality disorder. It is the wholly unfounded intellectual arrogance of the women’s ordination lobby which gives me grief. How in the world can they effortlessly assume the intellectual high ground, when their arguments are so weak and so fraudulent?

How did it come about, for example, that the General Synod of the Church of England (a body not noted for either its scholarship or its intellectual acumen) could opine that ‘there are no fundamental objections’ to the ordination of women – when the best minds of the two greatest churches in Christendom assert that there are?

One has only for a moment to consider a selection of the ‘arguments’ generally advanced to support the innovation to see how threadbare is the carpet on which the proponents stand.

Some are persuaded by the role of Mary of Magdala in the scriptures. Mary is claimed to be ‘apostola Apostolorum’, the apostle to the Apostles. But on what grounds? In Mark’s Gospel she is mentioned among others, as visiting the tomb, finding it empty and receiving a message from a young man in white. But she does not pass on the message. Like the other women she is silent and afraid.

In Matthew’s account she also visits the tomb accompanied. There the ‘angel of the Lord’ similarly admonishes them. They see the Risen Lord and ‘clasp his feet’. They go off, as bidden, to inform the disciples; but this commission is strictly limited. True, they are sent to the disciples; but it is to the disciples (‘the eleven’), and not the women, that the Great Commission is given.

In Luke’s account the women see two men in shining garments who tell them that the Lord is risen, as he and the scriptures said he would. They inform the incredulous disciples. But it is Clopas and his companion on the Emmaus Road who first see the Lord (or Peter [24.34] if his apparition preceded theirs).

In John’s Gospel the first witness to the resurrection is the Beloved Disciple, who ‘saw and believed’.

The primacy of the Magdalen, in short, is a sentimental fiction for which there is, at best, scant evidence on which to base a revolution in the immemorial practice of the Church.

Others are persuaded by ‘evidence’ of women priests in the earliest Christian communities. One such enthusiast was the veteran Presbyterian theologian Tom Torrance, who asserted that a fresco in a Roman catacomb represents Aquila celebrating the Eucharist with his wife Priscilla and others, attended by deacons.

None of this is even vaguely plausible. All disinterested authorities date the painting to the end of the second century; there is no evidence of the connection with Priscilla until the twelfth century; the present state of the fresco makes it impossible to determine the sex of the participants. Why a scholar with an international reputation should risk it on erroneous assertions about a painting he had clearly never seen is a question to be asked.

Then there are the ill-founded assertions of the ‘bigotry’ and ‘misogyny’ of the Christian past. Take, for example, the oft-repeated myth about the Council of Macon (585 AD). There, as a female archdeacon told me only recently, it was decided that women have no souls. But not so.

As Professor Nolan (of the University of Dublin) has shown, the acts of the council contain neither ‘mulier’ nor ‘anima’. Such a discussion quite simply never took place; and the book which asserted that it had was placed on the index of prohibited books by Pope Innocent X (published, Lyons, 1647; prohibited, Rome, 1651). So much for the claim that the Church continued to uphold the ‘opinion’!

The archdeacon in question – though she has no reputation such as Torrance’s to defend – could nevertheless have done a Google search and ascertained the facts of the matter for herself.

The truth of all this is only too apparent. The proponents of women’s ordination have a priori reasons for their enthusiasm. Those reasons prove to be impervious to historical or rational refutation. ‘Lazy’ and ‘scornful’ is, I would say, a good working description. Jane Williams and George Carey should be careful that they do not slip into the bad habits that they so accurately ascribe to others. ND