Geoffrey Kirk examines Michael Adie’s 1992 claim that the ordination of women is a ‘reasoned development consonant with scripture and required by tradition’

To start with first principles: any significant innovation in a body claiming divine origin and institution must be deeply suspect – and only as good as the arguments used to support it. Doctrines and practices of immemorial custom require of the faithful respect and apology. We are called to defend the Church’s patrimony: ‘to justify the ways of God to men’. A hermeneutic of suspicion, which routinely assumes that those doctrines and practices which do not meet with contemporary approval must be the product of human frailty or reprehensible prejudice, is the enemy of faith, and disruptive of the life and unity of the Church.

So how do the arguments in favour of women’s ordination measure up? There can be no better way to answer that question than by examining the arguments of Michael Adie (then Bishop of Guildford) when he proposed the Measure in November 1992. With deliberate echoes of Hooker’s legendary ‘three-legged stool’, Adie claimed that ‘the ordination of women to the priesthood is a reasoned development consonant with scripture and required by tradition’.

Note that, where Scripture is concerned, he begins by lowering the hurdle. Article VI of the Thirty-nine expects rather more than mere ‘consonance’. (‘Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.’) In Adie’s view, moreover, consonance does not add up to much. Women’s ordination is claimed to be consonant with Scripture because it accords with ‘the profound truth of the Bible with regard to men and women … that both men and women are made in the image of God’.

But there is an obvious problem. As the creation texts in Genesis make clear, the simple fact that both women and men are made in God’s image [Gen. 1.27] does not preclude the possibility of hierarchy or division of function between them [Gen. 2.21–3]; woman is made from man, and named by him. Consequently a majority of those who have held this doctrine of the imago Dei has not regarded women’s ordination as necessarily consonant with it, nor inevitably deriving from it. Paul famously enunciates the principle [Gal. 3.28] but then illustrates its practical outworking [1 Cor. 11.2–16, 14.33–6; 2 Cor. 11.3; 1 Tim. 2.11–15], in a manner of which Adie clearly disapproves. As a result Adie deals rather patronizingly with Paul, who is said to have been ‘wrestling with making sense of our failure to grasp the divine truth of man and woman together being in the image of God’. Which is to say that the Apostle was not yet up to speed (Adies’s speed).

There is no lowering of hurdles, however, when it comes to tradition. Tradition, Adie maintains, ‘requires’ women’s ordination. And that, as Alec Graham remarked later on in the debate, ‘really is quite a claim’. ‘I hope’, Graham went on, ‘that the Synod will not be beguiled by the Bishop of Guildford in this respect, for he begs the question whether this is a legitimate development of the tradition…The answer to that I submit, is either ‘not proven’ or a straight ‘no’.

How is it that Adie could make a claim at once so extravagant and unqualified? His argument is simply put: ‘The ordination of women to the priesthood may be contrary to tradition in the sense that it has not happened before; it is not contrary to tradition in the sense of truth as it has been handed down to us. Indeed, if we are to be faithful to tradition in the light of contemporary truth, this development is required of us.’ But that entails a premise so far from being self-evident as to be doubtful and unproven: that ‘what God has made clear to us in our century is that women are not inferior to men, nor are they identical; men and women are complementary; together and equally they make up humanity.’

Of course it is undeniable that the equality of women and men (along with other propositions about individual freedom and human rights) became increasingly a matter of concern in the twentieth century. But it does not therefore follow that the restriction of the priesthood to males is a matter like the denial of ‘education, political leadership, the vote and so on’, and that it was simply one of cultural preference or prejudice. Nor does it follow that to uphold a male priesthood is to perpetuate the supposed errors of the past. Nor is it apparent that the current mores of the post-Enlightenment West will prove to be universal and enduring. The inclination to damn all past ages and all other cultures for myopia surely demonstrates neither modesty nor rationality.

A‘ reasoned development consonant with scripture and required by tradition’? Surely not; one rather which flouts reason. The arguments used in 1992 were an unsubtle and ham-fisted assimilation of an ethical a priori assertion to biblical and patristic theology. No previous generation had drawn from the Genesis texts the conclusions which Adie drew; nor does the doctrine of the Incarnation require or entail an innovation which the Fathers did not embrace and which (as an outworking of a defective and heretical Christology) they self-consciously rejected.

Hooker, thou should’st be living at this hour! The Church of England hath need of thee. Supply, gentle reader, the rest of the adapted quotation. ND