Colin Podmore reports on an ‘ecumenical conversation’ on the ordination of women

On the last day of June your intrepid reporter set out for one of a series of events marking The Tablet’s 175th anniversary – an early-evening ‘ecumenical conversation’ at Magdalene College, Cambridge, jointly organized with the Church Times and entitled ‘From Mary Magdalene to Women Bishops’.

It was a beautifully warm summer’s day, but apparently ‘the wrong sort of heat’ for the rail network, so my train took twice as long as it should have. At least the resulting taxi ride enabled me to enjoy views of Cambridge’s wide open spaces on the sort of day when what can be a rather grey city looks at its best.

In the minority

Having taken my place half-way up the tiered seating, I was touched when the Anglican speaker, Rowan Williams, left the platform and came up to greet me – alone among the audience – before returning to his seat. This was typical of his personal warmth both to those who have worked with him and to traditional catholics, but may also have betokened a sympathetic recognition that in this particular gathering the Director of Forward in Faith was likely to find himself in a very small minority.

The evening was not without humour. The sound system either didn’t work adequately or required training that the speakers had not received. The expertise of the two Magdalene College staff members present (E. Duffy and R. Williams) didn’t extend to such practicalities. Members of a readership not known for its youth, whose hearing may perhaps not have been what it once was, had carefully placed themselves at the back, so as to have, in the predictable inadequacy of the amplification, something in addition to the teaching of successive Popes to which they could volubly object.

Roman Catholic teaching

The Roman Catholic church historian Eamon Duffy opened the proceedings with an analysis of Inter Insigniores (1976) and Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (1994), in which first the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and then Pope John Paul II ruled out women’s ordination. He argued that infallibility attaches to papal pronouncements which articulate the conclusion of a process of reflection within the Church at large, whereas Ordinatio Sacerdotalis sought to preclude such a process. A future Pope (the next but one?) might therefore permit the discussion that Roman Catholicism had yet to have. One surprising omission was the Anglican Communion’s role in prompting these expressions of magisterial teaching. It is surely no accident that Inter Insigniores was approved by Paul VI less than a month after the American Episcopal Church’s General Convention endorsed the ordination of women as priests and bishops, or that John Paul II signed Ordinatio Sacerdotalis less than three months after the Church of England ordained its first women priests?

The ‘iconic argument’

Rowan Williams explained why he had changed his mind on the issue some 35 years ago. One reason was the novelty of the arguments against, developed by theologians such as Hans Urs von Balthasar. Moreover, Williams rejected the argument that the priest is an icon of Christ, representing Christ at the altar, preferring to see priests as representing not just the whole baptized community but, as he put it, ‘the wholeness of the baptized community’. For him, the ‘iconic argument’ suggested that a baptized woman’s relationship to Christ is different from that of a baptized man. (Does this, I wondered, not relate ordination to baptism in a different way from ARCIC, which noted that the ordained priesthood ‘is not an extension of the common Christian priesthood’ flowing from baptism ‘but belongs to another realm of the gifts of the Spirit’?) Finally, the Roman Catholic Church had ‘changed the goalposts’ by calling women’s ordination a ‘first-order question’, there having been ‘no clear notion’ of that in ARCIC’s Final Report.

‘Apostle to the Apostles’

The Roman Catholic theologian Janet Soskice spoke of Mary Magdalene as ‘the apostle to the Apostles’. Who first used this phrase and when may be disputed, but its author would surely be even more surprised at the conclusion now drawn from it than St Paul must be by the use now commonly made of Galatians 3.28. Soskice seemed not to have noticed that the paradox only works if the ‘apostle to the Apostles’ was not herself an Apostle. Her comment that ‘the Catholic Church doesn’t get everything right, but it is the world’s largest healthcare provider’ begged for elucidation and comment. Recognizing that Roman Catholic women’s ordination is by no means imminent, she sensibly suggested focusing instead on increasing women’s involvement in non-sacramental aspects of church life and governance.


In the ensuing conversation, all three speakers made much of the novelty of modern arguments against ordaining women, as did members of the audience (which included noted Roman Catholic theologians such as Tina Beattie and Nicholas Lash). No one pointed out that if the arguments against are novel, this simply demonstrates the novelty of the question, and that consequently the arguments in favour are at least as novel. The underlying logic of the (palpable but carefully unarticulated)

consensus in the room was that ordaining women was self-evidently right, the burden of proof resting with those who seek to justify the Church’s consistent practice of ordaining only men.


Duffy’s comment that he was ‘pessimistic’ about the chances of women being ordained in the Roman Catholic Church will have reassured his audience as to where his heart lay on the issue of

principle, but he raised both ecclesiological and ecumenical objections to the Church of England’s acting upon it. Its unilateral decision, he observed, ‘struck a blow’ at Anglicans’ claim that ‘this is the priesthood of the whole Church’ and limited what the ARCIC conversations could expect to achieve in the short and medium term. Rowan Williams countered that, if the price of unity was accepting a theology of priesthood that one did not believe to be true, ‘that is quite a high price to pay’.

Duffy also objected that claiming that ‘delay continues injustice’ introduced a non-theological concern, to which Williams responded that while the language of ‘rights’ was inappropriate, ‘the distinction between injustice and theology’ was difficult to maintain.. When Professor Soskice reassured the audience that ‘no one used the justice argument in the Anglican debate’, no one laughed: in this seminar even the most questionable assertions went unquestioned.

Being neither a theologian nor anything like as intelligent as Rowan Williams, I struggled to understand the logic of his position. Is one’s disagreement with one argument against an innovation really a conclusive argument in favour of embracing it? And if the (supposed) implications of that argument really jeopardize the relationship of the baptized to Christ, can the issue it concerns really be adjudged a ‘second-order’ question’?

First- and second-order

I was left wondering whether the fact that his in-depth engagement with the issue occurred in the early 1980s, when the Anglican debate was still at quite an immature stage, had some significance. It was in 1988 that the English House of Bishops produced its 140-page Second Report on the theological issues. In para. 33 the House commented:

‘It is sometimes argued that this is a “second order” question, such as obligatory clerical celibacy, not impinging directly upon “first order” questions, such as the doctrine of the Trinity, or of the Person of Christ, or of the Atonement, where the central tenets of the Christian faith are plainly at stake. However, we have come to doubt whether in this context this distinction is useful. This for two reasons:

(a) For many of those who favour the ordination of women, as well as for many of those who do not, the question is not one of comparative doctrinal indifference. It is seen as closely bound up with what is believed about the nature of God, about Christ and about the Church and about creation. It is thus intimately related to the “centre” of the faith.

(b) The distinction is also unhelpful insofar as it may appear imply a distinction between matters of faith as primary and matters of order as secondary. But it is an article of faith that the Church is a communion of saints. The ordained ministry is a principal instrument given by God for the maintenance of true communion. In this way questions of church order touch upon matters of faith.’

Against this background, the claim that it was the Roman Catholic Church that changed the ecumenical goalposts by treating women’s ordination as a ‘first-order’ issue came as a surprise.

Note of caution

The only speaker from the floor to express any degree of caution was Mgr Mark Langham, the Roman Catholic Chaplain to Cambridge University. Given the long tradition of emphasizing the importance of certainty in respect of the Sacraments, he asked, wouldn’t it be better not to rush until we were à bit more certain’? He also questioned the arrangements for the Bishop of Burnley’s episcopal ordination, but Lord Williams defended them, and Eamon Duffy suggested that if the Roman Catholic Church were ever to ordain women to the episcopate, similar arrangements would be needed in the hope of avoiding the schism that would otherwise inevitably ensue. Duffy also placed the Roman Catholic discussion in an ecumenical context. He doubted whether Rome should ordain women without Eastern Orthodox agreement: in matters such as this, one should proceed at the pace of the slowest.

Conversation of the like-minded

As far as the issue of principle was concerned, this was very much a conversation of the like-minded. It was striking that none of the many distinguished speakers, from the platform or the floor, sought to defend Pope John Paul II’s perfectly reasonable conclusion that ‘the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women’ (a judgement which, the Pope added, ‘is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful’). I was left wondering whether anyone present thought it even slightly odd to hold, in a university context, an ‘ecumenical conversation’ about a controversial issue in which one side of the argument was left unarticulated and the other unchallenged, and in which no one present expressed the authoritatively-stated position of one of the two churches represented. If they did think it odd, they were too polite to say so.

It is difficult to imagine such an event being held in Oxford without both Roman Catholics and Anglicans defending the majority view of the Church throughout the world and across the ages – from the floor, if not from the platform. As I passed through Cambridge on my way back to the station, I reflected that it had been a very Cambridge evening. ND