Geoffrey Kirk

Wipf & Stock (Oregon, USA) 2016

Pbk 162pp, 978-1-4982-3081-0


That Geoffrey Kirk has written a sharp, lucid, and closely argued book that is unafraid to expose nonsense and the purveyors of nonsense will surprise no-one. What might surprise some who come to Without Precedent expecting simply another walk round the track on the disputed question of the ordination of women, is how much more this book has to offer. In the context of an unanswerable demolition of the wild claims made on behalf of St Mary Magdalen as the prototype female bishop, Kirk treats us to a brilliant analysis of the resurrection narratives in the Fourth Gospel, drawing out the movement from misapprehension to apprehension and from disbelief to belief. A thorough and convincing exposé of the misuse of Galatians 3:28 concludes with a masterly treatment of the image of the body in St Paul’s thinking about the Church and the Kingdom. An investigation of the question ‘What did Jesus really think about women?’ yields a comprehensive survey of the occasions in the Gospels when Jesus is recorded in conversation with a woman, or makes women the subject of a parable, along with insightful comments as to the function of each of these episodes and their place and purpose within the text as a whole.

This is avowedly not a party-political book. Kirk writes from the perspective of a Church in which the ordination of women is not, in any formal sense, remotely on the agenda. As the author comments in his Introduction, ‘This book is not an attempt to argue against the ordination of women to the priesthood or episcopate, in the Church of England or any other church.’ The real success of this volume (and what makes it such a compelling read) is its relentless pursuit of the truth – historical, biblical, theological – in the face of ‘scholarly’ arguments that are revealed to be by turns weak, speculative, and plain ludicrous.

For anyone who lived through the Church of England’s progress (I use the word cautiously) towards the decision in 1992 to admit women to the priesthood, and 22 years later to the episcopate, there is a grim fascination in re-visiting some of the detail of those times. Subjected to Kirk’s careful, penetrating, and relentless analysis, the ‘big speeches’ made in the 1992 Final Approval debate, and in the run-up to the corresponding votes on women bishops, simply fall apart. A‘ reasoned development, consonant with Scripture, required by Tradition’ – this was the famous attempt in 1992 by the then Bishop of Guildford to build a new three-legged stool upon which the argument for saying ‘yes’ to women in the priesthood could rest. Kirk takes the new stool apart leg by leg, and, unsurprisingly, it falls over. He is especially good on the knots into which proponents of the innovation tied themselves on the question of Tradition: was it that the ordination of women would put right a great injustice, women, scandalously, never having been ordained as priests and bishops in the whole history of the Church; or was it that they had been so ordained, but that the tradition had been covered up? Sometimes, the answer appeared to be a bewildering and contradictory ‘yes’ to both positions.

An even greater tension deep within the origins of the movement for the ordination of women is uncovered in the book’s opening chapter. Kirk’s conversation partners are the feminist theologian Daphne Hampson, and Austin Farrer – the twentieth-century Anglican divine and sometime Warden of Kirk’s own Keble College, to whom the book is dedicated. Kirk quotes Hampson: ‘I worked all hours, sacrificing my career and my free time, for the cause of the ordination of women in the British Anglican churches.’ The result is inevitable: ‘Hampson [came] to see that her most deeply held convictions were a reason, not to embrace women’s ordination […] but to reject Christianity.’ When Hampson’s rejection of the faith is set alongside Farrer’s position, Kirk astutely notes that the ‘post-Christian feminist’ and the ‘catholic traditionalist’ are in fundamental agreement; but that ‘what drives her from Christianity is what he finds most compelling in it’.

Daphne Hampson came to believe that the logic of her own position led inexorably to her abandonment of historic Christianity. Many, on both sides of the debate, predicted – either with fear and trembling, or glorious anticipation – that the ordination of women would usher in a radical re-casting of the theology associated both with a Saviour who is incarnated as a human male and with a ministerial priesthood that in some particular sense represents that Saviour who is himself the image and likeness of a heavenly Father. It is a curious feature of the unfolding story of the ordination of women, especially to the episcopate, in the Church of England that this is not happening – yet. Rachel Treweek, on her appointment as Bishop of Gloucester, declined to obey the Writ summoning her to take up her place as one of the Lords Spiritual until the term ‘Right Reverend Father in God’ had been removed. But generally, what might be termed the ‘Hampson agenda’ – at least in its proponent’s still nominally Christian days – has become the mouse that failed to roar. Perhaps this is part of the fall-out from an evangelical ascendancy: the strong currency is that of leadership over and against priesthood, a development which has provoked anxiety (and not a little mutual sympathy) among both traditionalist Catholics and catholic-minded women priests. It is still too early to tell.

Jonathan Baker

Without Precedent is available from Forward in Faith at the reduced price of £12 (inc. p&p). please send a cheque, payable to Forward in Faith, to the office.