From the archives: Geoffrey Kirk  looks at Vatican statements on the ordination of women from the 1990s

The tragedy of theological liberalism is that it was bound, sooner or later, to stub its toe on dogma. That, in the matter of the ordination of women, is precisely what has happened. The ordination of women poses, for the Christian churches, a dual crisis of authority: by what authority is it done, and what authority does it have when done?

Anglicans have felt the crisis of authority acutely, both in individual churches and in their (now impaired) communion world-wide. Roman Catholics are beginning to see that the problem is, for them, even more acute. The papal letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis and Cardinal Ratzinger’s recent comments about it are the products of such an awareness.

The principal problem for the proponents of women’s ordination arises from the nature of orders themselves. Orders exist as a sign and vehicle of unity. They signify the church’s essential continuity in space and time. To do here what is denied validity there; to do now what was never done then is, on the face of it, to subvert the very purpose of the sacrament and to undermine the Church’s claim to any sort of catholicity.

To deal with this problem the proponents have come up with two kinds of solution. I will call them the Ingenious and the Audacious.

Ingenious Solutions are those which suggest that the innovation is in some sense temporary or ‘provisional’. The church, it is argued, cannot as yet be sure whether this is a legitimate development; and so it must be ‘tested’. Put crudely (as Bishop Montefiore put it to the General Synod) women priests are like trial marriage. It will become apparent, as time goes on, whether or not a mistake has been made.

Put rather more sophisticatedly the ordination of women in one church or communion inaugurates a ‘period of reception’ in all, and involves a degree of ‘provisionality’, if not of the sacraments celebrated by individual women, then at least of the development as a whole. Such is the position of Dr Mary Tanner, who has been industriously reinventing ecclesiology for the purpose.

These views take for granted the notion of progressive or evolutionary revelation. God, it is held, reveals his truth in a gradual and unfolding process. There is a ‘kairos’ (a right and proper time) for the revelation of particular truths. The first century was such a ‘kairos’ in some matters; the twentieth century in others. Both views also involve, to a lesser or greater extent, a notion of the relativity of truths. They obliquely concede that what is true-for-me is not necessarily true-for-you.

It does not take a trained forensic mind to spot the difficulties and inconsistencies. Both views are less a theological position and more a pragmatic approach to the management of change. Both tacitly assume that wholesale agreement is achievable. All that is required, they assume, is a method of dealing with the inevitable period of untidiness. And they disingenuously assume that what would be intolerable for all time is possible, even desirable, for a short time.

   But what if wholesale agreement is never achieved? What if the ordination of women in one place is not followed by the ordination of women in others? And what if divisions on the matter in individual churches are not resolved? That would mean, not the ‘testing’ of the vocations of women, but the subversion of the sacrament of order. It would have ceased to effect that visible unity in space which is its raison d’etre.

Nor is it clear, even among those who accept the priesting of women, that the orders conferred can continue to witness to unity through time. The idea of progressive revelation (of different kairoi for different truths) is not as easy to manage as at first appears. There are serious questions of logical and ethical consistency.

It is, of course, the Christian understanding that God’s revelation in Christ is being constantly elucidated through contemporary experience. It is even possible to maintain that it is being amplified. But it is hard to see how it can be superseded. It is true that we have no specific word from Jesus about the role and conduct of women in the Christian fellowship. But we do have numbers of specific statements by Paul, one of which (I Cor 14.33-38) he appears to claim comes directly from ‘the Lord’. Such statements remain authoritative for the majority of Christians. Authority and authenticity go hand in hand. It is beyond even the realms of ecclesiastical paradox for the church to maintain that she is following the teaching of the apostles by doing the exact opposite of what they did and said.

For many proponents, moreover, the ordination of women is what Daphne Hampson has called ‘an ethical a priori issue’, or, as Bishop Roy Williamson told the General Synod of the Church of England, a matter of fundamental or natural justice. ‘A kairos approach’, Hampson rightly points out, ‘whitewashes the past’. It absolves of all guilt those who excluded and marginalized women in previous generations. It makes God both unjust (because for so long he tolerated what he now shows us is intolerable) and fickle (because he is allowed to have changed his mind). It is hard to see why anyone should wish to retain sacramental continuity with a past which has been so clearly overtaken by events, or accord it plenary authority in other spheres when it was so clearly wrong – and wicked – in this.

Audacious Solutions tackle the problem head on. Unlike Ingenious Solutions they give no quarter to contemporary or historical opponents of women priests. Christian orthodoxy, they say, requires women’s ordination. It is not a recent revelation, but an ancient truth somehow lost or mislaid; an inevitable consequence of the doctrines of the incarnation and the atonement. A phrase of St Gregory Nazianzen in the dispute with Apollinarius has become almost talismanic. ‘What was not assumed’, Gregory wrote, ‘is not healed’.

The risen and ascended Christ, the argument goes, is necessarily both male and female; since he heals the humanity of both he must share the human characteristics of both. Though in his human life he was male, in his heavenly existence he is of the same uncreated genderless Being as God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. Only a priesthood of both women and men can represent and so safeguard a proper understanding of this mystery.

The inherent difficulty of this position – which is quite simply that none of the theologians of the patristic period (including St. Gregory) ever grasped what are said to be the implications for women’s ordination of the doctrines they so ably expounded – is dealt with summarily. They were unable to do so because they were blinded by the misogyny of the ambient culture. For a brief period, at the very beginning, Christians practised the sexual egalitarianism which their founder preached and their doctrines required; but, the theory goes, secular forces won out before long.

All this is the theology of sound bites and schizophrenia. The sound bites (like the saying of Gregory and the ubiquitous Gal 3.28) have to be read in isolation from the other opinions of their authors to make the required sense. Once Gregory’s dictum is placed in the full context of the Apollinarian dispute, and Galatians 3. 28 is placed beside I Cor 14. 33-38 (women should keep silence in the churches…If anyone thinks he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a word from the Lord…) it is clear to the most casual observer that they will not take the weight placed upon them.

An entertaining side-show to these audacious arguments is the accompanying search for precedent. It is important to these proponents to show that women priests existed in the early church. Archaeology and iconography are duly pressed into service. The loci classici (and virtually the only cases in point) are the frescoes in the Capella Greca in the so-called Catacombs of Priscilla and the mosaic portrait of Theodora, mother of Pascal I, in Santa Praseda. Both are in Rome; the first dates from the end of the second century’ the second from the ninth. There are also a few tombstones in Apulia and Dalmatia bearing the inscription presbytera, but since this is a common term for the wife of a priest both in Byzantine and modern Greek they do not help much. Yet a great deal is made of very little. Anyone who wants to observe gullibility on the service of dogma should treat themselves to a copy of ‘The Ministry of Women’ by the veteran Scottish theologian T.F. Torrance. (The Handsel Press, Edinburgh, 1992, ISNB 1 871828 147)

The best that can be said for these Audacious Solutions is that they preserve, as the Ingenious Solutions do not, the integrity of Orders as a sacrament of unity through both space and time. But at what cost! Advocates of the Audacious Solutions are forced to anathematise the vast majority of Christians both living and dead. Only those who had the good fortune to live in the first six or the last six decades of the Christian era, it is maintained, can have received the Gospel in its entirety! It was presumably the historical as well as the ecumenical implications of his now celebrated accusation of heresy which persuaded Dr Carey to crawl back from the edge of the abyss.

But pity the poor Pope, whose position in all this is far less manageable than Dr Carey’s. The Papacy focuses, as in a burning glass, the roles of the whole sacred ministry as sign and vehicle of unity. For Rome there can be none of the Ingenious Solutions which have been the favoured choice of establishment Anglicanism. The talk of ‘periods of reception’ and ‘impairment of communion’, though it is language borrowed from the Roman vocabulary, can cut no ice in Rome. Solutions there must be audacious; or they are no solutions at all.

And yet, for European and American Catholicism women’s ordination is a hot issue. A recent church referendum in Austria (with half a million signatures in favour) and Germany ( a million and a half signatures) has raised the temperature; and the existence of ‘women priests’ in the persecuted church in Czechoslovakia is an added complication. As elsewhere, women’s ordination in the Roman Church threatens potential schism – a break between liberals and conservatives in Europe and America; a break between European and American Catholicism and the Catholics of Africa and Asia in global terms.

From the pain and difficulty of their own position catholic Anglicans could be forgiven for thinking that Rome has an in-built solution: the magisterium ordinarium and the magisterium extraordinarium; the power of the Papacy and the Curia to pronounce finally and irrevocably on matters of doctrine. But not so. The magisterium of the Church, and the doctrine of Infallibility (which look as though they were designed to deal with just such a ticklish and intractable problem) prove, on closer inspection, to be part of the difficulty and not part of the solution. For though the Curia is pronouncing, nobody is listening.

The recent Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis and the statement of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which followed it, have raised a chorus of vituperation from the crypto-Anglicans who have commandeered The Tablet. ‘The attempt to use the doctrine of infallibility…as a blunt instrument to prevent the ripening of a question in the Catholic mind is a quite scandalous abuse of power,’ writes Nicholas Lash, ‘the most likely consequence of which will be further to undermine the very authority which the Pope seeks to sustain’. And Hans Kung, rather predictably, proclaims himself to be waiting for a third Vatican Council, which he seems to suppose will resolve all.

Sadly Lash is probably right. But the loss will be his own, as well as the Papacy’s. For the liberals in the Roman Church have not yet learned from the Anglican experiment how much they stand in need of Infallibility.

The innovation which they have embraced, and which some of them at least see as necessary and inevitable, may never seem so to all Catholics. ‘It is well known,’ Lash also writes, ‘that when Pope Paul VI sought the advice of the Papal Biblical Commission on the matter, he was advised that the question could not be decided on the basis of biblical exegesis alone.’ Precisely. Nor will an erudite sifting of the tradition, by itself, be any more conclusive. In such a situation some will opt for change and some for caution. And if the sacred ministry is to continue to serve and not to fracture unity, the referee’s decision will need to be final.

Paradoxically Ordinatio Sacerdotalis sets limits on Papal authority, and in other and happier circumstances might have hoped for a modest round of liberal applause. It defines in terms of the magisterium ordinarium what the magisterium extraordinarium cannot hope to achieve. ‘…We declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women..’

But since the liberals want what only the extraordinary magisterium can deliver, they are condemned, in a rather ungainly way, to pulling out the rug from under their own feet. They are the anti-dogmatists; and they are the ones who are peddling a new dogma.

In other and happier circumstances their opponents’ predicament might have produced a wry smile from the wily old cardinals of the Curia. But things are now too serious by far. The apple has been taken; the box is open; only catastrophe lies ahead.

This article was first published in January 1996