David Wetherell writes from Australia on the ordination of women debate, its progress, and universal questions for us all
As far as I can recollect, the precise question of the ordination of women and men is never addressed in the Bible. Scripture and Theology are inconclusive on the matter of the ordination of women. Alec Graham, then chairman of the Church of England’s Doctrine Committee, put it succinctly at the English General Synod in 1992, ‘surely Scripture never addresses that question.’
Indeed, the ordination question does not appear to lie within the realm of ‘Theology’: I believe it belongs to a different domain, that of knowledge of the church, commonly called ecclesiology. However, the Australian General Synod’s Doctrine Commission of 1977 made ‘Theology’ central with these words: ‘the theological objections which have been raised do not constitute a barrier to women’s ordination’. This majority statement was carried with one dissentient, Broughton Knox.
Some in Australia have regarded the Statement of 1977 as the Magna Carta of women’s ordination. But the 1977 Statement could be stood on its head. Reformed Presbyterians believed there were no ‘theological objections’ to the wholesale abolition of bishops and priests. Episcopal and priestly functions would be taken by Presbyterian congregations. Roman Catholics might have argued – but did not do so in any formula – that there were no ‘theological objections’ to the emergence of the Papacy… And so on.
As to Scripture, books recently published by Anglican clergy show how diametrically opposed biblical scholars remain on the question of women’s priestly ordination. The overwhelming clerical emphasis on Scripture is not surprising: the ordained clergy who write most of the commentaries were taught Scripture as a major part of their training. Other disciplines, for example, comparative religion and anthropology, are notable for their absence. Nowhere in Australian synod discussions were they mentioned. And they should be mentioned.
We should have considered the question from a social and anthropological standpoint too. We have not done this fully and I offer the religious route followed by Camilla Wedgwood of English pottery family fame. She was an anthropologist and head of Women’s College at the University of Sydney. I had the privilege of contributing several of the social and religious chapters in her biography published by UNSW Press in 1990 (with Charlotte Carr-Gregg, Camilla: CH Wedgwood 1901-1955 A Life). Wedgwood was a research assistant and disciple of Bronislaw Malinowski, probably the world’s most influential anthropologist in the middle period of the 20th century. Originally an atheist, she became first a Quaker and then an Anglican.
Wedgwood’s attraction to the ceremonial of the Anglican Church was closely linked to her understanding of visible symbols and rituals as the binding elements of any society. As a disciple of Malinowski, she well understood that the vehicle of authentic religious experience lay in the rituals, artefacts and ceremonial feasting of most societies.
Wedgwood characterised two broad features of ritual, no matter how ‘primitive’ the religious expression, in the following words:
(a) the worshippers recognize that it is ritual, that is, symbolic acts and
(b) the worshippers believe that ritual re-enacts, in part at least, a genuine historical event.
In a large part of the Eucharistic liturgy the priest represents the congregation, for example in the Prayer of Humble Access and the distribution of the Communion elements. But at the moment of the Consecration he does not represent the congregation but represents Jesus at the Last Supper. Quoting Wedgwood, what happens is a recapitulation of a ‘genuine historical event’. The Eucharist’s ritual acts have been interpreted by Christians as relating to the central events of salvation – passion, death and resurrection. And in each of these ritual actions the central character is a male.
Therefore, to reduce the desirability of male priests at the Consecration simply to a prejudice against women and away from established ritual is to over-simplify. It also strays into the newly emerging area of ‘gender neutrality’ – the idea that gender simply does not matter, and that men and women can be equal in all things. Already this is causing problems in international sporting competitions, and so-called ‘safe spaces’ are now under scrutiny, where a woman who knows herself to be a woman biologically can feel secure and free from threat in a changing room, public lavatory or prison wing.
There seems to be plenty to affirm women’s liturgical ministry: preaching, reading the lessons, assisting in the administration of the Communion and so on, not to mention pastoral work and procedural duties. We might also look to the Universal Church. Rome and Orthodoxy make up 80 percent of the world’s Christians; two percent are Anglicans. They are not without their own issues either, but a certain adherence to order has prevailed.
It’s easy to understand the impatience of liberal Broad Church Anglicans with ‘quibbles’, as they see it, about women priests. As exemplified in Melbourne and in many other dioceses, Anglicans have sought to emphasise the ethical component in Christianity rather than what they see as some arcane Anglo-Catholic preoccupation with priesthood, episcopacy, or continuity with the ancient Orthodox and Catholic church. The original focus was largely personal and domestic, but with the passage of time Anglicans, along with Christians of other denominations, have projected ethical concerns beyond the sphere of the home to the world, as evinced in community and social justice issues – first the abolition of slavery, then poverty and working conditions in industrial societies, and more recently the status of women, gay and transexual minorities, the Developing World, refugees, and now above all, the environment.
A concern for social justice is the mark of Christianity as a whole. The Christian religion demands a commitment from its adherents to social equity and justice for all human beings. Within the Anglican Communion, the passion for justice has also been accompanied by a tolerance of differing theologies. This prevailed until the 1970s, when ambiguities finally became irreconcilable over the matter of gender. The general response among many liberal Broad Church Anglicans was a shrugging aside of Catholic objections: What do such things matter?
They do, and here are some statistics. In the USA in 1976 the Episcopal Church (ECUSA) recognized the irregular ordination of the first group of women which had taken place two years earlier. In the forty years since then, the church has experienced widespread internal division and its membership has been cut in half. It is expected that the remaining half will halve again in the coming fifteen years. In other words, if the US trend continues the decline will become steeper.
In Britain, the first women were ordained in 1994. The Church of England entered the 2020s with the Anglo-Catholics apparently marginalised, some having joined the RC Ordinariate, some remaining under their own ‘Forward in Faith’ bishops [known as ‘The Society’]and some leaving the church altogether. The attendance numbers at Anglican services in the UK is predicted to decline to one percent of the population in the coming ten years. Women’s ordination is not, of course, the only contributing factor, and it’s still too early comprehensively to measure it against other socio economic and demographic factors. But the ruptures over women’s ordination are among the most obvious of the weakening causes, and it’s in the US, Canada and Britain that the trends are the most severe. The growth areas of Anglicanism such as in Africa seem little affected. In Australia the total number of practising Anglicans will become better known with the results of the 2021 National Church Life Survey, as well as Australia’s national population census in the same year.
Some would say that the quest for social justice remains, but the Anglo-Catholic emphasis on church order has been greatly weakened – or has evaporated. Without the emphasis on doctrine and church order provided by the Catholics or the biblical backbone given by the Evangelicals, ‘social conscience’ can weaken into a kind of nerveless altruism.
The proportion of Australians registering as Anglican has declined to below 10 percent. Anything like the early triumphalism of the women – priest cause has long departed. Certain facts speak for themselves. Only 20 per cent of the 210 parishes in the liberal-leaning diocese of Melbourne are headed by women. The rest are assistants and it seems that although parishes voted for women priests in synods most parishes don’t want them as heads. The most aggressive clerical and lay champions of ordination are refugees from the Australia’s oldest and largest diocese, Sydney, where women have no prospect of ordination.
What has been achieved, therefore, and how much has Sydney’s issue become Australia’s problem? Indeed, the present Archbishop of Melbourne’s term ends before long, and the chances of a conservative Evangelical succession are quite high. Possibly this trend, as well as the sobering decline in Anglican numbers. has also helped moderate the fervour of the women-as-priests cause.
Perhaps in Australia we might cast our minds back to Melbourne in the late 19th century. In the face of the secular Darwinist onslaught in those days, the church did not crumple up. Instead, the great Bishop James Moorhouse inspired his audiences: ‘Christianity enlarges all horizons, intensifies all emotion, stimulates imagination and opens the way to worlds of hope and love which are boundless and wonderful’.
That is what any church should exist for.
David Wetherell is former senior lecturer and honorary fellow in history at Deakin University, Victoria, Australia.