Why I support the ordination of women: a High Church reflection

A number of commenters on this blog have asked about my occasional expressions of support for the ordination of women to all three orders.  With some hesitation, I have decided to post a summary of my own views on this matter.  The hesitation is because I have sought on this blog to focus on issues and themes which can unify those who identify with or have respect (grudging or otherwise!) for what we might term 'classical' Anglicanism (the Anglicanism of the Formularies and - yes - of the Old High Church tradition).  Some oppose the ordination of women (and I have friends and colleagues who do so, Anglo-Catholic, High Church, and Reformed Evangelical).  Some of us support it (again, friends and colleagues covering a wide range of theological traditions).

Below, I have organised my thinking around 5 points (needless to say, no reference to Dort is implied).

1. The Declaration for Subscription required of clergy in the Church of Ireland states:

(6) I promise to submit myself to the authority of the Church of Ireland, and to the laws and tribunals thereof.

Amongst those laws is Canon 22:

Men and women alike may be ordained to the holy order of deacons, of priests, or of bishops, without any distinction or discrimination on grounds of sex, and men and women so ordained shall alike be referred to and known as deacons, priests or bishops.

Put simply, I accept the ordination of women as bishops, presbyters, and deacons because the Church of Ireland General Synod, after debate and discernment, legislated for it.  Accepting the authority of General Synod of a national Church is, after all, a Laudian characteristic.  In the words of the 1634 Church of Ireland Canons:

This sacred Synod, being the Representative Body of the Church of Ireland  in the Name of Christ, and by the King’s Authority, lawfully assembled, doth pronounce and decree, that if any within this Nation, shall despise and contemn the Constitutions thereof, (being by the said Regal Power ratified and confirmed;) or affirm, that none are to be subject thereunto, but such as were present, and gave their Voices unto them; he shall be excommunicated, and not restored, until he shall publickly revoke his error. 

Recognising such authority is a key means of securing and serving the peace and good order of a national Church.  Of course, this does not prevent ongoing theological debate or reflection, but such debate and reflection similarly has a responsibility to serve the peace and good order of the Church of Ireland.  Mindful that the ministry of those bishops and presbyters who are women is a settled part of the Church of Ireland's life and witness, and that our closest ecumenical partners (the Methodist Church in Ireland and the Nordic Lutheran Churches) ordain women to these orders, it seems clear that the peace and good order of this Church would not be served by rejecting this ministry.  The "Bond of Peace" is to be kept, as His Majesty's Declaration put it:

not to suffer unnecessary Disputations, Altercations, or Questions to be raised, which may nourish Faction both in the Church and Commonwealth.

2. Of course, "General Councils ... may err, and sometimes have erred" (Article XXI).  This being so, a General Synod certainly can err.  My vow "to submit myself to the authority of the Church of Ireland, and to the laws and tribunals thereof" is, of course, dependent on General Synod adhering to the formularies (as the 1870 Declaration of the Church of Ireland makes clear).  Thus, for example, if General Synod removed the Nicene Creed from the liturgy and revoked Article VIII, or authorised readings from the Gospel of Thomas, I would not be submitting to its authority.  What, then, of the ordination of women as bishops and priests?

I regard this as amongst those issues which Hooker describes as "things accessory, not thing necessary".  He makes this comment concerning "matters of government" in the Church.  There is a "difference between things of external regiment in the Church, and things necessary unto salvation" (LEP III.3.4).  The ordination of women, then, becomes one of those "other things free to be ordered at the discretion of the Church", as "there be no necessity it [i.e. Scripture] should of purpose prescribe any one particular form of Church government" (III.4.1).

3. But what of Hooker - and Thomas is the same - invoking Scripture against the ordination of women?  Both Hooker and Thomas point to the Pauline instructions in 1 Timothy 2:12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34, forbidding women from speaking in churches.  To begin with, neither of these passages are usually relied upon by contemporary Anglicans opposed to the ordination of women and for good reason: if they are to be invoked they mean that women should not be lay readers and should never be given authority to preach.  So how are these passages to be interpreted?  In the words of Hooker:

When that which the word of God doth but deliver historically, we consider without any warrant as if it were legally meant (III.5.1).

Related to this is the need for caution and prudence when it comes to the traditional arguments against the ordination of women.  The Summa Theologiae, for example, declares:

it is not possible in the female sex to signify eminence of degree, for a woman is in the state of subjection, it follows that she cannot receive the sacrament of Order.

Hooker insists that women speaking on matters spiritual must be "confined with private bounds" (V.62.2).  He notes that the Apostle's exhortation is "against women's public admission to teach".  Again, if this text is determined to be addressing the Church as law, it means that women should not be authorised as lay readers or given permission to preach on occasions.  

In other words, these traditional arguments against the ordination of women are caught up both with readings of Scripture that are not sustainable in an Anglican (or most other ecclesial) contexts and with attitudes on gender with which today's opponents of the ordination of women would not identify.

4. Women are and always have been priests in the Church catholic.  The suggestion that women cannot act in persona Christi is challenged by the truth that women, as members of the royal priesthood, do bear Christ to the world, acting in His person, being Christ to those whom they encounter: "Christ in you, the hope of glory" (Colossians 1:27).  To both women and men Saint Paul addressed this priestly call:

I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.

As there can be no priesthood apart from a participation in Christ's priesthood, women do thus share in the Lord's priesthood.  If women can fully be members of the royal priesthood, why not of the ministerial priesthood when it differs from the royal priesthood not in essence but in function?  

Cranmer reminds us that the difference is one of function not of essence:

the difference that is between the priest and the layman in this matter, is only in the ministration; that the priest, as a common minister of the church, doth administer and distribute the Lord's Supper unto other, and other receive it at his hands (A Defence of the True and Catholic Doctrine of the Sacrament, Book V.11).

This is echoed in the classical Book of Common Prayer, with the Ordinal explicitly relating the gift of the Spirit in Ordination to "the Office and Work of a Priest", and the Ember Day collects having a similar focus on function: "holy function", "office and administration".  Hooker's insistence that "the word Presbyter doth seem more fit, and in propriety of speech more agreeable, than Priest with the drift of the whole gospel of Jesus Christ" (V.78.3) similarly reflects this understanding that the presbyteral ministry is different to that of the laity through its functions rather than sacerdotal essence.  When he refers to "a kind of mark or character", it is in terms of authority to administer: "the bare execution of holy things" (V.77.2).  Throughout his discussion of the ministry of presbyters, Hooker continually defines it in terms of function: "Whether we preach, pray, baptise, communicate, condemn, give absolution, or whatsoever ..." (V.77.8).

What is more, as both Sarah Coakley and Catherine Pickstock emphasise, the notion that the priest in the exercise of presbyteral ministry represents Christ rather the Church distorts historic understandings.  In the words of Pickstock:

the Priest as much represents the Church to God as God to the Church, and an over-Christological reading of the Priesthood is actually a modern deviation.

That the ministry of presbyters is rooted in the royal priesthood, differs from the laity in function not essence, and that its representative function is significantly more nuanced than recent iterations of in persona Christi, all suggests that an understanding of ministerial priesthood which is dependent on male gender and its perceived representative qualities misreads the nature of both the royal priesthood and the ministry of presbyters.

5. That the ordination of women to all three orders occurred in societies which were increasingly recognising the need for women's participation in public life and institutions should not be a surprise.  Nor, however, should this be grounds for condemnation.  In many ways, it reflects the nature of ordained ministry.  As critics of the ordination of women often point out, the early churches did not ordain women in contrast to both pagan cults and Gnostic communities.  

This highlights the non-cultic nature of the Church and its ordained ministry.  The fact that the Church took the terminology of the Greek polis to describe its life - ekklesia, epískopos, presbyteros, diákonos - is significant in revealing its identity not as a cultic association but, in Ratzinger's words, a "public entity" comparable "solely to the political entity".  This was in itself a proclamation of the public nature of the lordship of the Crucified and Risen One. Refusing to ordain women was an affirmation by the early church of this identity and its rejection of the status of cultic association (whether of pagan temples or mystery cults).  Similarly, ordaining women in the late 20th and early 21st centuries points to this same public identity, while some (note: not all) presentations of opposition to the ordination of women can have a distinctive cultic emphasis.  

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In conclusion, some guidelines in case of any comments on this post.  Firstly, comments must be respectful in both language and tone regarding opposing views.  Secondly, allegations of misogyny or heresy will result in a comment being deleted.  Thirdly, comments must recognise the good faith of those with opposing views.

Comments

  1. I think no. 4 glides over a distinction between the church and its members exercising a royal priesthood - a priesthood for humanity & creation, one might say - and the role "internal" to the church in its sacraments. I'm trying to think of an analogy, perhaps this isn't a very good one: a member of a royal family, for example, may represent the King/Queen to the public at an event, but within the royal apartments they "function" as a subject of the monarch, they don't sit on the throne, wear the crown etc. Their symbolical role is different within the internal relations, as compared to their representative role facing out, so to speak. Likewise the episcopal / presbyteral role has a meaning within the church that has a sacramental symbolism, which demands the male-female polarity for its coherence, but this isn't a necessary part of the priestly role that Christians (in their shared priesthood) carry out towards the rest of humanity & creation. The best Anglican statements of the case for a male priesthood don't invoke an ontological difference between the priesthood of believers and the ordained, as far as I know.

    My sense in all this, as a student of Austin Farrer's interpretation of Scriptural images, and a Christian romantic / Platonist, is that something has been lost along the way on both sides of the argument. Our estrangement from nature since the rise of technology and the reshaping our society in a very functional way has blunted our ability to see and feel the archetypal quality of male/female polarity. I feel that this is not at bottom an argument about Scripture, God's authority and how to apply these to changing mores, but is about what I would venture to call a sacramental quality that vibrates through all creation: cutting across it desiccates and disenchants the images.

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    1. Timothy, many thanks for your comment.

      I think the analogy from the Royal Family breaks down rather significantly. All the baptised fully share in the priesthood of Christ. It is not the case that clergy (in the orders of bishops and presbyters) share it more fully or more authentically than laity. How we give expression to that one priesthood does differ: but not our share in it.

      Regarding the statement that presbyteral ministry "demands the male-female polarity for its coherence", I am afraid I just do not see this at all. Administering the Sacraments, preaching the Word, blessing and absolving - I am not sure how these have any necessary relationship to "the male-female polarity". If we are saying that women cannot represent Christ, this runs entirely contrary to their participation in the royal priesthood. Nor do I see how it is necessary for, say, administering the Eucharist but not representing Christ in the world.

      Your last point about disenchanting images does raise an interesting issue, for, of course, Scripture spends quite some time doing exactly this - disenchanting images and, in particular, disenchanting gendered images (e.g. Jeremiah 7:18, Acts 19:27ff). In other words, claims about a 'sacramental' quality to gender run the risk of attributing qualities to gender which go beyond Scripture (and also run the risk of attributing an eternal significance to gender when, in fact, "in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage").

      In this sense, I think gender is more akin to what Article 25 says of marriage: not a sacrament but a 'state of life' bestowed in creation. That gender is a gift of God is, indeed, gloriously true. Moving from this affirmation, however, to a statement of eschatological significance is rather different.

      Brian.

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  2. Dear Brian --

    I wonder if I can suggest two thought-wedges in what you have outlined above:
    (1) I think a Laudian submission to one's own ecclesial authorities is not synonymous with affirmation of the actions (though of course, as in your case, both could be true). For instance, I myself believe that women are not eligible to be candidates to the presbyterate and episcopate, but I am submitted to my diocesan and to my province (ACNA) that does. I submit to my bishop, and to my Church, but I do not think it is presently acting rightly in this regard.

    (2) You write, "neither of these passages are usually relied upon by contemporary Anglicans opposed to the ordination of women and for good reason: if they are to be invoked they mean that women should not be lay readers and should never be given authority to preach." And I agree, that this is the status quo, and it is most lamentable. The standard "anglo-catholic" "in persona" arguments are so flimsy that relying on them has made the case untenable, as you well point out. They were Romish arguments to begin with. The Bible must be the definitive word on this. I have myself sought to re-orient the "debate" to its needful biblical ground (e.g. https://northamanglican.com/holy-orders-and-prophets-another-response-to-fr-mccaulley/)

    And, believing as I do (that women cannot be priests), I yet DO believe that women should be lay readers, just as Phoebe the deacon(ess) would, as the official envoy, almost certainly have read Paul's letter to the Romans when she arrived at Rome with it in-hand. The question is just about *authoritative*-speaking, i.e. preaching from the pulpit in the midst of a liturgy, which, yes, I believe the Bible prohibits women from doing (here is where I am unsure as to women in the diaconate qua modern diaconate, which gives preaching authority, unlike any that 'deaconess' had in the early Church (Apost. Const. etc).

    Any ways, I mean this merely as grist for the mill, for a mind I respect (yours)

    Ben+

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    1. Ben, many thanks for your comment.

      Let me attempt to respond to each of your thoughtful points in turn:

      1. You are, of course, entirely right: submitting to rightful ecclesial authority does not necessarily mean believing that the ecclesial authority has acted rightly. I think, however, that a Laudian approach would give rather more weight to the decision of a national synod and the need for conformity than you might imply. This is not because of any inflated claims for such a synod, but because the peace and good order of a national Church requires meaningful conformity and obedience. That said, the position you outline is one I recognise as legitimate and in good faith precisely because of the fallibility of synods and the good of theological debate and inquiry. My original point in the post regarding the CofI General Synod was, in essence, a Laudian response to the claim that Anglicans could not ordain women as priests without Rome's approval, or an general council etc. For Anglicans to claim a national synod does not have this authority strikes me - frankly - as howl-at-the-moon nonsense (it was a national synod which rejected papal claims!). Once that decision has been taken, conformity and canonical obedience are necessary to secure the Church's peace.

      None of this, however, can prevent ongoing theological debate. Such is not the case in the CofI: there is no appetite at all for repealing the relevant CofI canon, meaning that such theological debate in our context runs the risk of being mere agitation. In ACNA, however, I recognise a meaningful and significant debate which does require theological inquiry and exchanges.

      2. This point really did make me think - thank you. It avoids the - as you say - flimsy in persona Christi arguments and takes Scripture seriously. I think my initial response would be to ask about the meaning and coherence of these particular texts, as this determines whether they are - in Hooker's terms - 'history' or 'law'. How do they fit into and give expression to a wider and deeper coherence in Scripture? And that is where I come up empty-handed. I am not sure that I anything convincing there which does not lead to inflated accounts of gender which go beyond Scripture.

      The point about authoritative speaking is interesting and challenging. Again, however, I wonder from Hooker's perspective. If, as he states, "The Church as witness preacheth [God's] revealed truth by reading publicly the sacred scripture" (LEP V.19.1), then a female lay reader or deacon reading the Scriptures to the congregation is preaching, is speaking authoritatively.

      Again, thank you for your comment: I hope this is how this debate should be conducted.

      Brian.

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