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