Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism

Seventeen years of women in the priesthood


Woman priestOn this day in 1992 the General Synod of the Church of England voted in favour of ordaining women to the priesthood. The vote was decisive, yet the decision did not put a stop to the infighting. This was no armistice, and like St Martin’s cloak we remain riven in twain.

Seventeen years on, the General Synod has taken the inevitable vote in favour of consecrating women bishops, yet the revision committee is in breach of the trust of the synod and the wider church by backtracking.

The church is institutionally sexist, of that there is no argument. It places a higher value on men and reserves all the roles that count for anything on men. Yes, Jesus’ twelve apostles were all men, but that’s missing the major role played by women in the gospels, who are often more receptive and prominent and mission than the twelve. The Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s letters also give us a glimpse of women in church leadership roles in the first century.

Church misogynists love to point out that a woman cannot be a priest because a priest must represent Jesus, who is a man. There are very, very strong theological arguments that we should be emphasizing Jesus’ total humanity rather than his maleness, as doing the latter would also suggest that women have no part in Jesus’ salvation: “that which he did not assume, he did not heal”. Yet, as well as moving towards misogynist heresy, there is also the problem that the church reflects a sexism not present in Jesus’ teaching and ministry. In the end, the greater distortion is brought by those who find the ordination of women repugnant.

The Church of England has had ‘synodical government’ for a few decades now. It is a kind of democracy. Of course, it’s not a very good democracy, partly because it’s bolted onto the Russian-doll structure of our territorial fiefdoms, ruled by monarch, bishop and parish priest. I’m sure we could invent better ways of doing democracy in the church, but we’re always hampered by the extremes of evangelical theocracy and Anglo-Catholic episcopal discipline. And to cast our nascent attempts at democracy as mob-rule or majoritarian are grossly unfair. Thoughtfulness and prayerfulness have been the norm, minorities have been given voice and room to live and thrive.

In fact, the so-called ‘traditionalists’ can only exist as they are because of the Church of England’s breadth. It is surprising to hear them say how cruelly they have been treated by the Church of England, when we’ve created enough ecclesiastical space for them never to have to see a woman in a collar, it’s just never enough. Their glee at the Pope’s offer of safe haven for them seems likely to be short lived once they study the small print: clergy submit to (re-)ordination, complete obedience to Rome, all liturgical novelties need prior approval (see clayboy’s article on this for the details). If there be a surge of exodus, which I doubt, I’m sure no one will comment much on the steady trickle back to the freedoms of Anglicanism.

Yet, we are still beholden to shipjumpers, unable to enact our own prayed, reasoned, argued and approved ecclesiology, but hemmed into some gerrymandered future with a hierarchy of flying bishops and women made even more second-class disciples in the Body of Christ.

We have lost our ability to be prophetic. Pope Benedict cannot do prophetic, unlike his predecessor. Archbishop Rowan’s talent for the prophetic is sorely diminished. For to be prophetic, one need not only to hold onto the eternal truths of the faith, but to engage fully with the human condition. A church that practises sexism, places itself beneath contempt in our society, and thus cannot to speak to this society of its ills with any authority.

Author: Gareth Hughes

A priest of the Church of England, who is Chaplain of Hertford College, Oxford, and doing Syriac research at Oxford University.

2 thoughts on “Seventeen years of women in the priesthood

  1. ‘The church is institutionally sexist….and reserves all the roles that count for anything on (sic) men.’

    What is it that makes you think that sacramental authority is the only role that counts in the Church? This is an extraordinary statement and reveals a fundamentally flawed idea of ministry in Christ’s body and bride. Some of the greatest and most important saints have not been ordained, and (shock, horror!) the many women amongst them didn’t need ordination to become personally holy or to influence the church at large.

    Women have always had prophetic authority in the Church. Need I mention St Scholastica, Hildegard of Bingen (who agreed with the Catholic view of women’s ordination), Theresa of Avila etc. You lament that the Church seems to have lost her prophetic voice, and blame that on authorities that maintain the universal tradition that reserves episcopacy and priesthood to men, or anyone who compromises with them. Prophetic authority is charismatic and depends on an individual’s response to God. It requires neither ordination nor the mediation of any other person of either gender. I point you to St Therese of Lisieux, whose relics recently toured England. Here is a woman’s authority and witness, changing the lives of thousands who venerated her. I commend you to her intercession.

    May I suggest that you stop obsessing about the ‘institution of the church’, which will always be less than perfect and battling with the forces of hate and evil (as it is an aspect of the Church militant). Concentrate rather on doing the will of the Father, which is perfect love for Him and for our neighbour, and is the only sure basis for true humanism.

    • Thank you for your comment. I expected that calling the church institutionally sexist might be cause for comment. By any measure used in our societies, the church’s position on the role played by women in its ministry is sexist. The Christian response is not to try and argue that the church isn’t really sexist, because we’ll end up being as stupid as the person who says that they’re not really racist. The response should be to take the criticism on the chin (or cheek) and either justify the discrimination (which I believe to be impossible) or recognise that such discrimination should have no place in the church.

      I did not say that I thought ‘sacramental authority is the only role that counts in the church’. Of course, there is always room for charismatic authority exercised outside of hierarchy. However, the hierarchy is the established authority of the church, and those who prophesy apart from the hierarchy are not of the same authority. So, it’s fair to say that episcopal authority is the only traditional authority in the church. That women can and do still find spiritual fulfilment within the church while it bars them from exercising authority with it is a Good Thing, but the fact that women don’t feel totally oppressed by the church is not a justification for sexual inequality and discrimination. Or, to put it another way, just because it’s not completely broken, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t need mending.

      I note that you list dead women as having prophetic authority in the church. Teresa of Avila was particularly problematic for the church: she may be called a reformer now, but in her day she was a revolutionary. It has taken time for the church to receive and digest the popular devotion surrounding charismatic leaders who do not all fit neatly into the pattern of church structure and life. What we have today is just as much the ‘received biographies’ of the saints. These are a few women who had the personal momentum (no doubt supported by heavenly grace) to break through the ‘stained-glass ceiling’, and they are far too few to be representative of the place and contribution of women in the church of yesterday and today.

      I do believe the church’s prophetic faculty is impaired when it fails to show less compassion for the oppressed and culturally repressed as other elements in society. Society’s slow realisation that women can play an equal part (not just an equitable one) has moved forward in prophetic leaps, except that the church has worried frantically that unchaining women from the kitchen might destroy family life rather than enhance women’s lives. Society’s gradual overcoming of hatred towards people who do not fit the one heteronormative mold moves in prophetic leaps, but the church is at the forefront of opposition to it. There is something wrong when the disciples of Jesus become the vanguard of the resistance to loving inclusivity.

      Of course I do not ‘obsess’ about the ‘institution of the church’, but I am part of it and feel it right to reflect on that in which minister. It is a classic misdirect, or Red Herring, in ecclesiological discourse to say that we should lay aside imperfections in the church as the she will be perfected by Christ in heaven. It connects with a deeper philosophical challenge that Christianity often fails to engage with the present, preferring to promise the riches of heaven. What if hate is active in the church? What if the will of the Father is that his people reflect his inclusive fatherhood rather than the patriarchy of human design that places one equally loved creation in authority over another. After all, human dignity is best served by upholding equality, and that is, by definition, at the heart of actual humanism.

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