Women’s Ordination—why are some folks so much against and others so much for it. And does the Anglican doctrine of Reception help?
When I urge members of the (Anglo-Catholic) Continuing Churches (ACC, ACA, APCK etc.) to be involved with Anglicans within Provinces which are part of the Anglican Communion of Churches, the immediate response virtually on all occasions is: “But they ordain women or are in communion with those who ordain women!”
When I urge members of (especially Western) Provinces of the Anglican Communion to go slow on either the ordination of women as priests or consecration as bishops (and really take seriously the supposed Anglican Doctrine of Reception set forth by The Lambeth Conference of 1988, The Grindrod Report of 1988 and The Eames’ Commission of 1996) they insist that the credibility of the Gospel depends on there being no discrimination of any kind in the Church.
Right now in the Church of England one can get a taste of the emotion in this difference of mindset in the build-up to the future voting in General Synod as to whether women will be allowed by canon law to be consecrated bishops. But it is also felt very strongly in the USA on the one side by the traditional Continuers for whom “no female priest at the altar” seems to be a primary article of faith. and, on the other side, by the supporters of the new female Presiding Bishop of the ECUSA for whom “the female priest at the altar” is absolutely required integrity!
None of the Creeds refers to ordination and so we can safely say that in the hierarchy of truths arising from the Gospel, the matter of ordination is not in the “top ten.” In the Creeds we find such basic doctrines as that of the Holy Trinity; the Creation of the world and of man; the Incarnation of the Second Person and his redeeming work on this earth for human beings; his death, resurrection, ascension, exaltation and second coming; the work of the Holy Spirit and the existence of the One Church of God; and the final judgment, with the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come. Any doctrine of ordination is to be a sub heading, as it were, under the doctrine of the Church, as also are the Sacraments. This does not mean that it is not important but, rather, that it is not first or second, as it were, in the hierarchy of truths—as they were perceived by the Church which came after the apostolic age.
So at least in theory, those who wholly reject the ordination of women and those who wholly affirm it, can agree upon—as Christians—a whole set, a veritable hierarchy of absolutely fundamental truths, if and only if, of course, they accept the Creed as a true summary of biblical doctrine to be believed. Thus, as Anglican leaders and published Anglican reports have long insisted and hope for, the two sides can enjoy a basic communion in Christ, even if their eucharistic communion is impaired. After all they were all baptized in the Triune Name!
Each side claims to be rightly reading and interpreting Scripture and coming to a conclusion that is not only allowed, but also required, by Scripture, that is by the will of God made clear in Scripture. And I, for one, do believe that, in general, there is real sincerity on each side, for usually each side has a mindset or frame of reference which includes the premises which tend to move towards the conclusion for which each side stands. Perhaps the reason why it sometimes seems as if the question of the ordination of women appears to be the primary truth—and above the classic hierarchy of truths in the Creed—is that it is (as they say in other discourse) “the presenting problem.” It is the focal point where everything that one believes about God, the world, human beings and ministry comes together at this point for religion in the history of culture and society (especially in the West).
Associated usually but not inevitably with the male-only ordained ministry are such things as (a) the reading of the Bible in its traditional sense which means accepting that patriarchy or male headship is assumed and taught from beginning to end; (b) the addressing of God in the way used by Jesus and his Apostles (e.g., as Father, Lord, and King); (c) translating the Bible in an essentially literal way as in the KJV, ASV, RSV, ESV, etc.; (d) the dominance of men in the governing and polity of the Church; (e) opposition to abortion on demand or as a form of birth control, and (f) opposition to the ordaining of active homosexual persons and blessing of same-sex couples.
Associated usually but not inevitably with the welcoming of women into holy Orders in Anglican Provinces in the West are such things as (a) the reading of the Bible through a particular lens (e.g., Galatians 3:28) by means of which the patriarchal dominance is not only reduced but negated; (b) the addressing and describing of God through (what are in the text of the Bible similes) new metaphors—e.g. mother and parent—and the avoiding of the pronoun “he” as much as possible; (c) the use of translations of the Bible like the NRSV which aim to remove or minimize the supposed patriarchal, sexist and androcentric nouns and pronouns; (d) the governing of the church locally and nationally by mixed bodies of women and men; (e) commitment to women’s rights including “reproductive rights;” and (d) support for the full rights of homosexual, lesbian and bi-sexual persons, and other minorities, in society and the churches.
Though this does not usually occur in Evangelicalism, it seems to be the case that in the mainline denominations, including the ECUSA, there is usually a pattern based upon the rejection of the traditional reading of the order within creation (man, as male and female, made in God’s image, where the male is first is order but both are of equal dignity), and this leads to major changes across a broad front in practical doctrines – e.g., the purpose of holy matrimony, the ready acceptance of divorce and remarriage, the use of artificial birth control, the ordination of women, the blessing of same-sex couples and so on. And what all these innovations or changes could be said to have in common is the rejection of what has been long understood to be the order which the Creator placed within the creation itself—see for more details of this thesis with much illustration in my Episcopal Innovations, 1960-2004, from www.anglicanmarketplace.com or 1-800-727-1928.
Concerning the ordaining and consecrating of women, this is officially subject in Anglican Provinces to the doctrine and process of reception (see further, Peter Toon, Reforming Forwards? The Process of Reception and the Consecration of Women as Bishops, The Latimer Trust, London, www.latimertrust.org ) If we take this doctrine at face-value it states that the decision of a provincial synod to allow the ordination of women is to be “received” but not received in the usual sense of the word. It is to be received in the sense of received in order to test and discern whether or not it is of God and good for the province. So despite the triumphalism of many advocates of female ordination in the West, the innovation is being tested and the final answer could be (difficult to believe right now!) NO. In fact, since it is in the process of being tested, the general attitude towards it should be one of caution not of powerful advocacy (as we see right now in the C of E by not a few bishops and senior clergy pressing for women to be made bishops).
But generally speaking, the Anglican Family seems to be agreed that since it appears that Scripture and Tradition cannot, or do not, or will not, adjudicate clearly, or if they do we are not prepared to listen, then this innovation is subject to the test of Experience according to the guidance of the Lambeth Conference.
The reason why some folks are so much against or so much for the ordination of women is one and the same. Each side sees this as the supreme test case as to determining such basic questions as: Who is God? What is the Gospel? And Where do I find salvation? Yet they all claim to believe the Creed wherein are declared primary doctrines.
Caught in the middle are most Anglicans who are prepared to go with the flow, wherever that flow does, and who meanwhile do not want to talk about or even hear much about the subject!
If and when the debate over same-sex blessings and ordaining active homosexual persons cools down, it may well be that the debate over the ordaining of women will revive—perhaps in the Global South—and then the Anglican doctrine of Reception will be truly put to the test, for it is possible that the majority of Primates have not yet realized that the Anglican doctrine of Reception is a way of avoiding making decisions on the basis of Scripture and Tradition, using sanctified reason! It is a way of letting Experience decide, which is setting a dangerous precedent!
The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon MA., D.Phil (Oxford)