Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Litmus Test of Orthodoxy: The Ordination of Women as Presbyters?

A discussion starter

For some Anglican groups in the USA/Canada the fact of NOT ordaining women and having a male-only Presbyterate is the primary claim to orthodoxy of doctrine and provision of Sacraments that are truly “outward signs of inward grace.”

This doctrinal commitment seems (to some observers) to come before not only the acceptance of the patristic dogma of the Trinity and of the Person of Christ but also the acceptance of the Bible as the Word of God written.

How can we understand and assess this situation, which appears to intensify the more that the majority groups of Anglicans vote for and implement the ordination of women as presbyters?

If we look back to the 1970s in the history of The Episcopal Church, it was because this Church approved the ordination of women in 1976, and then actually did ordinations of women, that led to the schism of 1977 and in turn led to the St Louis Congress, the writing of The St Louis Affirmation of Faith (a very anglo-catholic document) and the creation of The Continuing Anglican Church (which in 1977 still looked for communion with the See of Canterbury). As most people know this Continuing Church has regrettably sub-divided (APCK, ACC, ACA etc.) and has been joined by parallel groups of “Extra Mural Anglicans” who refuse to ordain women and who use the BCP 1928 (or the Anglican Missal).

The ordaining of women was the basic reason for the walk-out in 1977 and for most of those in the Continuing Movement from 1977 the ordaining of women is still the reason why they will not join with other “extra-mural” groups (who have left the ECUSA because of matters of “leadership” or sexuality issues).

Are we facing just old-fashioned bigotry or prejudice here from these old-time Episcopalians? Is it that they cannot even imagine a woman covered in vestments and celebrating at the altar? A rather significant point to be made here is that virtually all the continuing Anglicans in their daily lives show in practical ways that they believe in the real equality of male and female in terms of rights, opportunities, salaries and so on. Male priests go to professional women for a variety of reasons, medical to financial and submit to their judgements; and within the churches women take on a lot of responsibility, not least in financing the male priests! In fact the wives of priests often earn far more than do their husbands!

Apparently then, all or most of the Continuers believe in full equality of the sexes except in terms of access to the Sacred Ministry, where, it is claimed, because Christ was male and because Christ ordained only male apostles (in a patriarchal society long ago), they believe that God wants and calls only males (even males who appear sometimes to be inferior to women in ability, sensitivity, knowledge of sacred things, leadership potential, and so on).

When I talk to those who (a) are strongly committed to the doctrine that only men may be ordained and (b) give the impression that this is for them the first doctrine of the Faith and of the Church, I try, if possible, to suggest to them that they change their way of guarding their doctrine and of explaining their position—not abandoning it but giving it a new look.

Instead of stating by word and bodily gestures that the ordination of only men is the first doctrine, let them change their approach and find an interesting and persuasive way of indicating that, at this time in the history of the Church within western culture, how one approaches the innovation of the ordination of women is a kind of litmus test of biblical and patristic orthodoxy. Let me explain.

We live in a culture of human rights, one of which is the right to self-fulfillment, and within this culture it is reasonable, and to be expected, that people assume that women have a right to be ordained, especially if some women feel that this is what Deity is calling them to be and do and at the same time they are gifted females. (And we know that this culture of rights is the context in which changing the Church’s doctrine and practice became possible in the 1970s and has done much to sustain it since—see my Episcopal Innovations, 1960-2004, from To say that human rights have absolutely no place in the relation of a sinner—even a forgiven and being sanctified sinner—to God, is to say a strong word against the culture and for God. To move on and to say that the right relation of each of us to God is by grace, and by grace alone, in Chrjst Jesus and by the Holy Spirit, is to say another strong word both against the culture and the self-centered reality of human nature, and for God. Then to move on yet farther and say that the ordained Ministry is by Christ’s command restricted to such men as he, the Lord of the Church calls, and has nothing to do with abilities or feelings or rights claimed by women or men, is to say yet a further strong word against the culture and for God. And, to carry on and to state—against contemporary ECUSA and Anglican Church of Canada doctrine—that the call to ordination is NOT, repeat “Not”, contained in the “baptismal covenant” and thus NOT given in embryo to all the baptized, but is a totally separate call from the Lord of the Church given individually to a small minority of baptized men, is to say a further word against the culture and for God.

I suggest that this kind of approach is “the litmus test” approach and it can be well integrated into a right judgment of what is the hierarchy of truth in the Christian religion. That is, we can hold that the basic doctrines of God the Holy Trinity, the Creation of the cosmos by God, the Incarnation of the Son to be One Person made known in two natures and his death, resurrection, exaltation and second coming, the gift of the Holy Spirit, the existence of the holy Catholic Church, and the final judgment after the general resurrection of the dead, and so on, and we can proclaim that all these come before the Ministry and ordination into it.

So it can be said that at this time, in this place and within this culture, whether or not the Church ordains women (as against deploying them in Christ’s name utilizing the gifts sent to them from heaven) is at least a major if not the litmus test of whether or not the Church is ready to submit to Christ the Lord. Of course to use this litmus test in the West today in the way suggested above requires of those who use it great humility and meekness so that they are perceived truly as speaking the truth in love. To deploy it arrogantly would be to do grave harm to souls. A final word—in another place at this time (e.g., Muslim cultures) the litmus test will probably be something very different, even though the hierarchy of truth will be constant.

The Revd Dr Peter Toon October 18, 2006

1 comment:

Pseudo-Iamblichus said...

"But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression. Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety."

I Timothy 2: 12-15


The Bible is quite clear about this issue, the problem is that modern man does not seem to have the sufficient Faith to believe in it, or rather, to even to want to believe in it.

All your points are very well made. We do live in an increasingly egalitarian society. This we should neither deny nor wish to deny. We cannot turn back the clock, nor should we become knee-jerk reactionaries.

However, the life of the Church is fundamentally a life of obedience to God. That is the main thrust of liturgical action in the Old and New Testaments: "Do this...." We can either be obedient to God, or we can defy the ordinances passed down to us. We can justify it until we are blue in the face, but it is an issue of will we obey or not.

There is perhaps another more systematic problem at stake here as well. Since Descartes, the role of the union between body and soul has been increasingly denied in Western thought. Over the course of centuries, philsophers have tried to separate humans from their identities in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, and station in life. That is, much of modern thought considers gender in particular as something secondary to who we are, and even a fluctuating category (those of us in academia know the whole abomination of "queer" theory). My point is: does gender mean something? Does the fatherhood of God have anything to do with human fatherhood, and if it doesn't, why did God choose to reveal Himself as Father? And should we even be concerned with what modern thought has contrived if it goes against the Biblical and Patristic ethos?

I would argue that even if it makes us look like intellectual troglodytes, even if we cannot "put it into context" in terms of our everyday lives, we must be obedient to the law of God. There is a whole theology behind this "patriarchal, sexist" practice, and it is a pity that so many women who read the Bible and believe in it do not cover their heads in church as the Apostle commands. Besides, compared to turning the other cheek and loving your enemies, how hard is it to follow this injunction really? Should we not be faithful in these little things as to show that we are faithful to the more imporant things, like Faith in the Trinity, as you have pointed out?