Sunday, October 22, 2006

Women’s Ordination, and how to argue for it.

If asked to present arguments for the ordination of women in Anglican dioceses how could one go about the task? A suggestion.

Since the publication of my book, Let Women be Women (Gracewing, Fowler Wright Books, 1990) which presented the case for a male-only Threefold Ministry in the Anglican Family of Churches, I have continued to defend this position and argued against the ordination of women in many articles, essays for the Internet, and talks. In doing all this, I think that I have learned what would seem to me to be one very good (I dare not say the best) way (if I were to change my position) of arguing for the ordination of women to what I may describe as a conservative group of listeners, who have sufficient time to hear the full case. [I present this below in a brief form not to make converts for the innovation of women’s ordination but as an indicator to those who hold to the traditional position of what they need to respond to in order to maintain that position in 2006.]

First of all, I would invite people to look at their own lives in home, education, work, leisure, politics, cultural events, the military and healthcare. There they see men and women on equal terms doing jobs and work of equal importance and being paid or rewarded on equal terms. Both sexes are accorded equal dignity. When it comes to professional services, men go to both women and men and women go to both men and women. I would invite them to consider that the situation in the West, with few exceptions, is that patriarchy has disappeared and that where we see patriarchy at work in the Middle East or other places we tend to be shocked by it, and to desire to support moves to bring equal rights and democracy to these areas so that “women can be free.” So that our daily experience of life is that of the practical reality of the common dignity and equality of male and female persons. (This point has to be made in such a way that it truly “sinks in”!)

Secondly, I would invite people to consider that the removal of patriarchy (and the slave trade and slave ownership before it) from Western nations occurred slowly and through the influence of persons with ideas that included both Christian principles (e.g., all persons are made in God’s image and Christ died for all peoples) and Enlightenment principles (e.g., the dignity of the human person). Further, I would ask them to entertain the possibility that the granting of growing freedoms and rights to women (e.g., to vote and to own property) occurs by the direct providence of God and is his will. After all, do we really think that God desires women to be deemed inferior and subordinate?

Thirdly, I would now ask them to turn to the Bible and to a version such as the RSV or the ASV or the KJV, so as to get a text from which there has been no attempt to remove patriarchy (as is the case with the NRSV and NEB etc.). Then I would show them within the Torah, the Psalms, the Wisdom Books, the Prophets and on into the Gospels and Epistles, that patriarchy is everywhere found and that as a polity and system it is nowhere condemned (although of course misuse and abuse by those exercising patriarchy and rule is certainly condemned). It is important that my hearers get the distinct impression that the Bible is a collection of books wherein patriarchy is assumed as a normal form of human polity.

Fourthly—and here I get to the theological center of my presentation—I would seek to get their full attention and offer an account of a doctrine that God who is omnipotent and omniscient in his glorious eternity and infinity and yet who communicates with his creatures and actually speaks to them. In this amazing act of condescension he does not use the inner language of the Holy Trinity or even the language of the angels, but the language (with its vocabulary, grammar, syntax and ideas) of those to whom the communication and revelation is given. Thus the revelation is in human terms and is necessarily anthropomorphic. Further, within this revelation, who primary purpose is to give knowledge of God as the LORD and Redeemer and to bring the recipients into covenant with himself, God as the Revealer chooses not to say everything that could be said but rather to say and require that which is primary and essential for a covenantal relation. Thus he, the LORD God, accepts (at least for the time being) things which (in a better world and different time) he would not accept. [At this point, when I felt that they were seeing this point of the way that God both communicates and acts within an imperfect world in order to become the Savior, I would suggest a novel idea.] I would suggest that perhaps one of the things that God accepted (though he did not favor) was the patriarchal system, where men exercised headship, and women were subordinate and often also deemed inferior.
Therefore, I would lead them to see that while the whole Bible contains patriarchy as a system, this does not mean that God approves of it as the only and the best system. And I would sow the idea (to take up later) that where it can be removed and the message of grace and salvation retained in whole, then that would be according to his will.

In the fifth place, I would stay with the Bible and ask them to note that there are various hints in the books, especially the NT ones, that God may approve other ways of human organization than patriarchy. As far as we know, there will be no patriarchy in heaven in the company of the redeemed, even if there is a permanent hierarchy in the angel hosts! A common dignity and honor, conferred by grace, will be given in heaven to all the redeemed and women in their resurrection bodies of glory will not be subordinate to men, and there will be no marriage in heaven. Further, in this world, there are moments when patriarchy seems to disappear, as when Deborah leads Israel, wealthy widows lead house churches in the NT, a woman is the first witness of the Resurrection of Jesus, certain women act as apostles/messengers in and amongst the churches of the NT period, and did not God choose a lowly maiden to be the mother of the Messiah, Theotokos (the one who gave birth to God the Son)?

Seventhly, I would ask my hearers to return to the world of 2006 in the West, where women serve in senior posts in government, the military, business, commerce, education, the media, health services, and so on; further, they are accepted in these positions by a vast majority of the population. And I would go on to suggest that, if God only tolerated patriarchy in biblical and later times, and if patriarchy is now disappeared from western society, then this allows the churches with all care and caution to experiment with the ordination of women and their deployment in parishes. And in doing so they do not need to spend half their lives seeking to find ways to explain away the patriarchy that is endemic in the biblical literature! They accept that it is there and because God allowed it.

In the eighth place, I would advise them if they wished to allow this experiment to go smoothly to cease to use (a) the historic BCP (which assumes patriarchy as God’s will); (b) the traditional Bible translations; and (c) many traditional hymns. I would recommend instead modern liturgies, modern Bible translations based upon dynamic equivalency and modern hymns (or edited old ones). Also I would advise less use of terms like “Father” and “King” and “Lord” for God and more use of non-masculine names and titles. After all, the eternal Creator is not male, even if Jesus became Man.

Ninthly, I would warn them that to introduce the ordination of women is not only an innovation (it is really only known in recent times) but also a revolution; and to thus to be prepared for all kinds of implications and complications. Here are examples of what may happen in terms of questions asked:

(a) If God accommodated himself to human language and to human (evil) patriarchy, what else did he accommodate to that we need to be aware of?
(b) If patriarchy in human society is not God’s will, how are we to regard the addressing of God as “Father” both by Jesus and by us? Is the Lord’s Prayer to be revised to omit “Our Father”?
(c) Do we need to construct a whole new range of names, metaphors and similes by which to describe God and speak to God – ones that imply the equality of male and female?
(d) If the emancipation of women during the last century or more is God’s will, then are all parts of that emancipation his will or just some parts? That is, are all rights and freedoms given to women now in Western nations the will of God for them? If not, where and how do we draw the line between the good and the not-so good and the good and the bad?
(e) If the emancipation of women is in whole or part God’s providential will then are also the new rights and freedoms given to covenanted faithful same-sex couples, to unmarried couples, and to divorced persons?
(f) What are we to do if men stop coming to churches where women are in charge as pastors?
(g) What are we to do with recalcitrant male clergy who continually cause trouble for female clergy?
(h) Should we require that female clergy be celibate so that they are not distracted by pregnancies and child rearing?

Finally, I would wish them “good luck in the name of the Lord” (to quote Coverdale).

The Rev Dr Peter Toon. October 21, 2006

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