Should gifted Christian Ladies be Presbyters and Bishops in the Church of God?
A discussion starter for those without high blood pressure
At the “Hope and a Future Conference” at Pittsburgh, November 10-12, 2005, the Moderator of the Third Session on the Friday was, as stated in the program, “The Rev. Canon Dr. Mary Maggard Hays, Canon Missioner, Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh.” She is “the right hand man”, as it were, of the Bishop, Robert William Duncan, who is the Moderator of the Anglican Communion Network.
Here are three significant facts which are also powerful symbols about Mary – Ms Hays is called “Rev.Canon” and thus a presbyter and a canon of the cathedral; she was placed on the Platform in a position of leadership for three hours; and her weekly job is to be the primary assistant of the bishop and thus involved in leadership in the diocese.
I do not want in any way to doubt the character, knowledge and ability of Ms Hays. What I do want to do is to use the symbolism of her role to reflect upon where The Network is and where its Bishops are in their approach to Scripture, the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and holy Tradition.
It was stated not once but often at the Conference, as a kind of rallying cry, that the “orthodox” of the Network (unlike the “revisionists” of ECUSA) are committed first and foremost to the authority of Scripture (for Faith and Morals) and to the Lordship of Christ in home, church and personal life.
This is fine, but it leaves not answered the quite serious matter of how the sacred Scriptures are to be read and how their message becomes the expression of the Lordship of Christ. If we look back thirty or forty years we find that Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics read and interpreted the New Testament to teach that there is a divine order in creation of male and female, that while they are equal before God as his adopted children by grace, there is nevertheless a “headship” given to the male in home and church. Thus women should not practically speaking, and ought not morally speaking, to be ordained to the position of pastors of the flock of Jesus the Lord – despite the fact that more and more women were taking leadership positions in education, medicine, business and so on.
Then very soon, following the turbulent 1970s, a growing number of Bible-based Episcopalians began to claim that the better and more enlightened way to read the Scriptures was to advance the view that the doctrine of divine order of the priority of the male, in his equal relation with the female, was applied in NT times by the churches in cultures where there was an endemic “patriarchy and sexism”; and it was this cultural situation, and not the intention of the Lord Jesus and his apostles, that was the real reason why women were not called as apostles and appointed as presbyters and bishops in the apostolic age and Early Church. So some Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics began to affirm that to ordain women as pastors was according to the mind of Christ the Lord, even though against the common-sense reading of the New Testament. When asked for biblical evidence by doubters of this innovation, the reply was to point to the truth under the surface as it were and to quote baptismal texts like Galatians 3:28 which proclaim the equality of female and male in Christ and before God. However, such quoting of texts teaching equality before God, was usually connected, implicitly or explicitly, to the emerging, powerful rhetoric of rights that the contemporary culture was proclaiming for women.
Now in adopting this new approach to the reading of Scripture (which was then prevalent in academic circles), the pioneers of women’s ordination were not using a wholly new methodology within the Episcopal Church. If we go back to the 1950s and 1960s and read the arguments advanced for the Episcopal Church to change its discipline concerning the remarriage of divorcees in Church we find the same type of thing happened. The significant NT texts were read in the most liberal way possible and contrary to their interpretation in Tradition & Canon Law, and were also, and significantly, read within the developing culture of human rights and freedoms. So the ECUSA was able, after some bitter debate, to maintain its teaching that fornication and adultery are wrong but at the same time innovate, that is, allow, with very few exceptions, the remarriage of divorced persons in Church, and furthermore, allow clergy, who are ministers of the sacrament of marriage, to be divorced and remarried. As we all know, the “divorce culture” is now endemic in the ECUSA and in The Network membership, and to question it is just not the thing to do.
Modern westerners, indeed most Episcopalians, read the NT in 2005 with a mindset that is deeply influenced by the doctrine & practice of human rights and thus they assume that the Word of God written teaches what to them is so obviously clear -- the equality of women in all areas, and the right of a man or women to have a second or third chance in marriage with the blessing of God and his church. Their theology, ethics and spirituality embrace these things as the norm. So the matter of ordination of women or the remarriage of divorcees in church become only matters of like or dislike or of political expediency or preference; it is not a crucial matter of obedience to the Lord Jesus and of his authority.
What seems most clear is that the New Testament interpreted in its literal, straightforward and common sense meaning forbids the ordination of women as presbyters and bishops as it also forbids the remarriage of many who now claim that right. (See the Westminster Confession of Faith, 1648, XXIV, “Of Marriage and Divorce” for the one exception allowed by the Protestant Reformers.)
Now this new methodology and way of interpreting the Bible has very important implications not only for Ministry and Marriage but also for the current response by the Church to the LesBiGay agenda, and particularly to the claim that God blesses same-sex, faithful, covenanted partnerships and that persons in such are eligible for ordination as a presbyter and consecration as a bishop.
It is very clear that the Evangelicals of the Network and the Primates of Nigeria and Uganda are using Scripture to oppose and condemn the innovatory doctrine of the LesBiGay lobby; it is also clear (or seems clear to me) that their “party” has reverted to the way it used the NT for proof texts and doctrine back in the 1960s. In other words, the sophisticated approach to interpretation of the sacred texts (in the context of human rights) that allowed the acceptance of innovations of the marriage of divorcees in church and the ordination of women is not being used in this battle! Why? Because, if it were, the possibility is that it would open the door to one or another of the claims of the LesBiGay lobby!
In fact, what the biblical scholars who write for the LesBiGay movement may be said to be doing is applying the same methods of interpretation used by Evangelicals to support remarriage in church and ordination of women, but using them in an advanced way and within the continuing powerful context of human rights.
If the Evangelicals were to read, interpret and apply Scripture as participants in the homosexuality debate as they do with respect to their commitment to remarriage and ordination, then it is possible, maybe probable, that they would find it very difficult to oppose reasonably the claim that God may bless the covenanted, faithful union of two persons of the same sex, while at the same time agreeing with the leaders of the Christian LesBiGay movement that any other form of same-sex activity (e.g. sodomy) is sinful.
Put in another way, it is one thing for African bishops to oppose the homosexual agenda for they are consistent in reading Scripture as generally not allowing either the marriage of divorcees in church or the ordination of women; yet it is a very different thing for the Network to do so for it has generally allowed the marriage of divorcees and the ordination of women and thus does not appear to read Scripture consistently. In order to be taken seriously, what the Network states about homosexuality and same-sex relations has to be matched by a recovery of the pre-1960s Evangelical & Catholic approach to marriage and ordination and by a clear statement of how Scripture is to be read and interpreted with regard to the formation of doctrine and moral practice!
I wholly realize that to do such a U-turn would need tremendous courage and massive pastoral sensitivity, especially to the women who are in orders now. But is there any other way for there to be a genuine reform and renewal of the Anglican Way in America and in the West generally?
firstname.lastname@example.org November 19, 2005
p.s. my book from 1990 on ordination entitled, Let Women be Women (Gracewing, Dublin) is being digitally copied and will be available for downloading within 14 days or so.