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Tom Wright on Women Bishops and the lie at the heart of our culture.

23 November 2012

My Anglo-Catholic priestly formation gave me a cautious distrust of innovations such as women’s ordination. I have over time become more unsure though, mainly because I have seen some reasons to see it as less of an innovation then I had at first thought.  There are some good reasons to support the ordination of women, reasons that themselves arise out of the Apostolic witness, and the practice of the ancient Church.  I am now more or less convinced that it is not irreconcilable with the Tradition. I still though do not feel that it should have been put into practice outside of something more like consensus in the church.  If any thing, the consensus runs against it.  And any enthusiasm that I might have had for voicing support  for the practice has been tempered by the fact that those arguments from the Church’s Tradition are almost never the ones that I see being employed by those who have been most vocal in supporting Women”s ordination. What I usually hear is rights language, and an appeal to “progress.”

Discussing women’s ordination in terms of “rights” shows an incredible lack of comprehension of the way that the Church has always understood ordination. Women do not have a “right” to be ordained. Neither do men have a “right” to be ordained. No one has that right. It is instead a question of who is “called.”   Likewise, the appeal to “progress” is an appeal to a liberal worldview that is so contrary to my actual experience of the world that it seems to me to be incredible that any reasonably perceptive, thinking person would accept it.   So, even though I may be able to agree with the pro-W.O.side of the question of whether women can be ordained, I also know that I profoundly disagree with them on some even more basic, foundational questions.  And even though my openness to the possibility of women’s ordination is troubling to my traditionalist friends, I know that we do still share in a compatible worldview.

Tom Wright’s commentary on the current controversy around the decision not to have Women Bishops in the Church of England got my attention because it says what I think, and does so more clearly than I could have.  Tom Wright was formerly the Bishop of Durham, and now teaches New Testament and early Christianity at the University of St Andrews.  He is responding to Prime Minister Cameron’s statement that the Church of England needs to “get with the programme.”  Here is an extensive excerpt:

“Exhorting the CoE to ‘get with the programme’ dilutes the argument for women bishops

“But that would be putting the clock back,” gasps a feckless official in one of C. S. Lewis’s stories. “Have you no idea of progress, of development?”

“I have seen them both in an egg,” replies the young hero. “We call it Going bad in Narnia.”

Lewis nails a lie at the heart of our culture. As long as we repeat it, we shall never understand our world, let alone the Church’s calling. And until proponents of women bishops stop using it, the biblical arguments for women’s ordination will never appear in full strength.

“Now that we live in the 21st century,” begins the interviewer, invoking the calendar to justify a proposed innovation. “In this day and age,” we say, assuming that we all believe the 18th-century doctrine of “progress”, which, allied to a Whig view of history, dictates that policies and practices somehow ought to become more “liberal”, whatever that means. Russia and China were on the “wrong side of history”, Hillary Clinton warned recently. But how does she know what “history” will do? And what makes her think that “history” never makes mistakes?

We, of all people, ought to know better. “Progress” gave us modern medicine, liberal democracy, the internet. It also gave us the guillotine, the Gulag and the gas chambers. Western intelligentsia assumed in the 1920s that “history” was moving away from the muddle and mess of democracy towards the brave new world of Russian communism. Many in 1930s Germany regarded Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his friends as on the wrong side of history. The strong point of postmodernity is that the big stories have let us down. And the biggest of all was the modernist myth of “progress”.

“We call it Going bad in Narnia.” Quite.

It won’t do to say, then, as David Cameron did, that the Church of England should “get with the programme” over women bishops. And Parliament must not try to force the Church’s hand, on this or anything else. That threat of political interference, of naked Erastianism in which the State rules supreme in Church matters, would be angrily resisted if it attempted to block reform; it is shameful for “liberals” in the Church to invite it in their own cause. The Church that forgets to say “we must obey God rather than human authorities” has forgotten what it means to be the Church. The spirit of the age is in any case notoriously fickle. You might as well, walking in the mist, take a compass bearing on a mountain goat.

What is more, the Church’s foundation documents (to say nothing of its Founder himself) were notoriously on the wrong side of history. The Gospel was foolishness to the Greeks, said St Paul, and a scandal to Jews. The early Christians got a reputation for believing in all sorts of ridiculous things such as humility, chastity and resurrection, standing up for the poor and giving slaves equal status with the free. And for valuing women more highly than anyone else had ever done. People thought them crazy, but they stuck to their counter-cultural Gospel. If the Church had allowed prime ministers to tell them what the “programme” was it would have sunk without trace in fifty years. If Jesus had allowed Caiaphas or Pontius Pilate to dictate their “programme” to him there wouldn’t have been a Church in the first place.

So what is the real argument? The other lie to nail is that people who “believe in the Bible” or who “take it literally” will oppose women’s ordination. Rubbish. Yes, I Timothy ii is usually taken as refusing to allow women to teach men. But serious scholars disagree on the actual meaning, as the key Greek words occur nowhere else. That, in any case, is not where to start.

All Christian ministry begins with the announcement that Jesus has been raised from the dead. And Jesus entrusted that task, first of all, not to Peter, James, or John, but to Mary Magdalene. Part of the point of the new creation launched at Easter was the transformation of roles and vocations: from Jews-only to worldwide, from monoglot to multilingual (think of Pentecost), and from male-only leadership to male and female together.

Within a few decades, Paul was sending greetings to friends including an “apostle” called Junia (Romans xvi, 7). He entrusted that letter to a “deacon” called Phoebe whose work was taking her to Rome. The letter-bearer would normally be the one to read it out to the recipients and explain its contents. The first expositor of Paul’s greatest letter was an ordained travelling businesswoman.

The resurrection of Jesus is the only Christian guide to the question of where history is going. Unlike the ambiguous “progress” of the Enlightenment, it is full of promise — especially the promise of transformed gender roles.

The promise of new creation, symbolised by the role of Mary Magdalene in the Easter stories, is the reality. Modern ideas of “progress” are simply a parody. Next time this one comes round, it would be good to forget “progress” — and ministerial “programmes” — and stick with the promise.”

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 23 November 2012 7:15 pm

    It’s not just that the assertion of “rights” is wrong from a Christian standpoint, it’s the insistence that a person has the “right” to assert himself and get his way, just through the self-assertion. Put me first, is the cry. When Jesus more than clearly says, go to the back of the line and be nothing. If people want to compete, that’s the place they should be competing for. In addition, for me, a Christian mystic, my bottom-line, go-no-further “rules” of God are respect, courtesy,and gratitude. As an Anglo-Catholic, I was promised when women’s ordination came to be that those who did not believe in it would be left alone to their own beliefs, that their beliefs would be respected.

    I’m in the American church. Let’s just say that respect isn’t in the WO vocabulary. When I served under two women who think of themselves as priests (as head of Christian education), I can’t tell you how many times I heard the phrase, “If they don’t like it, then they shouldn’t let the door hit them on their ass.” Women even stood at the pulpit and SCREAMED at their congregations to “get with it.”

    And now we have the wonder that is the Presiding Bishop of the ECUSA. If there’s anyone left in the pews after she is finished “cleansing” those who disagree with her, I’ll be gobsmacked.


  1. Progress, or Promise? | Gaudete Theology
  2. Progreso, o derechos? « Evangelizadoras de los apóstoles
  3. Women Bishops: It’s About the Bible « Katie and Martin's Blog on the Lutheran Church in Australia

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