This weekend the Church of England House of Bishops approved legislation to appoint women bishops. This is fairly devastating for two groups in the C of E: the conservative evangelicals and the Anglo Catholics. One group believes that women should not lead; the other that they cannot. Both have previously benefited from a soon-to-be-defunct system that allowed them to have alternative leaders within the same Anglican Communion. Many, both inside and outside of the church, strongly object to these groups and there have been some cruel accusations of misogyny thrown around; but there is also a fair amount of misunderstanding, especially for those outside of the immediate sphere of interest. This is my attempt to explain why I am, as yet, unable to accept the ministry of women at the altar. I don’t seek to convince anybody to change their mind, but just to clarify that those of us who are opposed to women priests and bishops are not acting out of blind prejudice or any sense that women are not good enough.
I believe that we as a body of Christians are called to be one church. At the Last Supper, Jesus preached
11 I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of[a] your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one.
Every Sunday during mass we recite the Nicene Crede, which includes the words “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church”. I am scared by how far and fast these changes move us from a position where we can ever be reconciled with the Roman Catholic church. (This isn’t something that is likely to happen soon, but consultations like “Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry” and “Growing Together in Unity and Mission” have emphasised our unity and made it seem more hopeful.) Obviously we should make our own decisions rather than just rely on what the Roman Catholic church thinks and feels, but there are, of course, reasons why the Roman Catholic church (and Anglo Catholics now) reject the idea of women’s ordination to the priesthood.
The purpose of priesthood
One thing that I think many people outside of the Roman and Anglo Catholic denominations of the church miss is that Catholics believe that at the eucharist (aka Holy Communion or Mass) we are not just remembering the Last Supper. We are interacting with Christ in a very special way. We believe in something called the ‘Real’ or ‘Blessed Presence’, which means that when we receive the host and wine we actually believe that Jesus is in them. (You may have heard this referred to as transubstantiation). This is really important because the whole issue of whether or not someone can be a priest hinges on his or her ability to do make this happen.
Imagine that there are two gay men who want to have a child. They find a surrogate mother / egg donor, do … whatever it is that they do … and surrogate mother produces a baby for them. Those two men may go on to provide all the love and care and support in the world for that child. They may be fantastic parents. But say one of them, when planning this said, I want to be the child’s mother. Not his ‘mother‘, his mother. I want to carry him to term. I want to nurse him. This is obviously a fairly weird thing to think about but my point is that in spite of the many ways in which that man might be a fantastic parent, by nature of his masculinity he cannot carry a child to term. He cannot nurse.
Right to be ordained?
When Anglo Catholics say that they do not think a woman can be a priest, the feeling is much the same. It is not I do not think she should be a priest. It is I do not think that she has the capacity to be a priest. In my experience most people who support women’s ordained ministry do this partly because they believe that women have the same right to be a priest or bishop that men do. I don’t think that anyone has a right to be ordained; I believe they are called.
This does not mean that I believe that God only calls men to ministry in general, any more than I believe he only calls women to be parents. The biggest struggle I have had with feminism in the last 25 years is finding a kind of feminism that acknowledges that I am not a man. I am different. I am quite a masculine woman, as women go, but I still have intrinsically different feminine traits which are still valuable. Similarly, I recognise that the Church would be a poor imitation of itself without its women. But I feel that the priesthood is a job designed for men, bestowed upon men, made masculine for 2000 years.
When I say that priesthood was bestowed upon men this is based on two instances: the Last Supper and the reception of the Holy Spirit. In the Eucharist we replay the Last Supper, where Jesus told His disciples to “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). This commission was given to the Twelve, rather than to all of His followers (of whom many were women). Similarly after He was resurrected He appeared to them and told them to “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). Again, no women in the room. The command was given only to men.
Jesus’ attitude to women
I have heard several responses at this point about it being 1st century Palestine and how differently women were regarded, so a quick reminder of some of the important women in Jesus’ ministry:
Mary Magdalene (who had her demons cast out)
Martha and Mary of Bethany
The woman taken in adultery
The woman at the well
Jesus didn’t treat women in a socially normal way. He mixed with adulterers and with prostitutes. There are similar women in the old testament (like Rahab the prostitute, and Esther, who was basically a handmaiden, both of whom played key rolls in the fate of the Jewish people). Jesus valued women and made them an important part of his ministry, but they remain conspicuously absent from these two occasions when priestly duties are commissioned.
Speed of change
Like I said, a great deal of my feelings on this subject come down to the conduct on both sides; and the apparent rush to change the status quo. When I was born there weren’t even women deacons (albeit by a matter of days). When the first women were ordained deacon, there were some people who were concerned about the next steps; but they were reassured that this by no means meant that their progression to priests and bishops was about to happen. Except it did. I am 25 years old and in the space of my lifetime the church has gone from no women to women at every level. Maybe that is right and good and proper: but why are we so adamant to drag the church kicking and screaming along this path when there are still many with valid theological objections? I have been told (admittedly mainly by a couple of rampantly atheist and feminist friends) that the church should ‘move with the times’. I believe we were called to “not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2) Sometimes, the rest of the world is right. And sometimes it is horribly horribly wrong, and we would do well to acknowledge that and make our own decisions.
I have waited for a long time to find somebody from the opposite side who will even begin to engage with these points; and it makes me incredibly sad that nobody has. I am an Anglican, and have – as of yet – no intention to swim the Tiber. But the refusal of many people to even consider a ‘safe space’ for me and my kind within the Anglican church breaks my heart. The most convincing argument I’ve heard so far has been a not-particularly-theological one from my own Mum, who told me that she thinks God is too powerful to be limited by something as silly as gender. Right now I’m just trying to keep faith that God has a plan and a place for the Anglo Catholics in his church.