A Serious Post About Women Priests

G.K.Chesterton said it is all well and good to have an open mind, but the only reason to have an open mind, is the same reason we have an open mouth–in order eventually to close it on something solid. So, on this blog, when it comes to the subject of women’s ordination, we are accused of taking a lighthearted–even mocking tone. Perhaps we don’t take the subject (and the women) seriously enough. But if we sometimes send women priests up it is not because we haven’t thought through the subject, but because we have thought it through and come out the other side. I can speak for myself, that I have honestly opened my mind on the subject, and eventually closed it on something solid called ‘the apostolic faith’.

I went through this exciting process firsthand in the 1980′s and early 1990′s as the Church of England debated whether or not to ordain women to the priesthood. I was, at the time, a country vicar on the Isle of Wight. I was in charge of two beautiful old country churches, had an enjoyable and rewarding ministry, a large vicarage house and a young wife and family. I had, from a worldly perspective, everything to lose. My point of view was then, what it had been for some time–to be open minded to new things and to ‘affirm not deny’. This understanding had brought me from a conservative Evangelical mindset to a middle of the road ‘Catholic’ position in the Church of England. I considered myself to be an “Evangelical Charismatic Catholic”–trying to draw the best from all three of these traditions.

Therefore, when faced with the prospect of women priests, although my first instinct was to be opposed, (because I am innately suspicious of innovation in the church) I also determined to listen to both sides of the argument. At theological college in the early 80s the women were already receiving the same education as the men in preparation to be deaconesses (with the unspoken assumption that eventually women’s ordination would go through and they would become priests) The women at college were a mixture just like the men were. Some seemed devout and down to earth and serious about loving God and serving his church. Others seemed egocentric, ambitious and obnoxious. Now they, and many others, were lining up to be ordained as priests.

So as the debate raged on in all levels of the church I listened carefully to both sides. I discovered that those in favor of women’s ordination had good arguments from Scripture and tradition. They wheeled out their psychological experts, their historians, their sociologists, their Bible scholars, their personal stories. They summoned witnesses from the Evangelical, Liberal and Anglo Catholic wings of the Church. Furthermore, I observed their lives. These were good church people. They loved God, read the Bible, went to Church, paid their dues, helped the poor, prayed their prayers and loved the Church. They really honestly and sincerely thought that women priests would be good for the Church and that the Holy Spirit was leading the Church to accept this change.

Then I listened to those who were opposed to women’s ordination. They too had good arguments from Scripture and tradition. They too had a whole panoply of experts and panel of witnesses from each part of the Church. They too were good church people who loved God and his Church and were really, really convinced that the Holy Spirit was definitely not leading the Church to make such an innovation.

So I looked more closely at the arguments in the Church of England for women priests. The main arguments were not Scriptural or traditional, although those arguments were summoned. They could not be the main arguments because, of course, while it may be argued from Scripture and tradition that women priests are permitted, it could never be argued from Scripture and Tradition that they were demanded. 
Instead, the main arguments for women priests were sentimental, political and utilitarian. Sentimental: “Sally is such a nice and good person. How hurtful that she can’t be ordained!” Political: “It’s a question of equal rights. Women should not be denied the role of priest if that is what they feel called to.” Utilitarian: “Sally is such a wonderful preacher and has such a pastor’s heart. She’ll make such a good priest!” While the sentimental, political and utilitarian arguments should be considered, it seemed dangerous that they should be the prevailing arguments, for most anything at all can be argued using those three flexible friends. Instead this dilemma caused me to look for an authority structure which was deeper, older and bigger than such subjectivity.
How does the church make such a decision? The Church of England by now had accepted a synodal form of government. Three houses of Bishops, Clergy and Laity were elected from the Dioceses. Election campaigns were conducted and votes were taken. Was this form of church government found in the Scriptures or in the history of the Catholic Church? No. A conciliar hierarchy was what Scripture and tradition gave us. The elected synod model resulted in unseemly electioneering and ultimate indecision. When those in favor of women’s ordination lost the vote (as they did in the early days) did they say, “Well that is the mind of the church. We’ll live with it.” No. They said, “We’ll have to rally the troops, put in a bit more effort and win the vote next time.” When those opposed eventually lost did they say, “The Holy Spirit has led the church in this new direction let’s get used to it.” No. They said, “We want our own church within a church with no women priests.”

All of this made me ask, “How can such decisions be made in the church without division?” This made me turn again to the authority claims of the Catholic Church. Here was a church that had the breadth of experience and vision to consider the needs of the whole church globally (not just the demands of the church in the developed world) it also had the experience and insight of the ages–considering the traditions and teachings of the church for the last 2,000 years. It was able, if necessary, to run counter to the spirit of the age. However, here also was a method that was consultative and careful and which was able to accept change and adapt where necessary.  Most of all, the Catholics had the Pope. They had an authority structure which had a final say. Love it or hate it, there was a system that was bigger and older than all the petty local argumentation which could come to a conclusion. Rome could speak and that could settle it.

While I sometimes poke fun at women clergy I can accept that many of them make good and faithful Christian ministers. I accept that they do a good job and that they may do a better job than a lot of the men. But these questions are beside the point. Women clergy may be doing a good job in the Protestant churches and good for them. However, they are not Catholic priests or deacons, and when they pretend that they are, and protest against the Catholic Church for not recognizing them, I’m afraid they are not on very strong ground, and that’s when it all becomes…well…I have to admit it…kind of funny.

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