Awhile ago I wrote something about my developing views on women in ministry yet I hadn’t really thought out how this impacts how I interact with my church, The Church of England.
CS Lewis on Women’s Ordination
In an immediate sense I am conscious of how lukewarm many of the arguments for a traditional understanding of leadership are after listening to a recent episode of Unbelievable on the subject of women in leadership.
If I was still an Egalitarian I would not have been convinced by Moore’s defence of the historic status quo and was perturbed by his dismissal of history as an excuse not to think. To me this is a classic case of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face and I was reminded of CS Lewis’s words on the topic of reading old books from his foreword to Athanasius’s “On the Incarnation”.
A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light.C.S Lewis, Foreword: On the Incarnation by Athanasius the Great
The same can be said for doctrines. CS Lewis also wrote his own thoughts on women priests in a tract called “Priestesses in the Church?” which laid down, in an accessible way, a case against female priests based, in large part, on natural law. Reading this also opened my eyes to the poverty of my own theology, and that of Moore’s, by neglecting something like natural law to the degree it has. To underscore this Lewis, in his tract, compares the Church to a Ball (Dance) writing…
And this parallel between the Church and the Ball is not so fanciful as some would think. The Church ought to be more like a Ball than it is like a factory or a political party. Or, to speak more strictly, they are at the circumference and the Church at the Centre and the Ball comes in between. The factory and the political party are artificial creations – “a breath can make them as a breath has made”. In them we are not dealing with human beings in their concrete entirety only with “hands” or voters. I am not of course using “artificial” in any derogatory sense. Such artifices are necessary: but because they are our artifices we are free to shuffle, scrap and experiment as we please. But the Ball exists to stylize something which is natural and which concerns human beings in their entirety-namely, courtship. We cannot shuffle or tamper so much. With the Church, we are farther in: for there we are dealing with male and female not merely as facts of nature but as the live and awful shadows of realities utterly beyond our control and largely beyond our direct knowledge. Or rather, we are not dealing with them but (as we shall soon learn if we meddle) they are dealing with us.C.S Lewis, Priestesses in the Church?
Elsewhere he is more explicit and ties nature to the symbolic world…
One of the ends for which sex was created was to symbolize to us the hidden things of God. One of the functions of human marriage is to express the nature of the union between Christ and the Church. We have no authority to take the living and semitive figures which God has painted on the canvas of our nature and shift them about as if they were mere geometrical figures.C.S Lewis, Priestesses in the Church?
Anthropology, Luther, and Chrysostom
Becoming a Father has also made me ask more fundamental questions about what it is to be a man more broadly. This isn’t fixed, and our current culture is an exception to what seems to be a norm both historically and globally today. Even if it is a social construction most societies end up with forms of masculinity like this due to a combination of biology and resource constraints. As one Anthropologist states (emphasis mine)..
Dad has not evolved to be the mirror to mum, a male mother, so to speak. Evolution hates redundancy and will not select for roles that duplicate each other if one type of individual can fulfil the role alone. Rather, dad’s role has evolved to complement mum’s.Anna Machin, The Marvel of the Human Dad, Aeon Magazine 2019
Some might quibble with the previous paragraph but a recent article on this topic comparing the views of Calvin and Luther on this highlights how Martin Luther expressed a similar mode of thinking in his prohibition against Women in ministry by stating…
For he who would preach must possess not only the Spirit, but also a good voice, ability to express himself well, a good memory, and other natural gifts; whosoever does not possess these gifts should appropriately keep silence and allow another to speak. Thus Paul forbids women to preach in the congregation where men are who are able to speak, to the end that honor and order prevail; for to speak is more fitting and appropriate for man, and he is better qualified for speaking. And Paul did not issue this prohibition out of his own head, but he appeals to the Law, which says that women are to be under obedience.
Fritz Zerbst, The Office of Woman in the Church, Quoting Martin Luther’s 1521 The Misuse of the Mass, pg. 87
…Order, decency, and honor require, therefore, that women keep silence when the men speak; if, however, there is no man to preach, then it would be necessary that women preach.
Luther doesn’t make a blanket ban an argument resting on what we might call a natural law. Something even John Chrysostom does in his homilies on 1 Corinthians 14…
Here you see why he set over them their husbands as teachers, for the benefit of both. For so he both rendered the women orderly, and the husbands he made anxious, as having to deliver to their wives very exactly what they heard.
John Chrysostom, Homily 37 on First Corinthians
Further, because they supposed this to be an ornament to them, I mean their speaking in public; again he brings round the discourse to the opposite point, saying, For it is shameful for a woman to speak in the church. That is, first he made this out from the law of God, then from common reason and our received custom; even when he was discoursing with the women about long hair, he said, Does not even nature herself teach you? (1 Corinthians 11:14) And everywhere you may find this to be his manner, not only from the divine Scriptures, but also from the common custom, to put them to shame.
Steven Wedgeworth in the previously referred article comparing the writings of Calvin and Luther on this topic writes…
Earlier in 1 Cor. 11, Paul gives more of his logic. “The head of woman is man” (1 Cor. 11:3). The woman was made “from man” and “for man” and so ought to have “authority” on her head (1 Cor. 11:8, 9, 10). This too is the logic of the Hebrew creation narrative. Adam was made from the earth, whereas Eve was made from Adam. Eve was made for Adam, to be his helper in the dominion mandate. In 1 Timothy 2, Paul makes this same argument. Women are neither “to teach or to exercise authority over a man” because “Adam was formed first.” (1 Tim. 2:12-13). Paul does go on to add a punitive element, noting that Eve was deceived, but this is given in addition to the creational arrangement, not in place of or in opposition to it. Thus, 1 Cor. 14:34 is not some lonely example of out-of-place patriarchy. It is wholly consistent with the rest of the Pauline and New Testament landscape. It is entirely logical that Paul’s appeal to “the law” is but another way to say what he has already been saying, to summarize the Genesis account. And of course, there are many laws in the Torah which follow the logic of male leadership. Even the 10th Commandment locates the “wife” along with the man’s “house.” This does not reduce her to property (and indeed her place in the order moves forward in the Deuteronomy account), but it does show that the domestic arrangement was assumed to have a male head.Steven Wedgeworth, Male-Only Ordination is Natural: Why the Church is a Model of Reality.
Natural law, Biblicism, and Doctrinal Clarity
It is hard to see how the egalitarian impulse differs in its attempts to push back on natural law to those who affirm concepts like same sex marriage for those in the LGBT community or the ability to change one’s sex. The argumentation is largely the same and it is not a surprise to see a disproportionately high number of female clergy tend to also affirm a revisionist understanding of marriage too or even objecting to calling and identifying God as our Father. This is because, at its heart, it is the same argument. This is something Lewis in his tract on the topic perceived in the argument even before its acceptance within the Church of England.
The innovators are really implying that sex is something superficial, irrelevant to the spiritual life. To say that men and women are equally eligible for a certain profession is to say that for the purposes of that profession their sex is irrelevant. We are, within that context, treating both as neuters.C.S Lewis, Priestesses in the Church?
This naturally extends to the call to make God as neuter. It is the flattening of the natural distinction and relation between men and women at the heart of this. The treatment of sex as something incidental, rather than intentional and symbolic, that is to be opposed. Egalitarians are keen to emphasise that it isn’t a flattening but a reflection of our sexual differences in ministry but the fact that we insist on calling ordained women priests rather than priestesses is telling I think. On paper ones, sex makes no fundamental difference to the egalitarian concerning the suitability of one for the priesthood.
None of the aforementioned came up in Moore’s defence of his position and the degree to which it was alluded to was done so at a superficial level. This only goes on to stress the real poverty at the heart of so many Christians when it comes to the union of divine law and human nature and I include myself in this. This is down to many Christians opting for a form of Biblicism that cuts against the Reformation’s understanding of Sola Scriptura. Alastair Roberts unpacks this in the video below.
The growing acceptance for women in leadership even amongst Evangelicals in the UK (The HTB network being a good example of this) I think is, as a result, a sure indicator of its eventual acceptance or at least growing toleration or disregard for issues like same-sex marriage and related doctrines like transgenderism over successive generations. Time will tell but I think I will be vindicated. Andrew Wilson wrote on this approach to Church…
HTB has avoided taking a “position” on a number of controversial contemporary issues (much more so than the centre of American evangelicalism in the last generation, Billy Graham, and in this one, Rick Warren), and that their doctrinal boundaries internally are much less defined than most local churches’ (they have numerous staff members and even worship leaders, let alone church members, who do not agree with each other on all sorts of doctrinal issues, including some that Christians in previous generations have died over, and allow huge theological diversity to be represented by speakers in their church, conferences and Focus weekends). How many people who run Alpha or the Marriage Course, I wonder, know what view (if any) HTB have of penal substitution, or hell, or predestination, or gay marriage, or any number of other contentious issues in the contemporary church? (Egalitarianism, as mentioned above, is probably the exception that proves the rule). Most evangelicals will wonder why it matters: if someone has a good course, or runs a good conference, what difference does it make what they think about penal substitution, hell, gender roles or gay marriage? This, of course, is exactly the point I’m making – that the centrality of HTB reflects the lack of doctrinal clarity in evangelicalism.The New Centre of British Evangelicalism By Andrew Wilson, Think Theology
Even before I really changed my views I felt this viscerally at the HtB network church I attended. The cognitive dissonance is really quite something and the silence on these topics feels at time like a willful conspiracy that leaves people on both sides of an issue unsure of where one stands.
I think it’s fair to say that if such ambiguity, silence or even promotion of egalitarianism continues to develop in this way (which I hope they don’t), will lead to further decline in church numbers. This namely being down to confidence in the reliability of scripture, the doctrines of ones church, and its ethical teaching corresponding with a Churches ability to grow and retain members. One article on the topic of conservatism and church growth writing…
Theologically conservative believers were more unified in terms of priorities and what was right and wrong, he added. “That also makes them more confident and, to those on the outside looking in, confidence is persuasive all on its own. Confidence mixed with a message that’s uplifting, reassuring or basically positive is an attractive combination.”Harriet Sherwood, Literal interpretation of Bible ‘helps increase church attendance’, The Guardian, 2016
“Strong” religious movements make demands of their members in terms of both belief and behavior. These churches demand adherence to highly defined doctrines that are to be received, believed, and taught without compromise. They also understand themselves to be separate from the larger secular culture, and the requirements of membership in the church define a distance from secular beliefs and behaviors.R. Albert Mohler, Jr., Why Conservative Churches Are Growing, Christian Post 2011
The liberal churches are, by their own decision, opposed to these very principles. The mainline Protestant churches desired to be taken seriously and respected by the intellectual elites. They wanted the benefits of cultural acceptance and esteem. They lowered doctrinal and behavioral requirements and made membership more a matter of personal preference than of theological conviction.
The correlation between egalitarianism and a decline in church numbers is something that has always been emphatically rejected by Egalitarians but one has to look at a macro style state of affairs for mainline traditions in contrast to more independent evangelical churches (who tend to be more conservative) on these topics for an answer. Now, this isn’t me saying that I blame a decline in church numbers in part to the ordination of women. Correlation isn’t causation. Rather the solo (rather than sola) view of scripture is the disease of which such things are a symptom and with it comes a low view of reality because the two speak to one another.
This isn’t just a scripture precedent but something I think baked into us. The economist Nassim Nicholas Taleb is right in this sense that religion is in part “the wise product of thousands of years of accumulated wisdom that help us to live better in the face of what’s unknown”. This isn’t entirely dissimilar to Chesterton’s upholding of tradition when he says “Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.” Taleb also argues more broadly against widespread change to complex systems (he gives humans polluting the environment and global warming as an example) given we cannot predict all the variables at play in advance of making such decisions.
Could one imagine a figure like Jordan Peterson appealing to the numbers of Men he has if he was a Woman? Is the fact that he is a Man himself merely incidental? I do not believe so, and it isn’t misogyny for this to be the case. At the same time Christianity, for whatever reason, has never had a problem with the attendance of women. Yet it has had a problem attracting men, especially in comparison to other faiths like Islam or Orthodox Judaism. Something I’ve also written about previously. To pretend otherwise is bordering on willful ignorance to me.
None of the early advocates for Egalitarianism would argue the knock-on effects (namely an erosion of doctrinal clarity in the traditions who embraced it) would necessarily follow initially by granting their position. Yet it occurred and paved the way for more extreme positions which wouldn’t have initially been granted by those who initially green-lighted these changes to church teaching. We can’t always predict the impact of the changes we make to our doctrine at the time and it is only with some distance down the road travelled that we see its implications.
Egalitarianism via Technology
Returning to our contemporary neglect of natural law we aren’t helped by the fact that we live in a world where technology increasingly is used to erode the differences between the sexes. The idea of using technology to overcome or minimise our limitations, however, isn’t a new thing. Someone like the 19th century secularist philosopher William Winwood Reade stated this goal explicitly.
These bodies which now we wear belong to the lower animals; our minds have already outgrown them; already we look upon them with contempt. A time will come when Science will transform them by means which we cannot conjecture, and which, even if explained to us, we could not now understand, just as the savage cannot understand electricity, magnetism, steam.William Winwood Reade, The Martyrdom of Man, 1872
Us poor savages, grubbing in the ground for our daily bread, eating flesh and blood, dwelling in vile bodies which degrade us every day to a level with the beasts, tortured by pains, and by animal propensities, buried in gloomy superstitions, ignorant of Nature which yet holds us in her bonds.
The difference between something extreme like Transhumanism and the Egalitarian cause might seem radical but I believe it is a difference of degree rather than kind. This isn’t to say to be a Christian is to be a luddite, technology as therapy is a blessing. I work for a technology company but when it circumvents nature it becomes a different thing, what Reade describes makes us become something less than human.
An invention like the contraceptive pill is emblematic of technology being used to facilitate dramatic changes to how we relate to one another that could speak both to the Egalitarian cause and that of Reade’s. Yet, as Taleb points out, these changes can have unintended side effects which we cannot fully appreciate until the change has occurred. Changes that in the case of the pill are evidenced by something like the decline in marriage. As Mark Regenerus writes…
The introduction of the Pill has not changed what men and women value most, but it has transformed how they relate. The marriage market before the Pill was populated by roughly equal numbers of men and women, whose bargaining positions were comparable and predictable. Men valued attractiveness more than women, and women valued economic prospects more than men. Knowing that men wanted sex, but realizing that sex was risky without a corresponding commitment, women often demanded a ring—a clear sign of his sacrifice and commitment.Mark Regenerus, The Death of Eros, First Things, 2017
Not anymore. Artificial contraception has made it so that people seldom mention marriage in the negotiations over sex. Ideals of chastity that shored up these practical necessities have been replaced with paeans to free love and autonomy. As one twenty-nine-year-old woman demonstrated when my research team asked her whether men should have to “work” for sex: “Yes. Sometimes. Not always. I mean, I don’t think it should necessarily be given out by women, but I do think it’s okay if a woman does just give it out. Just not all the time.” The mating market no longer leads to marriage, which is still “expensive”—costly in terms of fidelity, time, and finances—while sex has become comparatively “cheap.”
This is why we should be wary of “removing the ancient landmarks our fathers have set” (Proverbs 22:28). Marriage in scripture, the union of man and women, is of great symbolic significance. God is the groom, his Church the bride (Matthew 9:14-15, John 3:28-29, Ephesians 5:24–27, 2 Corinthians 11:2, Revelation 19:7–9, 21:1-2). What relevance is scripture in a society that has no frame of reference for practices like marriage in scripture? These aren’t just abstractions and theoretical concepts but things we inhabit and experience in our own bodies.
To think the anthropology of the bible is incidental rather than in accord with natural law is to fundamentally misunderstand how it communicates to us and how we are to approach it. To see man and woman as interchangeable, or to aspire to make them androgynous neuters, in one area sets us up to see them as such in other areas.
Misogyny as an argument for Egalitarianism
One of the most powerful arguments in a debate like the one I initially linked to was the pervasiveness of misogyny perpetrated by complementarian or traditional churches. The abuse of women is seen as intrinsically linked to a traditional or patriarchal view of the church and society. One can confess this is a genuine issue, but is it intrinsic? Yet one of the frustrating things about the debate was the lack of examples of how egalitarianism in action does not address this as a problem. The foremost example in my mind was the abuse scandal that rocked the American Egalitarian Megachurch Willow Creek. Various measures can be taken, improvements to accountability and transparency against this yet these are not contingent on egalitarianism. Yet unless abuse or misogyny is something intrinsic to men the issue isn’t a limiting of the office of elder or minister to men but how said men conduct themselves. If it is something intrinsic to men the response isn’t Egalitarianism but something closer to barring the office of elder or minister from men altogether. If the revelation of scripture as we have received it only specifies the office to men this argument, in the words of Lewis, leaves us “want not to make priestesses but to abolish priests”.
What does one do?
I say all this from within a tradition that has come to different conclusions than my own. The default mode of the church accepts the ordination of women. Exceptions are made but how long do optional orthodoxies remain optional? People complain of a NHS postcode lottery but now the Church of England suffers from a parish lottery. Is your parish orthodox or heterodox? If you travel where does one go to church? As a parishioner who are you to take exception where your priest and bishop do not? How does one live with that sort of cognitive dissonance? If one really believes this is a question of orthodoxy how can one accept, take seriously, or submit to clergy in error on this? Orthodoxy cannot be optional – this isn’t an extremist position but a tenant shared even by those who introduced this practice and willfully departed from the universally accepted practice of the church prior to this point.
The change to allow the ordination of women I think has fundamentally altered the Church of England. In a way it is a new creation. Yet what do you do if one still feels their experience and understanding of Anglicanism, or something like it, still rings true? I didn’t leave the Church of England but I think it left those who believe as I do on this. Yet where else is there to go as a layman trapped by time and increasingly by geography? I cannot answer this question mindful that I also have the added handicap of not being a Calvinist and not accepting the traditional position of the Church of England on Baptism which at times feels insurmountable. Yet in all other ways agree fully with the 39 articles and its traditional exposition. All I know is a very palpable sense of loss over the departure of the Church of England on this. A sense of rootlessness. Can one even be said to believe in an episcopacy anymore when one willfully protests against its decisions?
I feel more association with a church that is now consigned to history because its contemporary manifestation has departed from the precedent of its ancestors. For bishops to make such a move is an act of violence against their flock and seems done in a conscious rejection of those who came before. In my heart of hearts if I am wrong I choose to be wrong in the way the saints of old, whose witness made public the faith ‘which was once for all delivered’ to us. This change seems devoid of all reverence not only of God but of the Church throughout the world prior to the 20th century and I do not wish to be party to such conduct any longer.