I recently heard the news that a friend of mine had been accepted for ordination within the Church of England. This would normally be good news but I have not been able to shake the sense of conflict I experienced over the decision. The reason why? To be honest, its because she is a woman. This was uncomfortable to me because pretty much my entire life I’ve been affirming of women’s leadership in whatever capacity. In fact, I’ve argued for it repeatedly in the past. My line manager at work is a woman, and so is hers and I have no issue or disquiet about any of that. In any other context, it’s not even something worth commenting on. Yet I realise I’m beginning to wonder if there’s something different about ordination. Something in my mind linked increasingly with communion. In my mind, it is like I am driving on a foggy night and I see a shape in the road. It could be nothing but I’m going to take measures to avoid it in the event that not doing so might cause some damage to myself and the passengers with me.
More recently there is news that in Sheffield a Bishop has been appointed who doesn’t condone women’s ordination. This has been seen as problematic in that it’s stated that nearly one-third of those ordained in Sheffield are women. One of the arguments against his appointment is his belief that the sacrament administered at the hands of a female priest is not valid and will not receive it from a woman. This amongst other things gave me pause because it perhaps highlights my ignorance of Anglican theology over what constitutes a valid administration in the event that it is purely a memorial or ritual. In fact in my mind, if the sacrament is a memorial the ordination and criteria of those who administer it is arguably inconsequential. If it is not, if there is something more significant taking place then are we saying that both the Roman and Orthodox church are wrong in their decision not to follow suit in opening the criteria for ordination? So much so that we are willing to damage the relationship and limited unity we shared with other Christians around the world? Are we saying that the historical position of the church in all forms for most of human history got this wrong? One of the foundational tenets of Anglicanism is ‘scripture, tradition and reason’. Do we dispense with the tradition (of scriptural interpretation and practice) in this instance? Or as Chesterton described it in his book ‘Orthodoxy’…
Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.
This isn’t a conscious shift on my part which what makes it so alarming to me. In fact witnessing the outcry from some areas at the appointment of this Bishop in Sheffield made me wonder if the opposite objection is also true. What of those ordained who do not condone women’s appointment to formal ministry? How can they in good conscious serve in a church that has departed from what could arguably be called historical orthodoxy on this matter? How can these two camps endure over time? If such objection will be raised to the appointment of such non-conforming bishops surely this is a form of argument for segregation? Or worse for the marginalisation of the non-conforming ordained?
The increasing trend within Anglicanism of unity at any cost is particularly highlighted I think during the season of Lent. I was listening to an Orthodox believer speak on the practice within their church of encouraging a specified fast throughout the whole church. This is different to anything I experienced in which you fast as much or as little as your conscience dictates. It is individualistic and that was fine for me because it was largely about my personal relationship with God. Yet when I heard this man speak of the fast as a corporate act, that it is an extension of the belief that all things in creation are to come together through the ministry of the church that totally made sense. In this light, the Anglican attitude of unity at any cost is actually the opposite of all things coming together in the church. Are all things coming apart in the Anglican church?
To be honest I increasingly struggle to confidently share my faith with others. What I’ve mentioned above is increasingly giving me pause. Why would I invite someone into a church so divided? One where I am increasingly unable to explore or voice my thoughts and prayers to even my minister because I am so unsure as to what they even believe. There’s great pressure to ‘get with the programme’ and go along with the inertia of the environment you find yourself immediately in. To be honest that’s what I find myself doing. When a brother struggles I hesitate to offer my input because I’m struggling too. It’s a different kind of struggle than that which church is eager to talk about. I love my community but I struggle with the environment we find ourselves in. Not Orthodox enough for the Orthodox church, not Roman enough for the Roman church and not Protestant enough for a Protestant church. That should make me an Anglican, but the difference between principle and practice I guess is more significant than I realised.
Lord If I am wrong in any of this please forgive and correct me.
Listening to a talk on the subject I wondered to what degree this impacts someone coming to faith. Even if we get more general I feel theres an argument that some people genuinely have the biological cards stacked against them concerning coming to faith. Often when we discuss faith and make appeals to others we place an emphasis on the mind at one extreme or the emotions at another. What do we when confronted with such people incapable of responding properly to either of these? Not just the psychopath but those with learning difficulties or conditions like severe Downs or later life onset conditions like Alzheimers?
When listening to the talk and thinking on this I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Apologist David Wood who self diagnoses’s himself as a psychopath. It’s clearly not impossible for such people to come to faith but does this mean that biology or psychology has no consideration? If we were to do a quantitative study of our Churches we’d inevitably find certain people appear more than others. Psychopaths, for example, are better represented in the Prison population compared to non-Psychopaths. Likewise we’ll find various aspects of the population both over and under emphasised in Churches. This will change from one church to another but ultimately “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets” and unless we accurately reflect our local populations will need to reconsider how we can bring these people into the church. Psychopathy, whilst having no bearing on comprehension is still a handicap and any number of similar or related conditions can potentially exclude people from not just participation in a church but from faith itself as we understand it.
So much of Protestant faith is framed through a lens of engaging both the head and the heart. Salvation is by faith alone but what about those people who struggle, or lack the mental categories or presence, that contribute to faith? We could wash our hands at this point and give it to the Holy Spirit, but whilst its impossible to dismiss the Holy Spirit at work in our lives it seems fatalistic to use it as a pretext to dismiss these issues. Its here that I wonder if a view espoused more recently by NT Wright of the Church as a form of covenant community might have an explanation. Salvation, communion with God is seen less through the lens of individual receptiveness to the Gospel but by participation in the community which is collectively saying we trust in Jesus Christ.
[T]he doctrine of justification by faith is not what Paul means by ‘the gospel’. It is implied by the gospel; when the gospel is proclaimed, people come to faith and so are regarded by God as members of his people. But ‘the gospel’ is not an account of how people get saved. It is, as we saw in an earlier chapter, the proclamation of the lordship of Jesus Christ….Let us be quite clear. ‘The gospel’ is the announcement of Jesus’ lordship, which works with power to bring people into the family of Abraham, now redefined around Jesus Christ and characterized solely by faith in him. ‘Justification’ is the doctrine which insists that all those who have this faith belong as full members of this family, on this basis and no other
N.T Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said.
The Church in this light is less a collection of individuals bound by common creed but a community, a family focused on the person of Jesus Christ. Faith is a core component still but it isn’t directly pertaining to justification, instead faith leads to participation in the family of Jesus Christ out of which comes justification. Here then, participation in the family is the emphasis which is still accessible for those with conditions like Downs, Alzheimers or even Psychopaths who might struggle or be otherwise unable to have faith in the conventional sense. Faith is still a core component but theres a nuance here I think is important. This perspective isn’t without its own areas of concern and there are probably implications to this that need to be realised but thinking about this has made me consider it in a way I hadn’t previously.
I think sometimes theres a temptation to expect Christians to be a certain kind of person. The problem with this perspective is, unless the entire neighbourhood, nation and world eventually becomes that kind of person the Church will also be perpetually hobbled. For England to become a nation of Christians again the Church will have to look very different to what it does today. It’ll need to anticipate the entire spectrum of human nature and have a place for it. This doesn’t mean necessarily changing our theology or liberalising but perhaps coming to increasingly view faith as a community effort rather than an individual one. Theirs a tension to be found in calling the people to repent and simultaneously the church accessible to the people. In the words of Bonhoeffer..
Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial. God hates this wishful dreaming because it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. Those who dream of this idolized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others and by themselves. They enter the community of Christians with their demands set up by their own law, and judge one another and God accordingly. It is not we who build. Christ builds the church. Whoever is mindful to build the church is surely well on the way to destroying it, for he will build a temple to idols without wishing or knowing it..
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together
All of this touches on a broader question to me. So much of our faith is hinged on our individual ability to respond – in this light it is quite individualistic. I do not think it is a coincidence then in this light that practices like the corporate sacrament of communion is deprioritised in many Protestant churches. The individual response is important, but perhaps it is the means rather than the end itself.
A few years ago, when the emerging church was popular, I knew a good many people who felt they didn’t need Church, they had their own private thing going on they’d say. Many of those who attended church would ask these people ‘how do you get fed?’ by which they meant – where do you get taught scripture? They asked ‘where do you find accountability?’ by which they meant – how do you ensure you aren’t stumbling into heterodoxy? These were poor questions because the exposition of scripture itself is nothing miraculous, you can get it off the internet, and heterodoxy abounds in so many churches today.
So why go to Church? Perhaps because the Church is the covenant, the Ark, the body and the family of Abraham that is committed to following Christ. It is more than mere acquiescence to a particular set of propositions or an emotional response to the Gospel. The belonging itself is crucial and is emphasised by the practices Jesus himself handed down to us in Communion and Paul’s question in 1 Corinthians 1:13 ‘Is Christ divided?’. The answer is no. This makes me ask the question of my own views on communion, anyone can break bread and drink wine but what does that mean if we do so outside the Church? At worst we do so in order to delude ourselves that we can engage with God on our own terms. Perhaps it isn’t just faith but also the church that binds us together, particularly if we’re struggling or just can’t comprehend the Gospel. I’m reminded of the final words of Christopher McCandless ‘Happiness is only real when shared.’ I think its true, but I think it extends to faith too. Our faith is only real when worked out together.
I am all too aware of my shortcomings as a writer here but once upon a time I took a cursory course in creative writing. I did little to nothing with it afterwards but one thing I came away from was with the idea of ‘show, don’t tell’. In writing this is the view that instead of merely explaining what is happening in a scene it is better to show the scene to the reader. In one letter the writer Anton Chekov wrote.
When describing nature, a writer should seize upon small details, arranging them so that the reader will see an image in his mind after he closes his eyes. For instance: you will capture the truth of a moonlit night if you’ll write that a gleam like starlight shone from the pieces of a broken bottle, and then the dark, plump shadow of a dog or wolf appeared. You will bring life to nature only if you don’t shrink from similes that liken its activities to those of humankind.
Anton Chekov, Letter to Alexander Chekhov, 1886
The incarnation itself can be considered a divine instance of showing over telling. Colossians describes Christ as “the visible image of the invisible God” and Paul elsewhere writes.
For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
1 Corinthians 13:12, NIV
As people we exist in physical space, this seems obvious at first but in our increasingly literary and now digital age we often now forget this. We were created in a realm not just of thoughts and feelings but actions and senses. This is why it is significant that Jesus was born, lived, died and was resurrected in a physical way. Its this realisation, and an increasing disillusionment with certain interpretations of ‘word and spirit’ typified by groups like both the reformed and charismatic movements thats making me look at this in different ways.
In our contemporary western churches it is arguable that we have slipped into the practice of telling rather than showing people the Kingdom of God. Our contemporary emphasis on lecture style preaching is indicative of this. Our worship is increasingly self-referential and advocating what we should be doing in Church rather than reflecting or depicting the agency and character of God in our world. Our architecture is also increasing bland, historically these buildings worked to direct people to God through their aesthetics and structure, today they are often utilitarian and basic buildings with a simplistic and stunted externals. This isn’t due to any pragmatism or frugality but a shift in areas of emphasis from an embodied soul to a disembodied mind. A shift from a present reality to proposition, this is most obvious in the older church buildings being repurposed for contemporary style services. Stained glass and vaulted ceilings on one side and comic sans bulletin notices and projector imagery appealing to the sublime on the other.
In my readings of the Old Testament I’m struck by the Prophets consistent use of props and their own lives to communicate what was given to them. Theres an earthiness and realness to them that so often seems missing in contemporary Protestantism, even amongst the charismatics. The work of God isn’t just vocalised but spat into the ground and rubbed into the eyes of those who couldn’t see. Yet even in many churches the practices handed down to us, the bread and the wine, are tacked on rather than taking centre stage in our gatherings. A Church that shows rather than tells quickly becomes a way of life, an exercise in world building. Jesus taught us several clear ways to do this the most obvious to be sharing in his blood and body, baptism and prayer.
This is important because in the act of showing we are engaging to the whole of us, not just our minds. The process of developing the sacraments and prayer into regular habits from a purely pragmatic perspective enables us to link thoughts, prayers and memories to our actions bringing all of ourselves in unity to the work and worship of God in the world.
There is also an added strength in doing such things as a body of people, it reinforces our identity with one another as members of group united not just by creed but by practice. This isn’t true just in church gatherings but even in areas like Sporting teams and the rituals they acquire. Creeds and statements said in the midst of actions and activities no longer become a series of propositions but something that informs our thoughts and in turn our lives. It also means that whilst being linked to theology actions aren’t dependent on understanding and in this way does not discriminate against those unable to grasp some of the weightier theological issues at work in the life of the Church. Understanding is important, but Jesus didn’t ask us to necessarily understand him but to trust and follow him.
All of this reminds me that there have been times in Christian history where the process of changing the words said during a liturgy has resulted in the shedding of blood. At first I couldn’t understand why people would be willing to become martyrs over small word changes, but I know now these words aren’t just words. They were joined with actions and together said something more about these people, the church and what it did and how it perceived God. The other thing I realised is such things exist in stark contrast to much of contemporary christian music where the words sung are seldom considered by the congregant who is increasingly relegated to the position of audience.
In writing and thinking about this I realise that whether by design or accident many of the liturgical and sacramental services of the church that we abandoned in the 20th century actually do what I’m talking about well, at least on paper. That these are increasingly unpopular with Churchgoers also raises questions about the validity of what I’ve been writing here. Yet we also find ourselves increasingly unable to remember scripture, remember songs and in the public sphere beating a retreat or defined increasingly only by the times Christians and Unbelievers find sources of friction. What does a Christian look like? What does a Christian sound like? What does a Christian do? There is increasingly no consensus on these things. Some positives exist as a result but these are arguably outweighed by the negatives and I’d wager only contribute to the erosion of the Christian presence in the West. Ultimately showing over telling is a good thing, but showing the world together the Gospel of Jesus Christ is better.
I was reading this post advocating egalitarianism earlier today and thinking over the implications of it. For myself I was raised loosely egalitarian and in an existential sense do not see any cause for women to not operate in many of the same categories men do. I am happy to work under and submit to female line managers and to listen to, work with and cooperate with female colleagues. It is not an issue to me. Yes their are differences between the sexes, at times significant ones. Yet despite this I felt the author’s associations between complementarianism and acts of domestic abuse as not in any way helpful to the discussion. Many complementarians I know are women who haven’t been treated in the way the author describes. One might even suggest it is possible to reform the behaviour of the men in question without dispensing with the core theology.
However, I do feel that this issue of the sexes in ministry is a much greater flashpoint issue in the Protestant world than in other traditions of Christianity. Is this possibly down to..
How the vocation of ministry is perceived?
A view of the sacraments and their handling?
The lack of female role-models in the church?
What follows is in no way systematic but merely my own thoughts on the subject.
What is the role of the priest/minister
This differs from church to church but the responsibilities of priest/minister I believe can be boiled down to the follow categories..
Preaching and teaching from scripture
Serving those in need
Working towards the growth of the church
To safeguard the teachings of the church
These points most people of all church backgrounds could agree with. We might differ on the definition of some of these terms but I think we can agree in a general sense with this list. The other immediate thing that stands out to me is that there are several areas of this which aren’t limited to ministers. Everyone can do the following in some capacity..
Serving those in need
Working towards the growth of the church
To safeguard the teachings of the church
Preaching and teaching from scripture
I think we can agree that it is everyone’s responsibilities to safeguard the teachings of the church, to engage in mission and to be involved in acts of service. Administration is in a somewhat different category in that not everyone is gifted in this area and is something of a specialised skill (I do not think I would be a good administrator for example) but no criteria exists in scripture for administration other than that one be gifted in it.
The ones I left out of the abovementioned list are the leading of gatherings, the administering of sacraments and the preaching and teaching from scripture. However even in this capacity I believe this list can be cut down further. Namely in suggesting that preaching and teaching from scripture is reliant namely on faithful exposition rather than the identity of the expositor. More so that teaching can occur in nearly any context and so really the question really focuses on how preaching differs in any sense from conventional teaching. In this I would venture that their is space for women to speak to the body. Particularly in the Orthodox and Catholic churches I do not think their is quite the same concerns about women speaking or teaching men as their is in Protestantism.
In Protestantism its more common to see an attitude of ‘women to women’ and ‘men to men (and women)’ when it comes to teaching whereas even in the history of the British Church we see the precedent of women like St Hilda of Whitby who was an abbess over both male and female monastics and was consulted by kings for her wisdom in all matters. Other notable examples might be St Nina/Nino of Georgia who preached, healed and was responsible for the baptism of the nobility of the country (although I don’t think she actually carried it out baptisms herself and that was left to a priest). I think the understanding of Protestant objections is generally rooted in literalist readings of passages like 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 but I think it is worth noting that the ‘Catholic’ historical attitude is that women can preach, teach and even lead men to some degree if gifted as such when not concerning the sacrements. So to my limited understanding I think the real distinctives is that of the priesthood. A women can be a minister and for many Protestants that is all that is worthy of consideration. However in a sacramental context, whilst all Christians hold to sacraments (although they differ in number and prominence across churches) the question of women in the priesthood largely depends on the definition of the priest. This too is why I left out the area of leadership because leadership of a church gathering (depending on the church) can be largely liturgical or sacramental in nature. Despite the fact that we have no shortage of iconic and successful female Christian monarchs in Orthodoxy, Catholicism and Protestantism.
Sunday gatherings and the sacraments
So ultimately I feel having looked at the options there are two distinctives to formal ministry / priesthood.
Serving those in need
Working towards the growth of the church
To safeguard the teachings of the church
Preaching and teaching from scripture
When I refer to the sacraments in this context I will for the sake of convenience be referring to what I consider the universal sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist. Looking around for a summary on the matter from a more sacramental outlook I came across something written by Fr. Alexander Schmemann.
This priesthood is Christ’s, not ours. None of us, man or woman, has any “right” to it; it is emphatically not one of human vocations, analogous, even if superior, to all others. The priest in the Church is not “another” priest, and the sacrifice he offers is not “another” sacrifice. It is forever and only Christ’s priesthood and Christ’s sacrifice — for, in the words of our Prayers of Offertory, it is “Thou who offerest and Thou who art offered, it is Thou who receivest and Thou who distributest….” And thus the “institutional” priest in the Church has no “ontology” of his own. It exists only to make Christ himself present, to make this unique Priesthood and this unique Sacrifice the source of the Church’s life and the “acquisition” by men of the Holy Spirit. And if the bearer, the icon and the fulfiller of that unique priesthood, is man and not woman, it is because Christ is man and not woman…
I think it would be worth noting also that it is only a small proportion of the male population of the church that will eventually find themselves in the priesthood with this theology. Also the only reason leadership of a service may, in some cases, be exclusively a male thing is the prominence of sacraments in a service within that church. Gatherings in which the sacraments aren’t as prominent shouldn’t disqualify women from ministering in a facilitatory capacity regarding the service or even preaching.
However I think the question of why this has become so prominent is perhaps indicative of a broader shift in how people, I think in all denominations are beginning to increasingly see the faith.
Priesthood and pietism
Pietism as a term may be unfamiliar to many Christians today but its goal of placing the individual’s commitment to the Christian life as preeminent is recognisable in modern Evangelical preaching and teaching. The relationship between modern Evangelicalism and the 17th century Lutheran Pietism movement is massively understated. I think no one can really object to its aims as I’ve briefly mentioned them but I think one of its changes is shifting the individual’s concept of faith from being a member of the body to that of an individual before God. What matters for the Pietist is your personal relationship to God and less that of theology, doctrine or the general shared sense of responsibility for one another. John Wesley was a notable Anglican influenced by Pietism.
The influence of Pietism today can be found both in the secular world and even other Christian churches. Its emphasis on the conviction, emotion and passion of the individual corresponds with our modern desire driven materialism and the consumptive ambience we find ourselves living in. We go to both shops and churches to get something whether it is the latest smartphone or spiritual message/revelation of the season. They are both arguably subject to seasonal fashions. This way of thinking and living is as natural as breathing to so many of us in the West now.
Where this Pietistic way of thinking comes into things like women in the priesthood is the idea of seeing priests as ‘professionals’ and in our desire to better serve the church feel becoming a priest is the natural way to go. Now this isn’t me asserting I believe it’s the only reason, I do think complementarian theology does have a lot to answer for and egalitarians are right to want people to be treated on their merits as people. However we have forsaken the corporate ministry (or priesthood rather) of the body in our individualistic age literally leaving it in the hands of a few ‘professionals’. Often at the expense of sound theology and depending on a church’s view of sacraments with drastic theological implications.
To summarise the above, your church’s view of the sacraments should be the thing that decides the ways in which the church attributes the roles of various people in church. In the case of most Protestants with a ‘low’ view of sacraments I don’t see an argument against Women leaders in the church. However I do not feel you can hold to a view of the sacraments as a means to dispense grace and simultaneously accept women into the liturgical/sacramental role of priest. That is if you hold to the classically understood view of the priest representing Christ in relation to the Church. You can have women preaching, teaching and ministering but if the priest is an icon of Christ in the liturgy then to have a female priest you devolve your understanding of Christ as the bridegroom and the Church the bride to something merely metaphorical or a memorial. If you do then consistency suggests your view of sacraments is likely to be metaphorical too. If it is metaphorical and you hold to the liturgical office of priests then you’re holding to the appropriation of a largely abstract metaphor and arguably empty office for anyone is able to distribute communion with this theology. Again if it isn’t metaphorical and you hold to the liturgical office of priests then you’re potentially endangering the efficacy of the sacraments with a female priest.
If you are part of a (Protestant) church that doesn’t hold to the office of liturgical priests in relation to the sacraments then their is no reason to withhold individuals from ministry at the expense of gifting that God has bestowed on them. Principally however, the Church in question would have to settle on its understanding of the sacraments before it could move forward in one direction or another without compromise. Something I think the Church of England, like many things, is in a real mess over and either has gone too far or not far enough depending on your theology. I believe it also has implications for your understanding of marriage (a Sacrament in Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Classical Anglicanism), the issue of Transgenderism and how you address God (He / She / Whatever). If you get metaphorical in some senses you can get metaphorical in others. Yet if you theologically ascribe to communion as a memorial then this isn’t a conclusion that immediately follows I think its the sacramental outlook this hinges on.
I’m not sure what side I come down on (I think I see three options but only two are possible options for me given my understanding of scripture), but this is how I understand it currently and it feels complicated as it touches on more than what we might initially think. What I believe will probably come down to how I eventually understand the sacraments. What I do see however is that Protestants seem to be generally in the habit of making a much bigger deal of the differences of the sexes than our Catholic and Orthodox siblings do despite their sacramental outlook and consistency on the continuation of a male priesthood.