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Prolegomena on women’s ordination

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The heightened mood created by the recent General Convention brought to the surface “issues” which between agitations are muted below the surface of normal church business, though some much deeper down than others. Inevitably, conversation around gay Episcopalians will turn, in certain circles at least, to conversation around women’s ordination (WO). WO, it is said, was a first move that initiated the decline of mutual recognition, love, and understanding between various Anglican provinces (This is, it must be said, in no small part true — See on this the excellent work of William Sachs; The Transformation of Anglicanism: From state Church to global communion, Cambridge1993, and Homosexuality and the Crisis of Anglicanism, Cambridge 2009; but also the authoritative narrative in the Windsor Report §12-21).

WO is therefore seen as a wrong turn for how it has strained relationships within the Communion and without in various ecumenical relationships, especially with the Roman Catholic church and the Eastern Orthodox churches. Even among some who see no theological reason not to support it, there are those who think that continuing to move toward women bishops in the Church of England and other provinces should be stopped because of the lack of ecumenical consensus.

Apart from the ecumenical ramifications, there is also a felt anxiety that even if one cannot conceive good theological reasons to reject WO, at the same time there hasn’t been much serious theological work done on it. What is needed, these people say, is more theology and less talk of “inclusivity,” which more often than not seems only an excuse not to evangelize or disciple and to conform uncritically the ideals of the Church to the presumptions of late-modern secular anthropology.

This last bit is an anxiety that I share as well. While I do think that there’s been theological work done, often it is done in a discourse that is not taken as authoritative in all places. I am speaking here of various works in feminist and gender theory. The methods, assumptions, and thus conclusions in this field are not readily understood or appreciated in places that lack the institutional and historical resources to make such discourses intelligible.

For at least apologetical reasons, then, I would say, what is needed is deep christological reflection done in a way utilizing the common resources that do exist between disparate provinces in the Communion so that arguments for WO can be critically appreciated by bishops in Asia, in Africa, in South America, etc…

The problem is only exaggerated by the unfortunate coexistence of strong divergences in scriptural hermeneutics, namely between Evangelicals and Catholics, so that this gap in theology must also be addressed. (For my part I think we need a more catholic hermeneutic, consistent with historic Anglican practice. A wonderful essay that teases out a modern creedal and catholic hermeneutic is Lewis Ayres’ Nicea and its Legacy: An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology, Oxford 2004; for a sympathetic Anglican position cf. Stephen Fowl Engaging Scripture: A Model for Theological Interpretation, Wipf & Stock 2008 among others of his corpus)

I say all this only to lead up to an ironic problem that persists in these conversations. After it is lamented that there hasn’t been enough substantive theological work done on WO, the conversation returns again to questions of polity and ecumenism. It was recently suggested to me that I write up a post about why I support WO and for the post I got these two illustrative suggestions from friends:

“it might be helpful for you sketch: 1) why it is that you think Anglicans retain the right to “develop” doctrine/practice, 2), why you think it’s a good idea to do it now—good not only for Anglicans but for the whole church, 3) why in your judgment the other confessional traditions (RCC, EO) have rejected WO, and 4) how this “development” does not threaten or subvert other theological/practical commitments (esp. the eucharist).”

and

“An initial thought for this article: if bishops, priests, and deacons are three different orders and not merely a successive hierarchy of advancement, then it need not follow that having women priests should lead to having women bishops. Part of what you may wish to explain is why having women in one order of clergy necessitates having them in another order of clergy.”

If the “progressive” loop is always to return to “inclusivity” and “equality” then it is the “traditionalist” loop to return to hierarchy and polity, to acceptable doctrinal development and to authority. All the while sustained scriptural engagement is delayed.

I would suggest that a first step toward addressing a perceived dearth of theology is to consider these concerns rather in light of theology than the other way round. It’s not to say that such considerations are unimportant — They are terribly important! But for the time being might we not put those concerns on the back burner and give some theologians freedom to do dogmatic theology first?

2 Responses to “Prolegomena on women’s ordination”

  1. Right when it started to get really interesting – you stopped!

    So my question is, and perhaps you might answer this in the next post in this series (am I correct in assuming that there is to be a series on point), that you will sketch what the dogmatic framework around women’s ordination might look like. You want Scripture first which can be helpful. But what if Scripture can’t help? I am unconvinced that Scripture can help here.

    Regardless, I look forward to seeing how you develop this!

  2. Tony Hunt says:

    I do indeed intend to write another post or two. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see how it turns out!

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