Wednesday, 4 July 2012

My Great Uncle's Views On Women Bishops

A recent decision by the Methodist Conference has again focussed attention on the Ordination of Women. This is a problem not easily considered with cool and calm detachment- it inevitably rouses great prejudices with Men and Women to such an extent that reasonable arguments for and against have little chance of being reasonably considered. Those who favour the Ordination of Women are apt to argue that it is necessary and that it must come in order to complete the Emancipation of Women, and that such Ordination would provide the Church with the obvious means of overcoming its present shortage of priests: they point to the undeniable fact that in the average Christian Congregation Women predominate. Those against argue from two or three isolated New Testament Texts, and go on to argue that the rightful place of a Woman is in the Home, and that she is ill-equipped by Nature to make a good Priest.

It is indeed unfortunate that there is no Word of the Lord upon this matter. All we can say is that He chose twelve Men to be His Apostles, despite the fact that there were devout Women amongst His Followers. It is, however, not logical to go on and conclude that because He only chose Men, we therefore should not ordain Women. His Teaching was given in Palestine to Jews, who had behind them a long History of Religious Organisation in which Women played no part; even in Jewish Worship the Women were segregated from the Men, and were treated as Observers rather than active participants. There were not lacking Rabbis who would argue that Women could be better occupied at home than attending Synagogue Worship. Male superiority, in other words, was an accepted andf unquestioned principle amongst them. It can therefore be urged that Jesus would have been placing a needless obstacle in the way of the commendation of the Gospel had He deliberately affronted the Tradition of His People, and made some Women His Apostles.

The Texts which have some bearing on this subject are to be found in St Paul's Writings. In I Corinthians 14:33, he writes "Let your women keep silence in the Churches: for it is not permitted for them to speak: but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the Law. And if they will learn this thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the churches."

The meaning of this is by no means clear. The worship of the early Church was much "freer" than our Worship today. This verse follows a passage in which Paul has been talking of the place and use of Prophecy in the Services. It can be inferred that after a "prophetic utterance" was made, open discussion took place as to its meaning and significance, in which case the verses quoted above amount only to a prohibition of (married) women joining in such a discussion. Such an interpretation would fit well the verse quoted, and all we need conclude is that Paul had a very poor opinion of women's ability to discuss and argue logically and reasonably.

It enables us, too, to reconcile this passage with another which he writes earlier in this same Epistle "Every man praying or prophesying having his head covered, dishonoureth his head. And every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishounoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven" (chapter 11:3-4). Here again the context is of the Public Gathering, and the interesting thing for our purpose is the definite assumption that Women both pray and prophesy in the Assembly. If the passage considered above is an absolute prohibition, then manifestly Paul is contradicting himself. If he is not contradicting himself, then the only reconciliation that can be made is this- Women may both Pray and Prophesy in the Churches, but may not join in public discussion within the framework of Church Worship. It is not possible to say that in the first passage quoted he is talking of married women, and in the second of single women, foe the same word is used in both passages.

We pass on, then, on the First Epistle to Timothy, Chapter 2:9-12: "In like manner also, that women adorn themselves word unclear modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety, not word unclear broidered hair or gold, or pearls, or costly array. But word unclear becometh women professing godliness) with good works. Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. For I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but words unclear silence. For Adam was first formed and then Eve..."

This seems to be a clear prohibition. Christian Teaching is given with authority: the woman who teaches in the Church is thus guilty of reversing the natural Order in which Man has authority over Woman- therefore she must not teach. Some will question the assumption of Male Authority on which this argument is based, in which case the argument collapses. There is evidence within these passages, and elsewhere, that the status of women in Christian Society was already higher than in Jewish and Pagan Society- they enjoyed even at the early period, greater freedom within the Christian Community. Undue Flaunting of this Freedom, or misuse thereof, could provoke criticims from outside which a line or more missing as due to photocopying at page's end

words missing teach the young women to be sober, to love their husbands, to love their children. To be discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their husbands, that the word of God be not besmirched" Titus 2:4-5

So much then for New Testament Evidence- there is not much of it, and it is not nearly as definitely and decisively prohibitive as is commonly assumed. My own conviction is that we canot base any arguments for or against the Ordination of Women on such evidence. Christianity obviously was exerting an ameliorating influence upon the position of Women, and some Men, of whom Paul was one, found it difficult to accept the full implications of this, because of the fact that their Tradition for centuries had accorded Man an authoritative and dominating position.

Nor can I find arguments of strength for either side based upon Christian Theology proper. We seem to be forced back upon arguments culled from the Nature of Women, and from Tradition. In so far as the former is concerned the Statement in 1 Timothy 2:11-12 has called for the comment "Note the repetition of 'quietness', Woman's whole nature requires it, and the strain of public teaching is usually beyond her strength..." This is akin to the arguments that used to be advanced against the admission of Women to the Professions, and surely is based upon little more than male prejudice. Women have proved themselves remarkably capable in all walks of life, and surely it is a safer inference that they can make good Priests.

The argument from Tradition is really only an extension of the Prejudice Argument, and has force only in accordance with the Pauline Principle that while all things may be lawful to me, all things may not be expedient. The Churches which retain the traditional Threefold Ministry of Bishops, Priests and Deacons, together with Apostolic Succession, have never ordained Women. I refer in particular to the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, which between them comprise the major part of Christendom. Were the Anglican Church to ordain Women on her own authority, she would be erecting a further barrier between the traditional "Catholic" Churches and herself, and weakening her position as a "Bridge Church" between the so-called Catholic Churches and the Protestant Churches. This might well prove a price too high to pay in present circumstances, and thus the argument based on expedient considerations becomes the only one of force against the full Ordination of Women.

As against this, however, it could perhaps be urged that such Ordination would help our Religious thinking in a very salutary way. We think of God almost entirely in Masculine Terms- the Persons of the Trinity are Male in our mode of thought. Actually, of course, they are complete Persons, complete Beings: both male and female they were made in the Image and Likeness of God. ("And a line or more missing due to photocopying of end of a page image, in the image of God he created him: male and female created he them" Genesis 1:26-27. Here it seems clear that Man equals Mankind, including both male and female). Both Male and Female elements and characteristics must be predicated of God, Who is Supra-human, and both man and woman are made in His likeness. (It has sometimes been argued that the Roman Catholic exaltation of the Blessed Virgin Mary into a quasi divine Status can be interpreted as a protest against the exclusive masculinity of the Deity). We need of course to use Personal Terms in speaking of God, because He is personal: the fact that we describe God as "He" does not matter provided we remember that we are not in so doing reducing God to human terms, and falling into the error of making Him in our Image. I have sometimes thought that the traditional rendering of the Lord's Prayer "Our Father, Which art..." rather than "Who art..." is a reminder that God's Being rises far above human conceptions both of Personality and Sex.

However, to conclude this letter, may I say that while I can find no grounds at all, apart from the argument of expediency deriving from Tradition, against the full Ordination of Women, I should not like to see such Ordination. This may be merely masculine prejudice seeping through. Man and Woman are equal as Persons in the sight of God and are equally the objects of His Love and Care. It may well be that this Equality has yet fully to be worked out in terms of Partnership as far as the human race is concerned. Emancipation and Equality need not necessarily means that Women have to be equal competitors with men in all the fields of human activity and service- the Social Pattern, based very largely on economic considerations, has perhaps forced the competitive expression of Equality hitherto, but a better expression could well be found. There are perhaps signs now existing that Women themselves are beginning to question the competitive expression of Equality, and I believe it is true that few of them would like to see Women as Priests and Bishops. The whole matter however, is very controversial, and I would welcome letters from Church Members concerning it.

Rev Kenneth Vine

July 1962

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