c) The Ordination of Women


Let me give you my position before we start and before I go into some of the theological issues. You will, then, know where I'm coming from. I have four basic convictions.

First, we are dealing with an extremely sensitive issue. Emotions run high on both sides. I believe it is essential we de-escalate the rhetoric and lower the emotional temperature.

Secondly, we tend to argue against extreme positions on either side, rather than against the best positions on either side and then listen to what is being said.

Thirdly, polarisation has meant that too often we have not really discussed the issues. We've had 'politics' rather than theology. I am not sure that that is the best way to solve the problems related to this sort of dilemma.

Fourthly, we then have a confusion of issues. We mix questions of ordination itself, ministry, priesthood, gifts, leadership, the doctrine of the Church, sacramental theology, sexuality, sexual role and the function of institutionalized offices. Many of us do not want to give one blanket answer that implies there is no complexity of issues. The key issue, of course, is that of biblical interpretation and deciding what in the bible is cultural and what is trans-cultural?

With the background of those four convictions I see the various campaigns as leading us on a collision course. So that is why I'm cautious in this whole business.

I also have to say that I am only 70 per cent convinced of my own position. For me there are still problems; some things are 'grey'. But it's no good pointing up the 30 per cent of weaknesses in my position. I cannot with integrity change my position until I am convinced 71 per cent of the other side's point of view. But today in many areas we adopt an irresponsible ethics of 'exceptions': people build on 'the 30 per cent of anomalies' in all sorts of areas, both in the world and in the church, to overturn what is 70 per cent certain.

Finally, by way of introduction can I say two other things?

First, my wife is a doctor. I have not only a son, but two (lively) daughters - one is at the university, the other is hoping to go to a university.

At Jesmond Parish Church we often have nearly 800 different people with us on a Sunday and they are ministered to by a full-time staff, mostly lay, but with a number of women among them -very able women. One, for example, has been a probation officer, a social worker and also has a degree in theology - she is now in charge of our pastoral work; another was in charge of RE in a State school and is now in charge of our youth work; and so on. We believe in women's ministry.

I honestly can say I am totally 'for women' - their education, their training and their fulfilment. But the senior ministry, comprising the 'presbyters' (or, in the shortened form, the 'priests') at Jesmond Parish Church, is male.

Secondly, I want to say this. I believe that our culture has moved, at large, from a 'truth' orientation to a 'needs' orientation. For many people today 'truth' is unimportant. Certainly it is not absolute. What matters, they say, is what helps them or what makes them feel comfortable; and what meets their perceived needs.

Personally I am opposed to this cultural drift. Once you lose a grip on 'truth' you are soon awash in a sea of irrationality and that can be very dangerous. But if you start from the 'truth' side of the equation - as I do - you are, today, on an uphill battle. Many people think you are odd. The fashion is to give greater weight to 'needs'. So you seem to be 'hard-hearted' for stressing 'truth'. But remember the Bible says, 'the truth will make you free.'

Also, I come to this issue as an Evangelical. I take the Bible seriously. Of course, I realise that the Bible is a book that reflects various cultures. So I am concerned to see what is cultural and what is supra or trans-cultural in it. I agree, we must question the text.

But - and this is the big 'but' - we must let the text question us as well, with all our cultural bondage and with all our prejudices in favour of innovation and against tradition.

The Old Testament

Let me start with the Old Testament. The basics are generally clear.

Genesis 1.27 affirms human sexuality and the equality of the sexes:

so God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

In chapter 2 of Genesis the difference between the sexes is affirmed with the creation of Adam and Eve, with Adam having the role of communicating God's word to Eve.

In chapter 3 of Genesis you have the 'Fall' when the loving and equal distinction of role is degraded into one of male 'domination':

3.16 (Eve is being addressed) your desire shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you.

This is the Genesis narrative on sex and sexuality.

Two things need to be noted. First, the distinction between men and women is there before the Fall. There is no other fundamental distinction in human kind at the beginning of creation. That is why as someone has well said:

to be human is to share humanity with the opposite sex.

And secondly, following from that, because this is all part of the creation, it is implied that sexuality is the way things are. Fundamental sexual difference is a matter of creation, not of history.

The Greeks tried to say that sexuality was not part of the created order but subsequent to it. They had a myth of a sexless hominid who was first created and who was subsequently split in two.

Jumping the centuries, Marx and Engels argued that sexual difference, apart from minor plumbing differences, were all due to historical evolution and were not essential.

But the Biblical view, as seen here in these creation narratives, is that there are essential differences at a fundamental level between men and women. There is equality - total equality in the sight of God - but difference.

And so the Christian aim is to get us back from Genesis 3, where there is that wrong male domination, to Genesis 1, where there is equality and Genesis 2, where there is difference.

You say, what about the rest of the Bible? Well, let's move on.

In the book of Judges you come across Deborah. She was a remarkable woman. But she was a 'charismatic' figure. The Holy Spirit came upon her and she acted, as she was inspired, for the Lord. She was not an institutional figure.

That is very important. For later in the Old Testament we meet other 'charismatic' figures - prophetesses, like Huldah. But there are no priestesses in the Old Testament.

I find this remarkable.

There were plenty of priestesses in the Ancient Near East, among Israel's neighbours. In Canaanite religion you had priestesses and cult prostitutes. But Canaanite religion was what the Old Testament prophets were so against.

There seemed to be a resistence to institutionalizing women for religious leadership. Yes, if the Holy Spirit came upon them - and it was the Holy Spirit, not some demonic agency -they must function as they were inspired. But no, they were not 'ordained' or institutionalized.

So much for the Old Testament.

What about the New Testament?

The New Testament - Jesus

We start of course with Jesus.

Now, remember, Jesus was supremely unconditioned by his culture. Judaism (though not all of it) did repress women. But Jesus broke through this tradition. He taught women.

You remember the 'Woman at the Well' in John 4? Jesus had women in his band of disciples. He was the great women's liberator. Nor was he bound by tradition if it obscured his Father's will. What he was concerned to do was to go back to basics. So in Mark 10.6 he says:

from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female.'

Jesus affirms sexuality; he treats both sexes as equal, but he sees the differences.

It is against this background that you have to note his choosing 12 male Apostles.

I personally find this difficult; but it is a fact.

Christ's mission was so important; he needed as many committed people who wanted to serve him as possible. So why not put into that number one of the Mary's? They were perfectly capable of travelling around the country with him - they did. But he didn't include them in the 12. And I can't ignore that fact.

Then there was the Last Supper. It seems to have been a Passover meal. Normally you would have had women and children participating. But there were no women at the Last Supper, just the 12 male apostles.

The New Testament - St Paul

Many people say the trouble started with Paul; and they go on to say, 'Oh! Don't bother with him; he was just echoing his culture.'

The trouble with that argument is this: Paul was the great opponent of Jewish culture. That's what led to his trial at Rome - for saying that the Gentiles needn't be circumcised to be accepted by God; for faith in Jesus Christ was the key to justification. But circumcision was the mark of Jewish culture.

There is a lot of mythology about the culture of Paul's day - the culture of the Ancient Greco-Roman world.

The Greeks in the classical age treated women in various ways. In Athens they were repressive; in Sparta they were less so. The Romans in their classical age were by no means always repressive. Indeed, by the end of the first century AD there was a 'women's liberation' movement in the Roman world.

Juvenal, the Latin satirical poet, in his 6th satire gives us a series of portraits of the 'modern woman'. She has abandoned her traditional duties and pleasures in an attempt to compete with men, not only in literature and law, and in giving advice to the generals of the legions, but also in joining men in hunting, learning swordplay for the arena, and swaggering about in men's clothes. 'I am a human being after all (homo sum)' was the cry. They tried not only to out-think, but also, according to Juvenal, to out-drink and out-eat the men!

It was to churches in that kind of world, and in urban centres where culture changes fastest, that Paul was writing his epistles.

So what does Paul actually say?

He affirms sexuality in 1 Corinthians 7. He teaches full sexual equality in Gal 3.28:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, ther is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

But he sees the distinctions.

And Paul, Timothy and Titus set up 'elders' (presbuteroi/priests) and 'overseers' (episcopoi/bishops).

But these were all male. The key qualification for their appointment was faithfulness to the word of the Gospel. They were to be leaders of the community and they were to lead by the word. And these were, of course, communities known for sharing in a common eucharistic mean (holy communion).

There were no hang ups, however. Women functioned effectively in this structure. There was Lydia (a distinguished business women), Priscilla and others. Women prayed and prophesied. But, writes Paul,

I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. (1 Cor 11.3)

Now, I know of the attempts to make these and other similar texts say something other than they seem to be saying. But I do not find these attempts convincing. For the hierarchy of relationships here is based on the inner life of the divine Trinity. It has nothing to do with culture. Our triune God is the creator of, not the product of, human culture.

And note that while there is 'subordination' here, there is no domination. The Father does not 'dominate' the Son. And, of course, the Son is equal to the Father. It was on this that the early Church was so adamant in the Arian controversy. And these hierachies are not those of privilege, but of responsiblity. And this underlies the Genesis narrative as it relates to the sexes.

The result? It seems to me that the New Testament teaches that the richness of human life comes through a co-operative relationship with the opposite sex while maintaining sexual difference and equality.


But we find this hard. Why?

There have been two pressures.

First, there have been gross injustices towards women and a degradation of women down the centuries in some cultures.

Here's Plato - 'a bad man's fate was to be reincarnated as a woman.'

Here's Aristotle - 'females are imperfect males accidently produced by their fathers' inadequacy.'

And the Pharisees prayed and thanked God that they 'were not born a Gentile, a slave or a woman.'

It is as bad in Hinduism, or worse - Ghandi wrote:

A Hindu regards himself as Lord and master of his wife, who must ever dance attendance on him.

In Islam the Koran says that Allah made men superior to women.

All this comes from the male domination following the Fall. It accepts the distinctions between the sexes but denies the equality that the bible teaches in Genesis and that Jesus underlined. It is clearly sinful. And one has every sympathy with the feminist movement for rejecting it.

But then there is the other extreme. While accepting the equality, this extreme denies the distinctions. This is the feminist movement's mistake.

A 'father' of modern feminism was Engels. He said that the way to change society was to change the family. And the way to change the family was to change the role of the mother. He says the family and its role structures simply reflect the oppression of the proletariat by the capitalist class. Let me quote:

modern society is grounded on a blatant or concealed domestic enslavement of women, and modern society is a material mass consisting of molecules of numerous individual families. The husband is the bourgeois of the family, and the wife represents the proletariat.

And that has led to the extremes of someone like Shulamith Firestone. In The Dialectic of Sex she demands the elimination of even genital sexual characteristics, because she sees that among animals a certain subordination of the female results from sex differences. She is hopeful of modern biology as the way to utopia. She wrote rather prophetically in 1970:

choice of the sex of the foetus, test-tube fertilization ... are just round the corner.

This is the trend towards 'androgyny'; it is also the 'homosexual' ideal.

One of the first women to be ordained to the priesthood in the US was Ms Ellen Marie Barrett. She was ordained by the Bishop of New York, Paul Moore, in 1977. Prior to her ordination she had been active in the Gay Movement and had served as an officer of 'Integrity', an Episcopalian homosexual group. At the time of her ordination she was an avowed and practising lesbian. She claimed that 'what feeds the strength and compassion I bring to the ministry' was her relationship with her lesbian partner.

The homosexual philosophy is that there are no fundamental distinctions between the sexes.

Of course, many support the Ordination of Women who are appalled by those in the Church who are pushing for an acceptance of homosexual behaviour. But some argue that it is a 'slippery slope'. One of the key women behind the recent vote in the [Gemeral] Synod [of the Church of England] was reported in the press as saying this was the first step. The next would be to ordain open homosexuals and then for the church to recognize Gay marriages.

It was Margaret Mead, the anthropologist, who argued that when the differences between the sexes are obscured, erotic needs get focused solely and exaggerately on genital sexuality. And. isn't that what we have today - a sex besotted culture? It has recently been revealed that the richest man in the UK is Paul Raymond - someone who has made his fortune out of pornography and the graphic or dramatic presentation of eroticism in general and (mostly female) genitalia in particular. But, as Manfred Hauke argues:

at the same time the erotic instinct becomes less sure, and there is a veritable boom in homosexuality.

Well, there we are. The issues are complex.

I am a 'conservative' in the sense of following Augustine. He said that where the Bible doesn't speak clearly we follow the tradition of the Church.

Now if you follow Church history, you will find that there have been attempts to ordain women and they have failed. The Gnostics in the early church ordained women. Epiphanius in the 4th century says that they justified this on the basis of Gal 3.28 ('in Christ are neither male nor female'). Epiphanius countered by quoting 1 Cor 14.34 and 1 Tim 2.12 and drawing attention to the fact that Paul referred to the order of creation in 1 Cor 11.8.

So this debate was going on in the 4th century (it is nothing new). But the Church that survived was made up of those Christians that agreed with Epiphanius rather than the Gnostics. Gnosticism - as with most heresies - died a death.


Yes, 'gifts' are to be used in ministry. And at the moment in some churches there are restrictions on gifted women that are unwarranted and should be lifted.

With regard to the world outside the Church I have few problems. I can accept a woman Prime Minister - after all Deborah in the Old Testament (already referred to) was the archetypal 'Iron Lady'. Nor do I have problems with women in secular professions - after all Lydia was a 'seller of purple'. But Paul who knew all about her and about the spiritual equality of the sexes still spoke about man as the 'head'. And this is higly embarassing to the 'spirit of the age'; but there it is in the text.

So what can I say in conclusion?

First, because of the teaching on equalIty, sexual segregation (apart from the requIrements of modesty and common sense) is generally inhuman; rather there should be mutual respect and openness - this is one of the great and good insights that has come through feminist pressure.

But, secondly, the essential man/woman relationship is intrinsically non-reversible. And this is where 'the rubber hits the road' as far as our own cultural bondage is concerned.

What does 'non-reversibilIty' mean in practice? Let me quote at this point Dr J.l.Packer:

It means, other things being equal, a situation in which a femdle boss has a male secretary, or a marriage in which the woman (as we say) wears the trousers, will put mnore strain on the humanity of both parties than if it were the other way round.

The creation narrative, and Paul's allusions to it, make it clear that this is all part of the created order - a given. Nothing will change it; certainly not redemption. Grace restores nature, it does not destroy It

So now we come to the critical questIon. And it is this? Will the ordination of women to the priesthood affect the relational dynamics between men and women. Will it be more than just a specific role reversal, merited by special circumstances or special people? Will it be a relational reversal?

As an Evangelical I have no problems with women celebrating the Holy Communion. But I do have a problem with a woman being the instituted president of the eucharistic ccmmunity. Of course, gifted women can lead. But with ordination of women to the priesthood, as a matter of social psychology and Anglican fact, I believe we will be institutiona1izing the possibility of relational reversal and not just role reversal. That is why Archbishop William Temple argued that if the need was for a celebrant, it would be right to authorize a deaconess (now deacon) to celebrate Holy Communion rather than ordain her a priest, with the inevitable consequence of her being spiritual 'head' in the eucharistic community.

C.S. Lewis, speaking of the ordination of women to the priesthood, referred to 'a sense of disquiet (experienced by women as well as men) which is hard to analyse.' I have tried to explain why there is this disquiet.

No, we must never impose restrictions on women's ministry that Scripture does not impose.

Yes, we must accept all the insights of the women's movement that show how blind so many in the church (and elsewhere), over the centuries, have been to women's gifts, roles and equality.

But let me finish with some word's of Clark Pinnock:

If it should turn out to be true that God did intend males to exhibit strength in leadership roles and females to excel more as the guardians of society's emotional resources, why should this be viewed ipso facto as an evil arrangement?

The key today is not to be passionate, but to be biblical. We must not listen to the repression of earlier centuries; nor to the reaction of the 20th century. We must listen to the Apostolic teaching of the Bible.

The Bible says God is to be conceived as 'he', yet the great example of human faithfulness was a 'she' - Mary the mother of Jesus. It is not that 'maleness' or 'femaleness' is better or worse. It is not that male or female roles are better or worse; or that certain church orders are better or worse. It is all a matter of our calling. And not every calling is open to either sex. Males cannot be called to be mothers. I've yet to be persuaded by the Bible, tradition or reason that females can be called to be heads of eucharistic communities - that is to say, presbyters or bishops. Some disagree; they even believe the ordination of women is the key to the Church's future. But surely hope for the future will only come as churches wait afresh on God for his Holy Spirit and as there is a return to the Gospel that Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, is the only Saviour and Lord.

Back to top