Even after last week’s historic vote by the General Synod of the Anglican Church to allow women to hold Episcopal office, there is near consensus that the debate that has besieged the worldwide Anglican Communion will not go away soon.
To be fair to the Anglicans, the question of the status of women in the ministry is a hot potato for many other Christian denominations, ÔÇô including the world’s largest Christian formation, the Catholic Church.
So what is the cause of the hardened positions? The conservative voice within the church argues that Christ’s timeless Church is not subject to shifts of social fashion. On another level, the scripture is shoved into the faces of advocates of women’s ordination. Didn’t Christ commission 12 men as disciples and promote them to apostles? Didn’t St Paul say that the man “is the head of the woman” and much else besides about a woman knowing her place? If it is so clear cut, what’s the basis for the argument?
It’s because, says George Pitcher ÔÇô a theological commentator, scriptural interpretation is much more complex than a simple prescription for male hegemony. Here, he points out that the oft-cited passage in Galatians ÔÇô “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, there is no male and female” – isn’t an exhortation for hermaphrodites or a sexless after-life, but a statement that differences of gender are irrelevant in the Christian family for membership status. And when it comes to the Corinthians passage that says that women should keep quiet in church, a Catholic interpretation of which might be that they were not to lead services, Pitcher points out that research on Middle Eastern history demonstrates that men and women would sit apart at worship.
The service would be held in formal or classical Arabic, in which the women would not be educated ÔÇô and they would start to chat.
“Yes,” says Pitcher, “Jesus selected 12 male disciples, but they had all cut and run by the time he reached Golgotha. Only the women (and the post-adolescent John) remained at the foot of the cross.”
“Mary Magdalene was the first to witness the risen Christ and was dispatched to tell the others, the ‘apostle to the apostles’. In the story of Mary and Martha, it would have been obvious to a first-century audience that Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet within the male part of the house, rather than in the back rooms with the other women, and was training for ministry. When a woman anointed Jesus, to the outrage of the men, it was a priestly action that Jesus accepted as such. The Samaritan woman at the well is sent on an apostolic mission into the city to tell of all she has seen. In Luke, 70 apostles are sent by Jesus to spread the Word; were they really all men? In Romans, Junia is described as an apostle.”
He goes on: “You don’t have to be a devotee of The Da Vinci Code to buy the idea that Jesus was sufficiently radical to have turned his gender-specific society upside down. And the women’s narrative even survives patriarchal editing in the early Church… If we treat women as second-class priests, they shouldn’t be priests at all. If we can’t make them bishops, logic dictates we shouldn’t baptise them.”
To most people, especially those outside the church, it’s somewhat confusing that after years of arguments, which finally concluded in 1992 that it was appropriate to ordain women as priests, the Church of England has now been debating whether to allow them to take on the role of bishop. After all, once it is accepted that women can be priests, surely this enrolls them by default in the three orders ÔÇô priest, bishop and archbishop ÔÇô just as it does for men. However, the 1992 decision specifically states that it does not thereby permit the ordination of women as bishops.
There is no disagreement between the two antagonistic camps that women are an integral part of Jesus’ ministry: he meets with them alone and touches them when they are unclean, shattering contemporary taboos not just for his status as a rabbi but simply as a male in first-century Jewish society. In addition, a woman is the first to discover that he has risen from the dead.
As the church developed and different offices were put in place, women were excluded from these orders but contributed in other ways, such as financial support, hospitality, prayer and involvement in worship.
Scholars trace the move towards women in the priesthood to the Victorian era, originating partly as a reaction to an extreme view of woman’s decreed place in society ÔÇô conforming to the Victorian ideology of married domesticity and motherhood. A revival of religious communities in the 1840s established places where women were not only secure and provided for, but also valued. In addition, these communities offered a structured framework for significant work within society and the church. The response to this from the Church of England was to create the order of deaconess, a role which sat alongside the lay ministries of women in other churches, such as the Methodist church, where gender has never been a barrier to any form of service.
In the 20th century, as women’s role in society changed, so did their role within the Church of England. In the wake of women achieving the vote in 1918, the issue of female priests was raised in 1919 with a report on the work of deaconesses. It dismissed the question.
In 1935 the role of deaconess was recognised as being of the clergy as opposed to the laity, but again prohibited women from becoming deacons, priests, bishops or archbishops.
Finally, in 1984, not only were women permitted to be deacons but legislation for the ordination of women began to be prepared. It took until 1992 for the Synod to vote that women could function as priests with the statement: ‘The Synod’s decision expresses the mind of the majority of the Church of England insofar as this can be ascertained.’ In 1994 women were finally ordained as priests.
However, an undefined period of “reception”’ was instigated to enable the church at large to discern whether this really was God’s will and to enable Anglicans, in effect, to get used to the idea. This period of reception is an important element in the current arguments over whether women can go further in the church.
Says Cristina Odone, a Catholic woman: “For society at large it is difficult to view this issue as anything other than a question of women’s rights. But it is far more than a discussion about whether a woman is capable of managing people and leading them spiritually. In fact it goes directly to the heart of what individual Christians like me believe about the nature of our relationship with God; who God is; how he relates to us; what his will is for us both as individuals and as a community.
“I remember hearing a debate on the ordination of women over dinner in 1991. It was proposed that this was an issue of women’s rights, but I felt strongly that this was wrong. No one ÔÇô man or woman ÔÇô has the right to be a priest. It is a particular calling to a difficult but amazing role in God’s church and as such it is up to God who is or isn’t going to be one. If women have been called to be bishops, then perhaps it is not up to us to justify or condemn it in terms of scripture but simply to work out how to make that happen.”
Last week’s vote came 16 years after the synod voted, after similarly fractious debate, to approve the ordination of women as ministers. But traditionalists, unreconciled to the end of the male monopoly within the clergy, have warned that approving women as bishops could lead to a breakup of the church. The move to followed the lead taken by Anglican churches elsewhere; in the United States, Australia and Canada, women have been appointed as bishops for some years.
There is a passage in the Acts of the Apostles, where Gamaliel, a respected Pharisee or teacher, comments on the teachings of Peter and says: “If this idea or this work is of men, it will come to nothing. But if it is from God, you can’t stop it, in case by chance you are found to fight against God.”
Could it be that last week God worked through the General Synod to change the church’s mindset forever?