A great deal has been said and written recently in England about the place of women in the church. Eight centuries ago things were different: it is said that when Bernard of Clairvaux was kneeling before a statue of the Virgin she opened her lips to speak, but he said: “Silence; it is not permitted to a woman to speak in the church.”
Nancy Hardesty points out that the American frontier knew many women preachers and missionaries, “but as the evangelical church became a respectable institution in middle-class suburbia, women … were often banned or at least commonly excluded from church governing boards.” Writing in a symposium (The Cross and the Flag, ed. Clouse, Linder, and Pierard) that deserves better than the sour review published in this journal, Miss Hardesty criticizes an attitude toward women ministers found among evangelical churchmen: “God doesn’t seem to be calling women to the ministry any more.” In Britain the initial call was delayed until this century, and even yet because of atmospheric disturbance it has not been clearly heard in some denominations.
In Scotland, the tireless prodding of Mary Lusk, an Edinburgh B.D., led in 1967 to an official Kirk report on the place of women in the church, in 1968 to a 42–17 vote in presbyteries in favor of women ministers, in 1969 to the first ordination, and in 1972 to the induction of the first woman parish minister. The United Free Church of Scotland and the Congregationalists have ordained women since 1929.
In England, the Presbyterian Church accepted the principle in 1921, but it was three decades before the first woman was ordained. The Baptist yearbook lists a dozen women ministers—in a separate section, after the men. Methodists have dithered about women in the ministry, seemed to have been on the point of decision twice, but from 1966 were inhibited because of the implications for the merger scheme (since rejected) with the Church of England.
The latter body has given the subject a good airing during the past six years after the church assembly discussed a report on Women and Holy Orders—and declined then to say that “there are no conclusive theological reasons why women should not be ordained to the priesthood.” A motion that women be considered for ordination on the same basis as men was overwhelmingly rejected by all three houses.
The 1968 (pan-Anglican) Lambeth Conference committee on the subject disagreed, but the conference itself stalled by requesting that provinces study the matter and report. In 1971 the Anglican Consultative Council at Limuru in Kenya found that not a single province had sent the results of its study. It did, however, advise by a 24–22 vote that if a bishop ordain women to the priesthood with the approval of his province the action would be acceptable to the council.
The bishop of Hong Kong did in fact that year ordain two women. A predecessor of his had ordained a woman in 1944, but this was regarded by Archbishop William Temple as an “uncanonical action” and she resigned for the sake of the harmony of the church. Grave doubts have been raised about the acceptance in other provinces of the latest two women priests from Hong Kong; one critic suggests strikingly that they could “be frozen in that diocese.”
In late 1971 the Council for Women’s Ministry in the Church (of England) urged by a very large majority that the church “should now take steps to enable women to be admitted to the Order of Priesthood.” In 1972 an official Church of England report, Ordination of Women to the Priesthood, warned that any attempt to isolate the matter from “the whole current debate on ministry” could be “disastrous.” In another section the report declares that the subject cannot be divorced from “the right context of the mission of Christ to the world.” (And Professor E. L. Mascall says it is inseparable from “the significance of sexual differentiation in the order of redemption as a whole.”) Eminently reasonable all this may sound, but there is no more effective way to blur issues than by continually broadening the background.
The report referred to, heavily weighted with quotations from Roman Catholic and Anglo-Catholic writers, sneaks in another roadblock or two. “Can a woman be ordained to the priesthood?” it asks. (“Can an archdeacon be saved?”) The report sees the danger: ordain women and you might have to consecrate them too. So reasons are advanced against this ghastly prospect. I quote: “The bishop is the father of his diocese, of both clergy and laity, but no woman can be a father.” Deprived of their “father figure,” moreover, women would leave the church. And predictably the report is not free from the tendency to contrast trouble-bringing women clergy with ideal male counterparts.
Some Anglicans complicate the situation yet further by always having an objection in reserve. Thus E. L. Mascall, in an essay “Women and the Priesthood of the Church,” insists first that this subject should be discussed “upon a strictly theological plane,” then immediately under “non-theological considerations” goes on to warn that the ordination of women “would put an additional and extremely serious obstacle in the way of future reunion with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches … [which fact] should be a quite sufficient deterrent to anyone who does not identify Christianity … with Protestantism.” Does this mean that it would not matter if Anglo-Catholics lost the theological battle?
Mascall’s essay, otherwise a very cogent statement of the Anglo-Catholic position, is contained in the symposium Why Not? (ed. M. Bruce and G. E. Duffield, Marcham Manor Press), “written by scholars of the Catholic and Evangelical traditions, giving theological reasons why women should not be ordained to the priesthood.” Among conclusions drawn in the book are that the ordination of women is a historical novelty; that it is excluded by New Testament teaching; that its supporters read things into the text, not out of it, by selectivity and subjectivity; and that it is controverted by Catholics, Presbyterian, and evangelical theology.
This is a very able book that a serious student of the subject cannot ignore, but I found myself wondering about the accusation of “selectivity” against those who think differently, particularly when the symposium includes no writer who favors women ministers. Also, an appeal to make theology the norm is valid only from those who make a practice of it on other issues.
A letter in the Church of England Newspaper says: “To say there are Biblical grounds which make ordination of women impossible is to deny the findings of the Lambeth Conference.” Well, that is that; it is good to get one’s priorities right. I may be uncertain about the ordination of women, but it is perversely comforting to find that Anglicans are even more confused.
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