The withdrawal of Bishop Philip North from the See of Sheffield in the Church of England marks a watershed. Here is a piece I wrote in January 2011 which has, I think, now that it is clear that the CofE will never have another diocesan bishop opposed to women’s ordination, gained an added poignancy.
‘Remind me to remind you,’ goes the old Sandy Wilson classic, ‘we said we’d never look back.’ But, of course, retrospection is one of the inevitabilities of life. If we did not ‘look back’, we would never learn. Now that the struggle is entering its final stage and the success of the proponents is assured, what is to be learned from the quarter century or so that may of us have consumed fighting the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate?
My own overwhelming impression is the futility of it all. Long ago Richard Holloway wrote to me saying (in an allusion to Victor Hugo) that women’s ordination was an idea whose time had come. He was convinced that those of us who opposed it would find ourselves trying to ‘hold back the tide of God’. He would say that, wouldn’t he? But he had a point.
So much effort was expended refuting arguments which were not arguments at all! What was the point of seeking to demonstrate the absurdity of Tom Torrance’s assertions about frescoes in a Roman catacomb on which he had clearly never clapped eyes? Why did we waste ink on Richard Norris’s assertion about Gregory Nazianzen? Torrance, after all, was a Presbyterian with no Catholic understanding of priesthood; and Gregory had never drawn the conclusions from his famous aphorism that Norris claimed to be inevitable. And then there was ‘Theodora Episcopa’ and Peter Stanford’s obsession with ‘Pope Joan’.
With hindsight it all seems faintly ridiculous. And quite as spurious as the assurances which in those early days were repeatedly given that there was no such thing as a ‘liberal agenda’ and that gay lib and women’s ordination were wholly unrelated. But things have moved on. Now Richard Holloway has surrendered his belief in the God whose tide he said I was trying to hold back; and Gene Robinson has inherited the mantle of Barbara Harris.
My heroine throughout this period, a pocket titan who deserved more praise from her sisters than she got, was Daphne Hampson, whose ‘Theology and Feminism’ (1990) courageously demonstrated that most of the more serious arguments being deployed were not arguments in favour of the ordination of women, but against Christianity. She wrote:
‘Christians believe in particularity. That is to say they believe that God was in some sense differently related to particular events, or may be said in particular to have revealed God’s self through those events, in a way in which this is not true of all other events or periods in history. Above all they believe that that must be said of Christ which is to be said of no other human being…
Now I am not myself a Christian because I do not believe that there could be this particularity. I do not believe, whatever I may mean by God, that it could be said of God that God was differently related to one age or people than God is related to all ages or people …Thus I do not for example think that there could be a human person (which Christians must proclaim) who stood in a different relationship to God than do all other human beings. True, Jesus of Nazareth may have been deeply aware of God; so have others been. But he was no more than that, I believe, a person deeply in tune with God. This is not a Christian position.’
Brave words. They cut through all the spurious machinations which church feminists find obligatory – the attempts to portray Jesus as a proto-feminist and the first centuries of Christianity as a golden age of sexual egalitarianism – and expose the naked truth: that, when all is said and done, the basic arguments in favour of women’s ordination are at best Nestorian and at worst deist.
Looking back, of course, the debate in the 80s of the last century was quaintly naïve on both sides. Opponents accorded proponents a remarkable degree of trust. They took the ‘doctrine of reception’ at face value, and welcomed assurances of provision ‘for as long as it was needed’. Both have proved impostures. On the other hand, proponents (I believe quite genuinely) did not see the wider implications of what they were doing. If all the ramifications of the doctrine of ‘full inclusion’ (as it is now called) had been apparent in 1992 many might have voted differently.
As retirement looms I have a house full of books to deal with. There are, for example, seven shelves of feminist theology and of propaganda about women’s ordination – running the whole gamut from Rosemary Radford Reuther right down to Lavinia Byrne. What to do with it? Will I ever read again Deborah Cameron on ‘Feminism and Linguistic Theory’ or Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s ‘In Memory of Her’? And did I learn anything of lasting value from Brian Wrenn’s ‘What language shall I borrow?’, or from that extensive catena of fantasy works about Mary Magdalen, culminating in Margaret Starbird’s epic ‘The Woman with the Alabaster Jar’?
I had intended to leave them in the top back bedroom, where they live, as a house-warming present for my successor (whoever she may be). And then it occurred to me that they might prove useful in one of those nonresidential training courses the CofE runs for mature ordinands – where books are probably an unfamiliar resource.
Most of them, I fear, are destined for the Oxfam shop, where they will languish unbought alongside acres of Susan Howatch. I, on the other hand, will be curled up before an open fire with a glass of malt whisky and a volume of E.L. Mascall.