Sheffield’s women and Christian sacraments

AltarThis is the third of three blog posts responding to the appointment of Philip North, an opponent of women priests, as Bishop of Sheffield.

In the first I described Martyn Percy’s argument that the appointment should not proceed as long as Philip rejects the priesthood of the women priests there. In the second I described the trend for ecclesiastical decrees from on high to substitute for theological analysis of the issue. This time I turn to the theological question.

Let us be clear that decrees from on high are not an adequate substitute. To say that the Church of England should not have women priests because the Orthodox and Roman Catholics do not have them is not to give a reason why women cannot be priests: it is only to say that the Pope and the patriarchs have a reason. All we have done is to pass the buck. What reason do they have?

Valid priesthood

The Anglican Catholic rejection of the priesthood of women stands in the tradition of the nineteenth century Tractarian movement. The claim is that a priest is different from a layperson by virtue of a spiritual grace imparted by the Holy Spirit at ordination, and the grace is not imparted to women. This is sometimes called the ‘ontological’ claim.

Thus it needs two parts. One describes the faculties possessed by priests. The other explains why women cannot have them. If we can give an adequate account of both of these we will be able to see why women cannot be priests.

The traditional answer to the first is that priests are given by God the following three faculties:

  • Absolution: the ability to declare on God’s behalf that God forgives the sinner.
  • Blessing: the ability to declare on God’s behalf that God seeks the well-being of those blessed.
  • Consecration: the ability to turn bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.

The claim is that when a woman does these things they are invalid. To say that they are invalid is to say that the absolutions and blessings fail to speak on behalf of God and the bread and wine do not become the body and blood of Christ. Elsewhere I have described at greater length the history of the idea of validity of sacraments. It is a rather magical idea, presuming that in order to ‘work’ they have to be done by the right people following the right procedures.

Spiritual unobservables

The Tractarians meant it. Their movement reacted against the materialist beliefs of their day by insisting on spiritual realities that transcend ordinary observation. In their reacting they looked back to medieval Christianity. But medieval Christianity, for all that it believed in countless invisible angels and demons, was not anti-empirical. Medievals often believed, for example, that a witch who managed to steal consecrated Communion bread could use it to cast spells and produce real physical effects. Nobody believes this today. So what difference remains between validly and invalidly consecrated Communion wafers? We might say that valid wafers really are the body of Christ, but what does that mean? Medieval theories of substance and essence could claim that its physical constituents change, but nobody believes them now.

Similarly, despite John 20:23 (where the apostles of Jesus are told ‘If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’) few today believe that whether God forgives someone depends on whether an absolution was given by a validly ordained priest. Ditto for blessings.

The collapse of these old theories may look like good news for Sheffield’s women priests: all that talk about them not being real priests is built on a vacuum. Sadly, they are not helped one bit. What burdens them is not whether their priesthood really is valid, but whether powerful people think it is.

Where does this leave us? By way of analogy, let’s say that Barchester Football Club appoints a new manager, who believes Africans cannot play football. A third of the team are Africans. What happens? It would be clear to everyone that he cannot do the job unless he either changes his view or fires all the Africans. The main difference between this and the case of women priests is that the football question can be answered empirically, by seeing how well the Africans play.

Or suppose the new Practice Manager at a doctor’s surgery believes that a third of the prescriptions being given are no better than placebos. Whether this is true would be harder to establish, but even so the medical community have well-tried processes for judging the efficacy of drugs.

In the case of women priests there is absolutely no way to make any empirical judgement. We can never show that if x had, or had not, been a true priest, y would, or would not, have happened.

What are we really arguing about?

But in this case, what difference remains between validly ordained priests and invalidly ordained priests such as women? It seems to me that we are forgetting to ask. Nobody can say. My impression is that there was more theological debate before the 1992 vote on women priests than there is today. Much of it was not of a high quality, but there was at least theological debate – about how priests do things for God and whether women can do them. Today one strugges to find any. Nobody really knows what we are arguing about. It is as though we have settled for a culture where we don’t expect to understand, so we live with the contradictions.

There are two possible responses. One is that opposition to women priests simply represents some people’s discomfort with a more gender-equal society. The other is what Marx called ‘mystification’. We should not expect to understand, because it’s all very spiritual and mysterious. So we just accept what we are told.

The latter is what we get from the hierarchies. Anglican opponents of women priests appeal to the authority of Pope and patriarchs. The Church of England produces the Five Guiding Principles – not a theological statement at all, but a management statement telling us to accept the differences of opinion as permanent items of ecclesiastical furniture. It even speaks the language of people being ‘unable to receive the ministry of women bishops or priests’, as though disagreeing with women priests was a kind of permanent genetic disability.

Rescuing priesthood

If this is the best we can do the priesthood of women, for all that it has been formally approved, continues to live under a cloud of uncertainty. However, as indicated above the uncertainty is not about any feature specific to women. It is not as though we are quite clear what happens to bread when it is consecrated and have biological reasons for doubting whether it can happen under a woman’s hands. We don’t get that far. The uncertainty is about what we mean by priesthood in the first place. So in the long term the ongoing differences are bound to undermine the very idea of priesthood.

I conclude, therefore, with a brief account of how I would defend the idea of priesthood independently of Tractarian doctrine or biblical literalism.

Every healthy society has a diverse range of personalities. Some people love cooking. Some people love bringing up children. Some people love growing food. We need a lot of those. We also need people who like tinkering with machinery, or taking a lead in government – not so many, but enough. In the same way we also need people who specialise in understanding how we relate to God and helping people to worship. Like the other faculties, it is given by God. It is not given through valid ordination, any more than being good at cooking is a qualification given by an institution. Training is usually needed, but there is no invisible ‘ontological’ difference between a priest and a layperson. Instead, every community can see for itself who makes a good priest.

So don’t let unnecessary restrictions get in the way. If somebody looks as though they would be a good priest, let them be a priest, whether man or woman.

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16 Responses to Sheffield’s women and Christian sacraments

  1. Marianne Valkass says:

    I think that the discussion is fascinating. Would like to also suggest that maybe historically the philosophers and theological arguements presented for Women not being suitable for priesthood may have been based upon sound reason. One suspects that in the past Women in the majority were responsible for marrying early, having many children and serving their husband. Their time was taken up in these tasks. That was how it was. Husbands therefore were responsible for providing for the household. I have 3 boys who are little and try to find space and time to focus on my relationship with God, develop my theological and philosophical understanding of Religion and you know kids get in the way – noisy, demanding, constant attention etc and housework etc get in the way. It is far easier to find the peace, space and time to dedicate to God and the priesthood if you have someone else to take on these elements of life. I suspect in years past the people who concluded it was just men who should be priests were merely making this observation. Interestingly I also note that that psychological distancing from close family often occurs naturally as priests become more devoted to God – hence why nuns and monks came to be and probably why St Paul said that it is best for Priests to remain unmarried. Just a few thoughts for the pot….

    • Thanks Marianne. I wonder how others will respond. Looking back on my time as a parish priest, I left Marguerite to do nearly all the child care. I’m not sure what I was doing was more important, or more godly.

      • Jacky says:

        I think there may be something in that. Ordained Anglican women in developing countries with more patriarchy still ingrained can sometimes struggle to function as priests because of the expectation of other time consuming roles.

    • Super points, Marianne! Thank you. I’ve not seen them raised before. Yet reading you, I am instantly convinced that yours are the points that should be central to any consideration of the validity of women priests. Indeed, in light of what you have pointed out, that validity can accrue only to women without children, or to those whose children are grown. (It is only a few weeks ago that I came upon someone’s remark that 2016 saw, for the first time, more women ordained than men. I wonder how many of those women have dependent children.)

  2. Rosalind Lund says:

    Yet in the early church many of the house churches seem to have been led by women. As the Church got more powerful men wanted to take over.

  3. Thank you, Jonathan, for yet another case well made out, again with your usual engaging lack of sanctimony. I rather suspect that the pleasure of reading you makes me light-headed and prone to saying things you might prefer to delete. But even so:

    I wonder whether the validity of the priesthood of women is not always a contingency of the times? For instance, the 12th century women Perfects of the Cathars had a cultural history that had them well and truly validated by the 12th century. So no ‘buts’ arose at the time. The contemporary woman priest does not have anything like that established status. Then again, the Cathars stood in opposition to the mainstream church of the time. So indeed had the Early Christian Gnostics, among whom women preachers were of equal standing. But in both cases (Cathar and Gnostic) the ethos was vehemently anti-clerical. So their prominent religious leaders were not priests. Indeed, the mainstream church never did have women priests until the 1970s. And that is too recently for comfort.

    And now my hairy point: I know no more than six women priests. All of those are, rather sadly, poor physical specimens. I have examined lots of group photographs of women priests, to find much the same thing. So my question: Is there a perception that women who become priests are ‘peculiar’ women … and hence not suitable for the priesthood? (There are peculiar looking male priests too. But they merge with the not-peculiar majority.)

    Right. I’ve said it. And I’m braced for chastisement.

  4. Mikhail Ramendik says:

    I have spent decades arguing against the things that you simply dismiss, saying few believe them today. So your statement is, sorry to say this, factually false.

    There are very many people among Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox who do believe, emphatically, that whether the bread and wine are in any real way the Body and Blood of Christ does depend on whether the priest was validly ordained. Ditto for forgiveness of sins. And for them, it is a big part of the argument against female priests.

    The only way in which such teaching is restrained in Anglicanism is, for all I know, the Porvoo Document. Some Lutherans do not have “manual succession” and the decades of argument about it resulted in the Porvoo agreement.

    Before Porvoo, Anglicans like C.B.Moss taught exactly that.

    I agree with ordination of women and I disagree with “High Catholic” teaching on what priests are. But I think you are advancing a very flawed argument by dismissing things as outdated without considering the crowds that do believe in them.

    • Mikhail, please correct me if I have missed something, but it seems to me that your accusing Jonathan of ‘flawed argument’ is quite strange. After all, the Eastern Orthodox Church seceded from the Western Church in the 10th century, and the departure of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism was in rapid making from the 16th century. Jonathan speaks as a contemporary Anglican, and his canvas is contemporary Anglican theology/ecclesiology. The points he makes pertain to the contemporary Anglican context. And he makes those points with a pretty stunningly brilliant cogency. He might have chosen to conduct a relativist discourse on the merits of the beliefs (that pertain to women priests) of Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism. But that would have been quite another article.

      • Thanks Sophie. I didn’t respond immediately to Mikhail because I couldn’t think of anything to say without repeating myself boringly. Mikhail’s argument is as far as I can see another version of ‘other people reject women priests so we should take their view seriously’.

        • Jonathan, if what I am about to say is at all germane to the concerns of this thread, then it can be so only tangentially. But I have a burning need to say it: If the Eastern Orthodox Church were not so completely ethnicity tied, I would have sought to join it. The little I’ve seen of it was in Serbian and Russian contexts. My most memorable spiritual experiences happened there, in my early adolescence. (That was a very long time ago.) I now seriously wonder whether it would not do the Western Church a great deal of good to take a close look at what is happening in the Easter Orthodox Church. I suspect that we might come away with some good lessons. For one thing, the hideous child abuse that has blighted the Western Church never did happen in the Eastern Church. Does that not speak in great support of the latter’s doing something right in its approach to devising its priest stock?

          • Is it about priesthood or is it about cultural attitudes to children? My mother was Greek and although I have never lived in Greece I’m in closer touch with my Greek relatives than my British ones. Here’s one story I’ll never forget. When our 3 children were aged around 4-10 we had a holiday travelling round Greece. One day we were walking from the bus stop towards the centre of a small town (I can’t remember which one) and I was in the rear while the children were running on ahead. They passed an elderly woman walking the other way. When the woman got to me she asked in Greek ‘Are they your children?’ My heart sank: what had they done? ‘Yes’, I said nervously. What did she have to say? ‘You must be very proud of them’, with a big smile, and on she went. The British only say that about dogs.

  5. ‘The British only say that about dogs.’ Po po po! And I thought you were going to be serious, Jonathan. 🙂 Still, I’d say it’s about priesthood.

    I’m most intrigued by your Greek Mother. No wonder you are so charming. And you must have some pretty solid experience of the Greek Orthodox Church. I wonder if it is culturally anything like the Slavic Orthodox Churches. And how would you (if you would, that is) compare priesthood in the Greek Orthodox context and in the Western Church?

    • Sophie, about the dogs I wasn’t just being flippant. There’s a real difference in how people treat children. About Greek Orthodox churches, I wish I knew more but my Greek isn’t good enough. When I took my mother to the Orthodox church in Liverpool she said it was 50 years behind what they do in Athens. It didn’t surprise me. Next time we visit I plan to attend a service at the Church of England chaplaincy, and fully expect it to be behind what happens here. It’s the nature of expatriate communities. Last time we visited the relatives they quizzed me about British churches. A couple of women, one very traditional (has an art room in her house to paint icons) and the other more westernised, were keen to know the church scene. The daughter of the more traditional one has in the past told me (she was a teenager at the time) that whenever they ask questions of the priest he tells them not to worry but just keep coming to church.
      My guess is that things will change, quite radically, but they have more pressing things to worry about now. One time we visited (about 20 years ago?) the EU was discussing a plan to drop from EU passports the stated religion of the passport holder. The Archbishop of Athens was preaching eloquently against it. Greece was free because they got their independence from the Muslim Turks. To be Greek is to be Orthodox. No doubt plenty of English people felt much the same after Henry VIII broke with Rome.

  6. ‘The daughter of the more traditional one has in the past told me (she was a teenager at the time) that whenever they ask questions of the priest he tells them not to worry but just keep coming to church.’ Wow! This is so familiar. We (at the time Roman Catholic) were told to say ‘My Lord and my God, please increase my faith’, for it is the devil that puts those doubting thoughts in our heads.

    Thank you for your fascinating account of your experiences of the Greek Church. ‘To be Greek is to be Orthodox.’ Ditto Serbs and Russians. Perhaps that has survived in the CofE, in some small measure? But the differences are massive, are they not?

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