The strongest opposition to women bishops argues ontologically from the nature of the two sexes, and tends to result in what I would call an "impossibilist" position. It is not just that women ought not to be ordained, but that they cannot be: the thing is an impossibility. My impression is that the present pope believes this.
In the debate about the ordination of women to the priesthood, it produced the "pork-pie" argument: a woman can no more be ordained than a pork pie can. This was felt to be offensive, and was probably meant to be, but it only states in an extreme form something that is part of the logic of the position. Men and women are so different that orders simply will not "take" on a woman, and any sacraments an "ordained" woman purports to celebrate will be radically flawed or invalid.
It is possible to argue along these lines that the "gut" reaction many feel to the ordination of women is not mere prejudice, but is grounded in a (perhaps inchoate or semi-conscious) recognition of something that is true of the orders of reality.
We may not know why women cannot be ordained, but our instinctive feeling that they should not be points to some real truth about the nature of men and women which we ignore at our peril. The Church may not have known why it has never ordained women, but there was some deeper wisdom at work that we ought not to overturn lightly.
For those who argue in this way, there is a scriptural backing for an ontological argument in the story of the creation of humankind in Genesis, where man and woman are complementary, not identical. It is not, such people would say, a question of inequality: women are not being regarded as inferior to men. But they do have different distinctive characteristics, and these may be aligned with differences of appropriate function in the Church.
A number of strands are interwoven in these arguments, and I should like to ask their proponents whether they are sure they want to accept what they logically imply.
First, we might agree that men and women are not interchangeable without necessarily thinking that it is relevant to the question of ordained ministry. What are the characteristics of ordination as priest or bishop that go against the complementarity of the sexes? It is possible to construct an intricate argument according to which there is something "male" about celebrating the eucharist, but it is not clear to me that many opponents of women’s ordination would actually buy into it.
Eucharistic theology generally highlights features such as receptivity and openness that are widely thought of as "feminine" rather than "masculine". It is far easier to argue for complementarity within a marital and sexual partnership, and perhaps in other human relationships, than to work it out in terms of the exercise of ministry.
What is it about women that makes them unable to receive the gift of orders? So far as I can see, the argument from the different natures of men and women merely asserts that this is relevant to the sphere of ministry, without showing how or why this so.
To say "men and women are simply not the same", while true, is a mere smokescreen when it is treated as obvious that that means women cannot be ordained. So I would ask, "Are you sure that the admitted differences between men and women are relevant when it comes to considering their suitability for ministry? If so, why?" We need more arguments than we have been given so far.
If opponents of women bishops feel justified in asking how far proponents are merely the victims of secular culture, it seems fair to ask how far opponents may be victims of a smaller-scale ecclesiastical culture that has nothing particular to do with the gospel, but everything to do with sociological factors.
A cartoon in a recent edition of New Directions seemed to me to give the game away. It showed two small boys in church while a woman ministered at the altar, with one saying to the other, "That’s not a priest, it’s your mum!" The cartoon communicated at once to a certain constituency. But it misunderstands the nature of holy orders. It would be just as appropriate to say of a male priest, "That’s not a priest, it’s your dad!"
There is something ridiculous about ordination — not women’s ordination, but ordination as such. A mere mortal becomes the minister of holy things to the people of God. If popes need someone to remind them that sic transit gloria mundi [so the glory of this world passes away], priests and bishops need constantly reminding that, on one level, they are simply someone’s dad (or mum). Women bishops, if we get them, will need reminding of this fact just as male ones; but just as little will they thereby be hindered in their ministry. The minister of the gospel who forgets that he or she is just someone’s parent (brother, sister, son, daughter) is the one to fear.
I understand the instinctive feelings of some opponents of women’s ordination, because for years I felt them myself. I just knew in my bones that there was something wrong with ordaining women, and argued, as above, that this instinctive feeling was the index to some valid reason, even though I couldn’t tell what it was. Occasional feelings of incongruity persist, as when I hear the Sursum Corda sung in a soprano register. I know I shall feel similarly when I first see a woman in a mitre.
But I become steadily more and more convinced that my objections were not principled, but merely cultural. I hope others with the same gut reactions may be persuaded that this is true of them, too.
To my mind, the most powerful argument against ordaining women as bishops is the argument that from earliest times this has never been done. The Church has a persistent and universal tradition against it. To depart from this is to raise grave questions both of ecumenicity and of loyalty to the Christian past. It makes the prospect of eventual reunion with the great Churches that do not ordain women recede into the ever more distant future.
When this argument is probed, however, it turns out to contain a certain amount of question-begging. It is not, empirically speaking, true that there are no Churches that ordain women bishops. Leaving aside fellow-Anglicans, there are all the Lutheran Churches of northern Europe, including our partners in the Porvoo Agreement, the Churches of Scandinavia and the Baltic.
In these Churches there have been women bishops for some time, some of them rather distinguished. Further, these Churches are, like the Church of England, within the historic succession. Their leaders are not simply called "bishops"; they are bishops in the sense believed in by Catholic-minded Anglicans, "successors of the apostles" in the sense that they can trace their lineage back to the ancient Church.
Thus most of the arguments from tradition seem to me to be really covert arguments for Anglicans to convert to Roman Catholicism, or possibly Eastern Orthodoxy. Precedents for ordaining women as bishops are not allowed to count if they occur in Churches other than the Roman Catholic and Orthodox ones. This means that the real test of a "true" or authentic Church is its conformity to Rome or Constantinople, and, if this is so, then the Anglican Church is clearly defective, and one ought to leave it. If you believe these arguments, are you sure you should really go on being an Anglican?
Suppose we grant all the points made by conservatives about the New Testament’s opposition to the exercise of "headship" by women, does the ordination of women as bishops in fact contravene them? Are you sure, in fact, that a bishop is a "head" in the form ruled out by such texts as we are considering?
Surely relevant here is that the Church of England has received the ministry of bishops within the context of a Reformation understanding of ordained ministry.
The bishop’s authority derives from the gospel he preaches and under which he stands, not from his position within a hierarchically organised structure. The Church of England does not reject hierarchy in practical terms. Like many other Churches (Methodism offers clear parallels), it is pyramidal in structure, though (unlike Roman Catholicism) it does not see the pyramid as coming to a point in one man, but as having a flattened top — authority is diffused among many bishops, not concentrated in a pope.
But it does reject hierarchy as a principle. Anglicans do not see bishops as a special kind of being, set over their fellow-believers. A bishop is still just "someone’s dad".
There is nothing ontologically different about a bishop, from this point of view. Bishops do not exercise authority in such a sense that they are an ultimate authority on any matter. Their headship is relative, limited by bodies such as synods and, in England, by the courts and laws of the land.
Obedience is owed to them only "in all things lawful and honest"; they are not meant to "lord it" over their fellow believers. I do not see why episcopal authority so conceived might not, even on a purely "scriptural" basis, be exercised by a woman.
I would ask Evangelical opponents of women bishops in particular: are you sure you are not exaggerating both the importance and the status of bishops in thinking that a woman ordained to the episcopate would be exercising "headship" in the way the apostle Paul forbids?
I cannot see that women bishops raise any questions not already raised by the ordination of women at all, even to the diaconate — especially if, as many Evangelicals believe, bishops do not really constitute a third "order", but are to be seen as simply senior presbyters. On that understanding, the question becomes one of degree; just how much authority must you have to be "head"?
One might argue that a woman cannot be an archbishop, or cannot be Archbishop of Canterbury: but then Anglicans do not ascribe a quasi-papal headship even to the latter. It can reasonably be said that there is no "headship", in Pauline terms, within the Church of England.
John Barton (1929-) was Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture in the University of Oxford, and a fellow of Oriel College.
This edited extract first appeared in the Church Times and comes from The Call for Women Bishops, edited by Harriet Harris and Jane Shaw, published by SPCK (ISBN 0-281-05621-8) at £12.99.