C. S. Lewis has never been a patron of Anglicans favoring women’s ordination, his talent for going to the heart of the issue famously displayed in his essay “Priestesses in the Church?” where he made it clear that the question of whether we should have them concerns not simply modes of operation within the church resting on different interpretations of scripture, or theories of ordination, but nothing less than the symbolic identification of the Christian faith itself. His opening analogy, drawn from one of Bingley’s remarks in Pride and Prejudice, was that just as a ball wouldn’t be so much like a ball without dancing, so the church wouldn’t be so much like the church if it had priestesses—understatement that could still be made playfully in the late 1940s–for a ball is defined by dancing. The reason did not lie (once again, a shot straight to the heart) in the man’s moral or functional superiority, but in the “mere maleness” required to re-present iconically the person of Christ in and to the church. The symbolic effect of placing women at pulpit and altar would be so radical and far-reaching that the religion that practiced it would not be Christianity any more than a ball without dancing would be a ball.
In a former posting, “The Conservative Anglican Mess,” I reported on the Anglican Church of North America’s (ACNA’s) current dealing with the question of women’s ordination, noting that the bishops are mostly against it, but that they would be considering it in an upcoming meeting. I can find nothing that makes one privy to the discussions in the House of Bishops in the meetings held June 21-24 in Charleston, nor would I expect it, but I did find, on the denomination’s website, a document ( http://www.anglicanchurch.net/?/main/Charleston_2016 – scroll to Document Center and use password ) of more than a hundred pages that contained the third of four reports by the Theological Task Force on Holy Orders, submitted at the Charleston meeting, which focuses on “the manner in which ecclesiology relates to ordination and holy orders.” It reports, “We also have begun the last phase of our work, Phase 4, in which we are examining the arguments for and against the ordination of women.”
The Task Force says it is not its role to formulate “the answer for the Province, but to “lead the College of Bishops [!] in a discussion about this important issue.” Its “final report [Phase 4] will be shaped with that purpose in mind.” The Task Force will be “spending the remainder of 2016 dealing with the arguments for and against the ordination of women.” Its goal is “to present our final report to the College of Bishops at their meeting in January 2017.” So, the bishops have not yet received the Task Force’s final report, commissioned to lead them in their deliberations on women’s ordination.
It is worth citing the Phase 3 report at length:
The examination conducted by the Task Force in the area of ecclesiology, has revealed that there are diverging perspectives within the Anglican tradition over the essential characteristics of ordained ministry, which have been acceptable positions to hold within our tradition. While we do not want to minimize the reality of our shared understanding and agreement on the theology of holy orders, anchored in the Ordinal and the Book of Common Prayer; yet we must recognize that the interpretation of the words of the Ordinal and the understanding of the theological context behind it are variously understood. Up until our own time, these differences have been held in tension, but they have not been the occasion for deep division. As long as someone was ordained through the proper form of the Ordinal, no one within our tradition questioned the validity of the ministry of the ordained person, even though its significance may have been differently defined. The ordination of women presents a different sort of challenge. Here the dispute is centered on the suitability of the ordinand herself. Of course, the question of suitability is rooted in the very differences mentioned above; however, the difference now is no longer in the realm of theory or opinion but in the actual application of ordination to particular persons. The issue before the Province is how we are to live with the divergent opinions over the theology of ordination . . . .”
The most telling part of the Report, however, is found near the end in Appendix VI where the Task Force makes its Case for Anglican Unity. It discovers three broad strains of Anglicanism, and within these “at least four different ‘families’ of ecclesiologies,” Anglo-Catholic, Reformed Evangelical, Revivalist Evangelical, and Charismatic, in which the understanding of the Ordinal differs, and the temptation is to regard itself as true Anglicanism, even though each of them “represents a vision of Christ’s will for the Church.”
The Task Force, however, has not discovered scriptural texts that require one of these ecclesiologies to the exclusion of the others, or is not open to debate, so it is uneasy about commending one of them as the “only legitimate option for Anglicans.” It notes that “order issues” “could very well fracture the Anglican Church in North America” and a number of other mediating groups that are agreed on essential Anglicanism that with their very different ecclesiologies they want to remain in communion on the basis of commonly held beliefs. It thinks the task of holding together these mutually corrective themes is worth attempting, emphasizing the tactical advantage unity in the face of neo-pagan North America.
All this is personalized. Choosing to follow what is presented here as a “particular ecclesiology” that excludes women’s ordination will affect “particular persons”– “the ordinand herself,” is going to be hurt. Thus those who would choose to sever the present bond of unity in the name of orthodoxy by moving against ordained women are preemptively charged with unkindness or even cruelty toward sincere Christians. Doing so would also hypocritically involve singling out ordained women for penalties not meted out to others, since “Up until our own time, these differences have been held in tension, but they have not been the occasion for deep division. As long as someone was ordained through the proper form of the Ordinal, no one within our tradition questioned the validity of the ministry of the ordained person.” The price of holding out against spirit of the age becomes ever higher as this massively tendentious report goes on. To oppose women’s ordination is in fact to do the devil’s work: “Divide and conquer,” the Task Force notes, “is the devil’s strategy.”
Well, enough of that. This report is very obviously the product of guiding hands skilled in the work of gaining their way in church assemblies. It is plainly an argument for retaining the ordination of women in ACNA that expects to lead the bishops’ deliberations to that end.
The reason I cited Lewis’s “Priestesses” at the beginning of this commentary was that I might demonstrate the radical difference between his views (which reflect the theology of the great majority of the Church, past and present) and the ones the Task Force wishes the ACNA to adopt, in fact makes it immoral not to adopt. The view I identify with Lewis, is that the ordination of women is not in the first instance a matter of churchmanship within Anglicanism or anywhere else, but a involves the living symbolism in and by which the Church is defined and identified, so that a church with female priests cannot be identified as a Christian church any more than a church whose principal symbol is a circle instead of a cross. The Task Force has attempted to divert attention from this matter of indispensably central importance, presenting it a mere disagreement in which competing ecclesiologies, all defective in themselves and in need of others for completion, disagree on women’s ordination as one among issue others, and so can fall with the others into the category of things which reasonable and charitable people should overlook for the greater cause of unity. Once one sees the trick, it doesn’t really look all that clever.
If I am right about this, the long and impressive excursis on Anglican churchmanship—certainly worth reading on that subject–that comprises the largest part of this report is nothing but an immense red herring that leads not to the point but away from it, just where its authors wish their readers to be, especially the bishops–whom they must hope are both cowardly and weak-minded, for if they do not go the way of the Task Force, they will find themselves on high and perilous ground where they will face the daunting duty of being bishops, responsible for making decisions that will upset a great many people by marking certain popular ideas and institutions as heterodox. The bishops would have to take personal responsibility for deciding whether women’s ordination is right or wrong, and if wrong, what must be done about it in the ACNA.
This task force’s conclusions on Part 4 can easily be extrapolated from Part 3, where no convincing reason for the denomination-wide adoption of any one of what are presented in it as four family rules could be found. This is what one can expect in January from the Task Force, unless it is reconstituted or disbanded so the bishops can go it alone without the ring that is being installed in their collective nasal septum. Here is what the Task Force will conclude : Arguments pro and con (including the one found here) all carry some weight, but at the end of the day they are, taken as a whole, inconclusive because they are associated with conflicting and inconclusive ecclesiologies. On that account, for the sake of unity, no departure from the status quo, that is, the denominational acceptance of women’s ordination, can be urged. There you have it.
The question of whether women should be ordained to the office of presbyter or bishop is a binary matter: they either should or shouldn’t; there is no middle way. In this Report we find as the last gasping attempt a prophylaxis that those who come to a conclusion that harms the unity of the denomination (characterized throughout as the Church) are doing the work of the devil, whose strategy is to divide and conquer. In this one smells the old slogan heard so often in days when conservative Episcopalians were being moved out of the Episcopal Church and some of them would not leave: “schism is worse than heresy.” No, it’s not. Heresy forces schism and the heretics, not those who separate from them, are the ones who have created the division. Dividing light from darkness is the work of God, not the devil, and the authors of the Report have, it seems to me, taken a very great spiritual risk in making this application.
They have made their opinion clear enough, but I must say, depicting their opponents as the co-operatives of Satan is pretty cheeky. And there is no little irony here in that the Task Force’s strategy for conquest is dependent upon what it makes of its own tetrapartite division of the Anglican house—a division that need not bear theologically upon the question of women’s ordination at all. I hope the rascals don’t get away with it, but wouldn’t be the least surprised if they do.