Maltby, Women Bishops and the Twisting of Words

Judith Maltby, the Chaplain of Corpus Christi College in Oxford, has written a piece for the Guardian’s Comment is Free section on their web. In it she unfortunately demonstrates a lack of real engagement with the theological objections of those who oppose women’s ordination and consecration and indeed shows how she simply won’t engage with the reality of what people actually say, instead choosing to judge upon what she believes they mean.

Here’s the text with my comments interspersed:

When I was ordained a deacon in 1992, a few months before the historic vote on women priests, I was like most people shortly to be ordained: overly anxious and overly serious. Added to that I had recently finished my doctorate on an aspect of the English Reformation. This meant, unlike most Anglican ordinands, I had actually read the 39 Articles to which one must assent before being ordained in the Church of England. I had scruples. I told my diocesan bishop that although most of the thirty-nine were fine, one or two were a real problem. Article 37 for example, endorses capital punishment, a position I find incompatible with the Christian gospel – a fact that seems to have been overlooked (or has it?) by those who wish to impose the Articles as a touchstone of orthodoxy and morality on the whole of the Anglican Communion. I received from my bishop just the right response for the occasion: he told me that by ‘assent’, I was saying ‘Yes bishop, those are the 39 Articles’. His pastoral, intelligent and humane response to my somewhat precious scrupling carried me through the day.

For one who has completed a doctorate on the 39 Articles, Maltby shows an extraordinary laxity of approach to the actual text of those Articles. Here is the original text of Article 37 :

The King’s Majesty hath the chief power in this Realm of England, and other his Dominions, unto whom the chief Government of all Estates of this Realm, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Civil, in all causes doth appertain, and is not, nor ought to be, subject to any foreign Jurisdiction. Where we attribute to the King’s Majesty the chief government, by which Titles we understand the minds of some slanderous folks to be offended; we give not our Princes the ministering either of God’s Word, or of the Sacraments, the which thing the Injunctions also lately set forth by Elizabeth our Queen do most plainly testify; but that only prerogative, which we see to have been given always to all godly Princes in holy Scriptures by God himself; that is, that they should rule all estates and degrees committed to their charge by God, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Temporal, and restrain with the civil sword the stubborn and evil-doers.

The Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this Realm of England.

The Laws of the Realm may punish Christian men with death, for heinous and grievous offences.

It is lawful for Christian men, at the commandment of the Magistrate, to wear weapons, and serve in the wars.

Notice the exact wording of that article. "The Laws of the Realm *may* punish men with death…" For those who are familiar with leading worship, we get very used to the difference between "may" and "shall". The "may" here indicates that such a position is not a command upon Christians but rather an understanding that some may come to the conclusion that capital punishment is in certain circumstances justifiable. And yes, Maltby is writing for a secular audience, but note how she doesn’t at any time attempt to justify her position on the subject from Scripture. Rather she uses it as an example of her willful dissemblance at her ordination when asked to assent to and affirm the 39 Articles, a perjury that she seems to implicate the Diocesan bishop as being complicit with.

Imagine folks if I had taken that attitude upon ordination to the first five articles?

The draft legislation to consecrate women as bishops published on Mondayand the supporting documentation makes a great deal of Anglicanism‘s gift for holding together diverse, at times, contradictory points of conviction in a wider context of pastoral common sense. Often derided by others for this as the fudge producers extraordinaire of Christianity, we Anglicans tend to make a virtue of it and if it makes us less prone to witch-hunts and the gleeful doctrinal purges of the purity police, I’m all for it. Human beings, let alone God, are rather complicated.

Anglicans disagree about more things than I could live long enough to enumerate: how is Christ present in the Eucharist, if at all; does Baptism make people regenerate or does it anticipate later conversion; what does it actually mean to say that the Bible is the Word of God; is the death of Jesus redemptive because he took punishment which should have been ours or through his death, God shows the profundity of the divine identification and commitment to the human race; is ordination ontological or merely the authorizing an individual to perform a set of ecclesiastical functions ndash; oh and can women, as well as men, be priests and bishops? Yes we disagree about that too as well as not agreeing just what a priest or bishop actually is in the first place. I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of the things over which Anglicans differ.

I just want to comment at this point that though Maltby seems to lay out here a position that Anglicanism allows itself to be open a number of different theological interpretations, only two paragraphs previously she has presented a position on capital punishment that indicates that in her mind it is *not* acceptable to disagree with the position that capital punishment is ungodly. It appears that less than half way through her essay she is already wrapping herself up in a web of authoritarian confusion.

In the midst of all this merry muddle, what we have never done as a church until the Act of Synod in 1993, is to deal with differing convictions by setting up a class of bishop to give pastoral care to one group based solely on their views on one issue. The draft legislation carries on this idea with its proposal of ‘complementary’ bishops to serve the minority in the church unhappy about women bishops. Not only would these bishops be men, they would have to be men untainted by sacramental association with women clergy – please understand: just being a bloke isn’t good enough, the bloke must be pure. I get angry emails from time to time for describing this as a theology of taint, but I honestly can’t think of a more candid description for this position.

What Maltby neglects to tell her readers at this point however is that that votes in 1993 introduced women priests on the understanding that the doctrinal discernment in this area was not yet complete and that the Church of England, as part of the wider catholic church, was in a period of reception as regards this innovation. That meant that the Act of Synod and accompanying documentation explicitly acknowledged that those who objected to the ordination of women on theological grounds did so (and still do so) with integrity and as fully participating members (and clergy) of the Church. There was therefore absolutely no "theology of taint" intended by the provisions for discenting parishes and furthermore, the Synod understood the necessity for such provision.

And it’s worth pointing out here of course that there are plenty of us opposed to women’s ordination who have no issue with male bishops who have ordained women. We have, after all, read Article 26:

Although in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the Ministration of the Word and Sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ’s, and do minister by his commission and authority, we may use their Ministry, both in hearing the Word of God, and in receiving the Sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ’s ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God’s gifts diminished from such as by faith, and rightly, do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ’s institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.

Nevertheless, it appertaineth to the discipline of the Church, that inquiry be made of evil Ministers, and that they be accused by those that have knowledge of their offences; and finally, being found guilty, by just judgment be deposed.

On with Maltby:

The point is this: I have a very ‘high’ view of the Eucharist – if my bishop does not share this view, by the reasoning that gives us complementary bishops, I should be entitled to a bishop who agrees with me for surely Eucharistic theology is as important as disputes over ordination. But no. From disagreements over the Eucharist, the Bible, even the theological meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we Anglicans feel no need to haul in a complementary bishop.

Not even in the slightest. The Anglican position on the Eucharist from the Articles can be easily seen:

The Supper of the Lord is not only a sign of the love that Christians ought to have among themselves one to another, but rather it is a Sacrament of our Redemption by Christ’s death: insomuch that to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith, receive the same, the Bread which we break is a partaking of the Body of Christ; and likewise the Cup of Blessing is a partaking of the Blood of Christ.

Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by Holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions.

The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper, is Faith.

The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was not by Christ’s ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped.

It’s very clear that if you believe in transubstantiation and yet assent to the 39 Articles you are perjuring yourself, pure and simple. In the same way, to take a Zwinglian view (that the elements are only ever bread and wine and do not in any sense becomes tools by which we receive from Christ in the Eucharist) is also proscribed by the first paragraph of the Article. So the Anglican position is actually rather clear – what happens at the Lord’s Table is neither simply a memorial nor the magical transformation of the elements into Christ himself, but some other mystery somewhere between these two rejected heresies. Many priests like myself are more than happy with such a position, and for those who believe that doctrine cannot be expressed in such a manner (the denial of what is not true rather than the explicit affirmation of what is true), then they need to take another read of the Athanasian Creed.

So back to Maltby. It’s very clear that the Anglican Church has settled its mind as to what occurs on the Lord’s Table, but furthermore, it has also decided that no provision needs to be made for those who might afterall believe something slightly different to their Bishop in this regard (for example my Bishop might take a position more akin to Calvin, I one more akin to Cranmer or Hooker). It has however decided that since the final discernment as to whether it is correct to ordain women has not been made, it is perfectly acceptable to make provision in this regard for those who object to the 1993 innovations.

It is therefore simply incorrect for Maltby to argue that "if my bishop does not share this view, by the reasoning that gives us complementary bishops, I should be entitled to a bishop who agrees with me". The Articles show very clearly that on the matter of the economics of the Eucharists there are incorrect interpretations and there are correct interpretations (or to be more precise, there are interpretations that are not incorrect). On the matter of women’s ordination however the Synod has clearly argued that there is no one valid correct interpretation (we are in a period of reception) and that therefore allowance can and should be made for those who object to the innovation.

On to the killer paragraph:

Why is that? One is left with the sad conclusion that the draft legislation and its code of practice isn’t really trying to deal with genuine theological difference – the Church of England has that in abundance – it is trying to deal with women. I don’t blame the hard working members of the drafting group for this – this reflects state of the Church of England. Women are the problem, not a gift, which needs a solution. The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘complementary’ as ‘completing and perfecting’. What, I wonder, could possibly be ‘incomplete’ about a woman in episcopal orders (answers on a post card, please)? Maude Royden, the first Anglican woman to preach in the Church of England in 1919, sparking enormous controversy at the time (as it still would in Sydney), once remarked ironically ‘I was born a woman and I can’t get over it’. The Church of England, it would appear, bereft of any irony, cannot get over it either.

Maltby’s argument descends to the usual position of those who object to the objectors – that they are afterall just misogynists and the provisions being made for them pander to such prejudice. And really, one cannot fail to see why she should resort to such a response, because she doesn’t use Scripture in her argument and the procedural / ecclesiastical objections she raises are simply incorrect. The only way therefore to argue against those who have genuine theological and ecclesiastical objections to women’s ordination and consecration is to allege that our objections are not afterall theological but stem from prejudice. If we can be portrayed as prejudiced and bigotted against a certain group then it becomes much easier to demonise us and dismiss our arguments, not on the basis of good Bible study or reasoned ecclesiology but simply because our viewpoint is not acceptable in the enlightened 21st Century.

Prejudice is, afterall, a bad thing.

One more thought. Back in 2003, whilst studying at Wycliffe Hall in Oxford in preparation for ordination, I was asked whether I would be prepared to act as a link point to the Christian Union in Corpus Christi college. The idea of the link was that I would be someone with a bit more experience and wisdom (?) than the undergraduates running the college CU, someone to pray with and perhaps run ideas past, not to run the CU for them but someone just to refer to for advice and counsel. As a matter of courtesy I emailed the chaplain of the college and asked whether she would be comfortable with the arrangement. The chaplain responded and quite bluntly refused me any permission to act in any pastoral manner with the undergraduates in question. I offered to meet with her so she could get to know me and perhaps realise that I wasn’t the chapel burning, icon smashing, authority ignoring puritan thug that she seemed to believe I was (I didn’t of course use that language – I suggested a nice cup of tea to get to know each other). She refused. I believe the lady in question is still in position.

Prejudice, as I’ve said before, is a bad thing.

Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,