The Head of the Church
S. M. Hutchens on Women’s Ordination
A reply to Reverend Raphael-Nakos (whose letter immediately follows)
One of the unhappiest duties of writing what I do about women’s ordination is the responsibility of replying to devout believers who endorse it, yet wish to identify themselves as orthodox Christians. It gives me no pleasure, but I am convinced this must be done as many times as necessary to convince those who have been influenced by the propaganda of egalitarianism—and yes, I believe it is indeed egalitarianism we are dealing with here—that they are not orthodox, at least on this point.
It must be said once again that the female pastorate is not at the base of our concerns. The appointment of women to the offices Scripture and tradition assign to men is a symptom of a more profound and dangerous evil, expressing itself on deeper levels in sexual perversion and the rejection of other divisions that comprise not only the order of creation, but also the godhead from which it has arisen and to which it is related through the eternal Son. The ordination of women, as its more thoroughgoing theological advocates are perfectly aware, is not simply a matter of fairness, but must find its ultimate root and consequence in the “adjustment” of all things in heaven and earth.
We hold the Christian pastorate, an office of great symbolic importance, as exclusively male not simply because we are offended by lady ministers or find them bad for business, but because they, like other attempts to improve upon divine order, are harbingers of chaos and a denial of God, who must in the end be “re-imagined” to justify such innovations. This is why those who ordain women rarely stop at that, for they find (as C. S. Lewis said they must) that there is an ineluctable logic to this alteration that reaches out from there, passing through all creation into the very life of God.
Only a few on either side of the question seem to understand this. Those who do from what we at Touchstone see as the “other side” have mostly left the Church, understanding that they cannot have Christianity and lady ministers too. What they regard as the moral necessity of the elevation of women beyond Judeo-Christian categories requires the rejection of a faith that is constitutionally patriarchal, hence, in their view, immoral. We on this side who share their understanding of the nature of the faith, but believe it good, appear as radical as they do to people who wish to have God as their Father and female pastors in the bargain. And so we come to the letter from Reverend Raphael-Nakos, which speaks not only for its writer, but also for a great many others who are trying to cleave to the middle of this very tilted path.
Tradition & tradition
Let me first go to what I find its most curious part, the discussion of capital-T Tradition as over against traditions small-t. The first includes the unnegotiables, indispensable to orthodoxy, like the Creed. The second includes those matters, women’s ordination prominent among them, in which we have been granted evangelical freedom, and it is not good for the likes of me to proclaim the existence of a great church divide here: “I fully respect the decision of those churches that do not ordain women and accept it that they, for their own reasons and purposes, choose to maintain a male-only clergy. . . . Likewise I only ask of Hutchens to respect those of us who live and participate in churches with differing traditions concerning this issue.”
Several things strike me here. The first is the connection of tradition to the institution of the female pastorate. I admit to becoming more impatient than I used to be with use of this term to mean “what we do now.” If even the distinctive beliefs or practices of Protestant denominations seem fragile beneath the weight of doctrine and allegiance this word implies in the context of a Church that is two millennia old, what can we say of “traditions” that have only been with us for a generation or two?
Friends who are part of the Wesleyan genealogy are fond of reminding me that their tradition sits looser to female ordination than that of many other churches. Perhaps so, but in the scope of the history of the Church as a whole Wesleyanism is a newcomer and still in the process of presenting its credentials. If it carries the mark of women’s ordination, this does not argue for its catholicity. (I say this with deep respect for the great Wesley and for what the best of Methodism has to tell us.) It is also clear that this sitting loose does not mean what many modern Methodists wish it meant: that the ordination of women as it is being done in the present would have been approved by Methodism in the past. My 1912 Discipline speaks only of men in the offices of preacher, pastor, deacon, elder, and bishop. The deaconess’s office is reserved for women. Methodists, it would appear, have been careful to recognize the gifts of women, but not to regularize their ordination in the offices of pastoral authority.
One senses that the use of “tradition” as a practical synonym for “belief generally held among us” is a signal that it is to be regarded as a tenet of the group and therefore immune from criticism by the ecumenically minded. To this I reply that the tradition of women’s pastoral ordination does not appear to be a tenet of historical Methodism, or that if it is, it is not old enough to count as tradition in a sense cognizable by other Christians, even if it were as old as Methodism itself. One must here contrast the tradition of not ordaining women, which the writer treats as a barely explicable parochial obsession that some churches follow “for their own reasons and purposes”—as if it were not the universal practice of all but the strangest sects from the beginning of the Christian age!
My first memorable encounter with this reversal of the great and obvious with the small and questionable in the name of tradition was in a conversation with a high-ranking executive of a mainline denomination who asserted with some asperity that a breakaway group was unfaithful to the denomination’s tradition because it held strictly to the church’s old confessions. The singular essence of the faith of his church, he said, was, and always had been, the pursuit of truth as it “developed.”
He was not as gentle with the opposition as Reverend Raphael-Nakos, but shared a lack of understanding of why the recent discovery of a small, shrinking, and theologically chaotic segment of the Church cannot trump an ancient and universal understanding and practice. (No reasonable person can regard evolutionary novelty as a criterion of truth, goodness, or beauty, since all evolutions are particular, and the telos of any particular evolution as a good can be identified as such only by criteria that are absolute—beyond the evolution itself. “This is progress” cannot also mean “this is good” unless the result of the progress is judged to be good by a canon that is not itself affected by change.)
One wonders in encounters with “orthodox” proponents of women’s ordination just how strong a concept of orthodoxy people can have who will allow a small, recent discovery of a small, recent fraction of the Church to overrule an ancient belief and practice. Do not the beliefs of the Creed to which they hold have the same quality as that of the pastorate they reject? Don’t we hold to its articles because we believe them to be ancient and catholic summaries of the teachings of Christ’s apostles? In what substantial way does the reservation of the Christian pastor’s office to males differ? The burden of proof on the newly enlightened—who, frequently with no small indignation, require those holding to the ancient and universal practice to defend what the Church has always done—is very great.
Our correspondent apparently does not realize what he is asking when he requests respect in exchange for respect. He is requiring toleration on our part of what we find unconscionable, so he may continue to enjoy his own convictions without threat of reproof, and in confidence that we consider his opinions on this matter as in some sense acceptable. We can be friends, he seems to say, and live under the same ecumenical roof, as long as we don’t complain about his habit of setting the drapes afire. To the unreflective reader his request might appear a reasonable petition for fairness to people who are otherwise inclined, but from our perspective it is an imperious command to tolerate a very bad thing in charity’s name. Our convictions on these matters preclude respect for his.
And his, though he does not seem to realize this, precludes respect for ours. If women’s ordination falls within the bounds of orthodoxy, as he believes it does, then it is also catholic, and by its nature therefore commands the respect and endorsement of the whole Church. It follows that all who reject it entirely are neither orthodox nor catholic. Failing to contest his claim to orthodoxy is to allow him to place all those who in all times and places stand against this opinion (as Dr. Carey, the present archbishop of Canterbury, did several years ago) outside that fold—the great reversal once again.
Readers of the Gospels cannot help but note that our Lord affronted the preservers of “tradition” with one scandal after another, breaking, with great violence, the patterns in which conservative religionists had arranged life among the Jews. This raises the serious question of whether we, like they, are making our own paradosis into doctrine. The ordination of women reflects something of the quality of Jesus the iconoclast. It is the kind of thing one might expect him to visit upon the scribes and Pharisees of this age.
We understand this, have opened ourselves to the possibility, and rejected it—with no small deliberation, for the cost has been great. What have we to gain by opposing ordination of women in these times? Popularity in society or the churches? Appreciation in the academy, religious or secular? Grants from major foundations? A reputation for being pleasant, compliant chaps, easy for everyone to get along with? Or are we more likely to have received what we actually have encountered: marginalization, even among reputed religious “conservatives,” furious denunciation in the academies, and a reputation for being crabbed reactionaries when we in fact love breadth of vision, liberality of mind, and desire the friendship and approval of all? Men of our temper are not inclined to make mountains of molehills, nor are we predisposed to mistake the traditions of men for the faith of the Church. If we could count this matter as trifling, we would. If we could gain the approbation of the many good people who disagree with us without offending our consciences, it would be done in a moment. In order to oppose this innovation we understand that we must believe it not simply an issue of one tradition against another, but of the essence of the faith.
The Matter of Icons
This brings us to the matter of icons, and of what we have said elsewhere about the irreplaceable representativeness of the male as head, the man as the complete human icon of Christ, and the Father through Christ, by virtue of his maleness. Reverend Raphael-Nakos correctly notes that an icon is supposed to be “a window into the sacred world of God,” and observes, also correctly, that considered in themselves they are merely symbols confined to the elements of the present world (this I present as a sympathetic reconstruction of his remarks on two-dimensionality). I fail to understand, however, his suggestion that I think ministers of God must be reduced to flat two-dimensionality to meet my personal criteria for ordination. I suppose he means that in the real world, the icons of Christ are real people of both sexes, and not confined to the dimensions of a single sex. If this isn’t what he is saying, at least it is something we have heard many times before.
I respond: Would he identify a female form on an icon as an image of Christ? Of course not, for Christ is a man. Such icons are of Christ-like women. But the iconic figure of a human male, if it is not of Christ, must be identified as such with some symbol, just as the iconic figure of Christ must be shown to be himself with the same.
This is because of the symbolic identity between the man and Christ that does not exist between Christ and even the holiest of women. Even the figure of a wicked man carries a resemblance to the Lord that that of the best woman does not, and the essence of this resemblance is precisely maleness. It is a resemblance in which the woman does not partake unless she is mystically incorporated into the man, unless the action of God by which she was taken out of him is recapitulated in her being taken into Christ and becoming one with him, with him as the head and body from which she always and everywhere devolves.
This is true, of course, of all of us, for Lewis was right, compared to Christ we are all feminine. The result of the incorporation by which we are saved, and the symbols by which we express it, however, are not androgynous: It is the body of the Second Adam, the Church as members of the man Christ Jesus, who is the head of the body. He is the arche, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he (autos) might be preeminent, for in him (en auto) all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him (di’ autou) to reconcile to himself (eis auton) all things. The masculine pronouns fall like hammer blows.
The woman does not and cannot re-present Christ as fully as the man because she cannot represent Christ as the head of the Church. This point, so praeclarently obvious to Christians in times past, made it natural for them to follow the ancient tradition of placing men and not women at the head of the churches. Egalitarianism, however, produces a dualism in the name of equity and fairness that makes all of this, and those who insist on its rightness, look unnatural. It identifies its novelties, however improbably, with words like “tradition,” and insists with breathtaking boldness that what the Church has always believed and done is only an accident of a prejudicial history, held to by a few inconsequential antiquarians “for their own reasons and purposes.”
S. M. Hutchens works as a reference librarian in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He holds a doctorate in theology. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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“The Head of the Church” first appeared in the January/February 2000 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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