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I was living in England and working as an Anglican priest when the Church of England finished debating the question of women’s ordination.
BY FATHER DWIGHT LONGENECKER
I was living
in England and working as an Anglican priest when the Church of England
finished debating the question of women’s ordination. The Church was in great
turmoil over the question, and many priests and people threatened to leave if
women were ordained. On the other side, many people were increasingly angry and
upset at the Church of England’s slowness to move on this issue which seemed
obvious to them.
Although my instinct was to be opposed
to women’s ordination, I was determined to hear both sides of the argument and
make up my mind accordingly.
The process left me increasingly
confused. From a human point of view, both those who were in favor of women’s
ordination and those who were opposed had strong arguments. Both sides
attempted to marshal support from Scripture.
It seemed that both sides could
summon arguments from psychology, the social context, compassion and church
history. Both sides called on a range of experts to support their cause. In
addition to all this, people on both sides of the argument were sincere,
prayerful and church-going people. Both sides really did think they were being
led by the Holy Spirit. Who was right? How were we to make up our mind?
As I listened to the debate, I also
began to analyze the grounds for the debate. Those who were arguing in favor of
women’s ordination were carrying their arguments in a leaky bucket, and that
bucket was relativism. I was surprised that they really only had three forms of
argument: utilitarianism, sentimentality and political correctness, and these
three forms of argument were leaky.
The first leak is utilitarianism.
This is the philosophy that what works is best or what is effective and
efficient is most true. The utilitarian argument for women’s ordination was,
“Sally has great people skills, she’s a good administrator and a dynamite
preacher. She would be just as good a priest (and better) than many of the men
who are ordained.”
The utilitarian argument continued,
“Women have shown their abilities in all the other professions, why not the
The sentimental argument in favor of
women’s ordination was one that appealed to compassion. The argument goes like
this: “Sally is such a prayerful, sincere and devout person. She feels she is
called to be a priest. It would be so unkind to deny her ordination.” Those who
argued from these compassionate grounds often went on to accuse the church of
oppression of women and cruelty in denying women the ‘right’ to be ordained.
The sentimental argument merged into
the political argument. Women’s ordination became a question of equal rights.
It was discriminatory to deny women ordination. The campaign for women’s
ordination then became a campaign for justice, and the patriarchal church
became the great establishment machine that one day had to be overcome.
In the Church of England, those who
were opposed to women’s ordination admitted the strength of the utilitarian,
sentimental and political arguments, they simply insisted that these could not
be the only criteria for deciding the matter. They said the ongoing tradition
of the church, and the mind of the Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church
mattered in this decision. In doing so, they were appealing to the wider
authority of the church. This bedrock for authority is the check and balance
for the relativistic arguments of utilitarianism, sentimentality and political
When these debates were going on, I
can remember quite clearly pointing out to my parish council that the arguments
for women’s ordination could be used for most anything. I said that the same
type of arguments could be used to argue for the ordination of practicing
homosexuals or for the “marriage” of homosexuals, and I predicted that the
Anglican Church in 10 years would be having debates on those issues.
My prediction proved correct. Now
the Anglican Communion is embroiled in debates over homosexuality. Those who
are in favor of a permissive policy use the same three types of argument.
The utilitarian argument is: “George
can do the job of a priest just as well as a heterosexual man. Why should his
sexual orientation be an issue?”
The sentimental argument says,
“George is a good, prayerful man. He is sensitive and feels hurt by the
Church’s rejection. It would be so cruel to deny him his calling.”
The politically correct argument
says that homosexual “marriage” and homosexual ordination is a question of
justice to the oppressed.
While these three arguments should
be considered as part of the overall debate, they cannot be the only forms of
argument. Catholics balance these points with a wider understanding of
authority. We not only call on a broader understanding of human sexuality, but
we also look to a more ancient and universal voice of authority.
This voice of authority transcends
the utilitarian, sentimental and political arguments of any age. It points to
truths that overarch all our narrow perspectives. It connects with truths that
run deeper than our particular cultural concerns.
Despite their unpopularity, it
expresses those truths with courage and compassion, and with a voice that
reaches back to Jesus Christ himself: the voice of the successor of Peter.
Father Dwight Longenecker is
chaplain of St Joseph’s Catholic School in
Greenville, S.C.( DwightLongenecker.com).