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 priesthood?”
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 correctness.
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).