Last Autumn was the tenth anniversary of the Church of England’s vote to ordain women as priests. In the hubbub of such a historic decision a little detail was missed by many. The week after the momentous vote, a short letter appeared in an Anglican weekly from the Gay and Lesbian Christian Movement. It read, ‘Dear Sir, Please note that all the arguments used for the ordination of women can also be used for the ordination of practising homosexuals.’
It might seem astounding to link the two issues, but the author of the letter was correct in his analysis. The arguments for the ordination of women were of three types: sentimental, utilitarian and political. The sentimental argument went like this: ‘Suzy is such a compassionate person. She too has suffered by being excluded, so she can identify with the marginalised in our society. She is such a good person, not to ordain her is so hurtful!’ The utilitarian argument was, ‘Janet is a good preacher and a bright theologian. She can do the job as well as any man. As a woman she brings special gifts. She will complement the totally masculine ministry.’ The third argument was political: ‘This is an equal rights issue. Women can now do any other job in our society. Why not the priesthood?’
Make the necessary changes and you can see how the same arguments are equally valid for the ordination of practising homosexuals: ‘Gary is such a compassionate person. He too has suffered by being excluded. Why be so judgmental and unkind? Why exclude him just because he lives with Dennis?’ The utilitarian says, ‘Kevin is a brilliant theologian and a compassionate pastor. Why should his sexual preferences affect his ability to do the job?’ Richard Kirker, the chairman of the Lesbian and Gay Christian movement, summed up the political argument. In a comment to the Church Times a week after the vote in 1992 he said, ‘The vote now opens the way for the Church to move with determination to the last remaining major injustice inflicted among its members: lesbian and gay people, unless celibate, are not officially accepted into the ordained ministry.’
In the women’s ordination debate any appeal to the usual sources of Christian authority were whisked away with the sleight of hand of ‘interpretation.’ So when conservative Evangelicals noted that St Paul said, ‘I do not permit a woman to have authority over a man in church.’ (I Tim. 2:12) the authorities said, ‘this passage may not have been written by St Paul. Besides, we now know more about gender roles than they did in the first century.’ If tradition was appealed to we were told that it is the duty of the church to adapt to fresh understandings and insights of the Holy Spirit. St Peter’s admission of Gentiles to the Church (Acts 10) was used as an example of the radical change that the Spirit demands.
The same rubbery attitude to Scripture and tradition is used to condone the ordination of homosexuals. Do the Scriptures forbid homosexual activity? Biblical scholars are wheeled out to show that St Paul probably didn’t write those passages, and if he did, well, we now know that he wasn’t condemning homosexuality per se, but promiscuous homosexuality. Does tradition prohibit homosexual unions? Once again, ‘tradition must change as we come to understand more and more about human sexuality.’ Thus both Scripture and Tradition become our flexible friends, and like statistics, they mean whatever we want them to mean.
I am not here arguing the case against homosexuality or against women priests. I am simply pointing out the foundation (or rather lack of it) on which the debate ten years ago took place. In his 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio John Paul II exposes some of the fault lines in contemporary thinking. He discusses four trends that contribute to relativism in religion. The arguments for women’s ordination and the validity of homosexuality illustrate these four faulty lines of argument. According to the pope, Eclecticism is the mode of thought that picks and chooses whatever form of ‘truth’ seems to be attractive or suitable to the individual. It dismisses the idea that there is a unitive, whole and universal expression of truth. Scientism dismisses the idea that there can be any knowledge apart from that which is discovered by the scientific method. Thus any idea that our religion might be divinely revealed is dismissed. Historicism says ideas are always conditioned by the time period in which they were expressed. Therefore what St Paul wrote two thousand years ago must be irrelevant for today. Finally, pragmatism is that utilitarianism that makes decisions simply by what seems easy, good and useful.
Those of us who left the Church of England after the 1992 vote did not do so because we are Freudian misfits or misogynists. We are not simply crusty old buffers who don’t want to let women into the gentlemen’s club. Many of us could acknowledge the strong sentimental, utilitarian and political arguments in favour of women’s ordination. We simply couldn’t allow that these were the only arguments. When we realised that these were the only arguments being acknowledged, we then realised that anything goes; because these three forms of argument (when used exclusively) can not only be used for women’s ordination and homosexuality. With a bit of ingenuity they can be used to support anything.
No, we abandoned ship because we saw that the ship was not only headed for the rocks, she had struck hard. Those of us who left the Church of England did not leave because women were going to be ordained. We left because a church that claimed to be Catholic did not have the tools in her toolbox to make such a historic decision properly. In becoming Catholics we came to a church that looked wider and deeper than the sentimental, utilitarian and political arguments. We came to a church that looked to more ancient and venerable sources of authority. We wanted a church that had the ability to weigh not only the opinion of the living, but through her veneration of tradition, was able to value the opinion of that most neglected of majorities: the dead. Furthermore, this church not only considered the past, but she looked to the future. She listened to the vociferous demands of our sad, confused and ageing minority in the West, but she also considered the needs and the opinions our young brothers and sisters in Eastern Europe, Asia and the Southern Hemisphere.
Now, exactly ten years after the vote to ordain women priests a new Archbishop of Canterbury comes to Lambeth. Like a sombre fulfilment of that obscure letter to the press, the new Archbishop has admitted to ordaining a practising homosexual and confirmed that his permissive stance on human sexuality is not up for negotiation. Furthermore, the Anglican Diocese of New Westminster in Canada has recently voted to sanction homosexual ‘marriage.’ Similar moves are afoot in the Episcopal Church and the Church of England. The Anglican Communion is now in massive crisis over this fresh issue. It is time for Anglicans of all stripes to see that the fundamental issue is not women priests or homosexuality, but where you turn for the answers.