Posted in Affirming Catholicism, women bishops

Women bishops are traditional

Having begun to look at Newman’s categories, I realised that all of them for me boil down to one fundamental question, which flows most clearly from his first. Preservation of Type – this is Newman’s first, quasi-genetic criterion for distinguishing proper development of doctrine. Is this still the same sort of body, the same Church, regardless of the changes in its outward form? Newman says:

‘[I]deas may remain, when the expression of them is indefinitely varied; and we cannot determine whether a professed development is truly such or not, without some further knowledge than an experience of the mere fact of this variation. Nor will our instinctive feelings serve as a criterion. It must have been an extreme shock to St. Peter to be told he must slay and eat beasts, unclean as well as clean, though such a command was implied already in that faith which he held and taught; a shock, which a single effort, or a short period, or the force of reason would not suffice to overcome. Nay, it may happen that a representation which varies from its original may be felt as more true and faithful than one which has more pretensions to be exact.’

What is fascinating, though, is the evidence he uses for asserting that the Roman Catholic church of his day is the true example of the ‘type’ of the early church. He takes every example of criticism that the early church’s most inveterate adversaries held against it, and argues that the Roman Catholic Church is still criticised for the same things, and therefore is the true inheritor of the early church. It is a vision of the true church as only appearing when beset by enemies. But for me it omits the one and only question i would ask when trying to discern the ‘true type’ of the Christian Church: does it reflect the ministry of Jesus Christ as recorded in the gospels?

It’s impossible to answer the question now, but it’s the one we have to keep on asking: does this development enable the Church more coherently to represent to the world the good news of Jesus? The problem in asking this question is that it pushes us back behind even New Testament proof texts relating to church order, and we have to deduce what we can from the stories of Jesus which were never written down to answer this sort of question.

I would argue, though, that the sort of evidence we need is not, either that all Jesus’ disciples were male, nor yet that Mary Magdalene was ‘apostle to the apostles’. Those sort of tangible proofs are not only not conclusive, they are also scarcely relevant. The question goes back – as ‘traditionalists’ have pointed out – to Christian anthropology. That is, what relationship is there between human beings, and their two genders, and the nature of God. Is it true, as Forward in Faith argued in Consecrated Women?, ‘that the most fundamental of all the symbols of the Judaeo-Christian narrative is that of the redemptive sacrifice of a male’? If it is, then maleness is written into the warp and weft of God’s work in the world. As they say, ‘we believe the Bible story to be unimaginable without normative use of male language’. The Fatherhood of God is an essential safeguard against pantheism; the maleness of the Son is an essential part of his reflection of God’s likeness: and if priests and bishops are, as Catholics hold, given the task of representing the divine, they can therefore only be male. The rest of the argument is window dressing by comparison.

But on the other hand: if the predominance of male language for God reflects both the (proper) desire to indicate that God is truly personal, and the (misguided) assumption that males were superior to females, and therefore female language would demean God’s glory – then the fundamental point on which all agree, that God is beyond human gender, becomes much more significant. If it was only because of human ingrained patriarchy that God was revealed through predominantly male language and persons, then our calling as God’s people is to grow out of that limitaiton towards the full riches of God’s nature. In which case a priesthood and episcopate which includes both men and women will be a greater reflection of the God who is beyond all our gender distinctions.

If you believe that gendered language represents something about God which we can only point towards through that way – that the analogy of maleness is essential – then it follows from a Catholic perspective that only men can be called to the ordained ministry. It is because I believe the opposite that I think women bishops are traditional: that is, they help us to understand more deeply the very roots of the Tradition by brgining us closer to God. Women’s ordained ministry overturns a tradition as long as the Jewish food laws, which were overturned for Peter in his vision at the house of Cornelius. Something which seemed of the essence of faithful practice was revealed to be only a stage along the way, something that was now preventing rather than enabling faith.

But as Newman also points out, ‘by their fruits you shall know them’. None of us can say with absolute certainty that we know God’s will: we can only follow faithfully in what we understand.

2 thoughts on “Women bishops are traditional

  1. If the development of human language had included a ‘neutral’ word as a pronoun for any human being I have no doubt that it would have been employed by Biblical writers. Sadly the practice of adopting the male pronoun as the default choice has played into the hands of those who seem to be uncomfortable with Paul’s assertion that in Christ there is no male or female.

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