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Where I Stand on Women’s Ordination (Hint: I’m An Equal Opportunity Instigator)

by Carson T. Clark on December 9, 2012

Preface.1

Herbert Butterfield once wrote, “[T]he blindest of all blind are those who are unable to examine their own presuppositions, and blithely imagine therefore that they do not possess any.”1.Without question this blog post reflects my own perspectives and concerns as one who’s committed to the Anglican tradition. My ecumenical hope remains, however, that this won’t be in-house gibberish for a select few and that those in other traditions will get something out of this. For that reason I’m avoiding details specifics about the circumstances that prompted these reflections. While genuinely striving to honor people by understanding and representing them on their own terms, I possess no such illusions as to my own objectivity. So, regarding this controversial topic of women’s ordination (WO), I want to begin by openly acknowledging my own perspectives. Below I flesh out my perspective with ten interrelated thoughts:

  1. As one in favor of gender equality, I’m an openly espousing feminist yet am simultaneously and equally committed to not being a misandrist.22.H/T to Ellen Filgo for teaching me the term misandry. It’s a much better, more civil, and less inflammatory term than my previous Rush Limbaugh-inspired “FemiNazi.”
  2. It seems abundantly clear there’s a New Testament tension between ecclesiastical unity and doctrinity “purity,” for lack of a better word.33.That has been tragically neglected since the Protestant Reformation.
  3. In my own theological outlook I draw a strong line between historic orthodoxy and adiaphora; that is, between essential and important but ultimately secondary doctrine.44.Examples of historic orthodoxy: Creation and fall, Christ’s bodily resurrection, and the Trinity. Examples of adiaphora: Views of God’s sovereignty, modes of baptism, and the continuing role of the so-called “sign gifts.”
  4. While respecting those who disagree, I hold that WO is unlike a doctrine like the Trinity, is therefore a matter of adiaphora, and should be treated as such.
  5. There’s a tension in my perspective in that I’m egalitarian by theological conviction yet discernmentarian by ecclesiastical principle.55.Click here for an explanation of what I mean by discernmentarian.
  6. I remain conflicted because, as a theologically-inclined fellow, I see plenty of evidence for full WO yet, as a historically-inclined fellow, I see scant precedent beyond the diaconate.66.Click here to read “Female Deacons & Deaconesses in the Ancient Church (Cliffs Notes Version).”
  7. Like N.T. Wright I’m an egalitarian who eschews the Enlightenment-based Myth of Progress and publicly chides fellow egalitarians for using that historically short-sighted argument.77.Click here to read “Amidst an Affirmation of Women’s Ordination, N.T. Wright Explains Why I’m Not a Progressive (Miniblog #154).”
  8. I affirm the three-fold office of deacon, priest, and bishop, so when I hear people say they’re for or against WO my first inclination is always ask, “To which office(s) do you refer?”88.Unfortunately, most people on either side of this divide seem content in approaching this issue with the precision and delicacy of a sledgehammer. Fools.
  9. My inner egalitarian is strongly in favor of WO, by which I mean all three offices: female deacons, female priests, and female bishops.99.Did you hear that? It was the sound of blood boiling. My conservative readership just became pissed.
  10. Yet my inner discernmentarian suspects the only viable solution is a universal yes to female deacons, no to female bishops, and diocese-by-diocese discretion on female priests.1010.And now I’ve infuriated my liberal readers. Don’t ever say I’m not an equal opportunity instigator.

Have I successfully made just about everyone uncomfortable yet?1111.I’m giving it my best effort!

As I’ve reflected on this issue I keep coming to my Strong Bad conclusion: Crap for crap! There simply is no easy or simple answer. For some this is an issue of theological orthodoxy. Quite explicitly, it’s a first-order issue on which there can be no compromise.1212.In their eyes, ordaining women as presbyters and bishops is at variance with both Scriptural teaching and historical tradition. Compromise represents heresy and direct, open disobedience to God. It’s that simple. For others this is an issue of self-evident human orthodoxy. They’d never use this terminology, but for them it’s also a first-order issue on which there can be no compromise.1313.In their eyes, not ordaining women as presbyters and bishops is not only disrespectful and uncouth, but also degrading and undermining. Compromise represents misogyny and direct abuse of women. It’s that obvious.

So, how do we move forward? With such entrenched positions–magnified by years of mutually-endured derision, open wounds, and mutual suspicion1414.Allow me to be candid. The sheer degree of suspicion truly is insane. In my own ecclesiastical body, the Anglican Church in North America, I’ve heard about an Anglo-Catholic bishop who actually thinks there’s an intentional, subversive plot by moderate evangelicals to force female priests on everyone. I mean, seriously, that’s like Mel Gibson’s Conspiracy Theory. on either side–I honestly don’t know. What I do know is what we shouldn’t do. I’ll shoot straight with you guys. Not all but many complementarians need to stop baptizing their oversimplistic proof-texting and self-righteous militancy. Likewise, not all but many egalitarians need to stop canonizing their Enlightenment era ideological myths and condescending indignation. Then and only then will be able to move forward in unity of spirit and truth.

  • DanutM

    Clark, I agree fully with your first nine points, but, still disagree with you conclusion (the 10th). I hope we are still friends. :-)

    • http://twitter.com/carsontclark Carson T. Clark

      I’m now irate. Rarrr, Danut, Rarrr. ;)

    • http://twitter.com/carsontclark Carson T. Clark

      Reflecting further…

      #10 is tied to, and premised upon, #5, so I’ll pair them together:

      – There’s a tension in my perspective in that I’m egalitarian by
      theological conviction yet discernmentarian by ecclesiastical principle.
      – Yet my inner discernmentarian suspects the only viable solution is a universal yes to female deacons, no to female bishops, and diocese-by-diocese discretion on female priests.

      There tension in there is that I’m an idealistic realist. Hope for the best, be prepared for the worst, anticipate something in-between. I suppose that’s why I’m coming down where I am on #10.

    • DanutM

      Realism is not necessary what I fancy. It sounds too much like opragmatism for me, even if it does not necessarily have to be so. But I hate pragmatism so much that I pferer to err on the opposite side :-(

    • http://twitter.com/carsontclark Carson T. Clark

      If you missed it…

      “What Is An Idealistic Realist? Defining and Describing a Major Life Philosophy”
      http://carsontclark.com/uncategorized/15708/what-is-an-idealistic-realist-defining-and-describing-a-major-life-philosophy

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Bob-MacDonald/1043189517 Bob MacDonald

    Do you come to your tension purely on logical and traditional grounds?

    • http://twitter.com/carsontclark Carson T. Clark

      What’s that?

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Bob-MacDonald/1043189517 Bob MacDonald

      your tension between discernment and eqalitarian, i.e. that in theory you are in favour of equal office and role for either gender – gender parity. But in practice you would not approve of female ordination to the priesthood. This raises of course the question of distinguishing priesthood as office from priesthood as the consequence of faith.

    • http://twitter.com/carsontclark Carson T. Clark

      “But in practice you would not approve of female ordination to the priesthood.”

      Ummmmm. Think you might’ve misread the post.

    • http://www.resourceeducate.blogspot.co.uk/ Mazbeth

      quote:
      “This raises of course the question of distinguishing priesthood as office from priesthood as the consequence of faith…”

      Yes, as I’ve had time to study this deeply (taking into account things said to me by traditionalists), I have realised that they are trying to keep up the Levitical priesthood model, (of the old, inadequate and dying covenant), whereas the New Covenant brings in the priesthood of Melchizedek* (who we are IN, male and female).
      *letter to the Hebrews study

  • http://nailtothedoor.blogspot.com Dan Martin

    Weird, I thought I posted but it didn’t take … feel free to delete if this duplicates…

    I appreciate, and mostly agree with your comments, Carson. I don’t know if you ever saw it, but I discussed my own perspective on gender and leadership a few months ago after Rachel Held Evans reacted to Piper’s “Masculine Christianity” comments. I took on two main points … first, that a lot of both self-styled Egalitarians and Complementarians seem to have failed to call out a sloppy assessment of masculinity and femininity even as they argue opposite sides of the issue; and second, that I believe a Biblical approach to the question simultaneously recognizes the value and rightness of women in leadership while challenging the leadership paradigms actually embodied in most churches.

    This latter, of course, relates at least in part to the discussions you and I have had, and agreed to honorably disagree, over the issues of ecclesiology and pastoral offices.

    I would also add, however, that while I am convinced by the scriptural evidence that women ought to be welcome in many if not all church leadership roles (subject to the ecclesiastical objection above noted), I am at odds with most churches that actually encourage women in leadership due to the unrelated “liberal” biases that seem to imbue so much of the rest of those same churches’ practice. So I find myself in the odd position of supporting a practice in theory, while avoiding or even repudiating many of the groups that actually try to embody it.

    In closing, though, I have to endorse your concluding paragraph completely and without qualification!

    • http://twitter.com/carsontclark Carson T. Clark

      “I appreciate, and mostly agree with your comments, Carson.”

      Danger, Will Robinson.

      “I don’t know if you ever saw it, but I discussed my own perspective on gender and leadership a few months ago after Rachel Held Evans reacted to Piper’s ‘Masculine Christianity’ comments.”

      Missed it.

      “I took on two main points … first, that a lot of both self-styled Egalitarians and Complementarians seem to have failed to call out a sloppy assessment of masculinity and femininity even as they argue opposite sides of the issue;”

      Agreed.

      “and second, that I believe a Biblical approach to the question simultaneously recognizes the value and rightness of women in leadership while challenging the leadership paradigms actually embodied in most churches.”

      Agreed.

      “This latter, of course, relates at least in part to the discussions you and I have had, and agreed to honorably disagree, over the issues of ecclesiology and pastoral offices.”

      Who said anything about honorable, punk? ;)

      “I would also add, however, that while I am convinced by the scriptural evidence that women ought to be welcome in many if not all church leadership roles (subject to the ecclesiastical objection above noted), I am at odds with most churches that actually encourage women in leadership due to the unrelated ‘liberal’ biases that seem to imbue so much of the rest of those same churches’ practice.”

      Feel the same way!

      “So I find myself in the odd position of supporting a practice in theory, while avoiding or even repudiating many of the groups that actually try to embody it.”

      Get out of my head, sir.

      “In closing, though, I have to endorse your concluding paragraph completely and without qualification!”

      This makes me uncomfortable. Quick… ummmm… apostolic tradition is an authoritative lens for interpreting Scripture. Go!

    • http://nailtothedoor.blogspot.com Dan Martin

      Love ya man! Gotta go … ;{)

  • Evelyn

    As a woman, Anglican and a person who is pretty sure that God’s call on my life is to ordained ministry I feel a little offended by this piece. Like my calling is second rate, because it’s not valid for some kinds of leadership roles. And that makes me a little sad. No one would dare say that black men can be deacons, but not bishops and it needs to be a parish by parish decision whether they will take a black minister. That would be rightly roundly condemned as racist, and we know that’s not acceptable – even though in the past it was normal and even biblically justified by some. To that extent I do think this is an argument about progress – even though I agree with NT Wright.

    I understand the arguments on both sides well. I’m more sympathetic to the arguments of the traditionalists, particularly as they relate to ecumenical / catholic and apostolic church issues with regard to women bishops, than I am to the proof-texting of the hardline evangelical wing, for what it’s worth (not least because you can use the same kind of arguments to justify all manner of horrors, as has indeed been the case with e.g. slavery). But I think tradition, no matter who dearly held, cannot trump God’s vision for his kingdom. The whole narrative arc of scripture points to a time when all are one in Christ – no more divisions of any kind, including gender. One of the church’s roles is to be prophetic, to show what the kingdom of God looks like, to point to a better way. In this case specifically, it is that in God’s kingdom everyone has a role to play, and that’s not based on their gender but on the gifts that God has given them. Sometimes we need to be able to admit that our tradition is wrong. Fortunately the willingness to test tradition against scripture by the use of reason is part of the story of the Anglican church.

    I could go on but I have an essay to write… on controversial issues in the Anglican communion, ha ha.

    • http://twitter.com/carsontclark Carson T. Clark

      Thanks for sharing.

    • http://www.resourceeducate.blogspot.co.uk/ Mazbeth

      quote:
      “But I think tradition, no matter who dearly held, cannot trump God’s vision for his kingdom. The whole narrative arc of scripture points to a time when all are one in Christ – no more divisions of any kind, including gender…”

      yes – I firmly agree – and that includes no hierarchy (except God as Father with children).

      quote: “no more divisions of any kind, including gender..”

      The very nature of Anglican-ism and any other denomination or non denominational denomination is division/divisive

  • Gill

    I’ve always felt that this whole discussion has been predicated on the wrong issues. It is not about ‘equality’ when understood in a secular way as women doing anything men do. Christian equality is the sort of equality that means the ground is level at the foot of the cross. Nor do I believe that it should be about ‘rights’ – we have none, in God’s eyes, just the immeasurable privilege of his love and his Spirit. And as the ordination of women to certain ministries has raised such a huge dust, I began to wonder whether indeed we ever really understood the nature of these ministries in the first place. No cut and dried answers from me, only more questions.

    • http://twitter.com/carsontclark Carson T. Clark

      “I’ve always felt that this whole discussion has been predicated on the wrong issues.”

      Ditto.

      “It is not about ‘equality’ when understood in a secular way as women doing anything men do.”

      Agreed.

      “Christian equality is the sort of equality that means the ground is level at the foot of the cross.”

      Amen.

      “Nor do I believe that it should be about ‘rights’ – we have none, in God’s eyes, just the immeasurable privilege of his love and his Spirit.”

      A-freaking-men.

      “And as the ordination of women to certain ministries has raised such a huge dust, I began to wonder whether indeed we ever really understood the nature of these ministries in the first place.”

      Yup.

      “No cut and dried answers from me, only more questions.”

      Same here.

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  • Tiro Lynn

    Perhaps, some thought on what ordination really is supposed to be about would help. Ordination is not supposed to be about those with special authority giving certain ones permission to exercise in their gifts, although invariably it works out that way. Ordination should IMO be about recognizing God’s calling and progressive equipping happening in another. Leader’s recognition then does approve the person’s gifting as from the Lord. But it is also acknowledging that it is the Holy Spirit that calls, equips and sends. In that respect we can then get out of the way of God’s plans and thank God for using whomsoever He choses. Their gender has little to no significance in the matter.

    • http://www.resourceeducate.blogspot.co.uk/ Mazbeth

      I agree with much that you say – the spirit of it too – could not a solution be that it doesn’t depend on a ‘leader’s recognition’ – but a brother and sister’s recognition of how we are already being ‘used’ by God/serving Him?
      i.e. Encouragement, as opposed to a formal ordination, which I do not see in the N.T., and manage without myself, as do many.

    • http://tiro3.typepad.com/spoudazo_logos_blog/ tiro

      I like that. However, it is my belief that a very important part of a leader’s job (including the five fold ministries, as well as overseers and deacons) is to recognize those God is calling and equipping and to support and encourage them. Formal ordination as we know it, was not happening in the times the NT was being written. What was there was the frequent prayers to stir up the gifts and anointings of believers. Thus, those already in active duty in ministries would be recognizing those God was raising up and help them come into blossom.
      Supposedly, that was what ordination was to do. But generally speaking, any time human reasoning takes over it perverts the goodness of the Lord.

  • http://www.resourceeducate.blogspot.co.uk/ Mazbeth

    how do we move forward you ask?
    By dropping the need for ‘ordination’ of the Levitical priesthood kind.

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