Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Opinion - 22 March 2017

Linda Woodhead Modern Church The Philip North affair has exposed the theological weakness of ‘traditionalism’

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Posted by Peter Owen on Wednesday, 22 March 2017 at 10:00am GMT | TrackBack
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It continues to amaze me that academics such as Professor Woodhead have such a back-to-front theological understanding. It seems to me that the dominant liberal faction within the Church created their own new 'orthodoxy' and have then since held that up as the standard by which traditionalists ought to be measured.

This is, I admit, a very clever move. Certainly, if one accepts the principle of the ordination of women then the arguments surrounding catholic order are clear, and provision for traditionalists is indeed 'uncatholic' and theologically unsound.

However, traditionalists fundamentally reject the invented 'orthodoxy' of the current day Church of England when it comes to order. They reject the Church of England's right, as just one small part of the Universal Church, to change doctrine and practice when it comes to holy order. They reject the whole basis upon which Prof Woodhead rests her argument and criticises traditionalists with.

Traditionalists in the Church of England see the Church as being afflicted with a form of neo-Arianism: the, at best, subconscious belief that Jesus was just a man beholden to the sociological norms of his time, and thus in need of liberation from his context through our superior modern-day reinterpretation. Traditionalists see this as disastrous for the CofE's relationship with and fidelity to the Lord. It is based upon a rejection of the Church's tradition, its understanding of Scripture, and its obedience to the Spirit of truth.

She argues for the ordination of women on a basis of generality, when God has in fact revealed himself in the particularity. God reveals himself as Father (indeed, he has no sex, but he most certainly does have gender), he was incarnate as a man, born in Bethlehem at a fixed point in time, he chose specific men to be his apostles and he ordained that bread and wine should be used as the instruments of the communion he established with his people.

Professor Woodhead's article is based on a rejection of this historic understanding of the faith, and she seems to expect traditionalists to allow themselves to be measured against the standards of false teaching. I suggest that she does not take the charity shown by traditionalists in the face of this attack upon Philip North as a lack of confidence in their theological convictions.

Posted by: Jules on Wednesday, 22 March 2017 at 11:44am GMT

Jules, your post sets forth a very traditionalist position very well. The premise seems to be simply that the ordination of women is wrong. And the rest of your post follows quite logically from that.

Conversely, your post candidly concedes that "if one accepts the principle of the ordination of women[,] then the arguments surrounding catholic order are clear, and provision for traditionalists is indeed 'uncatholic' and theologically unsound."

Posted by: Jeremy on Wednesday, 22 March 2017 at 12:29pm GMT

Re Jules, "...the dominant liberal faction within the Church created their own new 'orthodoxy' and have then since held that up as the standard by which traditionalists ought to be measured.This is, I admit, a very clever move."

Conversely, one might say, a conservative phalange has created their own throw back orthodoxy and have since held it up as the standard by which non-hyphenated Anglicans ought to be measured. Not a very clever move.

Excellent article by Linda Woodhead. For one thing, it makes perfect sense.

Posted by: Rod Gillis on Wednesday, 22 March 2017 at 12:46pm GMT

Jules - this is extraordinary and extraordinarily offensive.

I am a charismatic evangelical who fully supports the ordination of women. Please don't accuse me of quasi-Arianism. The appointment of only men to the Twelve is but one part of a much bigger picture regarding the NT witness on gender issues. You might look also at how Jesus treats women and especially at how he uses a woman as a type for God in Luke 15.

If you want to see quasi-Arianism, see the way in which the Trinity is redefined into subordinationism by some evangelicals:
http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2016/11/23/kevin-giles-the-ets-response-to-grudem-and-ware/
and closer to home:
http://www.bishopofmaidstone.org/male-headship-the-theological-basis/ (point 8)

You also write: "God reveals himself as Father (indeed, he has no sex, but he most certainly does have gender)" - what on earth does this mean? You are reading the biological gender of the incarnate Christ back into the ontology of God.

Did I mention I teach doctrine? Believe me I can spot an Arian at 50 paces and I am not one.

Posted by: Charles Read on Wednesday, 22 March 2017 at 1:34pm GMT

I can't help thinking that Jules has misunderstood the argument Linda Woodhead was making. The question seems to me this: given the theological views of traditionalists (as outlined so well by Jules), how can someone who holds this view function, with integrity, as a diocesan bishop in the current Church of England?

If you genuinely believe (as Jules puts it) that the rest of the Church of England is 'afflicted with a form of neo-Arianism', that women cannot be true priests, and that any sacramental ministry they claim to offer is dubious at best, how on earth can one sponsor them for ordination, offer them support, or arrange for their licensing or induction? What on earth would such a bishop imagine himself to be doing, other than simply colluding in a system which (at best) he regards as deeply mistaken?

Linda Woodhead's point (made also by Martyn Percy) is that this is a reasonable theological question which requires some kind of intelligible theological answer. It cannot be answered simply by saying Bishop North is an able and godly man, or by appealing to the concept of 'mutual flourishing'. Instead, a carefully articulated theology of episcopacy is what is needed, and none has been forthcoming, either from Bishop North, or from the House of Bishops more generally.

The result is that the so-called 'liberals' are now the ones who are able to give a theological explication of their position, whilst the 'traditionalists' are left appealing to values like 'inclusion' and 'tolerance'.

Posted by: Charles Clapham on Wednesday, 22 March 2017 at 2:00pm GMT

Charles Read -

I think you're confusing sex and gender. I'm well aware God is not biologically male or female. However, the way in which he has chosen to reveal himself is as Father and Lord. These are gender-distinctive terms, and the ones Jesus himself used. While of course accepting that God is neither male nor female, there is an erroneous tendency among some to gender-neutralise God in a way that distorts the very clear way in which he is presented in the Bible. Though feminine terms are found in reference to God in Scripture, these are only similes. It is in that way alone that I stated that God has 'gender' but not sex.

Posted by: Jules on Wednesday, 22 March 2017 at 3:30pm GMT

So Jules, are you saying that to call God 'Father' is not a metaphor? If you are, then you have created a doctrine of a gendered God; if not, then God remains 'beyond gender' as Christian theology has almost always held until modern times when God has been seen as male by some who wish thereby to argue against women in leadership, women preaching or the ordination of women (take your pick...).

An approach favoured by some is to see God as somehow both male and female rather than neither male nor female.

Posted by: Charles Read on Wednesday, 22 March 2017 at 4:33pm GMT

The CofE does not claim to teach infallibly on the ordination of women. During the period of ecumenical reception it is perfectly admissible to have a diocesan Bishop who declines to ordain women as the universal church has yet to come to a common mind. A Bishop in favour can give whatever reassurance he likes but he is only speaking on the uncertain basis of provincial authority. Only a weak ecclesiology would be completely convinced by an assurance based upon provincial authority rather than catholic consent. God's grace is far wider than narrow sacramental assurance and this is why traditional catholic diocesans can, with a clear conscience, licence women during the open period of ecumenical reception.

Posted by: philip o'reilly on Wednesday, 22 March 2017 at 4:50pm GMT

Re: Jules, "I think you're confusing sex and gender." Or perhaps you are confused about mythological expression?

"However, the way in which he has chosen to reveal himself is as Father and Lord." Better to say that this is the way The divine was apprehended in the patriarchal culture that produced the scripture.

Posted by: Rod Gillis on Wednesday, 22 March 2017 at 5:02pm GMT

If God has gender is the German language then heretical by referring to the Holy Spirit by using the feminine gender (die heilige Geist)? Or is it rather that applying gender to an infinite God is actually denying His/Her infinity?

Posted by: Peter Kershaw on Wednesday, 22 March 2017 at 5:55pm GMT

Rod -

"Better to say that this is the way The divine was apprehended in the patriarchal culture that produced the scriptures."

With respect, I think your comment goes to the heart of the dispute within the Church of England.

Posted by: Jules on Wednesday, 22 March 2017 at 6:26pm GMT

"Only a weak ecclesiology would be completely convinced by an assurance based upon provincial authority rather than catholic consent."

Only a weak mind would think that the Roman church's assent is necessary for something to be correct.

Posted by: Jeremy on Wednesday, 22 March 2017 at 6:30pm GMT

"Professor Woodhead's article is based on a rejection of this historic understanding of the faith"

Or perhaps her article is based on a much more truthful understanding than the historical one plagued by understandings of a pre-scientific culture and a patriarchy that is still with us. And her article is based on a much broader and more learned understanding than Jules is displaying.

The Wisdom literature has a lot of feminine language for God. Plus, of course, there's Genesis where God creates man AND woman in God's image. The pronoun "his" is grammar, not physical reality. Plus there's Jesus, Mary Magdalene, et al.... You know that Jesus' ministry was financially supported by women, right? And Galatians, in Christ there is neither Greek nor Jew, male nor female, etc.?

History is full of burning heretics, especially uppity women. It has accused women of being witches, justified slavery and antisemitism. We all have every reason to review history and have a closer look at Scripture and take a new look at our theology, being open to the revelation of the Spirit.

Intellectually all Jules has is that feminine references to God are merely similes... Really? And Jesus was male. Can you imagine a female having the agency to do what Jesus did? Yes, he's divine, but he's also human. Back then, women were chattel. The best God could do was bring a liberating message to women. And He did. The church should receive and embrace it.

Posted by: Cynthia on Wednesday, 22 March 2017 at 9:56pm GMT

I'm grateful to Philip O'Reilly for providing a theological comment on the traditionalist position. But (at least for me) it still doesn't seem consistent.

If one declines to ordain women or to receive the sacrament from them (because the universal church has yet to come to a common mind), one ought presumably also not offer encouragement to women who believe they are called to ordination (because they are mistaken), and decline to license them in a sacramental ministry (because that will put in doubt the efficacy of the sacraments offered in that ministry). It doesn't make sense to say one can do the latter, but not the former.

'I affirm your call to ordained priesthood, but will not myself ordain you.' 'I will license you to exercise a sacramental ministry in this parish, but am not myself prepared to receive the sacraments at your hands.'

These are statements which are unintelligible in the light of a (full Catholic) theological understanding of the relationship between a bishop and his (or her) priests.

Theologically, it seems to me that priests have always been understood to offer the sacraments on behalf of the bishop (as part of what one might call the 'sacerdotal college'). The notion that a bishop might not be in full communion with his own priests therefore just does not make any kind of sense. I can't see any way of reconciling this with a catholic ecclesiology, and I don't think I'm alone in finding this all a bit unclear.

I know it's awkward, but it would be reasonable to expect some attempt to think through these theological issues by the Bishops (or General Synod). Instead we have simple calls for unity, dismissive comments about intolerant campaigning liberals, and an appeal to a set of guiding principles which simply state a series of inconsistent positions without any indication as to how they can all be true at once.

Posted by: Charles Clapham on Wednesday, 22 March 2017 at 10:57pm GMT

Re: Jules, " ...your comment goes to the heart of the dispute within the Church of England." And beyond ( :

Posted by: Rod Gillis on Thursday, 23 March 2017 at 12:49am GMT

Linda Woodhead does make a reasonable point when she observes that "it is the so-called liberals who are the ones clinging to orthodoxy and tradition, and the so-called traditionalists who are appealing to liberal principles of freedom, toleration, and equal respect. Lacking a strong theological basis for their position, the defenders of North are behaving like relativists who believe their position must be upheld not because it is true but just because it is their identity." There is more than a grain of truth in this.

Unfortunately Professor Woodhead doesn't draw the obvious corollary, which is that the supposed liberals (among whom I would until recently have counted myself) are behaving like fundamentalists, insisting that things have to be done their way, and that if the Church doesn't play by their rules then it isn't doing proper theology at all. The behaviour of some on what Professor Woodhead calls the 'liberal' wing of the Church has been bitterly disappointing, especially to those of us who took some risks and lost some friendships to support women in the priesthood and the episcopate. The illiberalism of liberals, no less than the casuistry of conservatives, leads me sadly to conclude that this dispute is less about theology than it is about factionalism and the abuse of power. As so often in Anglican history, theology is not a collective project undertaken by the Church in unity, but a weapon to be used by those who perceive themselves to be at an advantage against those they imagine to be their enemies.

Posted by: rjb on Thursday, 23 March 2017 at 5:13am GMT

rjb You write 'Unfortunately Professor Woodhead doesn't draw the obvious corollary, which is that the supposed liberals (among whom I would until recently have counted myself) are behaving like fundamentalists, insisting that things have to be done their way...' Well there is undoubtedly bad behaviour on both sides. Not all liberals are tolerant people. But it doesn't follow that when someone challenges another viewpoint they are demanding their opinion in place of it. I see no 'obvious corollary' at work here at all.
Time and again over the Sheffield situation those questioning the appointment or the use of the Principles have been asking for a theological discussion and guidance. We are waiting for for this. Not because we are fundamentalists. More because there is an urgent need to discuss and agree theological fundamentals.

Posted by: David Runcorn on Thursday, 23 March 2017 at 12:31pm GMT

Re: Jules, "With respect, I think your comment goes to the heart of the dispute within the Church of England." And beyond! ( :

Posted by: Rod Gillis on Thursday, 23 March 2017 at 12:36pm GMT

Jules - "God reveals himself as Father (indeed, he has no sex, but he most certainly does have gender), he was incarnate as a man"; "I'm well aware God is not biologically male or female. However, the way in which he has chosen to reveal himself is as Father and Lord."

How does that fit in with Trinitarian theology?

I'm also not quite sure how that fits with the Biblical image of God creating man (male and female) in God's own image. From the great Karl Barth:

“The fact that he [man] was created man and woman will be the great paradigm of everything that is to take place between him and his fellows. The fact that he was created and exists as male and female will also prove to be not only a copy and imitation of his Creator as such, but at the same time a type of the history of the covenant and salvation which will take place between him and his Creator. In all His future utterances and actions God will acknowledge that He has created man male and female, and in this way in His own image and likeness” (CD III.i, 41.2)

Posted by: Alastair Newman on Thursday, 23 March 2017 at 2:41pm GMT

Legal authority always rests with the diocesan. But the diocesan can ask the PEV, a suffragan or the archbishop to give sacramental authority. This can serve the needs of both traditionalist and women priests serving under a traditionalist diocesan. All this was made clear during the debates about the archbishops' amendment.

Posted by: Philip O'Reilly on Thursday, 23 March 2017 at 4:26pm GMT

I hate labels. What happens is that once we put a label upon something we then project our concept of that label back on the object. People are doing this with "traditionalist" and "liberal" and then arguing about their notion of liberals and traditionalists based upon their personal understanding of the labels. With respect to both sides, it is not a fruitful debate.

There is, however, a very well-formed question concerning the apparent theological paradox of a diocesan bishop who won't ordain women which those who support Philip North are dodging.

With respect also, I think Jules is making the same mistake. One I admit to making in the past in part. Firstly, although the Son incarnated as male, there are grounds to see the Spirit as female. Secondly, even if it is appropriate to ascribe those labels of "male" and "female", then drawing any conclusions on matters such as the ordination of women is relying upon a personal understanding of the labels and not upon the nature of God.

There is, however, a well-formed theological question which supporters of the ordination of women dodge. Since God could clearly foresee that incarnation as a man would reinforce the notion of patriarchy, why did He not choose for Jesus to be female? The argument that it was a patriarchal society doesn't wash if we believe that God is a a god. Jesus could clearly have ministered as a woman.

Posted by: Kate on Thursday, 23 March 2017 at 6:49pm GMT

"this dispute is less about theology than it is about factionalism and the abuse of power."

Yes, exactly right. Theology certainly went by the wayside, as Linda Woodhead clearly explains. The abuse of power is that the status quo wants to continue to impose its ways and that isn't "mutual flourishing."

Theology has to involve lifting up the vulnerable. The "compromise" lifts up "traditionalists" who do real damage to the vulnerable.

An attack on one's being is way different than winning or losing an argument. That wrong headed theology of taint offends every woman and girl on the planet. I know there's push back on the word "taint," but there is no way around it.

I'm Anglo-Catholic and embrace the sacraments as an external sign of internal Grace. I've experienced that Grace through female priests, bishops, and a Presiding Bishop. Those card carrying Society people believe women to invalidate the sacrament by the mere fact of their being female. How insulting. How belittling. What a narrow and nasty god they've created in their limited image. How can a bishop who believes that affirm female priests? And girls? There is no joy in that for women.

I'm the messenger. But this is reality. Women and girls can't flourish in an environment where the bishops believes insult their being and status as Children of God.

That isn't intolerance. That is lifting the vulnerable above the wants of men. Science tells us that women and girls are harmed by this exclusive, insulting language. Jesus tells us we can discern the real prophets from the false ones by their fruits. If the fruits of the Society is scientifically measured harm (and it is), then sure, accommodate them. But don't let them inflict those awful fruits on a broad scale.

That's theology.

Posted by: Cynthia on Thursday, 23 March 2017 at 6:58pm GMT

If my memory serves me correctly, this (Phiip O'Reilly's comment) is why the Archbishops' amendment was not passed and why in 2013-4 this was not included in the legislation. There was strong theological opposition to this sort of division of episcopal authority.
For me, the basic question is the same now as it has been since 1993 - if we cannot share in the eucharist, whoever is the president, then how can we call ourselves a church? There is a fundamental impairment at the heart of who we are and while it remains, these sort of painful tensions wil recur, and recur and recur....I've heard all the theological arguments about impaired communion....but we've been living with the effects of a relatively small group in the church not recogising the sacramental ministry of ordained women and bishops who ordain them for over twenty years now and it doesn't get easier, even if we are civilised with each other most of the time.

Posted by: RosalindR on Thursday, 23 March 2017 at 8:22pm GMT

@ Kate, " Since God could clearly foresee that incarnation as a man would reinforce the notion of patriarchy, why did He [sic] not choose for Jesus to be female? The argument that it was a patriarchal society doesn't wash if we believe that God is a a god."

This is something of a tautology regarding God and patriarchy. Additionally, it is similar to the mistake Jules makes (above) i.e. it posits one's uncritical acceptance of historical vectors and circumstances as certainty about the will of God.

Just for the sake of argument, let's assume we can know the nuances of God's "choices" by working backwards from historical variables. Perhaps God's "choice" of a man in a patriarchal culture was the more clever way to contend with patriarchy, just as choosing a poor peasant from some marginal Roman purlieu was the best way to contend with Imperialism. If only common sense could resolve all our theological problems.

Posted by: Rod Gillis on Friday, 24 March 2017 at 1:34pm GMT

"I've experienced that Grace through female priests, bishops, and a Presiding Bishop."

This is a point which seems to be overlooked. Priests are appointed through a process of discernment. There are, like you, those whose gifts include being able to reliably detect the grace of the Spirit and who say they have experienced it from a female minister. Doesn't that in some way trump any other arguments about theology? We are taught by Jesus that a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. So if women are called to ordination and demonstrate that they are backed up by the Spirit, doesn't that fruit prove that the tree of female ordination is good? All our theological arguments are in vain against the fact that God has accepted them.

At what point should the Church accept that the fact is that God has accepted women priests and that allowing anybody to think otherwise is disrespectful to God?

I am reminded that in the Gospels there were many encounters between Jesus and people who believed they had an intellectual grasp of the Law. Intellect lost repeatedly. We should, of course, always try our best to understand the teaching of the Bible, but we need to be humble enough to recognise that our best efforts can still fall short and that sometimes we need to accept things we cannot understand rationally.

Posted by: Kate on Friday, 24 March 2017 at 2:04pm GMT

'If my memory serves me correctly, this (Phiip O'Reilly's comment) is why the Archbishops' amendment was not passed and why in 2013-4 this was not included in the legislation. There was strong theological opposition to this sort of division of episcopal authority.'

The majority of the General Synod voted in favour of the amendment. It was lost by two votes in the house of clergy but passed easily in the houses of bishops and laity. Hardly a powerful rejection of the argument.

Posted by: philip o'reilly on Friday, 24 March 2017 at 4:34pm GMT

"God reveals himself as Father (indeed, he has no sex, but he most certainly does have gender), he was incarnate as a man, born in Bethlehem at a fixed point in time, he chose specific men to be his apostles...this historic understanding of the faith"

What an extraordinary assertion. Jules, you have indeed revealed your own (2017) understanding "in the particularity", but history will just have to speak for itself.

Posted by: JCF on Monday, 27 March 2017 at 11:18am BST
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