Women in Ministry and Authority in Churches: A Response to the Ugley Vicar

It seems that the prospect of women in ministry–and especially women as diocesan bishops–is always linked to a discussion of the nature of authority in churches.  That was certainly the case in my own 2007 piece on the subject, Authority and Evangelical Churches, and now the CoE’s “Ugley Vicar” takes on the issue in his own post Anglicanism, Authority and Ordination.  Although our two church environments are different (they are both episcopal in nature, however) many of the underlying issues are the same.

One point I’d like to make from the outset is this: if it is unacceptable for a woman to have any kind of authority over a man at an episcopal level, i.e., a female bishop over a male priest/minister, than it’s unacceptable for a woman vicar/pastor to have the same kind of authority over a male layman.  The reverse is likewise true.  Once you allow women in what many of us would refer to as “credentialled” ministry, then you’ve blown your argument about the authority issue at a higher level.  That’s the situation that both the CoE and my own church find themselves in right at the moment.

But John Richardson (the Ugley Vicar) introduces something into the debate which, frankly, I wish I had explicitly done sooner: the concept of more than one kind of authority.  Taking his cue from John Goldingay’s book Authority in Ministry, he comes up with the following:

In it, he identified two kinds of authority. Authority A is the institutional kind possessed by the centurion, who said to one man “‘Go’ and he goes, to another ‘Come’ and he comes.” Authority B, he said, is the kind possessed by Jesus who, “spoke with authority because he was in touch with God and with truth” (8).

Goldingay then went on to consider the implications for the church’s ministry, with the following observation:
… in the church it is the position of elder-presbyter-priest/bishop that has become, as it developed clearly into two offices, the most important locus of Authority A in the church. (22)
Goldingay’s distinction may be criticized in the details of presentation (did Jesus not possess an ‘Authority A’, precisely as recognize by the centurion?), but it is helpful in considering the nature of authority itself, particularly as it applies to the ordained ministry. For what many members of the Church of England do not realize is just how much the authority of their ‘hierarchy’ is an Authority A, not B.

Richardson then spends a great deal of time applying this to the CoE.  To be honest, much of the discussion is specific to his church, a state church where “Authority A” is tied up in its legal status.  One thing he brings out that is relevant to my earlier treatment of the subject is the nature of the Act of Supremacy: he states the following:

The engineers of the 1534 Act of Supremacy viewed it as a tidying-up operation, not so much extending of the rule of the monarch as removing the interference of the Pope.

That’s significant because, if one accepts the “engineers” premise, it absolves Anglicanism (or at least the C0E) of the great besetting problem with most of Evangelical Christianity, the one that is at the centre of my whole thesis in Authority and Evangelical Churches:

The honest truth is that every Evangelical church–without exception–is the result of an act of rebellion from constituted ecclesiastical authority. That trend started with Protestant churches in general, although most of these complicated the issue by their alliance with the state.  But look where it went from there.  The Methodists seceded from the Anglicans, the holiness and Pentecostal churches in their turn seceded from the Methodists, and the Baptists simply seceded from everybody including themselves.  The multitude of denominations is a testament of one secession from another, of one rebellion against existing authority after another.

What I’d like to spend the rest of this piece doing is to generalise his concept of “Authority A” and “Authority B” and perhaps use this to shed some light for the rest of us who are involved with this issue.

If one looks at things objectively, any organisation–secular or religious–requires Authority A to function.  That just goes with the territory.  There’s nothing unique to the church about this.  This applies whether the church has state sanction (as is the case in the UK and many European countries) or not (the US.)  It also applies if the church is incorporated or an unincorporated religious association (and we see both in all parts of the world.)  And I’m also inclined to think that this kind of authority isn’t what is referred to in the New Testament when the subject comes up.  In fact, some writers (the Jesuit John McKenzie comes to mind) contend that one of the main points of the New Testament is that the church get past this kind of authority altogether.

Authority B is another matter altogether.  Although it certainly has New Testament sanction, how it’s implemented varies depending upon the ecclesiastical environment.

At one end of the spectrum is Roman Catholicism, whose implementation of this is tied up in the concept of magisterium, the inherent ability of the Church to authoritatively speak on matters of faith and morals.  That in turn is tied up with its ecclesiology, and I’ve discussed that issue many times on this blog, starting many years ago with We May Not Be a Church After All.  I’ve always felt that the Roman Catholic Church can never admit the sacerdotal ministry of women because of this and many other issues, unless they modify their underlying idea of themselves.  In this environment, Authorities A and B are effectively a unity.

At the other end are the “independent” Evangelical churches (the Baptists in this part of the world are foremost in this) who have, whether they care to admit it or not, evicted Authority B from their churches altogether.  They have done this through the aforementioned process of rebellion to be sure, but they have also done so because their concept of church is a complete rejection of the church possessing either the magisterium or the status of a formal intermediary between man and God.  As a consequence of this they have no grounds to exclude women from credentialled ministry unless they can demonstrate that Authority A is what the New Testament refers to.  Today, however, what we’re seeing in many Evangelical churches is a de facto entry of Authority B into the church, something which I think is objectionable and defeats the whole purpose of such churches.

Somewhere in this mix are the Pentecostal and Charismatic churches and groups, whose idea is to restore the spontaneous, Spirit-led appointment to leadership that we saw in the New Testament.  This is the mirror image of the usual Evangelical model: it has a clear concept of Authority B but in a sense evicts Authority A from the church.  This has in turn led to the woes the movement has experienced: lack of accountability, self-validating leadership and ephemeral organisations.  The Classical Pentecostal churches were the first attempt to fix these problems, and have done so in varying ways and with varying degrees of success.  Most of these lessons had to be learned the hard way once again during the Charismatic Renewal of the 1960’s and 1970’s, with even more variation in the results.  Women have always done relatively well here because of the Spirit-led nature of leadership, underscored by the explicit conferring of the gift of prophecy on women in Joel and Acts (something that Lord Carey likes to note.)  But back-pedalling has taken place here too, as we all know.

With Anglicanism, we have a muddle.

Richardson points out that, in the formation of the Church of England, the whole concept of the sovereign being a part of the doctrinal formation of the church was taken out of the equation.  English sovereigns had good precedent for doing so, as Roman Emperors made the fourth and fifth centuries an exciting time picking winners and losers in the Christological controversies.  But they, wanting a Protestant church (especially Edward VI and Elizabeth I) passed this up.  The 39 Articles notwithstanding, the Church of England also passed up the explicit assumption of magisterium, preferring to see itself as a restoration of New Testament and Patristic Christianity that had gotten lost in Roman Catholicism.  And I’ve always been inclined to think that Anglicanism is one of the better attempts to get back to this, all things considered.

But having done all of these “Protestant” things, the Church of England still retains the decidedly “Catholic” structure of bishops as successors to the Apostles.  And that’s where the tricky part comes in.  It’s true that the CoE’s ministers and bishops have legal authority and a structure, the “Authority A.”  But as bishops women would have (in theory at least; as Richardson alludes to, it doesn’t always work out) whatever spiritual authority comes from the “Catholic” side of the episcopacy, and, as he points out, for those who see this as an impossible combination, no provision has been made.

Given Anglicanism’s equivocal nature (and I mean that in the scholastic, not pejorative sense,) I think that there are three possibilities for resolution.

The first would be to actually adopt a consistent, univocal theory of the authority of the church, i.e., either Roman Catholic, Evangelical or even Charismatic.  Given that this hasn’t been properly resolved on either side of the Atlantic, this is unlikely, and given some Evangelicals aversion to women as ministers (let alone bishops) it may not resolve anything.

The second is that of parallel jurisdictions.  This flies in the face of the concept of the “holy Catholic and apostolic church,” but the blunt truth is that, considering these churches as a whole, we already have parallel jurisdictions.  As Richardson reminds us, the Articles state that “The Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this Realm of England,” but subsequent to that he established a presence in the UK and has certainly made a nuisance of himself lately.  (Personally, I think the term “flying bishops” used in this context is a promotional scheme for the airlines, but I digress…)

The third would be for the church, as have many churches, simply decide to ordain women as bishops and let the chips fall where they may.  And that’s what I think is going to happen.

I’ve been a supporter of women at all levels in ministry, and remain so.  But that support is based on an ecclesiastical environment where churches have either a) denied, b) forfeited or c) adopted a Charismatic concept of “Authority B.”   Taking this step needs to be done with a clear idea of authority in the church, and very few have thought this issue through.  Richardson is to be commended for having explored the issue the way he has.

One thought on “Women in Ministry and Authority in Churches: A Response to the Ugley Vicar”

  1. Thanks for giving this such careful consideration. I hope others will read this and my own articles and think about what is said. The issues are only easy when we don’t think about them!

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