Without Precedent: Scripture, tradition and the ordination of women
Wipf & Stock £15
Church Times Bookshop £13.50
GEOFFREY KIRK, formerly a parish priest in Southwark diocese and secretary of Forward in Faith, now a Roman Catholic layman, writes intelligently and elegantly to appreciative comments from Rowan Williams and Ephraim Radner. This reviewer shares their positive evaluation of Kirk’s engagement with scripture and tradition, while similarly dissenting from his negativity.
Kirk’s ultimate target is not the ordination of women but what he sees as an Enlightenment appropriation of Christianity. His enemies are Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, David Hume, and their followers. Kirk is suspicious of grand narratives such as the Whig view of history and the inevitable progress of liberal causes. Nevertheless, he himself can be accused of a grand if implicit conspiracy theory of the Enlightenment’s capture of Protestant Christianity.
Kirk approvingly quotes the once Christian feminist Daphne Hampson, who now rejects Christianity as irrevocably patriarchal. He insists on the historical particularity of Christian faith in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. But does this mean that the Church is tied to precedent in the way that Kirk argues?
Nevertheless, Kirk has some important things to say in not reading into either scripture or Paul a modern equality agenda. The eschatological immanence of the Kingdom precluded this. Kirk examines the encounters between Jesus and women in the Gospels, and the Pauline affirmation of Galations 3.28. Jesus and Paul are neither proto-feminists nor early abolitionists. Rather, both have to be seen in their first-century Jewish context.
He castigates Richard Bauckham in Gospel Women for devoting much speculative space to Junia/s of Romans 16.7. There can be no historical certainty here, nor to what Paul meant precisely by his or her apostolate. Similarly, Tom Wright is criticised for his Evangelical championing of Mary of Magdala as the apostle to the apostles. Here Kirk leans rather on the Synoptic accounts of the resurrection, and understandably tilts at the modern Magdalene industry.
On the argument for women priests or bishops from early (Roman) mosaics and frescoes, he easily shows that art history and archaeology caution us from crediting visual evidence for women’s (or men’s) eucharistic concelebration.
Kirk also touches on Christian anthropology and soteriology, especially Gregory Nazianzen’s “what is not assumed is not healed”: the argument for an inclusive understanding of the incarnation and redemption. This is the heart of the dogmatic debate. While all must agree with Kirk (and with John) that the body of the Resurrected Lord bore the signs of his Passion and was not androgynous, this does not imply that Christ’s ascended high priesthood is not inclusive; and this should (today) have implications for the priesthood of the ordained ministry.
I missed in an otherwise wide discussion of relevant material, reference to Ute Eisen’s Women Officeholders in Early Christianity, with its generally balanced discussion of the epigraphical and literary evidence. While there is little unambiguous evidence for women priests or bishops in the Early Church, there is considerable evidence for women as office-holders, including the diaconate.
Kirk does not discuss the question of the diaconate, but the recent papal announcement of a commission renews this question for the Roman Catholic Church. Kirk is less than fair to the Jesuit Gary Macy, whose Hidden History of Women’s Ordination is not advocacy, and whose argument about the invisibility of ordained women after the late-medieval narrowing of the meaning of “ordination” follows Congar and much liturgical scholarship.
Kirk explicitly argues the formal position of the Roman Magisterium that the Church has no authority to change and that the Church has already decided the matter. But there is no discussion of John Wijngaards’s important argument that the sensus fidei (the sense of faith of the Church) has only just begun to be sensitive to this question, and that past decisions, especially in the Latin West, have been based on a seriously defective Aristotelian anthropology.
In spite of these criticisms, this is an important book for the debate that Kirk invites on the Enlightenment and “liberal” Christianity, and on Christian anthropology, especially the significance of Christ’s risen and ascended humanity.