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Women Bishops, N.T. Wright, and Douglas Wilson

December 6th, 2012 | 12 min read

By Guest Writer

I am thrilled to introduce Brad Littlejohn to Mere-O's readers.  Brad is a D.Phil. candidate at Edinburgh, working with Oliver and Joan O'Donovan.  He's one of the sharpest young theologians I have read.  I commend the below to you, not all of which I agree with but all of which is worth your time.  Read more from Brad at his blog The Sword and the Ploughshare-MLA

Two weeks ago, the Church of England was thrown into disarray by the House of Laity's unexpected rejection of the measure introducing women bishops into the church.  The measure failed by the narrowest of margins, winning 64% of the votes when two-thirds were needed, after having already gained the overwhelming support of the House of Bishops (94%) and the House of Clergy (77%).  As with last month's US Presidential election, the most surprising thing about the vote was how surprising it was.  The House of Laity's failure to approve the measure was greeted not merely with disappointment, but with shock, incredulity, and even outrage.  Supporters of the measure had great difficulty grasping the fact that a significant number of their fellow citizens and churchgoers could actually be willing to stick with the status quo.  As with the US Presidential election, this incredulity was the more odd given that nothing was changing.  For an electorate to strike out in a bold new direction, embracing a political outsider or a revolutionary new measure, might well elicit surprise and incomprehension.  But for an electorate to decide that it was willing to keep living with what it had already been living with for some years, while perhaps disappointing to those ready for change, should hardly be seen as an inexplicable bolt from the blue.  This is particularly the case in the English church's decision.  Given that for nearly 2,000 years, that church had never had women bishops, that many of its members have shown grave misgivings with the idea of women's ordination since it first became a prominent issue 40 or so years ago, and that the English are still renowned for their reflexive conservatism, a bit of hesitation on the brink before taking the plunge ought to be perceived as the most natural thing in the world, however frustrating to activists.

Canterbury Cathedral: West Front, Nave and Cen... Canterbury Cathedral: West Front, Nave and Central Tower. Seen from south. Image assembled from 4 photos. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That it was not so perceived betrays the collapse of British public discourse, as of American, into a fog of incomprehension; and as with the US elections, the result, far from prompting a call to self-examination and renewed engagement, has shown the losers at their worst, attacking the moral integrity of their opponents and threatening to resort to force.  The progressive agenda, in short, for all of its rhetoric of dialogue, democracy, charity, and concern for minorities, has shown that it is really just interested in getting its way, and is ready to resort to bullying if that's what it takes.  Even David Cameron, the Tory, declared, "the Church needs to get on with it, as it were, and get with the programme" and that it needed a "sharp prod" from Parliament.  His comments were reserved, however, compared to that of many of his Parliamentary colleagues, who, suddenly aroused from their chronic apathy regarding the Established Church they are supposed to oversee, sought to outdo one another in their expressions of outrage and veiled threats.  MP Diana Johnson lamented "The Church of England now stands to be left behind by the society it seeks to serve and made to look outdated, irrelevant and frankly eccentric by this decision. It appears that a broad Church is being held to ransom by a few narrow minds."  MP Eleanor Laing suggested proposed disestablishment—"Does he agree that when the decision-making body of the established Church deliberately sets itself against the general principles of the society that it represents, its position as the established Church must be called into question?" while MP Chris Bryant, on the contrary, proposed making aggressive use of Parliament's legal authority over the Church—"we will have no truck with more concessions to the hard-liners who want to make women second-rate bishops. We need to speed this up. Would it not make sense to have a moratorium on the appointment of any more male bishops until there could also be women bishops—no nomination without feminisation?"  MP David Winnick offered one of the most apoplectic outbursts, declaring, "this opposition to women bishops bears comparison with the opposition 100 years ago to women having the right to vote and to sit in the House of Commons? It is an anti-women attitude—a feeling that women have no place in public life, in religion or in politics—that I find contemptible," and MP Helen Goodman paradoxically blamed the vote on too many concessions to the dissenters (when the evidence suggests,  rather, that it was concern about the lack of concessions, not flat opposition to women bishops, that influenced most of the "No" votes).

Much of the criticism focused on the clear injustice of a decision-making process in which a majority view could be defeated by a minority, in which a two-thirds majority of all three houses was needed for a binding decision.  Of course, the irony that those whose creed is the empowerment of minorities were hell-bent on letting the majority impose its will went unnoticed, perhaps because it was nothing new.  Progressivism, by its zealous fidelity to progress, can champion the cause of minorities only in order to establish new majorities, after which the old majority, now a minority, may be safely trampled underfoot.  In the present case, this irony was rendered more than usually awkward by the fact that it was not the out-of-touch, hoity-toity bishops who had rejected the measure (they'd approved it almost unanimously), or even the straight-laced, narrow-minded clergy (who had passed it by a comfortable margin), but the average everyday folks in the pew, the ecclesiastical proletariat.  Progressives were forced to express their solidarity with the hierarchy, and their contempt for bigoted ordinary folks.  Again, however, this irony is in fact a regular feature of progressive politics, since ordinary folks are those most likely to have conservative instincts.

The overwhelming consensus, voiced only slightly more delicately by leading churchmen, was that the Church was stuck in a positively medieval attitude that was unthinkable in a 21st-century society, and that as a national church, it had a duty to modernize itself so as to mirror that wider society.

N.T. Wright offered a typically refreshing dismissal of all this nonsense in a brief essay for Fulcrum, quoting C.S. Lewis, which is always a good sign:

'But that would be putting the clock back,' gasps a feckless official in one of C. S. Lewis’s stories. 'Have you no idea of progress, of development?' 'I have seen them both in an egg,' replies the young hero. 'We call it Going bad in Narnia.'

Lewis nails a lie at the heart of our culture. As long as we repeat it, we shall never understand our world, let alone the Church’s calling."  He goes on, "'Progress' gave us modern medicine, liberal democracy, the internet. It also gave us the guillotine, the Gulag and the gas chambers.

He is equally peremptory in his dismissal of the rumblings of Erastianism in the House of Commons: "The Church that forgets to say 'we must obey God rather than human authorities' has forgotten what it means to be the Church."  He decries the fickleness of the spirit of the Age, and reminds us that the New Testament writings "were notoriously on the wrong side of history. The Gospel was foolishness to the Greeks, said St Paul, and a scandal to Jews."

Just when conservative evangelicals might be cheering, however, he turns and says that the problem with all this appeal to "progress" is that it dilutes the real argument for women bishops—the Bible.  He then offers a super-condensed version of his New Testament argument in favor of women's ordination, one which rests considerable weight on the fact that the Resurrection was, contrary to all prejudices of that culture, first witnessed by women, on the clear empowerment of women in the New Testament, and on the ambiguity (as he contends) of 1 Timothy 2.  Such an exposition is sure to appeal to many and appall others.

One of the latter was Douglas Wilson, who, far from hailing Wright as at least a co-belligerent for his clear sense of priorities and his tribute to C.S. Lewis, sought to laugh him out of court instead.

Which brings me to the second part of this reflection—the admonition that conservatives not fall prey to the very same sort of arrogance and incomprehension that was on such dismal display amongst progressives during the past two weeks.  What was troubling about Wilson's response was not so much that he disagreed with Wright's exegesis (those couple short paragraphs on Fulcrum might not quite amount to "exegesis," so Wilson also goes after Wright's somewhat fuller argument here), but that he mocked the very notion of trying to muddy the issue with complex argument.  With a remarkably anti-intellectualist posture, Wilson suggests that to appeal to the need for careful scholarship is already to give in to the progressive agenda: "Having banished the Whig view of history out the front door, here we find it banging in an agitated manner at the back door, demanding entrance. What is the password that Wright demands before he lets the progressives skulk back in? You guessed it! Serious scholars disagree. . . . You see, serious scholars are the ones who graduate from Whig-accredited seminaries."  He goes on to mock the idea that 1 Timothy 2:12 could possibly be in need of the kind of scholarly makeover Wright wants to offer.

Now, I should make clear before going any further that I do not find Wright's arguments very convincing.  His points about the resurrection don't really establish anything about ordination, as Wilson points out in another post, and could use a little dose of two-kingdoms doctrine, and the references to women diakonoi and apostoloi in the New Testament, which Wright makes much of, are really very little to go on.  I am no Greek philologist, so I cannot pronounce on Wright's "translation ninja moves" on 1 Tim. 2:12, but I must say I am skeptical.  Rather stronger arguments for women's ordination seem to me to lie in the direction of Reformational doctrines of the two kingdoms and adiaphora, though these still would have fairly high obstacles to clear in the way of Scriptural and natural law arguments (I hope to explore these in another post).  However, when a scholar of Wright's stature, who has earned every right to the respect and appreciation of evangelicals, says that "It's complicated," I'm willing to hear him out.

Fact is that translation is a very tricky business, so that it's almost never a good idea to rest one's case too firmly on a single verse.  Sometimes, as in the case of 1 Tim. 2:12, a different rendering of a key word could alter the whole sense of the passage.  When traditional translations are challenged, the best response is not to clasp them ever more tightly to our chests, refusing to let go and barking at those fiendish "scholars" who assail us, but if we're convinced of our reading, to patiently argue for it, or else to show that we have a broad enough biblical base for our overall view that we are not dependent on a single reading of a single verse.  Sometimes, admittedly, "serious scholars" put out a load of absolute tripe that does not deserve to be taken seriously, but again, "our list of allies grows thin," as Elrond would say, if evangelicals want to start treating N.T. Wright that way.

Wilson seems to think that the reason Wright's reinterpretation cannot be taken seriously is its motivation; Wright would only have been moved to these new readings of New Testament texts if first prompted by the zeitgeist of women's liberation. But so what?  Can only problems internal to the text ever prompt us to re-examine it? No. The classic and cliched example here, though there are many others, is of course Copernicus and Galileo.  Scripture was once tenaciously invoked in favor of geocentrism, but then "serious scholars" recognized that Scripture could and should be read so that it did not require that view.  It is perfectly legitimate in principle for contemporary concerns about women to prompt us to ask new questions of the text, so long as we are still honestly seeking to supply our answers out of the text.

Wilson's most troubling argument against Wright, which appeared in his third post on the subject, amounts to the claim that we should beware of permitting "reasonable disagreement" with other Christians, because it is a slippery slope:

Debates over issues like women's ordination are not like solving an algebra problem. Before one side can prevail, they must first get their option on the table as a "reasonable option." Step one is "consistent Christians differ on issue x." Step two is the insistence on the new orthodoxy. When I laugh at the exegesis of 1 Tim. 2:12 offered up in journals like Serious Scholars Clown Car Review, I am not just indulging my own sense of humor. I am fighting the monstrosity at step one. I am anticipating the play that is being run on us. So should everybody else. This is not the first time this has happened, everybody. . . .

So when serious scholars tell you that pink is blue, and you pull thoughtfully on your chin, and ask, pensively, whether or not, at the end of the day, there might be other readings that allow for a different take on this -- congratulations. You have already lost. And -- not incidentally -- your whole approach to life is the reason you lose so much.

Our first question when confronted with the claim that reasonable, consistent Christians differ on an issue, is to ask whether that is in fact true, not what might happen to us if we admit it.  If it is true, then we need to admit it, and be willing to engage in a reasonable discussion with them, rather than shying away from it out of fear that we'll have the rug pulled out from under our feet.  If we're actually so confident that our view can withstand all challenges, then why are we so afraid of even opening a discussion?  In this case, I think it is hard to deny that reasonable, consistent Christians can and do differ on the issue; this is not a concession that it's all ambiguous and there is no right answer, only a recognition that that debate over that answer exists among brothers and sisters who all acknowledge the authority of Christ and his Word.

Another way of getting at this is to ask whether the issue in question is an adiaphoron, in the classic Reformation sense—an essential of the faith, or a mere question of outward order?  To say it is adiaphorous is not to say it doesn't matter, or that the Bible has nothing to say on the subject, only that disagreement about it does not affect the essentials, and hence should be tolerated for the time being.  Of course, people will here pull out the slippery-slope argument that while not in itself essential, it is so clearly in Scripture that the authority of Scripture is at stake, and so it is essential.  But the problem is that that argument can be made on any issue whatsoever where we are convinced of our own reading of Scripture. The response to it is fairly simple—do one's opponents happily acknowledge and submit themselves to the authority of Scripture as well? There are plenty of times nowadays when they do not.  But in the case of Wright and other evangelical advocates of women's ordination, they do.  If we're going to claim that this is all just part of a ploy to subvert the Gospel, we will soon find ourselves isolated indeed.

In the end, Wilson suffers from the same problem as the blustering politicians in the House of Commons—he cannot fathom that a rational and morally upright person could hold contrary views on this subject.  This disease of incomprehension afflicts many conservatives in the Church as much as it does their progressive counterparts.  "The Bible says, and the Bible is clear, darn it, so get with the program," seems the basic posture.  But this is not going to get us very far.  What we need instead is to cultivate the habit of "intellectual empathy" that Matthew Anderson describes in a recent post here at Mere Orthodoxy:

[Intellectual empathy is] the decision to enter into a person’s way of the seeing the world and look along with them.  It is, in a sense, an imaginative exercise that goes beyond the “willing suspension of disbelief” toward the granting of principles and premises that we may very well like to reject in order to see how the whole framework holds together—if the whole framework holds together.  Intellectual empathy is a form of seeing how.  As in, “Oh, I see how you could think that.  It’s wrong, but I can see how it might make sense.”  It is an act that is aimed, first and foremost, toward the good of understanding, a good that persuasion may flow from but can never precede.

Like all virtues, intellectual empathy needs some sharp edges to be of much use.  For just as ‘compassion’ can become a sort of loose affection disconnected from a normative order of goods, so too the intellectual good of empathizing and understanding can be disconnected from pursuit of both people’s good of discovering and affirming what is true.  Still, when the gap between outlooks is so wide, it is easy to skip the empathizing and move straight into the work of objecting and persuading.

But lest there be any confusion, let me reiterate that I am not suggesting we should give up our first principles or revise them in our imaginative exercising.  If anything, the opposite.  It is precisely because of our confidence that we are able to enter in to how others see the world, with the freedom to explore along with them and see what they see.