This is the third of three blog posts responding to the appointment of Philip North, an opponent of women priests, as Bishop of Sheffield.

In the first I described Martyn Percy’s argument that the appointment should not proceed as long as Philip rejects the priesthood of the women priests there. In the second I described the trend for ecclesiastical decrees from on high to substitute for theological analysis of the issue. This time I turn to the theological question.

Let us be clear that decrees from on high are not an adequate substitute. To say that the Church of England should not have women priests because the Orthodox and Roman Catholics do not have them is not to give a reason why women cannot be priests: it is only to say that the Pope and the patriarchs have a reason. All we have done is to pass the buck. What reason do they have?

Valid priesthood

The Anglican Catholic rejection of the priesthood of women stands in the tradition of the nineteenth century Tractarian movement. The claim is that a priest is different from a layperson by virtue of a spiritual grace imparted by the Holy Spirit at ordination, and the grace is not imparted to women. This is sometimes called the ‘ontological’ claim.

Thus it needs two parts. One describes the faculties possessed by priests. The other explains why women cannot have them. If we can give an adequate account of both of these we will be able to see why women cannot be priests.

The traditional answer to the first is that priests are given by God the following three faculties:

  • Absolution: the ability to declare on God’s behalf that God forgives the sinner.
  • Blessing: the ability to declare on God’s behalf that God seeks the well-being of those blessed.
  • Consecration: the ability to turn bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.

The claim is that when a woman does these things they are invalid. To say that they are invalid is to say that the absolutions and blessings fail to speak on behalf of God and the bread and wine do not become the body and blood of Christ. Elsewhere I have described at greater length the history of the idea of validity of sacraments. It is a rather magical idea, presuming that in order to ‘work’ they have to be done by the right people following the right procedures.

Spiritual unobservables

The Tractarians meant it. Their movement reacted against the materialist beliefs of their day by insisting on spiritual realities that transcend ordinary observation. In their reacting they looked back to medieval Christianity. But medieval Christianity, for all that it believed in countless invisible angels and demons, was not anti-empirical. Medievals often believed, for example, that a witch who managed to steal consecrated Communion bread could use it to cast spells and produce real physical effects. Nobody believes this today. So what difference remains between validly and invalidly consecrated Communion wafers? We might say that valid wafers really are the body of Christ, but what does that mean? Medieval theories of substance and essence could claim that its physical constituents change, but nobody believes them now.

Similarly, despite John 20:23 (where the apostles of Jesus are told ‘If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’) few today believe that whether God forgives someone depends on whether an absolution was given by a validly ordained priest. Ditto for blessings.

The collapse of these old theories may look like good news for Sheffield’s women priests: all that talk about them not being real priests is built on a vacuum. Sadly, they are not helped one bit. What burdens them is not whether their priesthood really is valid, but whether powerful people think it is.

Where does this leave us? By way of analogy, let’s say that Barchester Football Club appoints a new manager, who believes Africans cannot play football. A third of the team are Africans. What happens? It would be clear to everyone that he cannot do the job unless he either changes his view or fires all the Africans. The main difference between this and the case of women priests is that the football question can be answered empirically, by seeing how well the Africans play.

Or suppose the new Practice Manager at a doctor’s surgery believes that a third of the prescriptions being given are no better than placebos. Whether this is true would be harder to establish, but even so the medical community have well-tried processes for judging the efficacy of drugs.

In the case of women priests there is absolutely no way to make any empirical judgement. We can never show that if x had, or had not, been a true priest, y would, or would not, have happened.

What are we really arguing about?

But in this case, what difference remains between validly ordained priests and invalidly ordained priests such as women? It seems to me that we are forgetting to ask. Nobody can say. My impression is that there was more theological debate before the 1992 vote on women priests than there is today. Much of it was not of a high quality, but there was at least theological debate – about how priests do things for God and whether women can do them. Today one strugges to find any. Nobody really knows what we are arguing about. It is as though we have settled for a culture where we don’t expect to understand, so we live with the contradictions.

There are two possible responses. One is that opposition to women priests simply represents some people’s discomfort with a more gender-equal society. The other is what Marx called ‘mystification’. We should not expect to understand, because it’s all very spiritual and mysterious. So we just accept what we are told.

The latter is what we get from the hierarchies. Anglican opponents of women priests appeal to the authority of Pope and patriarchs. The Church of England produces the Five Guiding Principles – not a theological statement at all, but a management statement telling us to accept the differences of opinion as permanent items of ecclesiastical furniture. It even speaks the language of people being ‘unable to receive the ministry of women bishops or priests’, as though disagreeing with women priests was a kind of permanent genetic disability.

Rescuing priesthood

If this is the best we can do the priesthood of women, for all that it has been formally approved, continues to live under a cloud of uncertainty. However, as indicated above the uncertainty is not about any feature specific to women. It is not as though we are quite clear what happens to bread when it is consecrated and have biological reasons for doubting whether it can happen under a woman’s hands. We don’t get that far. The uncertainty is about what we mean by priesthood in the first place. So in the long term the ongoing differences are bound to undermine the very idea of priesthood.

I conclude, therefore, with a brief account of how I would defend the idea of priesthood independently of Tractarian doctrine or biblical literalism.

Every healthy society has a diverse range of personalities. Some people love cooking. Some people love bringing up children. Some people love growing food. We need a lot of those. We also need people who like tinkering with machinery, or taking a lead in government – not so many, but enough. In the same way we also need people who specialise in understanding how we relate to God and helping people to worship. Like the other faculties, it is given by God. It is not given through valid ordination, any more than being good at cooking is a qualification given by an institution. Training is usually needed, but there is no invisible ‘ontological’ difference between a priest and a layperson. Instead, every community can see for itself who makes a good priest.

So don’t let unnecessary restrictions get in the way. If somebody looks as though they would be a good priest, let them be a priest, whether man or woman.