Progress, or Promise?

Dover Beach approvingly quotes Tom Wright on the language and rationale put forward by advocates of women’s ordination, opposing the language of “rights” and “progress” as inherently antithetical to the gospel, but potentially supporting women’s ordination in principle on the grounds of church tradition in the apostolic church.

He quotes Wright’s recent commentary (at more length, and without the emphases I’ve added here):

All Christian ministry begins with the announcement that Jesus has been raised from the dead. And Jesus entrusted that task, first of all, not to Peter, James, or John, but to Mary Magdalene. Part of the point of the new creation launched at Easter was the transformation of roles and vocations: from Jews-only to worldwide, from monoglot to multilingual (think of Pentecost), and from male-only leadership to male and female together.

Within a few decades, Paul was sending greetings to friends including an “apostle” called Junia (Romans xvi, 7). He entrusted that letter to a “deacon” called Phoebe whose work was taking her to Rome. The letter-bearer would normally be the one to read it out to the recipients and explain its contents. The first expositor of Paul’s greatest letter was an ordained travelling businesswoman.

The resurrection of Jesus is the only Christian guide to the question of where history is going. Unlike the ambiguous “progress” of the Enlightenment, it is full of promise — especially the promise of transformed gender roles.

I find this interesting, because when I use the term “progress” in this context, it is not, primarily, the “progress of the Enlightenment” that I’m thinking of: the progress that, in Wright’s eloquent words, has brought us not only “modern medicine, liberal democracy, the internet” but also “the guillotine, the Gulag and the gas chambers.” What I’m thinking of, and what I suspect most other Christian feminists are thinking of, is the progress that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King had in mind:

The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.

Progress along this arc of history is progress towards that very promise, the promise from the Book of Amos to which Rev. King frequently alludes that justice will roll down like a river, the justice that is one of the characteristics of the new creation. Sexism, racism, and all forms of bigotry are sins of injustice. And when they are embodied in societal or institutional structures, they are structural sins of injustice.

DB also inveighs against the language of “rights” that is frequently used by advocates of women’s ordination, which is interesting, because I think the language of “rights” is congruent with the language of “justice.” On the one hand, it is a legitimate critique to say that no one has the right to ordination, neither women nor men; instead, Christians believe, God and/or the [C|c]hurch (depending on your theory of ordination) calls persons to ordained ministry.

But I wonder if those who object to the language of “rights” in this context would also object to an assertion that women have a right to the same process of vocational discernment that is extended to men, without having their call pre-emptively dismissed due to their sex? Or would it be necessary to humbly petition the church for access to the same privilege that is granted to their brothers? And if so, why, exactly? The code of canon law (in the Catholic church, at least) routinely uses the language of rights when describing the relationships of the institutional church and its members.

If we don’t have the same connotations for the words we are using, it’s very hard to communicate. If the language used by advocates for women’s ordination is intended to signal justice and commitment to the reign of God, but is instead heard as signalling secularism and commitment to unaided human progress, that’s a pretty profound failure.

Let us pray that both speakers and listeners in the church today will be guided by the Holy Spirit in wisdom, discernment, truth, and above all, charity.

Gracious God, we pray for your holy catholic church.
Fill it with your truth;
Keep it in your peace.
Where it is corrupt, reform it.
Where it is in error, correct it.
Where it is right, defend it.
Where it is in want, provide for it.
Where it is divided, reunite it;
for the sake of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Amen.

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3 Responses to Progress, or Promise?

  1. Pingback: “We Will Speak Out!” | United Nations Delegate

  2. Pingback: Women Bishops: It’s About the Bible « Katie and Martin's Blog on the Lutheran Church in Australia

  3. Pingback: Second Blogiversary! | Gaudete Theology

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