Sarah Coakley–Women bishops and the collapse of Anglican theology

In our supposedly “secular” culture, the Church of England seems to have succumbed to the idea that theological ideas do not matter very much, and this may bespeak a deeper malaise even than the current crisis itself. Young people are turning back to the Church, longing for spiritual and intellectual bread; by and large stones await them, even despite a most promising new generation of young priest-scholars (women and men) who are beginning to rise through the ecclesial ranks. Perhaps in a generation things will be different.

But for the moment the Church has in effect signed its own theological death warrant. At the end of this summer, amid a new storm of fury about a confused conservative amendment to the Measure (astonishingly backed by both Archbishops to placate the defectors), I was invited to address the House of Bishops on “the theology of women bishops.” I made the following three points, and stand by them:

we cannot compromise on the historic theology of the bishop as locus of unity;
we must return afresh to our distinctively Anglican notions of reason and tradition to solve this crisis, not lapse into rational incoherence; and
we must resist in the Church the supervenience of bureaucratic thinking (with all its busy political pragmatism) over theological and spiritual seriousness.

I offer here just a brief further expansion on each of these points.

Read it all.


Posted in * Anglican - Episcopal, * Culture-Watch, - Anglican: Commentary, Anglican Provinces, Church of England (CoE), CoE Bishops, Theology, Women

22 comments on “Sarah Coakley–Women bishops and the collapse of Anglican theology

  1. dwstroudmd+ says:

    In its way, in its call for theological coherence, this makes not so much the case for female bishops as against female priests – though not intentionally, I warrant. For it does note the Orthodox and Roman positions whilst ignoring their import.

  2. Terry Tee says:

    I was struck by the reference to ‘elderly and conservative’ people apparently disproportionately representative in the House of Laity. Well, just about any elected assembly would produce a similar complaint; young folks generally have other agendas. But it begs the question: in Professor Coakley’s eyes, is there something wrong with being elderly and/or conservative? Moreover, if the whole process was designed to produce consensus, and it has to overcome 2000 years of tradition, why does another few years matter?

  3. AnglicanFirst says:

    The exclusion of women from roles as priests and bishops is a matter of theology and tradition.

    Theology must be kept separate from the secular fads of any particular era. In a very real sense matters of theology are ‘timeless amtters.’

    Matters of theology should be resolved by ordained and consecrated bishops convened synodically.

    These bishops must respond in their decision making only to Scripture and tradition as guided by the Holy Spirit. If a bishop claims the guidance of the Holy Spirit as part of a synod and he is not so guided then that bishop has blasphemed. And his blasphemy beomes a personal matter of reconciliation between himself and God. And he has become a shephard who is leading his flock astray.

    Further, any decision made within a national church synod that affects the whole Anglican Communion must be forwarded as a proposal, not a fait accompli, to a Communion-wide synod of the bishops of the whole Anglican Communion for study, discussion and final resolution.

    As soon as national churches start doing their ‘own thing’ on matters of theology and tradition, in a manner that is unilateral and divisive, then the the unity of the Anglican Communion is directly threatened and the Scriptural command “That we all may be one is violated.”

    Secular imperatives in our society that have been seized upon in a populist manner over the past half century have done great harm both secularly and to the total integrity of the Body of Christ, not just to the Anglican Communion.

    Modern unrestrained populism is no better and little different than the unrestrained mob behavior experienced by Lot and his family in Sodom and Gomorrah or the rationalized and unrestrained behavior of his two daughters who seduced their drunken father in order to have deliberately incestuous relations with him.

    Unrestrained populism and abberant philosophies in tune with various times and locations have been a problem of the mortal leadership of the Church since its earliest years.

  4. tired says:

    1-3: I concur. While she argues against incoherence, she presents elements that – if dealt with honestly – weigh heavily against her position.

    My take away is that she is basically arguing ‘in for a penny, in for a pound.’ I find that a singularly unconvincing argument. Why not, instead, embrace reform to expunge the incoherence of the status quo ante, and bring Anglicans closer to the other catholic branches?


  5. driver8 says:

    Sarah Coakley has been, IMO, the most interesting philosophical theologian in the Anglican tradition for a couple of decades. I met her first two decades ago, before I (or she for that matter) was ordained and have followed her work with a kind of delight ever since.

    So her stance on all of this has been rather heartbreaking for me. The fierce demand for “no compromise”. I juxtapose it in my imagination with Archbishop Rowan’s networks of affiliation and plural centers of authority. I understood those were a positive good when dealing with black African bishops who had also said, “no compromise”? Such a theology is apparently life giving and helpful when trying to fend off black African bishops concerned about compromise. Yet apparently not suitable for the mother church?

  6. C. Wingate says:

    AnglicanFirst, whatever one may think of the theological opposition to ordaining women, it is unfair to refer to the urge to ordain them as a “secular fad.” Using guitars in liturgy is a fad, but not this. If there were no theological reason to say that women cannot properly exercise ordained ministry, then raw justice would demand that women be considered for ordination and indeed for any other church ministry. The cruel contempt of men and even other women for the condition of the women around them, and the abuse which follows, is a great and ancient scandal, and denouncing and working against that contempt and that abuse is no fad. If you think otherwise, well, consider yourself called out for condemnation. A tradition of evil is no tradition worth of respect, but one which is to be set aside as the works of men.

  7. A Senior Priest says:

    That is unsound thinking, to link criminal abuse of women and the completely legitimate sacred tradition of male-only Holy Orders. Women are excluded from ordination as priests and bishops on the basis of sacred tradition and Biblically grounded theology. If someone tried to say to me what #6 wrote I would laugh in their face. And as a mass political push it is a recent secular fad, unless you count Montanus as your theological ancestor.

  8. CSeitz-ACI says:

    What happens when a call to ordained ministry cannot be ascertained apart from the categories of justice and entitlement? Compare the call of Israel’s prophets, who quite frankly would have been delighted not to be so ‘entitled.’ Or of Christian laity who dreaded the responsibility of Orders but were constrained against their natural instincts to accept a call. Things change enormously when Christian ministry is a chosen occupation and/or one open to the logic of entitlement. Clearly there are aspects here difficult to separate out. But once our job is to assure ‘equal treatment’ or ‘fairness’ we are in some place that looks a long way away from Paul of Tarsus the Twelve, or the prophets of Israel.

  9. A Senior Priest says:

    Beautifully put, CSeitz.

  10. Ross says:

    #8: I notice that such squeamishness about Christian ministry being viewed as a “chosen occupation” didn’t come up until women wanted to choose it.

  11. Hursley says:

    #10 Then I suggest you read the Fathers on the issue of discernment and ordination. St. John Chrysostom’s books on the priesthood, for a start. No, this issue has long been in play. WO was not the start of it. Simon Magnus wanted to buy it! That may be the start.

  12. Cennydd13 says:

    I knew of several Episcopal women “priests” in my former diocese who chose to apply to seminary because they were housewives who wanted to do “something different” in their lives, and who thought they’d like to be ordained.

  13. C. Wingate says:

    Dr. Seitz, I too see the sense of entitlement as a problem. But the notion of ordained ministry as a call to be carefully discerned in a winnowing process which picks those most suited to the priesthood is, in its way, even more a novelty than that of ordaining women, and indeed traces directly back into the kind of personnel management that The Organization Man was written to ridicule. Even the most casual student of the history of taking orders must know this. And insofar as personal qualities figure into it, it must be conceded that, beyond the bare fact of a candidate’s sex, any given set of talents may well be found in a woman as in a man. That is the nature of human demographics. Of course plenty of women feel a call, and I’ve seen enough of the The Process in action to be aware that there are plenty of men who head for the bishop’s hands out of boredom with their lives.

    I do not think that a woman becomes entitled to be ordained by virtue of the ill-use of her sex over the millennia. But since treating women like fellow human beings instead of as inferior creatures is being called “a secular fad”, it is evident to me that arguments about the matter have to be held to a very high standard in which all must be suspected of their motives. Appeal to Paul in particular is quite problematic, because in one place he flatly states that there are no gender distinctions in Christ, in another he says that women are not equal, and in a third place he asks a rhetorical question to which the modern student of nature may reply flatly, “no.” A wise man must at least pause before simply ratifying the sexism of the ages.

  14. Sarah1 says:

    RE: “But since treating women like fellow human beings instead of as inferior creatures is being called “a secular fad” . . .”

    Of course, nobody on this thread has said any such thing. But I suppose if one’s ideas are inadequately reasoned, then one must sink to such obvious purple-prosed attempts to distract.

  15. C. Wingate says:

    Sarah, it was implied, through careless talk.

  16. Katherine says:

    It was not implied, and in adopting that construction C. Wingate reveals his own set of prejudices. In his view, opponents of women in the priesthood are people who consider women inferior. He convicted another commenter of endorsing “contempt and abuse” of women when he had done no such thing.

  17. CSeitz-ACI says:

    #13 — I thought my point was clear enough: Paul (as with the Twelve, or Israel’s prophets, or indeed Christian ordained leadership in general) did not seek a call but was called against his natural will and actions. The only justice and entitlement being enforced was an overriding of his native wishes and desires.
    As for his own views, that is another topic, except to say: the tradition never viewed Colossians/Ephesians and Galatians as anything but mutually reinforcing. A wise man should indeed pause.

  18. CSeitz-ACI says:

    #10 I would add that a sound confessor will always help a person distinguish between a) being sure contentment follows from what is perceived to be denied in life, and so its eventual procurement and b) God’s will for us in following His Son. So much of what we read today assumes the former: if only I could have X and then all will be well. Or, Christian life is finding ways to rectify ‘inequities’ that present themselves in my mind. I am not speaking here about women in Orders but about a deep instinct in the liberal West. The Bible describes a different journey in the Cross and Empty tomb that our forebears often saw much, much clearer.

  19. C. Wingate says:

    Katherine, I directed my remarks against one particular phrase, which to my mind betrays a certain attitude. If you want to say that all opponents to ordaining women hold to that same attitude, then by all means, I condemn them all. But I don’t think that’s true. If I recall correctly you are, as I am, old enough to remember older days when it was acceptable to discount a woman simply for being a woman, and the the abolition of that older pattern was a righteous act, however difficult the consequences may be. It is possible nonetheless, at least in theory, to argue that women may not be properly ordained, but it is also necessary, in admission of our sinfulness, to admit that the admission of women to every other walk of life would lead, absent some specific objection, to the hypothesis that they should also be admitted to the clergy. The trivialization of this hypothesis is the problem; it is possible to take seriously the pain of a call thwarted by the (male) institution of the church, but calling it a “fad” is the opposite of taking that seriously.

  20. Katherine says:

    I don’t, of course, say any such thing, since I oppose women’s ordination and I am a woman. Nice of you to admit that my view might be, “in theory,” a possible argument, but then you go on to discount its seriousness.

  21. AnglicanFirst says:

    Reply to C. Wingate (#7.)

    I have restrained myself from answering your comments since responding
    (a) to written emotion bordering on extreme anger and
    (b) to judgemental condemnation that violates Scriptural admonitions
    required that I place a period of time between reading them and then writing my response.

    If I had written earlier, I would have responded in a similar manner and thus fallen into the same error.

    You seem to have a problem with the word “fad” which must have a horrible connotation in your mind. By “fad” I meant issues in the mortal world that are temporal in nature and are due to mortal “free will” and not Divine Will. You also went on about a horrible history of the mistreatment of women as if there were a continuous timeline that relates to women’s ordination.

    Is there a continuous timeline or is there a cyclic recurrence of a number of “fads” in the history of the Church Catholic?

    My comments were talking points about the broader impact of “fads,” not just the current or recurrent issue of “women’s ordination.”

    And these “fads” for the most part come from the mortal world of free will and not from a spiritually derived Divine “call to action.”

    And, I am waiting for the primatial bishops of the entire Anglican Communion
    to decide to make a decision or to decide to await further Spiritual Guidance on the issue of women’s ordination as priests and the consecration of women as bishops.

    In particular the validity their sacramental role.

    This is not prejudice or an act of oppression on my part. Rather it is the behavior of a person who adheres to the historical episcopal structure of the Church Catholic.

    Finally, I have attended services conducted by female clergy and have found them to be very good preaching services. I have no reason to question the sincerity or the motivation or the competence of these women.

    But when a female performs the sacramental acts of consecration during the Eucharist, I do question whether those acts result in an actual Eucharist.

    And where does my question arise?

    It arises from the fact that there has not been an Anglican Communion-wide concurrence by the national churches of the Communion that there are appropriate functions for women as priests and bishops.

  22. A Senior Priest says:

    So, this entire discussion was just a side-track due to C Wingate imagining that a person on this thread was participating in the age-old cultural issue of not valuing the female sex and because of that misogyny denying female persons the opportunity to be ordained. Did I get that right? Whereas, in fact, there are innumerable cogent and theologically legitimate reasons why they may not be ordained. Unless one follows an approach not entirely unlike Montanus’ pneumatic heresy, of course.