+ 1928 BCP + episcopalnet.org|
Ordo Kalendar + Tracts for our Times
[Originally published under the title "Notes on the
Way," in Time and Tide, Vol. XXIX (August 14, 1948), it
was subsequently reprinted with the above title in the posthumous
God in the Dock book, published by Wiilliam B. Erdmanns,
Grand Rapids, MI).
"I should like Balls infinitely better," said Caroline
Bingley, "if they were carried on in a different manner
... It would surely be much more rational if conversation instead
of dancing made the order of the day."
"Much more rational, I dare say," replied her brother,
"but it would not be near so much like a Ball." We
are told that the lady was silenced: yet it could be maintained
that Jane Austen has not allowed Bingley to put forward the full
strength of his position. He ought to have replied with a distinguo.
In one, sense conversation is more rational for conversation
may exercise the reason alone, dancing does not. But there is
nothing irrational in exercising other powers than our reason.
On certain occasions and for certain purposes the real irrationality
is with those who will not do so. The man who would try to break
a horse or write a poem or beget a child by pure syllogizing
would be an irrational man; though at the same time syllogizing
is in itself a more rational activity than the activities demanded
by these achievements. It is rational not to reason, or not to
limit oneself to reason, in the wrong place; and the more rational
a man is the better he knows this.
These remarks are not intended as a contribution to the criticism
of Pride and Prejudice. They came into my head when I heard that
the Church of England was being advised to declare women capable
of Priests' Orders. I am, indeed, informed that such a proposal
is very unlikely to be seriously considered by the authorities.
To take such a revolutionary step at the present moment, to cut
ourselves off from the Christian past and to widen the divisions
between ourselves and other Churches by establishing an order
of priestesses in our midst, would be an almost wanton degree
of imprudence. And the Church of England herself would be torn
in shreds by the operation. My concern with the proposal is of
a more theoretical kind. The question involves something even
deeper than a revolution in order.
I have every respect for those who wish women to be priestesses.
I think they are sincere and pious and sensible people. Indeed,
in a way they are too sensible. That is where my dissent from
them resembles Bingley's dissent from his sister. I am tempted
to say that the proposed arrangement would make us much more
rational "but not near so much like a Church".
For at first sight all the rationality (in Caroline Bingley's
sense) is on the side of the innovators. We are short of priests.
We have discovered in one profession after another that women
can do very well all sorts of things which were once supposed
to be in the power of men alone. No one among those who dislike
the proposal is maintaining that women are less capable than
men of piety, zeal, learning and whatever else seems necessary
for the pastoral office. What, then, except prejudice begotten
by tradition, forbids us to draw on the huge reserves which could
pour into the priesthood if women were here, as in so many other
professions, put on the same footing as men? And against this
flood of common sense, the opposers (many of them women) can
produce at first nothing but an inarticulate distaste, a sense
of discomfort which they themselves find it hard to analyse.
That this reaction does not spring from any contempt for women
is, I think, plain from history. The Middle Ages carried their
reverence for one Woman to a point at which the charge could
be plausibly made that the Blessed Virgin became in their eyes
almost "a fourth Person of the Trinity". But never,
so far as I know, in all those ages was anything remotely resembling
a sacerdotal office attributed to her. All salvation depends
on the decision which she made in the words Ecce ancilla;
she is united in nine months" inconceivable intimacy with
the eternal Word; she stands at the foot of the cross."
But she is absent both from the Last Supper and from the descent
of the Spirit at Pentecost. Such is the record of Scripture.
Nor can you daff it aside by saying that local and temporary
conditions condemned women to silence and private life. There
were female preachers. One man had four daughters who all "prophesied",
i.e. preached. There were prophetesses even in Old Testament
times. Prophetesses, not priestesses.
At this point the common sensible reformer is apt to ask why,
if women can preach, they cannot do all the rest of a priest's
work. This question deepens the discomfort of my side. We begin
to feel that what really divides us from our opponents is a difference
between the meaning which they and we give to the word "priest".
The more they speak (and speak truly) about the competence of
women in administration, their tact and sympathy as advisers,
their national talent for "visiting", the more we feel
that the central thing is being forgotten. To us a priest is
primarily a representative, a double representative, who represents
us to God and God to us. Our very eyes teach us this in church.
Sometimes the priest turns his back on us and faces the East
- he speaks to God for us: sometimes he faces us and speaks to
us for God. We have no objection to a woman doing the first:
the whole difficulty is about the second. But why? Why should
a woman not in this sense represent God? Certainly not because
she is necessarily, or even probably, less holy or less charitable
or stupider than a man. In that sense she may be as "God-like"
as a man; and a given women much more so than a given man. The
sense in which she cannot represent God will perhaps be plainer
if we look at the thing the other way round.
Suppose the reformer stops saying that a good woman may be like
God and begins saying that God is like a good woman. Suppose
he says that we might just as well pray to "Our Mother which
art in heaven" as to "Our Father". Suppose he
suggests that the Incarnation might just as well have taken a
female as a male form, and the Second Person of the Trinity be
as well called the Daughter as the Son. Suppose, finally, that
the mystical marriage were reversed, that the Church were the
Bridegroom and Christ the Bride. All this, as it seems to me,
is involved in the claim that a woman can represent God as a
Now it is surely the case that if all these supposals were ever
carried into effect we should be embarked on a different religion.
Goddesses have, of course, been worshipped: many religions have
had priestesses. But they are religions quite different in character
from Christianity. Common sense, disregarding the discomfort,
or even the horror, which the idea of turning all our theological
language into the feminine gender arouses in most Christians,
will ask "Why not? Since God is in fact not a biological
being and has no sex, what can it matter whether we say He or
She, Father or Mother, Son or Daughter?"
But Christians think that God Himself has taught us how to speak
of Him. To say that it does not matter is to say either that
all the masculine imagery is not inspired, is merely human in
origin, or else that, though inspired, it is quite arbitrary
and unessential. And this is surely intolerable: or, if tolerable,
it is an argument not in favour of Christian priestesses but
against Christianity. It is also surely based on a shallow view
of imagery. Without drawing upon religion, we know from our poetical
experience that image and apprehension cleave closer together
than common sense is here prepared to admit; that a child who
has been taught to pray to a Mother in Heaven would have a religious
life radically different from that of a Christian child. And
as image and apprehension are in an organic unity, so, for a
Christian, are human body and human soul.
The innovators are really implying that sex is something superficial,
irrelevant to the spiritual life. To say that men and women are
equally eligible for a certain profession is to say that for
the purposes of that profession their sex is irrelevant. We are,
within that context, treating both as neuters.
As the State grows more like a hive or an ant-hill it needs an
increasing number of workers who can be treated as neuters. This
may be inevitable for our secular life. But in our Christian
life we must return to reality. There we are not homogeneous
units, but different and complementary organs of a mystical body.
Lady Nunburnholme has claimed that the equality of men and women
is a Christian principle. I do not remember the text in scripture
nor the Fathers, nor Hooker, nor the Prayer Book which asserts
it; but that is not here my point. The point is that unless "equal"
means "interchangeable", equality makes nothing for
the priesthood of women. And the kind of equality which implies
that the equals are interchangeable (like counters or identical
machines) is, among humans, a legal fiction. It may be a useful
legal fiction. But in church we turn our back on fictions. One
of the ends for which sex was created was to symbolize to us
the hidden things of God. One of the functions of human marriage
is to express the nature of the union between Christ and the
Church. We have no authority to take the living and semitive
figures which God has painted on the canvas of our nature and
shift them about as if they were mere geometrical figures.
This is what common sense will call "mystical". Exactly.
The Church claims to be the bearer of a revelation. If that claim
is false then we want not to make priestesses but to abolish
priests. If it is true, then we should expect to find in the
Church an element which unbelievers will call irrational and
which believers will call supra-rational. There ought to be something
in it opaque to our reason though not contrary to it - as the
facts of sex and sense on the natural level are opaque. And that
is the real issue. The Church of England can remain a church
only if she retains this opaque element. If we abandon that,
if we retain only what can be justified by standards of prudence
and convenience at the bar of enlightened common sense, then
we exchange revelation for that old wraith Natural Religion.
It is painful, being a man, to have to assert the privilege,
or the burden, which Christianity lays upon my own sex. I am
crushingly aware how inadequate most of us are, in our actual
and historical individualities, to fill the place prepared for
us. But it is an old saying in the army that you salute the uniform
not the wearer. Only one wearing the masculine uniform can (provisionally,
and till the Parousia) represent the Lord to the Church: for
we are all, corporately and individually, feminine to Him. We
men may often make very bad priests. That is because we are insufficiently
masculine. It is no cure to call in those who are not masculine
at all. A given man may make a very bad husband; you cannot mend
matters by trying to reverse the roles. He may make a bad male
partner in a dance. The cure for that is that men should more
diligently attend dancing classes; not that the ballroom should
henceforward ignore distinctions of sex and treat all dancers
as neuter. That would, of course, be eminently sensible, civilized,
and enlightened, but, once more, "not near so much like
And this parallel between the Church and the Ball is not so fanciful
as some would think. The Church ought to be more like a Ball
than it is like a factory or a political party. Or, to speak
more strictly, they are at the circumference and the Church at
the Centre and the Ball comes in between. The factory and the
political party are artificial creations - "a breath can
make them as a breath has made". In them we are not dealing
with human beings in their concrete entirety only with "hands"
or voters. I am not of course using "artificial" in
any derogatory sense. Such artifices are necessary: but because
they are our artifices we are free to shuffle, scrap and experiment
as we please. But the Ball exists to stylize something which
is natural and which concerns human beings in their entirety-namely,
courtship. We cannot shuffle or tamper so much. With the Church,
we are farther in: for there we are dealing with male and female
not merely as facts of nature but as the live and awful shadows
of realities utterly beyond our control and largely beyond our
direct knowledge. Or rather, we are not dealing with them but
(as we shall soon learn if we meddle) they are dealing with us.