Geoffrey Kirk was a parish priest in the Church of England and for many years the national secretary of Forward-in-Faith in England. Forward-in-Faith was the principal Church organization opposed to the ordination of women as priests and later as bishops in the Church of England. Forward-in-Faith also worked to obtain compensation for Church of England clergy who refused to accept the innovation when it came and to obtain alternative episcopal oversight for traditional parishes if they remained. Kirk and his organization were comprehensively defeated in the matter of ordination itself within the Church of England but were partially successful in obtaining compensation or temporary reprieve from the imposition of female clergy in some parishes. The then Anglican Father Kirk became a Roman Catholic in 2012 – not 2004, as the ‘blurb’ on the back of the book reports – and did not seek ordination as a Roman Catholic. Kirk died in 2020.
I was recently given a copy of Kirk’s 2016 book, Without Precedent: Scripture, Precedent, and the Ordination of Women.[i] I am in full agreement with almost all of Kirk’s basic historical and theological conclusions. Kirk puts to the rack many colorful but utterly insubstantial butterflies, particularly the gauzy claims of historical precedents for the ordination of women in ancient texts, mosaics, and icons. Kirk is correct in linking the movement for the ordination of women to wider heterodox theological views. Kirk is also right in seeing the principal inspiration for female ordination in modern secular ideologies rather than in historic Christianity.
While I am in almost complete sympathy with Kirk’s book, I was very much surprised by his stated surprise over the course of the theological debate concerning women’s ordination. Kirk asserts that there was an ‘absence of any serious contributions from the academic community’ in the debate. ‘The big beasts of the theological academy are conspicuous by their absence. They seem deliberately to have avoided the subject’ (Kirk, p. xiii). Kirk then names David Jenkins, N.T. Wright, and Rowan Williams as substantial theologians who ‘left the debate, for the most part, to the [theological] also-rans.’
In the remainder of his book’s introduction, Kirk names only four works that he judges to be of some weight on the subject of women’s ordination. Three of these works Kirk describes as coming from ‘the mists of time’: C.S. Lewis (‘Priestesses in the Church’), Henley Henson (‘Ordination of Women’), and V.A. Demant (Why the Christian Priesthood is Male), with the last title suggested to Kirk, he writes, by Eric Mascall (p. xiii). The only other substantial work mentioned by Kirk in opposition to the innovation and not shrouded in time’s mists is Manfred Hauke’s Women in the Priesthood? A Systematic Analysis in the Light of the Order of Creation and Redemption, published by Ignatius Press in 1988. Kirk asserts that Hauke provides ‘the only serious theological study on the subject of women’s ordination available to English readers, then and now.’ (Page xiv)
Examination of Kirk’s text and index adds little to this brief list of authors. Mascall and Demant are only mentioned once more, in passing, as ‘traditionalist controversialists’ (page 16). Hauke’s book is not mentioned again, nor is Henson’s article. Lewis’s well-known article is only mentioned once more, and then only in passing: Kirk quotes Lewis’s assertion that ordaining women would produce ‘a new religion’ (page 131). Kirk lists other titles of note in his actual bibliography (pp. 137-149), but does not cite, quote, or apparently use them in his text.
What Kirk mostly fails to do, then, at least in this book, is to indicate the views of ‘the big beasts’, the views of the great, or at any rate substantial, academic theologians and churchmen who have written on the subject. I am not sure why Kirk does not provide more support for his own position. Perhaps Kirk’s perspective is too English and too much concerned with the tiny kingdoms of Church of England synods and pressure groups.[ii] Apart from an authoritative papal statement, Kirk cites almost no non-Anglican writers, except on secondary matters such as the meaning of ‘episcopa’ or of the legend of ‘Pope Joan’. It is true that Kirk explicitly says he is not attempting to present the systematic argument against the ordination of women (page xiv). But it seems odd that Kirk does not at least suggest the weight of that argument, particularly since he expresses surprise at the absence of weighty theologians from the debate.
Kirk might easily have done much more and thereby have strongly indicated the strength of his position on the fundamental issue of the unprecedented innovation. Consider, for example, one theologian cited by Kirk. Louis Bouyer, a great friend of Anglicans and a Roman Catholic theologian of the first rank, is cited by Kirk, but only in a narrow context as an historian of the liturgy. In particular, Kirk cites Bouyer as an authority who notes the rarity of fixed Eucharistic prayers prior to the second half of the fourth century (page 100). What Kirk does not do, surprisingly given his fundamental argument, is mention Bouyer’s writings against the ordination of women. Here is Bouyer, not on liturgical history, but on the male character of the priesthood:
The special public vocation of man in the apostolic ministry was seen as a vocation to represent, among all the members of Christ, the Head, which can be, just as the vocation of the Head itself, the vocation of men only. Exactly in the same way, the special public vocation of women was understood as a vocation to represent the Church as a body, as the Bride of Christ, in its consummate unity as well as in its eschatological integrity, which could be the vocation of women only, as it had been above all the vocation of Mary.[iii]
No one could make clearer, though telescoped, arguments against the ordination of women from sexual complementarity and from the fundamental and essential identity of the priest-as-icon of Christ and of Christ as the Head of the Church.
Kirk, as noted, does refer to one non-Anglican source. Kirk refers to Hauke’s systematic study as ‘an American translation of the work of a German priest published in San Francisco in 1988’ (page xiv). Am I peculiar in finding this mention odd? Is there a problem with ‘American translations’? or with ‘a German priest’? or with the redoubtable Ignatius Press? Apart from this description of Hauke’s book, Kirk does not discuss its argument, quote it, or otherwise deal with it at all.
Kirk also passes in silence over the very substantial and quite ‘serious’ literature concerning women’s ordination available in English from Orthodox theologians, such as Thomas Hopko, Alexander Schmemann, Kallistos Ware, and John Meyendorff, many of whom addressed the intra-Anglican debate on women’s ordination directly and clearly – though without effect, alas. Kirk also does not mention such Lutheran and Reformed theologians as Jean-Jacques von Allmen, Bertil Gärtner, and Carl Strandberg. Again, one accepts Kirk’s assertion that he does not mean in this book to present the systematic argument against the innovation in question. That is another book. But Kirk does make assertions about the theological conversation and about the weight of theologians who have entered the debate, and those assertions seem mistaken.
Likewise, while Kirk makes clear that Eric Mascall opposed the ordination of women, he gives little indication in his text that Mascall wrote and published on the subject, including the essay ‘Women in the Priesthood of the Church’ in the 1972 collection Why Not? Priesthood & the Ministry of Women[iv]; an essay called ‘Some Basic Considerations’ in a 1978 SPCK collection titled Men, Women, and Priesthood edited by Peter Moore; and several essays in Mascall’s late book, Whatever Happened to the Human Mind: Essays in Christian Orthodoxy.[v]
Mascall is certainly in the first rank of the great mid-20th century flowering of Anglican theology. Mascall was very important both for his own, technical theological writings, his general theological reliability, and his assistance in introducing the English theological world to the renewed Roman Catholic theology, particularly in French, of his time.
While Mascall opposed the ordination of women, so did other important writers of his era. Consider, for example, the late bishop of Oxford, Kenneth Kirk, in his essay ‘The Ordination of Women’[vi].
The later theologian, John Macquarrie, wrote several pieces arguing for restraint on the women’s ordination issue when the matter was before the Episcopal Church in the mid-1970s. Macquarrie suggested in the 1970s that he saw no fundamental objection to the ordination of women in principle, but that it was inopportune to innovate in such a matter without an ecclesial consensus. Since Rome, the Orthodox, and the Oriental Churches still oppose the innovation, there never has formed such an enabling consensus.[vii] In the next paragraph I note the ‘evolution’ into approval of this innovation in some quarters. Macquarrie’s views remained stable: his concern for unity and consensus, particularly unity as rooted in the episcopate, deepened as the very divisive results of the implementation of women’s ordination rent the Anglican world.
Later Anglican theologians write on both sides of the issue, but few new theological arguments are present in their works. Instead of theological reflection, the ‘Vicar of Bray effect’ has taken hold, particularly after the ordination of women measure passed in England in the early 1990s. Clergy and theologians, consciously or unconsciously, tend to conform in pursuit of place and advancement and a natural desire to fit in. Kirk suggests the operation of this process briefly in the person of Rowan Williams, sometime Archbishop of Canterbury and an academic theologian. Williams opposed the ordination of women early in his career but concluded that he ‘had to change after looking around at my side and seeing the company I was keeping.’ (Kirk, pp. xiii-xiv) That is to say, Williams’s abandonment of his early position seems to be not a theological conclusion but the result of sociological and institutional conformity. Williams did nothing to impede unprecedented innovations, enjoyed in his day place and promotion, and then returned to private life as the Anglican Communion split over issues of sexuality and order.
Despite such conformism, it is difficult to find theologians of the first rank who unambiguously supported or support the ordination of women. There is in this respect a late essay by the great Roman Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, in the last volume of his massive collection of Theological Investigations: ‘Women in the Priesthood’ in Concern for the Church: Theological Investigations XX.[viii] In this essay Rahner reflects upon a 15 October 1976 declaration by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, published with the approval of Pope Paul VI, titled ‘Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood’. The essay is typically Rahnerian, asserts the authority of the theologian to investigate and question respectfully Roman magisterial declarations, and seeks most importantly to assert that the substantial issue under investigation was not definitively closed by the CDF’s declaration. The reader will note that the CDF promulgated its declaration with papal approval less than a month after the Episcopal Church purported to open the ministerial priesthood to women in September 1976. Rahner does not mention this context, but it was not an accidental coincidence of timing.
Rahner is certainly a theologian of the first rank. In his late essay Rahner does two main things. First, Rahner asserts that on the basis of the 1976 CDF declaration the issue of women’s ordination cannot be considered definitively and irreformably closed. That is, Rahner’s first point is procedural and concerns the status of some authentic statements of the Roman magisterium as in principle being open to reform and even subsequent reversal. As for the issue of women’s ordination itself, however, most of Rahner’s essay is thoroughly pedestrian and suggests that the changing sociological and cultural situation of women, from the New Testament to the present, may lead to a future reversal of the CDF’s position. Rahner devotes no attention at all to the substantial arguments (largely structuralist and based imago Christi and imago Mariae theology) developed by Roman, Anglican, and Eastern Orthodox theologians in recent decades. Since Rahner bypasses the actual theological debate, his essay is not a substantial contribution to that debate. Instead Rahner simply is engaged in an effort to keep the issue alive in the Roman Catholic world despite its apparent closure by the CDF.
While Rahner’s authority might give some comfort the advocates of women’s ordination, subsequent Roman developments firmly closed the window that he sought to keep cracked open. In this regard Kirk does provide the decisive authority and citation. In ‘Ordinatio Sacerdotalis’ (1994),[ix] which Kirk quotes, Saint John Paul II wrote the following:
…that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32), I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful. (Kirk, p. 31)
In this statement, the pope used technical language that invokes the definitive level of papal authority. That is, the pope invokes his magisterial and pastoral Petrine office explicitly, in a matter of ecclesiological faith of great importance and central to the Church’s ‘divine constitution’, and does so definitively and in a fashion obliging the consent of ‘all the Church’s faithful’. While Rahner after 1976 sought to argue that the issue remained open, John Paul II in 1994 firmly and definitively closed it. While such definitive papal teaching is not intrinsically decisive for Anglicans, in this case John Paul II simply articulates and defines existing, universal Christian faith and practice. Rome in so doing is not innovating and imposing, but discerning, protecting, and defining what has in fact been believed ‘always and everywhere and by all’.
Kirk’s book argues that there is a strange silence amongst the theologians concerning the ordination of women. While Kirk is certainly correct in rejecting the innovation as being, to quote his title, ‘Without Precedent’, his puzzlement at the lack of supporting authorities and theologians is entirely unwarranted. There is a solid body of theological argument against the innovation. The argument sed contra is ecumenical in scope, is consistent with unbroken tradition and practice, has attained explicit theological formulation and defense, is binding on Roman Catholics, and is now further supported by the fact of sharp demographic decline in all of those ecclesial bodies that rashly adopted the innovation.
Kirk’s argument, in short, is sound and much better supported by the theologians than he suggests.
[i] Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2016. References to this work will hereafter be made parenthetically in the text as ‘Kirk’ with page number.
[ii] Citations of Church of England General Synod documents take up one and a half pages in Kirk’s bibliography.
[iii] In Sexuality-Theology-Priesthood: Reflections on the Ordination of Women to the Priesthood. San Gabriel: Fellowship of Concerned Churchmen (n.d., but mid-1970s). Ed. H. Karl Lutge. Page 19.
[iv] Appleford Abingdon, Berkshire: Marcham Manor Press, 1972.
[v] London: SPCK, 1980. Kirk does note Women Priests? (London: Church Literature Association, 1972) in his bibliography, but otherwise appears to make no note or use of it.
[vi] In Beauty and Bands and Other Papers. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1955. Ed. E.W. Kemp. Pages 177-88. Here is Bishop Kirk’s basic conclusion: ‘[I]t is a first principle that, where the integrity of the sacraments is in question, the Church must always take the safer course, and act on certainties and not on probabilities. It is certain that a duly ordained priest can celebrate the Eucharist validly; it is at best doubtful whether a women [sic], even if “ordained”, may do so.’ Page 188.
[vii] ‘I can find no valid theological objections to the ordination of women….At the same time, however, one must wait for a development of a consensus on this matter within the Church as a whole, in all its major branches. It would be a divisive step for…even one communion…to act unilaterally in this matter.’ Principles of Christian Theology. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1977. 2nd edition. Page 434. See also Macquarrie et al., ‘An Open Letter to the Episcopal Church in the U.S.A.’ in Ave: New York: Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, 1973. And see Macquarrie’s contribution to Sexuality-Theology-Priesthood, op. cit. in note 3 supra. Michael Ramsey began his consideration of the issue with a similar concern for consensus. Ramsey’s ‘evolution’ in views is described in Owen Chadwick’s biography, Michael Ramsey: A Life. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990. Pages 278-84.
[viii] New York: Crossroad, 1986. 1981 translation by Edward Quinn. Pages 35-47.
[ix] The reader again will notice the coincidence in timing. The CDF position addressed by Rahner came one month after the Episcopal Church purported to admit women to the priesthood. John Paul’s statement here quoted came in the year in which the Church of England adopted the same innovation when the ordination of women measure received the Royal Assent. Rome during this entire period in theory rejected the validity of Anglican ordinations. Yet Rome also consistently has intervened in the Anglican debate in order to stop the innovation. Rome has a care for Christendom, while Anglicans consistently have ignored Rome and the Orthodox on this subject.