Faith and Reason: God, gender and human equality: Daphne Hampson, a lecturer in Divinity at St Andrews University, interrupts our series on miracles to bring a final comment on the issue of women priests and their implications for Christianity

Click to follow
The Independent Online
A YEAR has passed since the vote in favour of ordaining women priests. At the time I supposed that women would now give the Church another chance. Those, like I, who had left would be very much on our own. But not a bit of it. What impresses me is that more and more women are asking fundamental questions of Christianity.

Let us consider the problem symbolically. The members of the Movement for the Ordination of Women held their final service and rally before the vote in Coventry Cathedral. There they stood before a huge icon of Christ; Graham Sutherland's tapestry, which dominates that cathedral.

Not one normally given to visiting Christian churches, I was then living in Coventry. A friend who had come for that service offered a few days later to take me to see the cathedral. My eyes came to rest on one image: the little person who, in that tapestry, stands between Christ's feet, reaching scarcely higher than his shins.

How could this, I wondered, represent Christian orthodoxy? For Christianity, classicaIly, holds that the second person of the Trinity is in two natures: divine (no less God than the Father) and human (like as we are). But if God is to be said, in Christ, to take on humanity, then surely Jesus and the other human being must be the same size? Jesus was not self-evidently a 'god'.

I was told however that the tapestry represents 'Christ in glory'. That explained the disparity. But why, if we are speaking of the divine nature of the second person of the Trinity, has he any sex at all? For orthodoxy holds that the second person of the Trinity is like the first in all respects save in their mutual relation - the Son is 'begotten' of the Father and not vice versa. And surely God the Father is not an oversized male?

How interesting that Christians do not apparently find anything to be amiss] How significant that such an icon could be placed in the most important Anglican cathedral to be built in recent times] And what do we learn from the fact that the members of MOW, their supporters and friends, are apparently without qualms able to hold such a service, before such a vote, in the face of such an image?

Could it be that the priesting of women will serve to purify the Christology to which Christians hold? May it become evident that God, in Christ, is to be said to have taken on 'humanity'; a humanity in which, men and women alike, we all share? I argued as much in the late Seventies. (Indeed it was I who wrote the statement in favour of ordaining women which was circulated to Synod members before the vote which failed in 1978.)

But that was naive. For the two natures of Christ are said to be joined in one person. And it has always been the case that the distinction between them has been blurred. Perhaps the needs of worship have dictated that unity of person would be emphasised. The result we see - a glorified male. Indeed God, in Christianity, is, metaphorically, held to be 'Father' and 'Son'.

Gender is written into Western religion. That which is powerful (and good) is gendered male, that which is secondary (and liable to go astray) female. God is 'male'; the people of Israel, or the Church, are given a 'female' designation. Such a conception of the divine/ human relation may be thought to be a projection of what social relations have been. But Western religion has also, in turn, served to reinforce gender hierarchy. Nor can Christians simply drop this imagery, for it is fundamental to the scriptures.

The opponents of women's ordination know full well that their conception of God is the lynchpin of a whole world order. God is necessarily to be envisaged as 'male' ('He' has apparently revealed this); while humanity they understand to be epitomised by the Virgin Mary in her humility and obedience to (the male) God. 'Male' and 'female' are, they say, not interchangeable.

But back to the little person who stands between Christ's feet. What an image of the human relation to God (or Christ)] God is a patriarch writ large. 'He' is to be anthropomorphically conceived and male. He is overwhelming; we are dwarfed.

The world has moved on. What we have come to think ethical are relations of equality. Feminists stand for the overcoming of gender roles. They dislike hierarchy. Women (who have been cast as 'the other') are ill served by self- abnegation. Rather do feminists believe in self-actualisation. This is a very different ethic; one which fits ill with the Christian world order. It would be a desecration of my humanity to construe myself as that little person. I will worship and obey no one. It follows that I wish no such God. Our ethics and our spirituality are ultimately one.

God must be envisaged to be that which promotes our full humanity. God cannot be gendered; nor anthropomorphically conceived. God is that love and power, that healing and strength, which we find to be abroad in the world. God enables our wholeness.

From this perspective ordaining women priests appears irrelevant. It may well serve to prop up patriarchy. At best, it is a transitional step to something else. Hence the distinct lack of interest in the matter on the part of many feminists who are far from atheists. They have moved on.

At that service a year ago the moderator of MOW prayed that there might be reconciliation with their opponents. That is a fine sentiment. One suspects however that the reconciliation that is truly needed is that between men and women; given that one half of humanity, men, have, throughout recorded history, used their notion of God to dominate women.

Religion is powerful. When our symbols are wrong we distort human relations. The Christian myth has served to harm women in the past. Moreover the anthropomorphic conception of God, endemic to Christianity, is no longer tenable. It diminishes the human.

But the myth which is Christian may indeed be thought to have carried human religious awareness in the West. What we must now do is to find ways to conceptualise God which allow human beings to come into their own and which promote human equality. Only then shall we have a spirituality which is both credible and commensurate with our ethics.

In the revolution on which we are now embarked, women may well be to the fore. For it is they who have the most to gain.

Daphne Hampson is the author of Theology and Feminism (Blackwells, pounds 11.99)

Comments