Faith and Reason: The logic of the gospel argument: There is nothing in the biblical accounts that raises any obvious objection to the ordination of women, writes Margaret Hebblethwaite, an assistant editor of the Tablet.

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The Independent Online
THIS has been the Church of England's first Easter with women priests. True, only a few dozen of the host of 1,200 have yet been ordained - the London batch are being done today and tomorrow, and there are dozens of ordinations to follow over the coming weeks - yet the new reality is so much in the air that our ears are more than usually sensitive to gospel nuances that previously escaped attention.

Last Sunday Catholics and Anglicans alike listened to how the risen Christ gave his disciples the authority to forgive sins, while just before Easter we heard the gospel of the Last Supper. Here we have the two classic marks of priesthood - the consecrating of bread and wine, and the absolving of sins. Such gospels are invoked by opponents of women's priesthood, for Jesus ordained men only . . . or so they say. This claim was repeated so often that we might be excused for thinking it was a truism. But is it a truism? Is it even probable? Is it even likely?

Let us leave on one side for the moment the niggles of biblical scholars about the historicity of the gospel accounts, and play the game of assuming we have word-for-word accurate records, if only for the interest of pursuing the logic of the argument.

So we begin by asking who was present at the Last Supper: only men, or men and women? This may be an irrelevant question, but a lot is customarily hung on it. On Palm Sunday Catholics listened to Mark's version, and what they heard was this. 'The disciples set out and went to the city and found everything as he had told them, and prepared the Passover. When evening came he arrived with the Twelve.' Does this sound as though only Jesus and the twelve apostles were present? Does it not sound rather as though the disciples who prepared the Passover meal were then joined by Jesus and the Twelve? The 'disciples', of course, are a wider group than the Twelve: anyone who was a believer was called a disciple.

Mark continues with Jesus's prophecy of betrayal by 'one of you eating with me'. His disciples ask which one. Jesus replies, 'one of the Twelve'. Again, does this sound as though only the Twelve were present? Why does he say 'one of the Twelve' if it was only the Twelve he was speaking to?

What the gospels tell us is that the Twelve were at the Supper, but not who else was there too. The fact that no one else's presence is explicitly recorded is scant evidence of their absence. If there were indeed women there, it is unlikely that they would have been mentioned. Women tended not to be counted - quite literally in the feeding of the 5,000, when Matthew lets slip the give-away line that the number does not include women and children. Women tended to merit a mention where there were no men present to write about, as at the foot of the Cross and the empty tomb, when we are suddenly told that Jesus had been accompanied by a group of women from Galilee. Is it not likely that those who travelled together would have eaten together?

Let us move on to the next scene in the upper room, from John xx, which figured in last Sunday's gospel. The risen Jesus makes a speech to 'the disciples' as follows. 'Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so am I sending you.' Then he breathes on them and says, 'Receive the Holy Spirit. For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; for those whose sins you retain, they are retained.'

There is a wealth of sacramental potential that can be read into these few lines. To be sent as God had sent Jesus implies acting in the name of Jesus in the fullest sense possible, including speaking in the person of Christ in the eucharist. The gift of the Holy Spirit is associated with all the sacraments - most obviously confirmation but also ordination. The authority to forgive or retain sins has a very special link with the sacrament of reconciliation - which only priests can administer. If Jesus ever ordained anyone, this was when he did it.

Who, then, was he speaking to? Traditionally, as with the Last Supper, it has been assumed he was speaking to the Twelve (more accurately the Ten, Judas being dead and doubting Thomas notoriously absent). But, again, were they the only ones there? We are told quite explicitly in the first chapter of Acts that the Eleven were staying in the upper room 'together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers'. It is most natural to take this as the group of disciples addressed by the risen Christ in that same room. In that case it appears that if Jesus can be said to have ordained any of his disciples, women were among them.

One can wriggle out of this conclusion, but not with ease. How might one do so? The first possibility is that although women were staying in the upper room in the post-ascension period of Acts i, they were staying at another address until that time. The second possibility is that although the women were staying in the upper room, they all happened to be out on the evening when the risen Jesus turned up. The third possibility is that although the women were staying in the upper room and were present when Jesus arrived, Jesus divided them off from the others before saying the words of ordination. Any of those scenarios is possible. The reader must decide if they are likely.

Reflection on these two gospels has suggested a conclusion that would in any case be apparent for other reasons. We cannot take the Twelve as our model for priesthood, for not only were they male and Jewish, but they were limited to twelve in number. They represented the twelve patriarchal tribes of Israel. Defining the priesthood according to the characteristics of the Twelve is a non-starter: no one else would ever be ordained.

My own opinion is that Jesus did not ordain anybody as a priest. He was not so much concerned with issuing individual mandates, as with entrusting the group as a whole with the charge to carry on his mission. I think Jesus left it up to the Church to determine how to divide up responsibilities and delegate authority for particular acts. This view gives the Church the authority to develop the historic threefold ministry of deacons, priests and bishops. It also gives it the authority to decide to admit women to the priesthood.

What I have tried to show is where you get to if you follow the logic of the alternative view - that Jesus himself ordained the first priests and that we must copy the way he did it. Belief in a male-only priesthood does not then become an impossible position. But it does become a difficult one. I suspect it is a position that will feel harder and harder to maintain as women's priesthood is experienced over the weeks and years ahead.