‘Semper reformanda’ – The Church in Progress

At this time when the eyes of the Anglican world are on the Diocese of Sydney (and, maybe, the Anglican Church in Tasmania), to see whether they will carry out their threat to jump up and away from the parent Anglican Church in Australia if the A.C.A. authorises the Blessing of a Same-Sex Married Couple (in a marriage licensed by the Australian Government); there is one other important issue on which Sydney Anglicans are already at odds with the National Provincial Church: Women’s Ordination! The question now is, will S/S/Blessings prove to be the catalyst that brings Sydney to the sin of schismatic severance from the Anglican Communion Churches – in the belief that matters of gender and sexuality are a special ‘Salvation Issue’ which could lead the Church into damnation?

Like the issue of Same-Sex Blessings, Sydney has elevated their protest against the ordination of women into a fear that this principle of accounting women as equal in authority to male Church clergy would offend against as definitive statement in the New Testament that women should always defer to the leadership of men – in society and in the Church.

Defenders of such a misogynistic theology are keen to quote the example of Jesus, whom they insist as exemplifying this in the New Testament record, which mentions the call of 12 apostles, all of whom were male. What they seem to not understand is that, in the culture of his day, it would have been unthinkable for a religious leader to have called a woman into any sort of headship role over men. This would have been so stark a departure from the established Tradition, that Jesus would have been even further marginalised by the Jewish authorities than he was. Also, the men in the community simply would not have accepted the teaching or leadership of a woman over them.

However, women were among the most devout followers of Jesus and, after his resurrection, it was a woman, Mary of Magdala, who was commissioned by Jesus to tell the Good News of his resurrection to the male disciples – who did not take her seriously, until they themselves experienced the Risen Christ. This, of course, was consistent with the social and spiritual custom among the Jews of Jesus’ day. The word of a woman was not only unreliable in the Tradition, it was not to be trusted in law.

Since that time – even in the Universal Catholic Church – there have been women Saints who, like Hilda of Whitby, ruled a joint monastery of men and women in the English town of Whitby. She was also present at the Synod of Whitby, and helped in the decision of the local bishops to bring together the disparate strands of the Faith under the governance and rule of the Roman Pontiff.

Paradoxically, though it was the modern-day Pope John XXIII, who at the 2nd Vatican Council in the early 1960s called the Church towards an ethos of ‘Semper reformanda‘ (constant renewal by change); the Roman Catholic Church herself has still not been opened up to the prospect of women’s ordination – even though the current Pope Francis has appointed women to various high-ranking posts at the Vatican, with the intention of sharing the government of the Church with women – though not in the ranks of the clergy – an action which he sees as kowtowing to the maintenance of a culture of ‘clericalism’, which he sees as a denial of the authentic role of the laity as fellow workers in the Gospel to the world.

Sydney’s protest against women’s ordination, though is different from that of Rome; in that the old-time protestant conservative ethos of the Sydney Anglican Diocese places its argument on the basis of male ‘Headship’ – rather than any argument based on the aetiology (the ‘is-ness’) of priestly authority! Their arguments about any moral suppositions are based on mainly Old Testament shibboleths, that Jesus sought to de-throne by his compassion for ‘prostitutes and sinners’ and those marginalised by the man-made rules that he sought to simplify, in his ‘New Commandment” of Love, as opposed to the Rule of Law – a proposition that is still at odds with the behaviour of parts of the Christian Church today.

What has happened in the present stand-off in the Australian Church against the ‘New Commandment’ theology of Jesus, is that the Moral-Rearmament Brigade of the Conservative Evangelicals is doing its level best to prevent the process of human development and thriving that the Kingdom of God was meant to bring to the world by the power and insights of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. In glorifying the strictures of a past religious fundamentalism, which still embraces the old culture of misogyny and homophobia, the reactionaries against the call for justice in the Church refuse to move on.

‘The cry: “Semper reformanda” is even more relevant in the Christian Church today than when it was uttered by Good Pope John XXII in 1960. The reactionaries to that call in the Roman Catholic Church alone, have strongly resisted the message, preferring to go back to the shibboleths of the good old days, when the laity were kept firmly in their place – especially the women – so that the male elders could continue their paternalistic rule in the Christian community, without let or hindrance that might disturb the festering, unjust and at times unholy ‘status quo’.

The Prophet Micah issued a warning to the God-fearing community of his own era: that justice and mercy were signs of God’s Presence among God’s People. And then there is the Maundy Thursday Antiphon, echoing the example of Jesus who washes the feet of his disciples: “Where charity and love are; there is God”. Misogyny and Homophobia have no place in the Kingdom of God.

In the article below, an Australian Bishop offers his own understanding of the need to ordain women:

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand


In his speech to the motion to celebrate of the 30th Anniversary of Women as Priests, Bishop Keith Joseph made these remarks:

Archbishop, members of Synod.

Most of you remember the time when the Priesthood was entirely male. I certainly remember the argumentation through the 1980s, and the insistence that the witness of tradition and scripture meant that women could not be in any position of leadership in the church. At that time, as a young layman in Sydney, these arguments were very strong and persuasive. Many of you here were involved in the battles at that time, including cases in the New South Wales Supreme Court.

This resistance to the Ordination of Women continues in the Australian Church. In 2006 the Reverend Michael Jensen wrote Sydney Anglicanism: An Apology. It is an erudite and impressive book, and I recommend it to you as an excellent resource. It helps explain the reluctance to ordain women and accept their leadership in the Anglican Church of Australia. In Chapter 9, entitled “A Line in the Sand”, Michael Jensen talks about the reasons why he – and most of his colleagues from Sydney – could not and do not accept the ordination of women as priests and bishops. In his understanding, the Bible was quite clear: women could not exercise leadership over men. Among other proof texts, 1 Corinthians 11.2-16 and 1 Timothy 3.1-12 were clear: headship is only for men. A line in the sand was drawn.

Like many of you, my views have changed dramatically over the last forty years. As I have seen the Holy Spirit move through the ministry of women priests and bishops, I cannot deny their call to ordained ministry and leadership. The fruit of the Spirit is there to be seen, and not denied. In my Diocese we would be lost without the leadership of women. One of my Archdeacons is a Māori woman who as a parish priest revitalized one of our aboriginal parishes, and who now as a volunteer, on top of her work as a parish priest, is leading the Aboriginal communities through Far North Queensland. Under the supervision of the Venerable Annette Woods there has been a dramatic growth in almost all of our aboriginal communities. The Spirit has been truly moving through her, and we benefit so much from her priestly leadership. And she is only one of a number of remarkable women leading vibrant and growing ministries in North Queensland. I am sure that most of you here can point to remarkable women exercising servant-leadership as priests and bishops.

The ninety-two ordained in 1992 have been a gift to the church from which we still benefit. I give thanks and glory to God for this. I also acknowledge and give thanks for the work and stubborn determination of the Movement for the Ordination of Women over many decades, and acknowledge their presence here today. Especially I acknowledge as members of this Synod two of the original ninety-two: the Most Reverend Kay Goldsworthy and the Right Reverend Kate Prowd. Thank you.

It should be said that I was ordained in a province – the Anglican Church of Melanesia – which does not accept the ordination of women, mainly on cultural grounds. I have seen the pain that the debate causes in Melanesia for both those in favour, and those against, the ordination of women. I also see that same pain here, where so many of you continue to oppose ordination of women because to you it appears to be in clear contradiction of scripture or tradition. I respect the sincerity of your opposition, even if I no longer share your hermeneutic or exegesis on this matter. Semper reformanda! I am however grateful that so many of you no longer see this as a matter of salvation, and therefore can be at the same table as those who differ with you on this matter. Perhaps some lines in the sand do fade with time and tide.

Accordingly, I would ask you to join with me in a time of celebration and joy, as we remember those pioneering women from 1992 and give thanks for their contribution to our church. May the Holy Spirit continue to bless their ministry as they share with us their love of God and of his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom we all find redemption and salvation. Amen.

About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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