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An Addendum on Women's Ordination

By Fr. Mark Perkins

Editor’s Note: Fr. Perkins originally intended to publish this addendum to his recent piece over at Earth & Altar in the comments section of Bill Witt’s blog and then add a link to that piece. The comments feature at Witt’s blog does not appear to be working correctly, so we decided to publish it here instead.

Dear Professor Witt,

Thanks again for this engagement. In my piece over at Earth & Altar, I highlighted what I view as the substantive core of our disagreements. Here I want to address a few other arguments which are significant, but which did not quite warrant inclusion in my larger response, including your claims about accuracy, characterization, and tone.

(1) I agree with you that the various arguments against women’s ordination are in tension and many are mutually exclusive — I acknowledged as much in the second paragraph of my whole series — but I don’t really see the significance of this point. The same obviously holds for arguments for women’s ordination. As you yourself point out, “Liberally ‘progressive’ advocates of women’s ordination, and orthodox Christian advocates are entirely different groups… While both groups favor women’s ordination, the theological positions and therefore reasons for women’s ordination are diametrically opposed to one another.” And in any case I rest my argument on practices as such, not rationales. I disagree rather fiercely with the ADLW on their rationale for male-only ordination, but we agree on the practice.

(2) Per my claim that your “rhetorical moves” are the “same” as the progressive innovators, the so-called “inclusive orthodoxy” camp, which I specifically referenced, argues for same-sex marriage and other LGBTQ ideologies from the same notion of “Christian freedom and equality” you emphasize and “not a secularist notion of egalitarianism.” They likewise view SSM as a matter of vocation — of allowing same-sex couples to serve the Church in the vocation of marriage. More to the point, what I had in mind were the specific ways in which apparently hostile arguments in Scripture are neutralized — to paraphrase Matthew Colvin’s line, by reading and interpreting biblical passages such that they apply to only very narrow and specific circumstances. That’s exactly how the Matthew Vines folks deal with 1 Cor 6:9 — it’s not about same-sex sexual activity per se, but rather this very specific practice of first-century Corinth etc. While your clarifications about same-sex marriage are helpful and welcome (and, for what it’s worth, I did link to your larger essay on homosexuality), they do not really address my point, which is not that your view is groundless. Rather, by flattening sex difference and by laying out a hermeneutical pattern for neutralizing apparently hostile texts, you are much closer to the inclusive-orthodoxy camp (as opposed to explicitly heterodox liberals) than you acknowledge.

(3) My point about the 19th-century was simply that the first folks to welcome women’s ordination were all generally heterodox or heretical, and that those denominations which have embraced women’s ordination have tended to go all the way with the sexual revolution thereafter. Richard Hays may be orthodox on sexuality questions apart from WO — but can we say the same about the United Methodist Church, of which he is a part? For the time being, Africa provides the great bastion of counterexamples, though as African provinces modernize and Westernize, they may well continue to follow in Western footsteps regarding sexuality. (The Church of South India, one of your three cited examples of pro-WO provinces evincing stalwart orthodoxy, is a dubious example. While by no means equivalent to The Episcopal Church, CSI appears internally divided on SSM and, rather startlingly, generally supportive of transgender ideology.)

(4) Your comparison with sexual abuse in complementarian circles fails. I claim that virtually all theological liberals ordain women, and that relatively few theological conservatives do so (though some do). For your comparison to work, it would have to be the case that virtually all those guilty of enabling or committing sexual abuse are opponents of women’s ordination, and that relatively few non-abusers oppose women’s ordination. I find this an extremely doubtful proposition (not to mention a dangerous one, given its tendency to make abuse a “their team” problem). I have yet to see any kind of rigorous comparative studies which even purport to defend this claim. Your two sources, Du Mez and Giles, are not comparative studies. Certainly they show that abuse occurs in complementarian circles, and they argue that this abuse is connected to complementarian theology — but, so far as I know, nothing they write proves or even argues that non-complementarian circles are comparatively free of abuse. Sheila Gregoire apparently has two such comparative studies under peer review at the moment, but even if these prove or strongly suggest that Wayne-Grudem-style complementarianism breeds disproportionate levels of abuse, that would be a very long way from supporting your claim that there “seems to be an inherent correlation between refusal to ordain women and sexual abuse.” As you note, there is very little overlap between Grudem and contemporary Roman Catholic views of sexuality.

By contrast, we do have legitimate comparative data when it comes to women’s ordination: virtually all theological liberals ordain women, while relatively few theological conservatives do so. To slightly reframe the analogy I made previously, asking us to evaluate the impact of women’s ordination by only examining theologically orthodox individuals who support the practice — not heterodox individuals nor the denominations and theological traditions writ large that support it — sounds a lot like a tobacco company demanding that the FDA evaluate their product by considering only smokers who do not develop lung cancer.

(5) My phrase “demographic collapse” specifically described “the modern West.” Global population numbers are irrelevant. Every modernized Western nation has natural population growth below replacement level, and that includes the U.S. (Kevin DeYoung’s “The Case for Kids” lays out some of this data.) The specific U.S. growth forecasts you reference almost certainly assume growth via immigration (I would have to know what sources you’re relying upon to be sure, of course). That the U.S. can only stave off demographic collapse through immigration is itself evidence of our decadence and sclerosis. Global growth projections, meanwhile, depend almost entirely upon the still fertile African continent, and, as Ross Douthat recently pointed out, the aging and shrinking population of almost everywhere else may well prove the greatest crisis of the twenty-first century.

(6) You write, “Perkins conflates the difference between a representative and a representation without actually acknowledging that he has done so,” and you claim that I, like Hauke, “fail to distinguish between a representative (in the sense of a spokesperson) and a representation (in the sense of a physical resemblance).” This is odd, given that I quite clearly and explicitly make this distinction throughout my fourth essay. Actually I was even more precise, not only distinguishing between representatives (functional rather than visual, my example being an ambassador) and iconographic representation (visual not necessarily functional, my example being the American flag), but also noting that, even within the category of iconographic representation, resemblance does not necessarily obtain (the flag does not “look like” the United States). Your claim is doubly odd, in that before and after this critique you accurately summarize me making this very distinction. (Before: “the priest is a representative, but not an icon;” after: “When the priest speaks to the church as a representative of Christ, however, the priest is an icon, a visual representation, not merely a representative.”) I can only assume that I am misunderstanding your point.

(7) Just a clarifying note and an apology — you quote my reference to “Da-Vinci-Code-style conspiracy” theories from my third essay, but that itself was a callback to the first essay, where I stated that you did not resort to such conspiracy theories but rather left “a yawning historical lacuna between his egalitarian New Testament and an apparently patriarchal post-apostolic Church.” While I maintain that your position does not make the best sense of the data, I appreciate your clarification at the end of your second essay on the relation between patriarchy and Christological and Pauline subversion. I could have done a better job of capturing and summarizing this part of your argument, and I apologize for failing in that regard.

(8) You write, “Perkins seems rather intent to misunderstand or misrepresent my views, which he characterizes as ‘Witt’s resistance to hierarchy and any sort of vertical authority.’” My primary critique of your approach to authority is not that you reject it outright — some of what you write is perfectly consistent with the argument I make in the “Hierarchy and Order in the Church” section of my fourth essay — but, rather, that you are inconsistent, and that you seem resistant to any hint of coercive authority. As I argued, the nature of the Church’s coercive authority is radically different from the world’s exercise of power — nevertheless, “expel the wicked person from among you” (1 Cor. 5:13) is coercive authority in action. As I noted in my response on Earth & Altar, you never actually engaged my biblical arguments for apostolic and ecclesial authority based on the power of the keys and St. Paul’s assertions of authority, instead implying that my views stem from some malevolent personal desire for power. I would encourage your readers to go read the relevant sections from my fourth essay and decide whether my critique misrepresents your views at all, much less intentionally.

On that note, I do want to address your claims about tone and accuracy, given how prominently they feature in your responses to me. Let me start where you start your whole series — with your four examples of my “substituting snark and sarcasm for actual argument.” I can understand reading the second example as sarcastic, but it is not. As I clarified at the start of my second essay, my meaning is sincere. The other three are straightforward criticism without any sarcasm intended whatsoever. Likewise, the sentences you describe as “poisoning the well” are really just thesis statements where I lay out claims which I subsequently defend. So, for instance, the first example you cite was prefaced by the phrase “as we will see.” That’s not poisoning the well — it’s simply letting readers know my claim in advance. It seems to me that you’ve read straightforwardly negative and critical judgments as though they must be made in bad faith, which makes me wonder if any strong criticism could be acceptable to you. The way you’ve titled your responses to me and to Matthew Colvin — as reviews of “a book I did not write” — reminds me a bit of David Bentley Hart’s tendency to accuse his critics not merely of error but of stupidity and illiteracy. For Hart, to understand is to agree.

Finally, near the beginning of your first essay, you write, “I have not yet come across any criticisms of my book that suggested that I had incorrectly or inaccurately summarized the views of either Protestant complementarians or Catholic sacramentalists.” This is a bit strange, given that my second essay features a rather long section titled “Witt’s Reliability Problem,” in which I describe a number of incorrect and inaccurate readings of your opponents, Catholic and Protestant. All of the errors are in the same direction — the distortions all buttress your side and undermine your opponents — but I did not and do not attribute these to dishonesty or malice. I concluded that section thusly: “The looseness with which Witt engages opponents and characterizes evidence suggests that his dedication to his cause skews his judgment. It casts doubt on his basic reliability as an interpreter of his opponents — and as a guide to the often convoluted debates over biblical interpretation of contested passages.”

Your response essays to me also include a number of factual errors, which, while minor, collectively undermine your accusations of intentional misunderstanding and misrepresentation, and of “careless reading” and “careless misreading” (e.g. I never described your position as “glorifying modernity;” I refer to 1 Timothy 2:12 twice in my second essay; I acknowledge the novelty of contemporary rationales for male-only ordination in the third paragraph of my first essay; etc). On the whole, I question whether you engaged my writing with the degree of rigor, precision, and charity you demand of others.

In any case, thanks again for engaging my review series. As I noted above and in my essay, some of your critiques have helped sharpen and clarify my thoughts and arguments, and for that I am grateful.

Fr. Mark Perkins is Curate at St. Alban's Anglican Cathedral in Oviedo, Florida and Executive Editor of Earth & Altar.

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