First let me thank two men: Rob, for his incredibly helpful book, and then C451 who, despite (or because?) of his own views on the subject, gave me his collection of books on women and their ordination (it may explain the dates of some of what I quote from) as well as some guidance which was offered with characteristic generosity of spirit.

Second, an apology because I know that at times I have let vent in ways which while they show my feelings, offer, as C451 put to me, “more heat than light, which never helps with illumination.” As Neo said to be, “we’re all human,” which while true and a good explanation, isn’t an excuse, any more than responding in kind, is an excuse. I hope that the last few posts have, to a large extent, rectified that failure on my part, but a general apology is hereby offered.

Third, an explanation of what I am trying to do might be in order, since some comments suggest that I have not been as clear as I thought. In my own Church the matter of women’s ordination is a done deal, and as C451 has, again with a generosity of spirit that shames me, it may be that other churches will find in it lessons and an example. I know C well enough to have spotted the coded caveat of “for good or ill”! What I am trying to do is to explain how someone who considers herself a high Anglican in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, can possibly have ended up supporting the ordination of women.

I want to begin with Phoebe, as a way of illustrating the wider context. We are told that Phoebe is a “helper” or a “servant”, and that is, of course, a translation of the Greek diakonos. Paul uses the same word to describe his own monistry in his letters to the Corinthians and Galatians, but in a purely English version of the New Testament you might be hard put to see their roles as parallel. It is hard to escape the conclusion that circular reasoning is at work here. We know that when the word is applied to Paul it represents what he does, which invests even the word “servant” with a halo. When it is applied to Phoebe, there is no halo. The Douay-Rheims is an honourable exception translating it as “in ministry”. The choice of the words “servant” or “helper” are, I fear, gendered. It goes thus: we know women were helpers in the Church, therefore we translate diakonos as helper. Then, when asked what the role of women was in the early church, we are told they were “helpers” and pointed to the NT as evidence, where, helpfully, that is indeed the word used – QED. Except, of course, for the circular reasoning. Now if we found the same translation of the word applied consistently to men as well as women, my point would fall away; but we don’t, so it doesn’t.

If we look at the Greek, Paul describes Phoebe as “being” (the participle ousan) “of the church is Cenchrae” which is why the DR uses “ministry” – it is clear from the context that Phoebe was in ministry in the church, and that is the sense in which she was a “helper” or “servant”. In other words, absent the gendered assumptions and no-one would have any reason to question that Phoebe was a “minister.” We can discuss what that means, but I hope this explains why I can’t avoid the issue of gendered assumptions.

While on the subject of Phoebe, it might be worth saying that when Paul says she is delivering the letter, that does not mean she was just the postman. The likelihood was that she would have been reading it out and answering questions about it – so she would have been in Paul’s confidence and had an idea of what he meant – something generations of scholars have wished for! This, of course, involved a public teaching role.

Paul also calls her a “prostasis”, another Greek word often translated in her case as “helper.” This is a difficult one because the word in that form is found only in Paul, but its masculine form, “prostasis” always denotes a form of authority, which of course may be why it is not often applied to Phoebe, if we are back to the cricular logic we have already identified. The majority of translations translate the word as “helper” or a synonym, you have to get to contemporary ones before the word “leader” is used. So again, we see how unconscious bias downplays the role of Phoebe. If she’s been a “he” called “Philip” I wonder how many translations would have used the word “helper”?

This has taken me further than I thought, and means that I shall need another post to say something about how it all maps onto leadership in the Church. Let me say though, in parting, that it is for each Church which inherits tradition to interpret it as it does. The Roman Catholic Church has a high doctrine of the magisterium, and therefore, whatever an Anglican might say about tradition does not apply to the way that Church views things. This is not an argument to be seen in a Roman Catholic context, though some in the communion will be challenged and are challenged by such arguments, it is, however, an argument to seen in a catholic context to explain how a high Anglican can not only accept, but welcome and celebrate the ordination of women who have been called (lucky things!).