The Authority of Scripture
From Can Women be Priests? by Paul Lakeland, pp. 31-46.
Theology Today Series, General Editor: Edward
Yarnold, published by The Mercier Press, Dublin & Cork.
our website with the necessary permissions.
To tradition says so and men and women are equal, therefore . . . we can add a third possibility - it says it in the scriptures. So, for example, there is this kind of argumentation: Christ himself chose only men as his apostles, and since he cannot be accused either of gross ignorance or of deliberately leading the Church into two thousand years of error, it must be assumed that he intended only men to be priests. The reader may notice an affinity between this line and the literalist arguments of the last chapter, in the same way that scripture and tradition interrelate and interpenetrate one another. Then there is the variation on the argument which appeals to specific proof-texts rather than to the gospels or epistles of Paul in general. Both kinds of argumentation have to be treated separately; the former has to be approached through a general examination of the nature of scriptural authority, the latter in more detailed exegesis to discover the content and context of the precise text.
To the former, here, we can point out in the first place that the language is misleading. It is akin to referring to the early worship of the Christian assemblies as the Mass. Certainly our modern liturgy is essentially and centrally the same act as the early Christian breaking of bread, but the transfer of the modern term to the earlier form of the event encourages one to think of both the early and late form as closer in detail than they really are. Ten years ago, this might have led people to think of the Latin Mass with the priest with his back to the people as the liturgical practice of the early Church. That would be as wrong as thinking that the church of Jerusalem celebrated Mass in English.
Secondly, a number of difficulties arise if we try to present as parallel the two statements Christ chose only men as his apostles, and Christ intended only men to be priests. It obscures, for example, the uncomfortable truth that the development of the early Church from the Church of the apostles to that of the presbyters and bishops (if indeed these last two were distinguishable at that stage) is shrouded in mystery. It omits to allow for the term priest in the New Testament being used of no one person alone except Christ, the great high priest of the Letter to the Hebrews, and then in an extenuated sense of the whole body of believers together, the priestly people. Again, the concept of office is not a New Testament idea, and it would be more fruitful to concentrate on the idea of service, the mark held in common by all those who exercise one of the gifts of the Spirit, apostleship, prophecy, teaching and so on. It is not for nothing that where the synoptics give pride of place to the institution of the Eucharist John concentrates on the washing of the disciples feet and Jesuss words: If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one anothers feet (Jn 13.14).
It is a matter of regret that in the Catholic Church today the clergy attempt to maintain a near-monopoly on the gifts of the Spirit. But this, and the remarks in the preceding paragraph, do not constitute proof that the Church is anything other than correct in seeing the priesthood as we have it today as a perfectly legitimate development of the earlier ministries. True, the function of the priest might have been clearer if a different word had been chosen to designate it. What cannot be avoided, however, is the conviction that when we are dealing with a concept so foreign to the time of Jesus and Paul as an exclusively priestly caste within the community of believers, any attempt to suggest that this is the way Christ wanted it is untenable.
It says so in Saint Paul
We shall devote more space later to the development of the priesthood, and turn for the moment to the second kind of argumentation from scripture, the quoting of specific prooftexts. For our purposes, this means examining in some detail three passages from Paul quoted very frequently by opponents of the ordination of women. As we saw in the last chapter, general arguments from scripture are developed and criticised from within that tradition of which they are an indispensable element. The reflection of the praying and believing community is operative. But a satisfactory general approach to scripture can only be composed of right attitudes to individual texts, in much the same way as a successfully-completed jigsaw puzzle is made up by putting all the awkward little pieces in the right places. To continue the metaphor, our purpose in the following few pages is to show that three awkward little pieces are not, as opponents of women priests seem to believe, vitally important corner-pieces of the whole puzzle, but rather that they fit in somewhere in the middle, losing their individual shapes in a successfully accomplished pattern. This pattern is governed by one important rule, that all the pieces derive their significance from their place in the pattern, and not in their own right. In other words, in the study of proof-texts the context is all important. We need to know the circumstances in which they were written, to whom, and for what reason. And we need to exercise caution, all the more so because Pauls letters are adduced as evidence by both proponents and opponents of women priests. This in itself should make us cautious about coming to any firm conclusions about what Paul thought, let alone what authority we should attribute to his utterances.
1. 1 Corinthians 11. 2-16
The church in Corinth to which Paul wrote was in something of a turmoil. Perhaps his letter was written in answer to one from the Corinthians asking for guidance on a number of points, but in any case it is clear that he is offering advice and instruction to a specific church in well-defined circumstances with its own peculiar set of difficulties. This does not mean that those of us who do not belong to the first-century Corinth can ignore what he has to say, but it should caution us against being too ready to universalise any one remark he makes, particularly if it is contradicted elsewhere in the Pauline corpus. We should also bear in mind that Pauls instructions in this section of the letter have to do with the community gathered together for worship, and not, as some who wish to overcome the apparent contradiction with 13.44 maintain, with small private gatherings in the home.
The most important point to grasp here is that the fact that Paul counsels women to pray and prophesy with their heads covered implies, obviously, that they are entitled to pray and prophesy. There is no point in being preoccupied with the manner in which a practice is carried out if the practice itself is forbidden. Granted that, there seems to be some disorder evident in the way in which they are praying and prophesying, above and beyond the fact that they were not conforming to the practice of the church of Jerusalem by covering their heads. It should not surprise us that a Greek church did not conform in detail to one with a Jewish background, nor that the new equality in the Lord could be taken a little more literally by a community which had not grown up in the context of the subordination of women in Judaism. There may also have been growing in the church at Corinth a kind of Gnostic belief that sexual differences belonged only to the flesh, and that since in the spirit all distinctions were abolished this ought to be expressed in worship, the kind of belief that was to result later in what one writer called experiments of heavenly daring (as, for example, consecrated virgins and presbyters co-habiting). Whatever the cause of Pauls stricture, however, the sense of the veil is that it makes it possible for a woman to speak and give glory to God rather than man. Since, according to the text here, she is the glory of man, while man is the glory of God, the covering of her head constitutes a kind of symbolic act indicating the hiding of her glory of manness. This is a piece of Jewish rabbinicism quite foreign to Christianity, and is important only because in spite of such an idea prayer and prophecy for women in the assembly were thought perfectly acceptable.
Subordinationists have also made much of the headship motif in this passage, out of which the idea of woman being the glory of man grew. It would be wrong to see a crudely anatomical analogy here, however; there is no suggestion that God is the brains of Christ, as Christ is of man, and that man is the brains of woman - or the eyes, or the ears, and so on. The word used in the Greek text for head (kephale) has the secondary sense of fount or origin; so, if head is not to be understood literally, as would be plainly meaningless, then this metaphorical sense is so much more likely to be an accurate reflection of Pauls meaning than straining after some reference to authority. The idea applies far better to understanding the relationship between the Father and Christ, and to the man-woman relationship in terms of the account of the origin of woman from man (adam) in chapter two of Genesis. Even this reading of Genesis, which seems to be the one favoured by Paul, is as we shall see not entirely satisfactory.
Reading through the passage carefully, it is difficult to avoid the feeling that Paul is searching desperately for arguments to sustain his statements. He makes his basic point in verses 2-7, and then invokes an argument from creation. This follows in verse 10 with an obscure reference to angels no commentator has yet succeeded in explaining satisfactorily, tries to recant a little in the next verse, refers to the natural order in 14-15, and concludes with a crude and weak claim for his own authority and for the practice of the churches of God (probably a reference to the Jewish churches). Practices and customs in the churches, it should be noted, not beliefs, a point which gives strength to the opinion that Pauls whole concern is with pastoral practice rather than doctrine, and that he has given theological dress to the de facto second-grade image of woman derived from his reading of chapter two of Genesis.
2. 1 Corinthians 14. 33-35
The text unequivocally states: Let your women (possibly your wives) keep silence in church. How can this be reconciled with the clear statement in chapter 11 that women may pray and prophesy if wearing a veil? Efforts have been made to overcome the problem by suggesting that the verb for to speak (lalein) often has the meaning of to chatter and should be translated that way here. In that case Paul would be making the eminently reasonable request that the women (and perhaps the men) should concentrate on what is going on in the ceremony. It is certainly a possible translation on purely literary grounds, and would be in keeping with context, an attack by Paul on a whole variety of disorderly occurrences in the worship of the Christian assembly at Corinth. Unfortunately it seems to be a case of special pleading, since the same verb is used to mean inspired speech in the same chapter in verses 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 9, 11, 13, 18, 19, 21, 23, 27, 29, and 39. Nevertheless, in the light of chapter 11 it is clear that whatever is being done here and condemned cannot be the same prayer or prophecy that was allowed for there. There must have been some disorder contributing to the disruption of the communitys worship, which Paul was condemning for the same reasons that he condemned speaking in tongues when no one could interpret, or everyone prophesying at once. The likeliest explanation, and it has to be emphasised that it is pure conjecture, is that women were interrupting with questions, and so creating disruptions and an atmosphere not conducive to worship. Paul explains his condemnation of women speaking by expanding it into desiring to know, and that is certainly neither prayer nor prophecy. Too many questions would interrupt the flow of prayer and prophecy and teaching, and could harm the atmosphere of worship. Obviously they had to be stopped, and the severity with which Paul does this may explain the overstatement of his case, with again an entirely inappropriate Jewishness (reference to the churches of the saints and to the law) creeping in. On the other hand, Pauls basic concern is with order in the eucharistic assembly, and it may be that his experience or knowledge of serious disorder leads him into this authoritarian melange of ill-considered argumentation. The existence of disorder is perhaps the strongest argument for his point of view. If the fact that women are speaking is causing serious problems then that this does not contribute to building up the body of Christ is sufficient justification for silencing them, even if they were not doing wrong in speaking. This is akin to one of the practical arguments currently invoked by the Anglican Church to postpone the admission of women into the ministry, what the majority now consider is no longer a strictly theological problem, and we may ourselves find that we must conclude similarly. What happened in Corinth, and in Sweden in recent years, could happen in Britain with the appearance of women priests at the altar.
Another alternative explanation has to be considered, and that is that there is a case to be made out for saying that this particular passage is not the work of Paul at all. Whether, if it is an interpolation, that would disqualify it, is quite another question. The argument starts from the recognition that many manuscripts place verses 33b-35 after verse 40, although it is certainly possible that the scribes did this because it is logically the better position for the text. A more substantial argument, though by no means conclusive, is the strong similarity between the language of this and 1 Timothy 2.11-14, coupled with the fact that the emphasis on order and law rather than the new creation in the spirit is more redolent of the times in which the pastoral epistles were written. On the other hand, order in the Christian assembly is certainly a concern of Paul throughout this chapter, and it is difficult wholeheartedly to accept this passage as a textual interpolation, however convenient it might be. It ought to suffice, in any case, to repeat that Paul cannot be prohibiting prayer or prophecy in the Christian assembly by women, since he would simply be contradicting himself. As Haye van der Meer has pointed out (see bibliography), the context in which women are forbidden to speak is one of inopportuneness, and no general injunction against their speaking can be drawn from this passage unless it can be shown that in all times and all places for women to speak acts against the edification of the congregation. Naturally, both men and women have to be silent if their speech works against building up the body of Christ.
3. 1 Timothy 2. 8-15
There is a time and place for polemicism, and the pastoral epistles show the Church grappling with a number of heretical viewpoints (see 1 Timothy 4.1-3). To defend the Church against these innovations it was necessary to emphasise what had been handed down from the apostolic tradition. In such a time of need details and appendages, by the mere fact of their venerableness, became marks of the Church. This helps to explain the emphasis on organisation, order and even institutionalisation in this letter, and it is these qualities which have led some to claim that at least in part it is not the work of Paul. To this statement some, quite reasonably, reply So what? The pastoral epistles are canonical scripture, and there seems no reason to assume that Paul has a monopoly on inspiration. It is a fact too often forgotten that to be satisfied that something is non-Pauline is not carte-blanche to dismiss it as irrelevant.
The general argument against the Pauline authorship of the pastoral epistles is linguistic, and need not detain us here. But in the few verses we are specifically considering the sentiments themselves are un-Pauline. For example, verse 12 says: I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men: she is to keep silent. The justification for this statement follows in the next verse: Adam was formed first, and then Eve; and Adam was not deceived but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. To say that this contradicts a major line of thought in Pauls theology is not thereby to say that it is unchristian, of course. However, it would be true to say that the Churchs developing understanding of itself and its beliefs has been along more centrally Pauline lines. As we said earlier, the development of the Churchs tradition is to a large extent dependent on the communitys reflection on scripture as an element in the Christian faith. That theology which has been adopted and refined over the centuries, in contradiction of the message of 1 Timothy, at least on this point, stresses the equality before God of all Christians, and an equal implication in the inherent fallibility of the human race expressed in Genesis by the myth of Adam and Eve. Pauls remark in Romans, in the course of a far more serious and extended theological exposition than the letter to Timothy, that sin came into the world through one man (5.12), is closer to the mature and developed understanding of the need for salvation in the Christian vision, and far from the partial recriminations of 1 Timothy. Salvation is achieved through baptism in Christ, but 1 Timothy says that woman will be saved through bearing children, an idea taken over from the curse imposed on woman in Genesis for her part in the fall. The world-view of this passage from Timothy is one which simply does not recognise the saving significance of Christ.
We said at the beginning of this section that proponents of the idea of women priests also have recourse to Saint Paul for support. They commonly refer to Galatians 3.28, a text which has nothing specifically to say about women in a liturgical setting. It is a theological statement that in Christ there are no longer two grades of humanity along lines of race, social class or sex. The advocates of this approach are thus not using scripture in the same way as their opponents. Their claim is not that Galatians 3.28 is a proof text, but that it is one expression of the main lines of Pauline theology, and that the whole message of faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ is tied up with a radical equality within the Christian community. This is made a mockery by an all-male priesthood.
It might be claimed that this line of argument is adopted precisely because they have no case on the specific point they are defending, but it would be fairer to see them opposing theology to their adversaries stand on regulation. The theological message of the New Testament, the saving act of Christ, is what is normative for the Church. Beyond that simple and concise message we are in the realms of building up the body of the faithful, and here we are applying theological principles to differing situations. It may well be that the Paul who penned Galatians found that the situation in Corinth, when he turned to write to the people there, made it necessary for him to quell disorder in the assembly by emphasising a harder line, and his Jewish background could not but provide him with ready-made arguments for his purpose. But a practical pastoral directive does not negate a theological principle. Hence, whatever is said in a strictly theological context carries more weight than any one of a series of local and contingent decisions. Even dogmatic formulations, as the International Theological Commission said in 1972, must be considered as responses to precise questions, and it is in this sense that they remain always true. Their permanent interest depends on the lasting relevance of the questions with which they are concerned. What is true for dogma is true a fortiori for discipline, and, whatever we say about the Pauline texts discussed above, they ultimately can only be explained as disciplinary decisions made to promote good order. The Pauline texts prove nothing one way or the other, but it is certainly true that where Paul is undoubtedly talking about the new life in Christ that distinguishes the believers, There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female.
It remains true, for the texts that we have considered, that they are more concerned with the application of principles in concrete situations. That is, they are pastoral directives, and the thrust of their advice is the Pauline principle of building up the body of Christ. Whatever achieves this purpose is ipso facto Christian; at the same time, what builds up the body of Christ in one century may not do so in the next. If indeed the pastoral epistles belong to another time from that of Paul, they are neither more nor less useful for that fact alone. The lesson of the pastoral directives which the New Testament letters contain is a methodological, not a doctrinal one. And this finally brings us back to the point at which we began this chapter, the figure of Christ in the gospels. Christ attacked the Pharisees for reversing the truth that the Sabbath was made for man, and the temptation for us to misinterpret or ossify the words of Christ and the apostles is equally available. Christs own example argues most strongly against the suggestion that anything he said or did is by the fact he did or said it unalterable for all time. In the context of tradition, of our developing understanding of the gospel, we evaluate his example and teaching. We have to look at the reasons why he did or said something, and ask if the conditions continue to apply in our own time. This is the application of our prayerful and scientific understanding of the scriptures to our reading of the signs of the times. So the question is not whether the apostles were all male, but whether it is true that exclusively male bishops and priests in our own time continue to build up the body of Christ in a way superior to a ministerial priesthood composed of both sexes. Or, alternatively, are we to assume that the development of the ministry in the Church has necessarily come to an end?
The anthropology of Eden
The roots of an influential biblical anthropology are firmly embedded in the first three chapters of the book of Genesis. In those chapters there are two quite separate accounts of the creation of man, two strands of narrative which have been juxtaposed rather than woven together. Chapter one gives us the version from the Priestly (P) tradition, dating back in this written form to a post-exilic writer in about the fifth century before Christ. Chapters two and three are the work of the so-called Yahwist (J), and were written down in the ninth century B.C., although this does not mean that all the material in P is of a more recent origin than J, simply that in the form we have them four centuries separate the two.
The complementarists make a great deal of use of ideas from Genesis 1-3, since it can be read in a way which justifies a kind of theology of subordination. It can be used to support a view of the man-woman relationship which suggests that woman is a complement to man, but that somehow man is perfect in himself; that, in other words, woman is a helpful addition to man provided expressly for the work of procreation. Something of this line of thought is evident in the writings of Aquinas, but the modern complementarists do not of course adopt so crude a line. They prefer to emphasise the special gifts and qualities of the female half of humanity - gentleness, passivity, care, and so on. The justification for this line of thought will be discussed in the third chapter. The question for the moment is to try to isolate the theology of human relations which truly lies behind the Genesis accounts. As an attempt to theologise, it must take account of earlier views but it must above all be a modern reflection on the meaning of the scripture. What does it say to our time? How does our developing understanding help us to probe more deeply the meaning of the accounts of creation?
We will begin by looking at the version placed second (but written down earlier), which includes not only the creation story but also that of the fall of man. Like Paul and like ourselves in the course of this study, the Yahwist was setting out to answer a particular question. His account is in no sense an attempt straightforwardly to say what he thought happened, but a reflection on the man-woman relationship as he saw it around him, in the light of his theistic world-view. He is asking why the facts of experience are as they are, or more precisely, as Gerhard von Rad suggests, how, among other things, the powerful drive of the sexes towards one another can be explained. His activity is a reflection on faith in the light of his own experience of the world around him, the very business of doing theology. To this extent, as we have seen also in the case of Saint Paul, his methodology could usefully be made our own.
In the Yahwist account of the creation of man (Genesis 2.18-25) adam, man, refers primarily to mankind, and is innocent of any sexual differentiation. Man is one, in solitude and lonely, and he needs a helper fit for him. So God creates all the animals, and man orders them and expresses his dominion over them by naming them, but for man there was not found a helper fit for him. The creation of woman from adams rib is not then a completely new creation, but an extension of man into the creation of woman (issha), necessarily reducing man (ish) to a maleness not evident in adam. Mans being is constituted in relationship; alone and entire in himself, man is unsatisfied himself and unsatisfactory to God. The splitting of adam into man and woman is the creation of two from one, so that the two in their desire to become one again find in each other an attractiveness, an overcoming of solitude, and the end of the search for the satisfaction of the deep need to stand in relation to the other, not as alien but as completion.
Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.
Nakedness and shame would indicate vulnerability and isolation, both of which are felt in the presence of the alien. Here there is no sense of alienation, no fear, because here there is no other as alien; each sees self in the other in a relationship of perfect harmony.
It is this creation account which has been used to justify the non-reciprocal complementarist position. Yet the text illustrates the process of creation as a growth towards a perfection reached, not with the creation of woman out of man, but with the differentiation of mankind into two sexes. Woman is not the perfecting element, as man is not the dominant element; sexual differentiation as an indicator that mankinds fulfilment lies in relationship is the crowning point of the creation narrative. Looked at in this way, the Yahwists account no longer seems to be a narrative inculcating a crude subordinationism, and it sits quite happily alongside the priestly account of the same event in the preceding chapter. The core of that much more succinct story is in one verse: So God created man in own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them. But this terse and tightly-packed statement is highly significant. It is only in the priestly tradition, for example, that man is said to be made in Gods image, but at the same time this tradition is the least anthropomorphically inclined of the strands of Old Testament narrative. The priestly tradition never represents God walking in the garden in the cool of the evening. He is first and foremost present in his voice. Mans being in Gods image has more to do with his capacity for giving expression to his will, for exercising his ordering dominion over creation, than it has with any crude anthropomorphism. The text itself suggests this by separating off the creation of male and female from the phrase in which man is said to be created in Gods image. We can read this as a process, in which we would have to say that the priestly tradition postulates an original nonsexual human which is further differentiated into male and female, or we can say that male and female he created them is a phrase in apposition to the one immediately preceding it, in which case it elaborates on the nature of that him which is made in Gods image. In other words, it says that male and female are equally made in Gods image. But this male and female have nothing to do with biological role, since the conferring of the ability to procreate is entirely separated from this verse and presented in the form of a special blessing of the Almighty. This is not part of being in the image of God, but it is given purpose and human meaning by being related to that dominion in which man is in the image of God.
And God blessed them, and God said to them: Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.
Summing all this up, we can say that the Genesis creation accounts know nothing of subordination. The description of woman as a helper has to be rendered complete in its phrase, a helper fit for man, and an analysis of what fit for man means will dwell upon that need for companionship and completeness which can only satisfactorily be served by an equal. Nor is this helper someone to assist in naming the animals or tilling the soil. In the Yahwists account, the perfection of creation through the splitting of adam into ish and issha is the stroke of genius by which an understanding of the human personality as being in relation is introduced. Whichever of the two accounts appeals most, and both are but two ways of looking at something which can be looked at in a multiplicity of ways, both man and woman are on the same plane of creation.
If one purpose of the narrator in chapter two of Genesis was to explain the strong attraction of the sexes for one another, then in chapter three he turns to the question which arises naturally from this in his own time, and perhaps even in ours. Granted that the sexes were created equal in the sight of God, why is woman in the contemporary situation socially downtrodden and biologically a slave to the pains and perils of pregnancy and childbirth? The answer which he offers is in the curse placed upon her as a result of her part in the fall of mankind from grace:
I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you (Gen 3.16).
To adduce this as evidence for the divinely-ordained subjection of women is to fall into a simple methodological trap. Remember that the Yahwist is using his material to try to explain why a state of affairs is as it is. The womans part in the sin is his imaginative representation of the cause of her contemporary discomforts. Now what is written at one time as an attempt to explain facts of human existence cannot then be advanced as a dogmatic statement from an earlier time from which these facts of life are taken to be divinely ordained. A post factum explanation cannot legitimately be exalted to the status of an a priori principle. To dogmatise detail is to falsify the function of myth-making.
In the light of the saving significance of Christ, any suggestion that the subordination of woman is part of the nature of things must disappear. Christ himself is the new adam, come to restore man to Gods friendship, to show Gods love for man in his life and death. The evident constitutional imperfection of mankind, which is sometimes called original sin, and which was portrayed in a particular way in Genesis, is still with each man born into the world. But after the coming of Christ, and through baptism into his Church, the body of the faithful, Christs body, is able with the help of grace to escape from the state of being unredeemed. In Christ the curse on man and woman is no more; if woman is still subject to man it is because the message of Christ has not been sufficiently understood:
For as many of you as were baptised into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3.27-28).
Perhaps it is now a little clearer why some think that 1 Timothy is not entirely Christian, and why it is hard to see the justification for what is, firstly, a hardening of the Pauline attitude in Corinthians, and secondly backed up by arguments which have no place in the redemption offered by Christ. Woman must win salvation and accept it in precisely the same way as her counterpart.
But the Yahwist also mentioned the pains of childbirth as part of the curse on woman, and these go on today as then, so how are we to explain this? Principally, it would seem, from the point of view that pain and death as inescapable elements inhuman existence were drawn by the Yahwist into the same mythical explanation as that social subjection which must have seemed to him to be equally unavoidable. But all human pain, and death, both male and female, have to be treated together as the separate, celebrated, and much-discussed problem of evil. That the occasion of one particular source of pain among many -childbirth - is exclusively womans problem, should not be made an excuse for theological fantasising.
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