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Letter to Women

Richard Hooker and the Ordination of Women to the Priesthood

by StephenSykes
First published as Ch. 8, in After Eve,
edited by Janet Martin Soskice.
Collins Marshall Pickering, 1990
Reproduced on our website with the necessary permissions

A more dutifull and religious way for us were to admire the wisedome of God, which shineth in the bewtifull varietie of all things, but most in the manifold and yet harmonious dissimilitude of those wayes, whereby his Church upon earth is guided from age to age, throughout all generations of men.(1)


When Anglicans confront the fact that the Roman Catholic Church deems the ordination of women to the priesthood not to be in accordance with God's plan for his Church,(2) they are obliged to reflect on their own understanding of the Church. There are many Anglicans, perhaps a majority, for whom the firm opposition of the Pope and the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is a most serious obstacle. Among these will undoubtedly be some who hold more or less secretly that the churches of the Anglican communion have no basis of authority independent of the Papacy, and for whom, therefore, a Papal veto is simply final. Their identity as Anglicans will, of course, be severely tried by a decision to ordain women to the priesthood. But since they make no intellectual case for their present allegiance, they can hardly complain of any inconsistency in such an Anglican development. A much larger and more serious number of Anglicans, however, hold strongly the argument from tradition, in which Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox agree, and will feel on ecumenical grounds the inadvisability of any movement which increases the gulf between Anglicans and the non-Protestant world.

I have on a number of occasions attempted to point out how misleading is the mental map which simply spreads the denominations out in a straight line, and places Anglicanism midway between Rome and wherever it is thought the headquarters of undifferentiated Protestantism may lie.(3) There have been at least three versions of via media Anglicanism. In the sixteenth century, Anglicans, together with Lutherans, saw themselves as midway between Rome and Anabaptism. By the mid-seventeenth century the Church of England was developing an apologetic self-understanding over against independency and presbyterianism, as representative of left-wing Protestantism, which in the Tractarian recension became the via media between Rome and 'popular Protestantism', as defined by John Henry Newman. The history of these variations demonstrates the instability and inadequacy of the model, which is, in any case, on any rational reflection unacceptably crude. It has, moreover, inhibited Anglicans from the necessary attempt to articulate their own understanding of the Church. Knowing that some Anglicans are 'virtually' Protestants and others 'virtually' Romans, the straight line model has suggested that Anglicanism can be 'comprehensive' by the simple expedient of adopting the ecclesiologies of others. But this is an illusion, the poverty of which is rapidly disclosed by ecumenical contact. For, one discovers, the Orthodox, Roman Catholics and Lutherans all claim 'comprehensiveness' - and accuse Anglicans of incoherence. Anglicans have to learn that a comprehensive church needs to articulate a doctrine of the Church precisely in order to justify its very comprehensiveness.(4)

One needs, therefore, an Anglican doctrine of the Church in order to understand what it is that Anglicans are doing in ordaining, or proposing to ordain women to the Church's priesthood. An 'Anglican doctrine of the Church' is not the same thing as a doctrine of the Anglican Church. The latter would be, however useful in practice, inadequate for the task of interpreting what it is that is done when people are ordained to the 'ministry of Christ's Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church'.

What is required is a Christian doctrine of the Church, making claims to evangelical and catholic truth, which Anglicans, who are as a matter of fact a distinct denomination in Christendom, can accept as true. Whether such a doctrine strikes other people as 'distinctively Anglican' is for them to judge. What is needed is an understanding of the Church corresponding to the norms of catholic doctrine as Anglicans believe them to be, and which makes sense of their witness, experience and hope.


One part of such a reflection should entail the examination of the acknowledged classics of Anglican theology of the past. The acute failure of theological nerve precipitated by the violent internal polemics of the nineteenth century assuredly did not afflict Anglicans of earlier centuries. Among the theological justifications of the stance of the Church of England offered then, Richard Hooker's apologia for the Elizabethan settlement, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, is pre-eminent. Moreover Hooker is precisely that kind of theologian against whose understanding of the Church Anglicans should test these modern proposals, since his encounter with what has recently been named 'moderate puritanism'(5) made him sensitive to those particular issues relating to tradition which cause modern Anglicans such anxiety when confronted by the innovatory ordination of women to the priesthood.

The thesis of this paper is that it is entirely consistent with the theological method of the most famous Anglican writer perhaps of the whole of Anglican history, Richard Hooker, that women should be ordained to the priesthood. It is an argument whose intention is to take seriously the objection that such ordinations constitute a break of the invariable tradition of the Church from the days of the apostles. I have two further objectives in mind. The first is to exhibit the thought of a major Christian theologian wrestling with the problem of church order in such a way as to show how it can and should be related to particular times and places. And the second is to demonstrate that it is possible to hold both that a particular church order is divinely ordained and also that it is not immutable. The severing of this particular connection is of especial importance, for those who like myself cannot draw from the conclusion that the Church must today ordain women to the priesthood the inference that it was in error not to do so in earlier centuries. The genesis of this paper lay in a question and a hunch. Based on the realisation that Richard Hooker and William Shakespeare were contemporaries, the question arose whether the theologian showed any signs of interest in the debate about women which so fascinated Tudor and Elizabethan society.(6) On the speedy discovery that virtually all of Hooker's references to women were of a sturdily conservative kind, as we shall see, the hypothesis presented itself that, despite this standard sixteenth century patriarchalism, the position espoused by Hooker on the broader issue of order in the Church might lend itself to serious treatment of the grounds for the ordination of women. What follows is the result of the pursuit of this hunch. Begun perhaps in a somewhat lighthearted desire to enlist the support of one of the supposed 'fathers' of Anglo-Catholicism, it has resulted in an increased respect for the profundity and subtlety of Hooker's theological stance, and especially for his readiness to take seriously the social reality of the Christian Church in time and history; so that I have found my growing conviction of the importance of the study of social history for the Christian Church at every stage of its life to be met and deepened by Hooker's insistence on the dual character of the Church, 'being both a societie and a societie supernaturall'.(7)


There are three pages in the Laws in which Hooker makes passing but explicit references to the status of women. The first is in the Preface, where Hooker acknowledges the fact that women were prominent as recruits to the puritan cause, but takes this to be an indication of the inferiority of the rational grounds for puritanism, on the assumption that the judgments of women are 'commonlie weakest by the reason of their sex'.(8) Hooker admits the 'eagernesse of their affection' and their 'naturall inclination into pittie', but observes with some disdain the opportunities women enjoy 'to procure encouragements for their brethren' and the delight they take 'in giving verie large and particular intelligence, how all neere about them stand affected as concerning the same cause'.(9) They are, in a word, gossips.

In the second passage, the point at issue is the emergency baptism of infants by women, especially by midwives. The immediate background to this was the objection of the Admonitioners that the Prayer Book had not specifically forbidden such baptisms, as had Calvin and Bullinger, on the grounds that it was a superstitious use of the sacrament.(10) Hooker's view followed Luther, Tyndale and the general Catholic tradition in accepting the legality and validity of baptism by women, as part of his defence of the view that baptism is 'generally [i.e. universally] necessary to salvation'. Lay baptism in cases of urgent necessity is consistent with this stance, and Hooker strenuously resists the apparent corollary that women can be 'ministers in the Church of God' which, he tartly remarks, would be a 'grosse absurditie' in the light of the Apostle Paul's injunctions not to let women teach (quoting 1 Tim. 2.12 and 1 Cor. 14.34). Here Hooker refers to the (fourth century) document entitled the Apostolic Constitutions, which he held, together with the majority of his contemporaries, to have been written by Clement of Rome in the first century. In this document we find a specific injunction that a woman may not baptise, which Hooker is at some pains to gloss as a prohibition designed to deter the rash and presumptuous from turning what is lawful in necessity into something more common.(11)

The last example of a reference to women occurs in the section on matrimony in Book V, where Hooker is attempting to meet Puritan objections to the ceremonies retained in the Anglican rite. Here Hooker invokes a highly traditional argument concerning the divinely appointed end or goal of matrimony, namely the replenishing of the earth with blessed inhabitants and ultimately of heaven with saints. If the having and bringing up of children is the goal, the means requires the 'subalternation' of women to men. This is naturally grounded upon the inequality of the sexes, 'because thinges equall in everie respect are never willinglie directed one by another'. Woman is thus not merely brought into being after man, but is 'inferior in excellencie' to him. Thus the delivering up of the woman by her father is one of the customs which have a true and sufficient reason, rooted as it is in the ancient authority of husband, father or tutor over all women. The ceremony accordingly reminds women 'of a dutie whereunto the verie irnbecillitie of theire nature and sex doth bind them, namelie to be allwaies directed guided and ordered by others, although our positive lawes doe not tie them now as pupils'.(12)


These uncompromising expressions of female subordination to male power are, nonetheless, utterly incidental to the course of Hooker's argument. He is apparently not in the least interested in the theoretical questions about the status of women which had already surfaced in European discussion.(13) Hooker is a traditionalist for whom no serious question arises which might lead him to place women in any other position than that accorded her in the standard theory. The subordination of women was integral to that theory, as it was for most leading Roman Catholic and Protestant writers of the age.

It is essential to the argument of this paper to note the interlocking character of the disciplines whose arguments contributed to the theory of female inferiority. This theory was composed of a variety of elements from law, philosophy, ethics and medicine as well as from theology, as lan Maclean's most impressive treatment of the theme has demonstrated.(14) One example will suffice. Hooker's reference, noted above, to women's 'imbecillitie' is not a gratuitous insult, but a standard piece of legal theory deriving from the Digest, where woman's disbarment from succession, office and privilege, the legal consequence of her deterior conditio, is justified by her alleged levitas, fragilitas, imbecillitas and infirmitas.(15) The French jurist, André Tiraqueau, compiled in his seminal treatise on marriage law a list of occurrences of these words in Roman Law. But the work itself is full of references to theology, medicine, ethics and ancient literature, as well as to law, all in support of female inferiority.(16) The marriage of Aristotle's anatomical and ethical theories to the patristic understanding of the creation and fall had contrived to produce a synthesis according to which woman was an incomplete version of the male (a mas occasionatus).(17) Her weaker powers of reason are the grounds for her being deceived, this explanation cohering with the deterior conditio of woman in law.(18) Maclean describes the relationship between the disciplines as 'molecular' as well as 'hierarchical'.(19) Thus although Aristotelian medical theory provides a basis for morality, and medicine and ethics underlie law, the synthesis of Aristotelian and Christian theses is full of ambiguities, apparent and real contradictions and open possibilities which make it responsive to slow change. Hooker's participation in the synthesis was total, informing every aspect of his minimal references to women. But he wrote at a time when for the first time the scholastic synthesis came under attack as a whole. And his significance is that he provides the Church with a way of understanding what it might mean to come to new terms with the new view of woman which was shortly to develop in modern Europe.

The case that can be argued in this connection rests on Hooker's awareness that certain aspects of church law can properly vary with time and place. But it is important not to overstate the point. His thought is permeated with Aristotelian assumptions and there is nothing to suggest a willingness in him to entertain in relation to the place of women even contemporary ideas which conflicted with the scholastic synthesis. As we have seen in Hooker's treatment of marriage the necessity of a relationship of superiority/inferiority, which is ultimately derived from Aristotle's dualities, is simply assumed as axiomatic. Although we now have been forced to separate Aristotle's ethics from his physics in order to give any kind of future for Aristotelian thought at all,(20) Hooker could not have envisioned how this could be done. The most that can be said is that just as our treatment of Aristotle is likely to be eclectic, so was Hooker's though in different proportion; it is perhaps relevant to add that we are no more obliged to accept or reject Hooker's scholasticism in toto, than Hooker was to adopt Aristotle's entire political philosophy.


The issue, then, that we have to investigate is Hooker's approach to church polity. As is well known, he adopted from Jewel, Whitgift and other Anglican writers the distinction between things necessary to salvation and matters indifferent.(21) It was already conventional Lutheran apologetic that rites and ceremonies belonged to matters indifferent. Hooker agreed, and it is the purpose of Book III of the Laws to carry his point against the Puritans, who, he holds, insist that discipline and church government belong to things necessary to salvation.

Hooker's position as it unfolds is differentiated and subtle. Although at first sight it looks as though he is going to argue quite simply that what he prefers to call 'church-politie'(22) is a matter of indifference to be decided by each national or regional body for itself, by means of a fundamental analysis of different types of law he shows to what extent the Church must rely on Scripture and to what extent and how she must develop her own positive regulations. In chapters 1-4 of Book III all that is in mind is the sharp distinction, which he needs for polemical purposes, between what he calls 'the verie essence of Christianitie' (the earliest use in English known to me of this phrase), by which he means one Lord, one faith, and one baptism,(23) and ceremonies, such as marrying with a ring, the use of the sign of the cross at baptism, kneeling at the Eucharist and so forth. (24) From ceremonies are excepted 'Sacramentes, or anie other the like substantiall duties in the exercise of religion'. (25)

In chapter 5 Hooker turns his attention to the Puritan use of the phrase 'commanded by the word of God', and asks the pertinent question, What is the proper use of Scripture?

When that which the word of God doth but deliver historically, wee conster without any warrant as if it were legally meant, and so urge it further then wee can proove that it was intended, doe we not adde to the lawes of God, and make them in number seeme moe then they are? (26)

The argument is plainly ad hominem, in that it represents the Puritans as multiplying 'lawes' without due grounds, the very charge they brought against the conformists. But we should note that the exegetical sensitivity which refuses to quote 'by-speeches in some historicall narration or other' as though they amounted to the 'most exact forme of lawe' is the precursor of a type of historical relativism.

'Commaunded by the word of God', then, is an inadequately refined tool for the proper use of Scripture, and Hooker uses this fact as a pretext for a general argument in favour of the use of reason in Scriptural interpretation. It is, he says, the Church which first instructs us to treat the Scripture as authoritative, which enquiry and experience then confirm. Reason in this context can both refute error and build up faith, aided and directed by the Holy Spirit. Reason, therefore, can also be used in the same context for the formulation of the laws of church polity. This is precisely the point which Hooker desires to make. No church polity is good unless God be the author of it. But God may be the author of it in two ways, either by supernatural revelation, or by the Holy Spirit's guided use of the natural light of reason ('those thinges which men finde out by helpe of that light, which God hath given them unto that ende').(27) Thus though Scripture itself contains many laws, there are a number of matters

for which the scripture hath not provided by any law, but left them unto the carefull discretion of the Church; . . . and what is so in these cases, partely scripture and partly reason must teach to discerne.(28)

At this point Hooker brings to bear on his argument the analysis of the different types of law which he has already provided in Book I. The three types of law which concern this argument are the law of reason (which Hooker also calls the law of nature), the divine law revealed in the Scriptures, and human law. The last of these, which includes all church constitutions, is subject to the criterion of the former two. (29) The complicating factor is the evident fact that Scripture contains a variety of material, both precedents and examples, natural laws and 'positive laws'. The last are called positive, rather than human law, to signify the fact that their role is not merely to instruct, but to enjoin and constrain. (30) There are two kinds of 'positive' laws, those which are 'mixed' and which amount to the ratification of natural law, and those which are 'merely' positive, that is, are within the province of human societies to determine as seems convenient.(31) But, and here is the rub, it is not self-evident from Scripture itself which kind of material is which.

When scripture doth yeelde us precedents, how far forth they are to bee followed; when it giveth naturall lawes, what particular order is thereunto most agreeable; when positive, which waye to make lawes unrepugnant unto them; yea though all these shoulde want, yet what kind of ordinances woulde be moste for that good of the Church which is aimed at, al this must be by reason founde out.(32)

Church polity is the area of 'positive law', but it is not, for that reason, arbitrary or, in the modern sense, a matter of indifference. But positive law is mutable, and Hooker is at pains to do justice to the complexity of this issue. The mere fact that a law is given in Scripture is not itself a decisive consideration. Sometimes positive law is given with an indication as to how long it is to remain in force. But if not, we can only judge the question of whether change is permissible or not by considering 'the ende for which it was made, and by the aptnese of thinges therein prescribed unto the same end'(33) The three types of Jewish laws show these principles at work. The moral law is unchanged because the matter of it continues as before, the ceremonial law is at an end because, although the matter continues, the end or purpose has ceased; the judicial law is mutable, because though the end continues, yet the matter is in some respects altered.(34)

By these means Hooker reaches the paradoxical sounding conclusion that

God never ordeyned any thing that could be bettered. Yet many things he hath that have bene chaunged, and that for the better. That which succeedeth as better now when change is requisite, had bene worse when that which now is chaunged was instituted. Otherwise God had not then left this to choose that, neither would now reject that to choose this, were it not for some new growne occasion making that which hath bene better worse. In this case therefore men doe not presume to chaunge God's ordinance, but they yeelde thereunto requiring it selfe to be chaunged. (35)

The importance of this principle of change for our argument is obvious. According to it, it may be agreed that the restriction of the priesthood to males at one time was the ordinance of God. But at some 'new growne occasion' that same positive law may become the worse course for the Church to follow. The fact that the first law was indeed the law of God, and given by his authority, by no means demonstrates its unchangeableness. (36) The question would be whether or not the positive law given in the Scriptures had such a connection to natural law that its maintenance did not acquire the extra force of universality. But whether that is so or not, would, on Hooker's own argument, be a matter for reason itself to determine.

How would Hooker himself have interpreted the question of the ordination of women to the priesthood? The answer is hardly in doubt, and precisely illustrates his method of argument. The idea that women would be 'teachers in the house of God', he holds, as we have seen, to be 'a gross absurdity' in the light of the apostolic injunctions. This would be, in other words, an instance of Scripture giving a clear positive law. Moreover, for Hooker, such a law would undoubtedly have been a case of 'mixed' positive law, since natural reason also taught women's inferiority. Such at least is clear from his traditional handling of the place of women in marriage, which closely follows the terms of the scholastic synthesis. But if Hooker's own position on the question, had it occurred to him to raise it, cannot be in doubt, neither can the fact that it was being undermined, even as he wrote, by the fact of the rule of Queen Elizabeth, whose supremacy in the Church as monarch was likewise a matter of positive law. Hooker must surely have known of the fierce debate about the propriety of the government of women such as not merely Elizabeth I, but also Catherine de Médicis and Mary, Queen of Scots. (37) He can scarcely have been ignorant of the argument produced in 1588 by an Oxford scholar, John Case, in favour of feminine rule where the ability is present, and denying that the distinctively feminine humours adversely affect the mind.' (38) He lived at a time when the Aristotelian doctrine of inherent female inferiority, rooted in logic and physiology, was already proving itself to be impermanent.


But what of the question of ordination? Was that, too, for Hooker a matter of positive law, or was it a sacrament covered by the faith content of the Gospel? Although Hooker does not give ordination the explicit title of a sacrament, he sings a paean of praise to the authority and power of the ministry, which God alone can bestow. (39) By the time he came to write Book V, Hooker had come to accept the doctrine which was relatively new to Anglican apologetic that the origins of episcopacy lay in the distinction which Christ had made between the Twelve and the Seventy. (40) This had been argued by Hadrian de Saravia in his De Diversis Ministrorum Evangelii Gradibus of 1590, and it proved increasingly attractive to many Anglicans (including Hooker) in place of the Jeromian theory held by most Elizabethan divines that episcopacy was first introduced after the death of the Apostles. (41) But he makes abundantly clear that his argument does not depend on the former view, since we may claim the ministry to be of divine origin even if it be of human institution, provided that it has divine approbation.(42)

It is, therefore, quite consistent with Hooker's basic theory for him to say that there are conditions under which it would be legitimate to vary the form of church polity. The Tractarians found it a difficult passage to swallow, and Anglo-Catholics have choked on it ever since, but it is plain enough. Compared with matters necessary to salvation, the scriptures are not so insistent or clear on matters relating to ecclesiastical polity that 'much which it hath taught [might] become unrequisite, sometimes because we need not use it, sometimes also because we cannot'.(43) Then follows the admission that the failure of the reformed Churches of France and Scotland to retain episcopacy, though a defect, could not be considered a cause of serious reproach or blame. This is a clear example of Hooker's readiness to judge of times and seasons.

A similar interpretation can be given to Hooker's discussion of the Jeromian theory. Even if it is by custom that bishops hold authority in the Church, none the less what has long continued in the Church without alteration is an integral part of its being considered a divine institution. The conclusion is that the power of bishops may be taken away if their behaviour becomes 'proud, tyrannical and unreformable'.(44) For Hooker, ever sensitive to the exigencies of history,

the whole body of the Church hath power to alter, with general consent and upon necessary occasions, even the positive laws of the apostles, if there be no command to the contrary, and it manifestly appears to her, that change of times have clearly taken away the very reasons of God's first institution.(45)

Likewise in particular emergencies the church may ordain someone where there is no bishop who could do so.

We are not simply without exception to urge a lineal descent of power from the Apostles by continued succession of bishops in every effectual ordination. (46)

In these exceptional cases, and Hooker, we should note, draws their conditions very tightly, the crucial factor is the consent of the Church. Hooker did not believe in episcopal government of the Church, nor even in clerical government. The power of the government, he lays down in Book I, apart from the consent of the governed is no better than tyranny, and a principle he applies to both Church and State.(47) It is for this reason that he gives Parliament as well as Convocation a role in the making of ecclesiastical law. Hooker by no means anticipated the secularisation of the Church; as Cargill Thompson pertinently observes, 'had he done so, he would hardly have approved of the continued survival of Parliament's right to make laws for the Church'. (48) But it cannot seriously be doubted that he would have regarded the participation of the laity in synodical government as a normal and desirable state of affairs, conducive to that testing of consent without which no form of government is secure.

Nothing in Hooker's treatment of ordination would lead us to the conclusion that it could be an area of church polity exempt from the general considerations relating to positive law which he advanced. He anticipates the fact that different contexts will give rise to different decisions, and this he labels an 'harmonious dissimilitude'. (49) What is permanent in the ministry is the task of teaching the Gospel of Christ.

As an example of what may properly be considered a temporary measure he instances Paul's instructions to Timothy concerning the choice of widows (1 Tim. 5.9). God's clergy are a permanent state to carry out the laws governing the administration of the word and sacraments. To this necessity he adds the hierarchical distinction of degrees among the clergy so as to secure order, and the necessity of ordination. The rest are matters on which the Church has the right to make positive law in accordance with scriptural principles and right reason.

The point of this enquiry is that it shows Hooker to be the architect of an understanding of church polity which can seriously consider the necessity of change, even in an institution as traditional as an all-male priesthood. It does not, of course, turn Hooker into an advocate of women's ordination. But on his own principles Hooker would undoubtedly have been ready to consider an argument which destroyed the status of the doctrine of women's subordination as a deliverance of natural reason. The point can be made more precisely. The issue is not patriarchy (the rule of the father in the household), but male dominance. Aristotelian physiology and psychology are entirely general in their application to womankind, and are the basis upon which the impropriety of female dominance can be urged. Once this generalised basis was abandoned (and it must be said to have lingered in psychology long into the twentieth century), the support from 'natural reason', essential to Hooker's prescription for a mixed positive law, evaporates. When generalised female subordination ceases to make sense medically or empirically, the route must be open for a reappraisal of the scriptural positive law concerning the impropriety of female teachers.

This is not merely a matter of the ordination of women. A consistent modern application of the scholastic synthesis would be such as to preclude the participation of women in any form of public office or leadership role. Those who urge the Church's tradition as an argument against women's ordination are inconsistent with that tradition in failing to deplore female rnonarchs, prime ministers, members of parliament or members of church synods, heads of church colleges, and chairpersons of bodies of great power in State and Church. To have capitulated in this arena in order to preserve a cordon sanitaire around the Church's ministry is absolutely to have abandoned Hooker's position.

What we discover, then, in Hooker is an undeniably Anglican doctrine of the Church which enables us to reflect seriously upon the implications for church polity of the new understanding of the female-male relationship. It is a position which has no obligation to be unremittingly hostile to the church tradition in order to satisfy the instincts of radical feminism, nor, on the other hand, is it obliged to assume the immutability of laws even of divine origin. It is a position, moreover, which has a high doctrine of the apostolic ministry, and no a priori objection to the existence of a hierarchy. It would not feel obliged to impose the same structures upon all cultures at the same time, and could enjoy what Hooker describes in a felicitous phrase as the 'manifold and yet harmonious dissimilitude of those wayes whereby his Church upon earth is guided from age to age'.(50)

With these considerations in mind one may return to the question of the official response of the Roman Catholic Church. The documents, both the Declaration and the Commentary, seem plainly of a provisional character, striving both to start and end on a positive note, though conscious of the apparent negativity of their central teaching. The Declaration, Inter insigniores, recalls the opposition of the Second Vatican Council to discrimination based upon sex. The Commentary notes that it would have been desirable to have inserted into the Declaration a more general presentation on the question of the advancement of women; but, it adds, 'the time is not ripe for such a comprehensive exposition, because of the research and work in progress on all sides'. (51) But both publications are characterised by an extreme reluctance to present an historical picture of the traditional scholastic synthesis, claiming that the 'undeniable influence of prejudices unfavourable to women' or the presence of arguments 'that modern thought would have difficulty in admitting or would even rightly reject' can be easily separated from the Church's constant tradition. (52) One can have no such confidence. (53) So long as the status accorded to women remains in doubt, the isolation of the Church's priesthood from a general theory of the natural relations of the sexes strikes the reader as defensive, and in a strict sense uncatholic.

The argument of this paper brings one to the point where, without denying what the Church has maintained in the past or imposing an unhistorical interpretation upon it, an Anglican can freely face the challenge of recapturing the vision of a 'discipleship of equals', which is also part of the scriptural portrait of the nature of the Church. It may be that this vision could not have survived the Church's inculturation in the Graeco-Roman world, in which it was only wealthy widows who could exercise any kind of leadership through patronage. The self-interested character of the male medical science which asserted the natural imbecility of women can readily be recognised, and even excused. Equality, even in the Church, has little currency value until women acquired equal access to education and wives freedom from the burden of involuntary pregnancy. A new-grown occasion is upon us, and Richard Hooker provides us with the fundamental equipment with which to face it.


1. Laws III, xi, 8. Quotations from Hooker are from the Folger Library Edition of his works (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass, 1977- ).

2. Woman and the Priesthood, Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood, Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (Vatican City, 1977), p. 11.

3. The obvious candidates, Geneva or Wittenberg, identify the brand of Protestantism too closely. Perhaps we should suggest Marburg, on account of cacophony of squabbling Protestant voices to be heard at the Colloquy (1529), and therefore conforming to this kind of Anglican prejudice.

4. See S. W. Sykes, 'Have Anglicans no special doctrines of their own?', The Franciscan, Vol. XXX, No. 1, Jan. 1988, pp. 32-7.

5. By Peter Lake in his Moderate Puritans and the Elizabethan Church(Cambridge, 1982).

6. On which see Louis B. Wright, Middle Class Culture in Elizabethan England (Chapel Hill, N. Carolina, 1935), ch. xiii, 'The Popular Controversy over Woman'; Ruth Kelso, Doctrine for the Lady of the Renaissance (Urbana, Illinois, 1956), esp. ch. 2, 'Women in the Scheme of Things'; lan Maclean, The Renaissance Notion of Women (Cambridge, 1980); Simon Shepherd, Amazons and Warrior Women (Brighton, 1981); Linda Woodbridge, Women and the English Renaissance, Literature and the Nature of Womankind 1540-1610 (Brighton, 1984); and Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (Brighton, 1983).

7. Laws I, xv, 2.

8. Preface iii, 13. This coheres with Thomas Aquinas' opinion that the natural piety of women is not a particular mental attribute, but a lack (a defectus contemplationis) resulting in a tendency toward credulity (Summa Theologica 2a 2ae 83, 3). That there were both gains and losses to women in the Protestant Reformation is nicely argued by N. Z. Davis, in her essay 'City Women and Religious Change', Society and Culture in Early Modern France (Stanford, California, 1975), pp. 65-95.

9. Laws, Preface iii, 13. The more independent role of women in the Puritan movement has frequently attracted comment. See 'Women and Puritanism', ch. 5 of Shepherd, Amazons.

10. See Calvin's Institutes, 4, 15, 20 and Bullinger's Decades (Parker Society 4) pp. 370-72; as noted by John E. Booty in Vol. 4 of Folger Library edition of the Laws (Cambridge, Mass, 1982), pp. 209-10.

11. Laws V, lxii, 1-3, and 22. In the last paragraph of this chapter Hooker refers to 'divers reformed Churches' which do allow women to baptise in cases of necessity. These, doubtless, would be Lutheran churches, perhaps those of Hesse and Brandenberg-Nuremberg. So Booty, op. cit., p. 210.

12. Laws V, Ixxiii, 1-5. It should be added that Calvin had also asserted the need for the wife to be subject to the husband, in order to guarantee the subordination of both to the authority of God (Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians (Edinburgh, 1900), pp. 232f.

13. Henry Cornelius Agrippa's De nobilitate et praecellentia foeminei sexus . . . declamatio (1529: E. T. A treatise of the nobility and excellency of womankind, London, 1542) is an example. But its radicalism is usually interpreted as an exercise in rhetoric, perhaps because the idea of women's equality could be treated in no other way. See Maclean, Renaissance Notion of Women, pp. 80 and 91.

14. See note 6 above.

15. The main passage relevant to women's legal status reads as follows: 'Women are excluded from all civil and public offices; and thus they may not be judices, nor magistrates, nor advocates; nor may they intervene on another's behalf in law, nor act as agents' (De regulis juris antiqui, 50, 16, 2). In a volume published in Lyons in 1593, five eminent scholars comment on the position of women in Roman, Holy Roman and Canon Law, and references to the imbecillitas of women are frequent. Cf. 1. Maclean, Women Triumphant, Feminism in French Literature, 1610-1652 (Oxford, 1977), pp. 13ff.

16. De Legibus connubialibus (1513) I, 1, 70-6 in Opera omnia II, 15-17, discussed by Maclean, Renaissance Notion of Women, pp. 3 and 83.

17. Maclean, op. cit., pp. 8f., referring to Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica la, 92, 1.

18. Maclean, op. cit., p. 15, referring to Peter Lombard, Sententiae II, 20 and Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica 2a 2ae, 163,4, and 165,2.

19. Maclean, op. cit., p. 83.

20. Here one thinks primarily in modern times of Alasdair Maclntyre's powerful argument in After Virtue (London, 1981).

21. For what follows I am especially indebted to the lucid analysis of Hooker's political philosophy in W. D. J. Cargill Thompson's essay 'The Philosopher of the "Politic Society": Richard Hooker as a Political Thinker', in his (posthumous) Studies in the Reformation, ed. C. W. Dugmore (London, 1980), pp. 131-91.

22. For the interesting and significant reason that it lays too much weight on 'the exerciseof superiority peculiar unto rulers and guides of others',Laws III, i, 14.

23. Laws III, i, 4. On the history of this term see H. Wagenhammer, Das Wesen des Christenums (Mainz, 1973) and S. W. Sykes, The Identity of Christianity (London, 1984), esp. pp. 211-38 and 250-61.

24. Other examples are given in Laws III, v. 1,

25. Laws III, iii, 4.

26. Laws III, v. 1.

27. Laws III, ii, 1.

28. Laws III, ix, 1.

29. 'All our controversie in this cause concerning the orders of the Church is, what particulars the Church may appoint. That which doth finde them out is the force of man's reason. That which doth guide and direct his reason is first the generall law of nature, which law of nature and the morall law of Scripture are in the substance of law all one', Laws III, ix, 2.

30. Laws I, x, 8.

31. Laws x, 10.

32. Laws III, ix, 1.

33. Laws III, x, 1.

34. Laws III, x, 4.

35. Laws III, x, 5.

36. 'I therefore conclude that nether God's being author of laws for government of his Church, nor his committing them unto Scripture, is any reason sufficient wherefore all churches should for ever be bounde to keepe them without chaunge', Laws III, x, 7,

37. See Maclean, Feminism in French Literature, p. 58.

38. 'Nature often makes woman shrewd, hard work makes her learned, upbringing makes her pious, and experience makes her wise. What, therefore, prevents women from playing a full part in public affairs? If one is born free, why should she obey? If one is heiress to a kingdom, why should she not reign? Divine law, the history of nations, ancient insitutions, and examples drawn from Holy Writ all support such arguments', Sphaera civitatis (Oxford, 1588, I, 3, p. 33; cited in Maclean, The Renaissance Notion of Women, p. 61 (Latin, p. 95).

39. Laws V, Ixxvii.

40. Laws V, Ixxviii, 5. See W. D. J. Cargill Thompson's discussion in 'Anthony Marten and the Elizabethan Debate on Episcopacy' in G. V, Bennett and J. D. Walsh (eds.), Essays in Modern English Church History in Memory of Norman Sykes (London, 1966), pp. 44-75.

41. Hooker acknowledges his conversion to the new theory in Laws VII, xi, 8.

42. Laws VII, xi, 10.

43. Laws III, xi, 16.

44. Laws VII, v, 8.

45. Laws VII, v, 8.

46. Laws VII, xiv, 11.

47. Laws I, x, 8.

48. 'The Philosopher of the "Politic Society" ', p, 190.

49. Laws III, xi, 8.

50. Laws III, xi, 8.

51. The Ordination of Women, Circumstances and Origin of the Declaration Women and the Priesthood (Catholic Truth Society, Do. 494; London), p. 4.

52. Women and the Priesthood, pp. 5-6.

53. Indeed in one place the Commentary leaves wholly ambiguous whether or not the proposition of St Thomas Aquinas that mulier est in statu subjectionis is 'scarcely defensible' or the direct (and presumably defensible) exegesis of the first chapters of Genesis and 1 Timothy 2.12-14.

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