Eric Mascall and the ordination of women

I am now happily in a position to share the full text of an article due for publication in the summer of 2023, in Studies in Church History.

It is entitled ‘E. L. Mascall and the Anglican opposition to the ordination of women as priests, 1954–78’.

The article examines the grounds on which the Anglican philosopher and theologian Eric Mascall opposed the ordination of women, in a series of influential publications from the 1950s to the 1970s.

It examines their basis in Mascall’s understanding of the church, the Incarnation and the ontological status of the sexes. In view of the counter-cultural emphasis that Christ had put on the equality of men and women otherwise, Mascall argued, it was not accidental that Christ was incarnated male, and that all the apostles were men. Within the Church, the very manifestation of Christ’s body on earth, the clergy did not act merely as representatives, or even as agents, but as ‘the very organs through whom [Christ] himself acts’; there was an ‘essential identity’ between Christ’s personal ministry on earth and that which he now exercised in the church. As such, it was ‘highly congruous that the manhood through which he acts is male as he is male’. Even more starkly, Mascall argued that this was not a matter of symbolic congruity alone. Beneath all the racial, temperamental and cultural differentiations of human beings, there was not, for Mascall, a single human nature, common to male and female but sexless in nature. At the most fundamental ontological level, there was no essential human being, only men and women. ‘Christ exercises his priesthood in the Church through human beings who possess human nature in the same sexual mode in which he possesses it.’ A women priest was not undesirable, or merely symbolically incongruous; she was impossible.

The article also sets these theological objections in the context of the particular atmosphere of the Anglo-Catholicism of the period, convulsed by ecumenical advance at the Second Vatican Council and (as Anglo-Catholics understood it) the danger of moves towards the Protestant denominations in England. Just as the Anglican Communion approached a point of decision about the ordination of women, Mascall was fighting to fend off what he saw as a misconceived scheme to unite Anglicans and Methodists in England. At the same time, ecumenical prospects both with Roman Catholics and Orthodox seemed brighter than ever before, which the ordination of women threatened to derail. Whilst Mascall allowed that women priests might one day be embraced by the worldwide church, together, the peculiar atmosphere of the period seemed to make it the least auspicious time to make what would be a unilateral and far-reaching decision.

The article also situates Mascall’s interventions in a wider realignment of conservatives within the Church of England, away from older party divisions between evangelical and catholic towards a new divide between conservative and liberal. In Mascall’s words, the most salient division within the church was becoming one between “those who believe in the fundamentally revealed and given character of the Christian religion and those who find their norms in the outlooks and assumptions of contemporary secularised culture and are concerned to assimilate the beliefs and institutions of Christianity to it”.

Download the full article (PDF, 6000 words).

(For the avoidance of doubt, for my own part I don’t agree with Mascall on this issue; for all their sophistication, and the clarity with which they are expressed, I just don’t feel the force of his arguments. But (as I explain) the opponents of the ordination of women have so far either been overlooked or (to a degree) caricatured in the historical literature so far, and I hope this article goes some way to putting that right.)

For more on my ongoing project on the life and work of Eric Mascall, see the project page.

New podcast: Eric Mascall and the purpose of the theologian

A couple of weeks ago, I was a guest on the Holy C. of E. podcast, talking about the work of Eric Mascall. It is available to listen to on Apple Podcasts, or below.

There’s nothing like an unscripted conversation to expose all of one’s verbal tics. But, in between all the ‘kind of’s and ‘in a sense’s, there’s Mascall, metaphysics, anthropology, ecclesiology, demythologization, the universities, and the theological colleges. Alternatively (if that all sounds a bit much), it’s about what theology should be about, who it is supposed to serve, and why Mascall thought his contemporaries had got it wrong.

It is based on this recent article of mine on Mascall.

For more information on my ongoing project on Mascall, see here.

Iris and the Christians: what did the British churches make of Murdoch, 1954 – c1983

The audio recording of a public lecture given at the University of Chichester on 19th February 2022, as part of a study day at the Iris Murdoch Research Centre. My thanks are due to Miles Leeson for the invitation, and to the audience for a very engaged and stimulating discussion afterwards.

(52 minutes.)

I examine Christian reactions to Murdoch’s work in three areas: her strictly philosophical work on metaphysics and ethics, and her novels. I explore the remarkable closeness of Murdoch’s distinctive preoccupations to those of British theologians in the period. However, her position outside the usual circles of Christian discourse made it difficult for her to be heard and, when she was, her fundamentally atheistic position made her philosophical work hard to digest. The final third of the paper then looks at Christian readings of her novels, in which readers found much more congenial material with which to engage.

Authors discussed include: (among the theologians) Don Cupitt, Colin Gunton, Eric Mascall, Alasdair Macintyre, John A.T. Robinson, Keith Ward; among the critics: Bernard Bergonzi, Ruth Etchells, David Holbrook, Valerie Pitt. In relation to aesthetics, there is some discussion of Walter Hussey, Anglican patron of the arts.

New article: Eric Mascall and the responsibility of the theologian in England, 1962-1977

This article was published in the International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church in 2022. This Open Access version (PDF) is as revised after peer review, but before copy-editing.

Eric Mascall was one of the most prominent and prolific theologians in the Church of England in the post-war period. This article examines a series of polemical works, in which Mascall attempted to assess, and largely reject, several trends in liberal theology in the 1960s and 1970s. Mascall detected a systemic crisis in the whole relationship of theology, theologians and the Church, that reached down to the foundations of human knowledge and radiated out to the parishes, via the universities and theological colleges in which their ministers were formed. The articles examines his view of the relationship of human nature, grace and the eucharistic Church, and its consequences for the theologian. Mascall’s polemics are read, as a group, for what they reveal of his understanding of the responsibility of the theologian, and how far his liberal interlocutors had, he believed, lost sight of the true shape of their vocation.

The version of record is available at https://doi.org/10.1080/1474225X.2022.2014243