Fr Thomas Plant, Tokyo-based Anglican priest and comparative theologian

Month: June 2012

“Divine Women” – Dr Bettany Hughes on the BBC

I’ve just watched (rather belatedly) the second episode of Dr Bettany Hughes’ BBC series, ‘Divine Women,’ where she talks about the role of women in the early Church. I can only say – don’t be taken in by it! Especially if you are an advocate of women’s ordination to the priesthood, because the patina of half-truths, omissions and outright fabrications that Dr Hughes presents will only discredit your position. It all sounds so credible, and I’d love to believe it – but sadly, it simply is not.

Even before we get to the detail, the very presentation of the programme shows that Dr Hughes is on a PR exercise designed to pull the wool over viewers’ eyes. Once in a while, I’m sure, the Beeb does still manage to present unbiased, critically balanced documentaries, but this is not one of them. Leaving aside the doom-laden music used whenever anything Hughes deems ‘anti-women’ comes up, or the looks of smug condescension she gives to interviewees she disagrees with, there is a clear bias in the editing of her interviews. She interviews a straw woman of a Roman Catholic academic whose arguments are tossed away with the raise of Dr Hughes’ well-plucked eyebrow; and when the Roman Catholic priest she interviews tells her no more than that women enjoyed prestige and influence in the early Church, Dr Hughes implies that he is suggesting that women were ordained to the priesthood and episcopate. Fr Scott may think such things, but he never said or even implied them – yet this did not stop Dr Hughes from misrepresenting him to her own ends.

It is not only people, but simply matters of fact that Hughes misrepresents, all the while declaring herself an ‘historian.’ In some cases, she even contradicts herself. She bewails the fact that there are no images of women in vestments after the first couple of centuries of the Church, and then shows us the famous image of ‘Episcopa Theodora’ to suggest that women were ordained bishop. She neglects to mention, however, that the image dates to the ninth century, by which time there is absolutely no evidence that women were ordained to any order. Nor does she mention that it was common in those days for a bishop’s wife or even mother to be known as ‘Episcopa.’

On one occasion, she finds an early mosaic of a woman wearing a vestment which she claims is an alb, saying that this vestment was worn only by priests. First, this is not true: other orders also wore albs (and lay servers wear them to this day). Second, the ‘alb’ looks more like a dalmatic, the vestment of a deacon, anyway. The history of these garments is notoriously vague. Certainly, in this and other images, women are clearly adopting positions of influence in the Church, and often seem to be preaching. Yet there is no evidence whatsoever of a woman celebrating the Eucharist. Why do you suppose Dr Hughes fails to mention this?

Her treatment of the apocryphal ‘Acts of Paul and Thecla’ is particularly frustrating. She makes out that this book was left out of the canon of scripture because of later bishops’ misogyny. In fact, it was left out because it was written considerably later than the canonical scriptures and relates to a presbyter called Paul, active around the mid second-century, who had nothing to do with the Apostle Paul. In this case Dr Hughes is dishonest by omission. As far as the viewer is left aware, her (minority) view is the only one.

There are plenty of good arguments for women to be ordained priest and bishop, but Dr Hughes’ montage of half-truths, seductively draped with emotive music and conspiratorial sub-Dan Brown cliffhangers only detracts from them. Dr Hughes presents convenient fringe views as the scholarly consensus, and the joint imprimatur of the BBC and the letters after her name will lead viewers to assume that her view is authoritative. Both she and the BBC owe it to their viewers to exercise far more balance and discretion. History should not be a tool of propaganda, even for a position one agrees with.

As one (no doubt heavily edited) interviewee said, ‘the Church knows her history.’ It is a shame that Dr Hughes either does not, or chooses for convenience to ignore it – and a greater shame on the BBC for airing such blatant propaganda.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

On the Jubilee

“Can reeds flourish where there is no water?,” Bildad asks Job. To which the answer is ‘Yes,’ if God wills it so: for Him, all things are possible. But the answer expected of Job is ‘No,’ and the answer for us, almost all the time, is ‘No.’ Reeds cannot flourish where there is no water.

For while God can transgress the natural order working miracles and wonders to make whatever He wishes so, by and large He does not. His work is done not in spite of, but through His creation, through the imperfect agents of the material world according to the nature that He has given them.

Jesus broke many natural laws and condemned time-hallowed institutions. But the principle of the Incarnation is not to destroy the natural order, not to replace created humanity with perfect divinity, but to fulfil that order: grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it. Jesus told us to call no-one ‘teacher,’ because He was our only teacher; to call no man ‘father,’ because we have one Father in Heaven. Yet we have earthly fathers, and earthly teachers, too. They are not our perfect Father or teacher, who is God, but aspire to His parenthood, his wisdom, of which they are analogues and foreshadowings.

Likewise, we Christians have only one true King, who is Christ. But it is not for nothing that the Gospels stress Jesus’ mortal line in the Royal House of David. It is not for nothing that every king in the line of David was chosen by God and anointed by His priests to rule His people. Nor is it a coincidence that our own monarchs in this land for at least 1000 years have been consecrated by the Church to reign according to those very rites described in Hebrew Scripture.

In God, we have one Father, one teacher, one priest – one King: but until His Kingdom come, we are blessed with a ruler raised from birth to guide His people: a ruler not chosen by people, not swayed by promises of wealth or power, not answerable to vested interests, but to God alone. A ruler who can swear, as our Queen did on her enthronement 60 years ago, not just to the people but to God, too: ‘I declare before you that my whole life, be it long or short, shall be devoted to your service.’

For it is God, not the people, who saves the Queen; it is by the line of birth and chance of nature, not human election, that she is chosen to serve us; and it is by God’s wisdom, not popular whim, that she is covenanted to guide us, one earthly Church and one earthly nation, towards the Kingdom that will never end.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

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