Christ’s Authority – Our Authority: 20 years of Women’s Ordination as Priests

The following is the text of an address given on 2nd June 2014 by The Revd Lis Goddard, Chair of AWESOME, at the celebration of 20 years of women's ordination as priests in Derby Diocese.

I wonder whether you have ever thought about the nature of the authority you wield as a minister of the Gospel – as a priest and deacon in the church of God?

I am guessing that you maybe did some reflection on it at theological college. I know that we did some with our students at Wycliffe, helping them to think through the dynamics between authority, power and abuse and what it means to lead well.

Today I want to just reflect with you a bit about what it means for us to lead as those who are called to follow Christ – to take up His authority, the authority of  the pre-existent, self-giving, self-emptying Son became man, the authority which he demonstrated in his incarnate being and the authority which was supremely given to him by the Father at the resurrection and ascension, the authority with which he sends us out into the world to make disciples.  The authority in which we live and without which we are nothing.

The brief I was given was to look a bit at how we receive and exercise authority, particularly in the light of what we hope will be the forthcoming ordination of the first women in the Church of England to the episcopate.

To do that I want to begin in what may feel like a slightly odd place – with the diaconate. I am guessing that we will all remember our ordination to the diaconate. For some of us here it won’t have been that long ago.  I know that mine was perhaps one of the most powerful days of my life.  I just want to remind us of the words at the beginning of the service for the ordination of deacons:

Deacons are ordained so that the people of God may be better equipped to make Christ known. Theirs is a life of visible self-giving. Christ is the pattern of their calling and their commission; as he washed the feet of his disciples, so they must wash the feet of others.

Powerful words – Christ is the pattern of their calling and their commission.  I don’t know how often you think about your diaconal vocation, your diaconal ordination, but that is I believe where we need to start in thinking about authority within the church.

No matter what further ordinations any of us may be called to – and I am guessing that the majority of us here today will have been called to ordination to the priesthood – or the presbyterate (whichever we prefer to call it) – we will always remain deacons and I would venture to suggest that that is in many ways the highest calling.  Not because it is the most powerful, or most high profile, but because it is the calling which is most closely aligned with Christ’s call to us in the way we are to live and exercise authority.

Please don’t misunderstand me.  I am not in any way saying by this that the sacraments and the teaching of the Word are not important. As an evangelical I would hardly say that.  Nor indeed am I saying that the establishment of order and right doctrine is unimportant. All of these are vital for the Church to thrive and grow and for the people of God to partner with Him in building His Kingdom on earth. But –and there is, in true Pauline fashion, an important but – what I am talking about here is how we do those things: how we lead God’s people, how we teach, how we minister the sacraments, how we take up the office of bishop in a church where there are those who do not recognise our orders, where there are those who have said things that would have been better unsaid.  In essence - how do we exercise authority after the pattern of Christ in a way that honours Him and His body the Church?

The more I have reflected upon this, the more I have come back to the diaconate and the pattern of Christ. Again this is not to say that the other orders are not patterned upon Christ, but there is something very profound about the patterning and calling of the diaconate which I would like to spend some time unpacking today.

I am assuming that everyone here is familiar with the phenomenal hymn in Philippians 2.  It is this passage which above every other one gives us an insight into what authority looks like in scripture. What does it mean to be God?  What does it mean for God to give authority and why does He give it?

When thinking about authority – about the authority which we are called to take up - we have to start with the authority of God.  This is because without it we have nothing. Just as without the resurrection we are of all people the most to be pitied, our authority is not based in our position in society, or the size of our congregation, or the political power we wield.  Our authority is based solely upon the authority of God – and that has all sorts of implications…

So, first of all, we discover that, in the words of Oliver O’Donovan,

the authority of God is not incommunicable, interior and removed from public view, but it is [firmly] located in the public realm in an event in history which may be told….the public reality of Jesus’ life, death and exaltation (Resurrection and Moral Order p.141)

How often do we believe, or indeed does the world want us to believe, that the authority of God is somehow removed, unknown or unknowable, inscrutable?  That it is therefore best avoided, somehow best compartmentalised, kept in a ‘God-box’ because it can’t really be spoken of, because, honestly it is just too ‘other worldly’?  The witness of the life of Jesus as revealed and witnessed to here in Philippians and elsewhere in the New Testament is that, on the contrary, the authority of God is powerfully revealed in all its glory in history.  It is deeply earthed, if you like, in the life of a man.

But it is more than that because here God reveals something fundamental about his authority. He reveals that for his authority to be true, for the Son to be truly revealed as God, for the Son to be exalted and to receive all honour and glory and to be given “all authority in heaven and earth”, he had to first

make himself nothing

    by taking the very nature of a slave

This is not the sort of authority we are used to in the world.  It is certainly not political authority, or worldly power.  It is definitely not authentein, the usurping of authority which the author of 1 Timothy is writing about in chapter 2.  No, this is an authority of a completely different order.

It is not as if in Jesus’ earthly ministry he had no authority. On the contrary, we know, because the gospel writers are at pains to tell us, that

The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law   (Mark 1:22)

But – and this is vital - this is the Son of God emptied.  This is the Son of God not grasping equality with God.  This is the Son of God “being made in human likeness” “taking the very nature of a slave”.  This is the Son of God demonstrating what it is to be God – speaking with an authority limited by weakness.  This is incredibly profound…

This is the Son of God made man – the Word made flesh – being obedient even to death on a cross.  And this, paradoxically, is where the authority of God is supremely demonstrated – in his total obedience, this is how he is supremely shown to be God:

We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14)

The glory of God, the authority of God are worked out, are truly seen, not in daring deeds, like the deeds of the Greek heroes but on the cross.  There, when evil is defeated, death is destroyed and sins forgiven, the authority of God supremely brings order out of chaos.  Just as it did first at creation, when the Spirit moved over the face of deep and his Word spoke and there was light.  So now his authority brings order out of the chaos wrought by the Fall – and inaugurates the New Creation…. The authority of God explodes, is trumpeted, when death snaps and Jesus bursts from the tomb and is exalted.  When he is given the name above every name – that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father! Amen!

That is amazing stuff isn’t it?  But what does it actually have to do with us and our day-to-day lives and vocations?  Why did I get excited and take you into a little excursion around Christology?

The truth is that unless we have a firm grasp upon that – upon what it meant for Jesus to empty himself, to demonstrate God’s authority by his total obedience, by going to the cross, we can never really understand our calling.  Because at base our calling is cruciform. We are called to “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus”.  We are to be self-emptying, self-giving, totally obedient.

Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

It is not fashionable to talk in these terms among clergy. I have heard many discussions where clergy have said that it is not right to ask for sacrifice.   But at base that is our vocation, quite simply because we are disciples, who are called to take up our cross and follow. And, honestly, because we are called to be those who lead disciples and “a servant is not greater than her master”… And He was obedient to death, even death on a cross.

Later on today we will join together in a service of Holy Communion – something which our Lord gave us in order to keep always before us where he went for us, to help us to remember his death, broken bread, wine out-poured….for us and to point us to the heavenly banquet.  We will each have our own understanding of what happens at communion.  For each of us it will be vital and significant in particular and important ways.

For me there is something very important about the point of fraction – aware as I am of the many broken people who the Lord has given to me to love and to hold and minister his healing grace to.  But more than that I am also deeply aware of His brokenness and the deep brokenness of my ministry.  I have been ordained now for 18 years and they have been years which have encompassed some heartbreaking, devastating pain and loss.  At that point of fraction I know that I have been called to hold the brokenness of the people to their broken Lord – as a priest who has walked the way of the cross…. How much more is that vital for a bishop in a church which is tearing itself apart?

But we are also to be Resurrection-proclaiming and God-glorifying.  Remember that in Philippians 2 v 9 there is one of Paul’s triumphant ‘Therefore’s: Therefore God has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every other name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow…

We are to be resurrection-proclaiming, God- glorifying people who walk in the power and expectation of the Spirit.  People who pray with His authority, in the name of Jesus.  People who know his forgiveness and share it freely with others.

If we are Resurrection-proclaiming then we will be those who are able to grasp a vision and hold it even when surrounded by brokenness, even when others cannot take their eyes off the ground.  Because resurrection-proclaiming people are those who look up.  You have to have looked up to see the risen, ascended Lord.

There will inevitably be times – sometimes more often than we would like - when we find ourselves fixing our eyes on Him when everyone else is looking down at the rubble.  The call of holding onto the authority of Christ – who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame – means there will be times when we will be called to endure it alone, keeping our eyes on him and the resurrection morning which we know is to come.  Called to keep our eyes on him, knowing that the incomparable power that raised Jesus from the dead is at work in and through us….to bring us through good Friday to Easter Sunday.

Resurrection-proclaiming people are those who watch for what God is doing and join in.  They are those who are willing to go with God no matter where, no matter what, because what matters is His glory, before and above all else.

And, vitally, as we receive His call to communicate His cruciform, resurrection-proclaiming authority we will also find that ours is a call like his –

He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him (John 1:11)

We know that reality being called  as women to a church which has struggled to understand – to comprehend (to use John’s language) our call.  We know that, more importantly, as leaders in God’s church speaking his cruciform, resurrection word to his world.  A world which still cannot comprehend it, to which it is too alien.  A world which asks us to change the record if we want to be heard.

If we are to be faithful to the authority of Christ we will be those who continue to walk the way of the cross, who meet rejection with forgiveness, and who take seriously the ministry of reconciliation which is such a vital part of our vocation.

But we will also be those who faithfully speak truth to chaos.  We will be those who challenge our world, where there is such a battle for pre-eminence, with the order of the authority of God made known in the Christ who emptied himself and became nothing.  If we are to be faithful to the authority of Christ we will be those who speak God’s truth to his world.  We will be those who speak his blessing even when we are cursed , who speak his promise of the kingdom, his call and his challenge.  We will be those who faithfully follow his commission to make disciples in response to his resurrection and ascension authority,

And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age'.

We will be those who respond to that authority even if it costs us dearly.

So what of the first female bishops?  What of them? What will it mean for them to take up authority within our church?  Essentially, theirs will be a call even more than the rest of us to walk the way of the cross and to keep their eyes fixed on Jesus the author and perfecter of our faith.

My prayer is that they will remember their first and longest-standing vocation as a deacon.  Not because I want them to be doormats, or to fulfil a ‘traditional’ female role.  Rather because I long that they should follow the call of Christ :

so that the people of God may be better equipped to make Christ known. Theirs is a life of visible self-giving. Christ is the pattern of their calling and their commission; as he washed the feet of his disciples, so they must wash the feet of others.

It is with that as the backdrop, as they faithfully study the scriptures, that they will best be able

to be shepherds of Christ's flock and guardians of the faith of the apostles, proclaiming the gospel of God's kingdom and leading his people in mission.

To be a bishop is never an easy calling.  To be one of the first women bishops will be unenviable in the extreme.  But to be a bishop – male or female - who has forgotten what it is to be a deacon, following in the way of Christ, is the worst of all.

I want to finish with the collect which is used at all our ordination services:

God our Father,

Lord of all the world,

through your Son

you have called us into the fellowship

of your universal Church:

hear our prayer for your faithful people

that in their vocation and ministry

each may be an instrument of your love,

and give to all your servants here ordained

the needful gifts of grace;

through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ,

who is alive and reigns with you,

in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and for ever.


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