General Synod: Speech in Take Note debate on the theology of Women in the Episcopate
Wednesday 16th February 2005A contribution by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams.
I wish to go back very briefly to an argument raised earlier in the discussion to do with symbolism – a point made both by Father Baker and Bishop Geoffrey Rowell. I have a huge amount of sympathy with the idea that we are becoming a symbolically illiterate society and that we don't know any longer what it is to live in a symbolically framed life, such as, what was called by the last speaker, the Great Tradition sets before us. But before we assume that this argument settles the matter, there is perhaps one consideration that ought to weigh with us.
In scripture we are told that every fatherhood is named from God the father and not the other way round. That is to say we are told that when Christians speak of God as father they are not speaking of God as a supreme instance of something we are all familiar with. They are speaking of a fatherhood whose definition is given in and through the telling of the story of the incarnate Son's relation with the one to whom he prays as 'Abba Father'. And that I think at the very least should unsettle slightly our assumption that deep issues about trinitarian doctrine, about the priority and irreversibility of the language of Father Son and Spirit in our theology are involved in this particular question in relation to a bishop's fatherly role.
I think that the bible does unsettle some of our assumptions in this area and I take some confirmation for that view from that the fact that St Paul so readily slips when speaking of the apostolic function between 'fatherly' and 'motherly' imagery. He is not only the father to his children in the churches to which he writes, he is also one who seeks to bring them to birth. If that is part of how we understand the apostolic function and if we can relate that to the sense that speaking of the fatherhood of God is not, as I say, just speaking of a supreme instance of what is around in our world, in our culture, even in our biology, I think the question is much more open.
And I want to suggest very tentatively that it may be that if we simply rely on that argument of symbolism as presented, we may, paradoxically, find ourselves in another kind of cultural captivity - defining God's fatherhood from what we understand biologically and culturally of human fatherhood, rather than the other way round.
© Rowan Williams 2005