3. Burden of Proof and the Status Quo
Sunday, November 13, 2011
New Church Perspective in Brian Smith, Kristin Coffin, doctrine, male vs. female, ministry, ordination, organized, religion, sexism

Brian Smith and Kristin Coffin offer a dialogue-style collaborative piece dealing with five subtopics as follows:

  1. The ramifications of an all-male priesthood.
  2. Systemic sexism in the Church.
  3. The burden of proof and the status quo.
  4. Doctrinal arguments.
  5. The role and purpose of the clergy.

This is the fourth piece in the series: Women as Ordained Priests (or Not). -Editor.

Kristin, speaking on the burden of proof

I’ve heard several people voice the following in the last few years: given the gravity of the consequences, if the General Church persists to exclude women from its spiritual leadership, there had better be very good reasons for doing so. Both sides of the debate tend to agree that our best understanding of doctrine needs to come before any consideration of convenience or natural pragmatism. In other words, if the Doctrines were clear that women ought to be excluded from the ministry, then all these other ramifications would be irrelevant in light of that fact. But, I find that no such clarity exists in the Writings. When I search them for information on this subject, I find instead a mess of grey area.

Currently, the all-male priesthood is the General Church’s default position. But it is a derivation, a construct, an interpretation of doctrine; Swedenborg himself does not prescribe one way or the other. Those of us who want a change have been told that we must find a way to prove, from doctrine, that this derived doctrine is false. I want to challenge its proponents to prove that it is true in the first place. I’m suggesting that the default position ought to be one of inclusion, and that the burden of proof actually lies with those who wish to exclude women from the ministry, and not the other way around. Because the consequences of exclusion are so horrific, in my view, there had better be very good reasons to justify them.

I really believe that every doctrinal argument against the ordination of women falls within the realm of grey area at best. In fact, I believe that the strongest support for an all-male priesthood takes root in socially trained gender roles, and cultural norms, and not in innate truth. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy; a confirmation bias. The arguments do not come from Doctrine itself. I believe an honest reading of the Doctrines yields an “inconclusive” on the topic of women in the priesthood, since Swedenborg doesn’t directly address it. And I don’t think that any amount of study or thought can change an “inconclusive” into a definite negative. So I assume that no exclusion should be made based on inconclusive results. Since our society has moved in general towards inclusion and equality, the choice of exclusion stands out like a sore thumb. On the other hand, if you read the Writings and feel that they conclusively, directly, and irrevocably bar women from the priesthood, then it makes sense to go ahead and bar them. (I honestly don’t see how this position is logically defensible.) But, if you form your conclusion by interpretation and derivation, then exclusion seems unjustified.

Brian, in response to the burden of proof

I’m very sympathetic to the argument you raise here, because there is not a definitive, legalistic statement in the Writings which bars women from ordination.

You suggest that in the absence of such a definitive statement in the sacred texts we must assume that the text offers no conclusive answer to this question. Furthermore, you suggest that, without a conclusive answer, we must err on the side our cultural sensibilities about inclusion and equality, with the result that our default is to include both genders.

People will disagree with you on both these points. Some readers feel that there is a “conclusive” answer to this question (even though the subject is not explicitly addressed in legal language.) And there are also readers who feel that even without a “conclusive” answer to the question, we ought to go with our best reading of indirect statements to arrive at an answer for an organizational policy.

I don’t see a higher ground on this issue, I think both claims are valid. I sympathize with your desire that the burden of proof be put on the other side of the argument, but I can’t see a compelling, objective argument for why this must be the case. Just because you view this issue to be “a mess of grey area” does not mean that people who see it otherwise, and have tried to faithfully present their doctrinal reasons, are necessarily motivated or blinded by bigotry and sexism.

Kristin Coffin

Kristin lives in Austin, TX, working as an assistant for the newly planted New Way Church. She grew up in Bryn Athyn, and studied religion at the college there. Kristin has great affection for Swedenborgian teachings and the General Church, and hopes to see it move in more progressive directions in the coming years.

Brian Smith

Brian continues to thrive in his marriage to Janine. He loves his growing son Kai and new daughter Adelaide. He tries to minister in Toronto, Canada where they live. He is trained and employed to study sacred scripture with the purpose of empowering people in their desire to live well. Brian enjoys complaining, reading, writing and dreaming of what could be.
Article originally appeared on New Church Perspective (http://www.newchurchperspective.com/).
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