Monday, January 28, 2008

IX Nonne: Are Feminists Asking the Wrong Questions?

The ordination of women: supposedly this is a triumph of feminist theology, and as such it is perhaps instructive. I remember a polite disagreement I had with Jane Williams over the interpretation of Ursula le Guin’s Tehanu. It’s a pity, said Jane, that women can’t be mages. From my point of view (later confirmed by the author) this was entirely beside the point when women have kinship with dragons and can look them in the eye, which mages can’t. Why be an acolyte to substance when you are substance itself? But for Jane, the issue seemed to be only whether women could be mages or not. In other words, priests or not. But if by grace you already live at the heart of the Eucharist, why be so bent on stepping back to go through the motions? Why retreat from the implicate to the ephemeral, from multi-dimensionality into linearity?

The evils that plague theology have a reciprocal relationship with the pathology called clericalism, which infects every aspect of life related to religion and theology. Clericalism (as distinct from people) is a kind of contagious sickness. It is inherent in a hierarchical system. It infects clergy without distinction of gender and without their knowing it. It sets them apart as a class, which is a very different matter from the setting-apart of holiness that is the interior solitude of each human being, from which true community is born. Clericalism is inherently destructive, both to the person who is already infected and to those affected by it, and who are therefore in turn often infected; it perpetuates the classic co-dependent cycle and its denial.

It is denial that makes clericalism intrinsically abusive to others. It gives the impression of sacramentalising the seven devils, the seven Ps: Power, Pretension, Presumption, Pomposity, Privilege, Preferment and Patronage. Clericalism is doubly destructive in that it reinforces the abuse people have received from an increasingly violent culture and bring to the Eucharist to be healed. Clericalism traps them in the depressive self-consciousness that is one of the most subtle and pernicious effects of any sort of abuse, and is the opposite of the freedom from the tyranny of self-consciousness that is called ‘salvation’.

Clericalism is a collusion among those who deliberately choose to be deaf and blind especially to themselves (Jn. 9). It arises from a need to hide: to hide from oneself, to hide from other people. The need to hide is itself pathological. Clericalism creates a Dives and Lazarus abyss. There is no way to cross it. Even supposedly well-intentioned groups such as Affirming Catholicism ‘forgot’ (I quote two of the organisers) to invite the laity to its initial meeting, and seems merely to be a yet another mask behind which the old evils hide themselves.

Sometimes clericalism takes the form of clergy creating problems or eliciting them from people so that they, the clergy, will have someone to ‘help’ and can thereby feed their egos on another’s suffering. Sometimes clericalism, especially when it is linked to sexual problems, takes the form of excessive devotion to Mary (and consequent hatred of flesh-and-blood women). Heinrich Institoris, ‘earned much commendation for popularising the rosary’ and with his co-author of the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’, was a ‘fervent venerator of the Virgin Mary.’

Sometimes sexual problems are expressed in excessive, even compulsive, concern with ritual. The variations are endless, and please note, again, that clericalism infects people irrespective of sex or gender or status in the hierarchy. Laypeople can often be more clericalised than clerics.

Clericalism like other forms of addiction always needs a bigger fix. Witness the history of clerical orders in the church. Witness the ecumenical dialogue when it is conducted at the official level, where the ego stakes and perks are highest, dialogue that accepts by unspoken convention claims that appear to have little foundation in fact for which there is scholarly evidence, but have every foundation in ego-decoration.

The problem is that clericalism creates a classic spiral: when the abused take power, they become the abusers. In a society where women are held in contempt by men, they cannot help but have contempt for each other. When they have had all the ground on which they stand taken from them, they will try to take from each other the little scrap another has in order to have the illusion of a slightly surer footing. And when the women take power, they have the same potential for abuse of others as men. The men, of course, often say they have been abused by women.

Once again I want to ask the question I asked at the beginning of this paper: Why are we continuing to assent to degraded theology? Why are we ordaining women into this bankrupt system?

This is the question, along with those of sex and power, which, unacknowledged, prolonged the acrimonious debate in the Church of England. There were others, unaddressed; for example, that the church never has been, and never will be, coterminous with the institution. These days they hardly relate at all. There is an unbridgeable abyss between them that only Christ can cross, and Christ can do so only if both sides are receptive and responsive; the clericus seems not to be. Both sides are composed of people, but the other is made up of people who seek the peace of Christ and try to listen to something other than the ceaseless ranting of their own egos. Christianity will survive even if, or perhaps because of, the demise of present institutional systems.

'If all of this sounds extreme, listen to The Rev’d Dr. John Pobee, a West African Anglican addressing the Joint Meeting of the Primates of the Anglican Communion and the Anglican Consultative Council in Capetown, January, 1993:

We must explore such Anglican spirituality as there is in the light of the new geographical-cultural configuration of the Communion. But it must also be sensitive to the spiritual challenges of our day. Spirituality is more than prayer and worship, important as they are; it is, as well, obedience to the will of God in bread-and-butter issues; it is, as well, vulnerability. Any church that is preoccupied with its self-preservation will die.'

With the descent into linearity and its attendant failure of vision has come the failure of discernment. While many women seeking ordination are driven by unintegrated passions, by the motive of the seven Ps, others, now ordained deacon, or considering ordination, are distinctly uncomfortable with the system into which they are being forced, particularly since the 1993 Synod, quite rightly suspecting, though they may not be able to articulate it, that they are making a Faustian covenant.

These women realise that the freedom of Christ’s promises has been turned on its head to become rigid categorisation and conformity, the creatures of class and status. Some are aware, quite conscious, even, that theirs is a vocation to behold, and to communicate ‘beholding’, but since the church has no use for contemplation and will not support it no matter how piously it rabbits on about ‘prayer’, they perceive that only way for them physically to survive is to become ordained. People who follow such a vision, who are compelled to follow it by the self-emptying mind of Christ, do not do well in the cut and thrust of the churches of post-Thatcherite Britain or post-Reagan America. What these women who have chosen the clergy option out of despair do not realise is, that unless they are exceptionally lucky, the clergy club and the laity who act as its minions, will eat them for breakfast.

It does not take a theologian (many theologians would be the last to be able to perceive them) to see that these observations and the concrete situation in the Church of England (as opposed to its public pronouncements) are almost completely at odds. It almost seems as if we have entered the phase of life in an organism where the body is killed and only the sickness, which has destroyed it, remains, having, in the process, condemned itself. Similarly, organisations have a terminal phase in which those who are less healthy and more oblivious obtain control and drive the more healthy and visionary away.

This situation does not bode well, and from what I have seen in America as well as Britain, the women being ordained are becoming even more clericalised than the men, perhaps because they are the new kids on the block and less secure, like any convert, over-zealous and anxious to toe the party line. At the same time, they are distinctly uncomfortable, often bearing a deep and undifferentiated unease, a sense that they are betraying something. How, under these circumstances, women propose to turn the tide I do not know and I do not think they know, either. Certainly the faces on television in November, 1992, were not encouraging, nor has been the experience of women deacons. But for an American, this is old news: ECUSA has become arguably one of the most clericalised churches on earth.

In the light of these observations, the contradictions (not paradoxes) inherent in the present situation are untenable. Here are a few more:

— In Christ, both sacrifice (self-emptying) and priest (the will and gift to manifest this self-emptying) are indistinguishable. Why then do we create a duality?

— This sacrifice is made in the solitude of every human heart, and the body is the altar on which the Eucharist of each human life is made. Why then do we continue to allow the exaltation of one group of human beings to the denigration of others? What has happened to wonder, awe, reverence, before the unique mystery of each human person in whom God dwells in Christ by the Spirit? and by extension, before the unique mystery of creation?

—The purpose of Christian life is to realise our inherent gift of participation in God by becoming other Christs. Why do we imply that the ordained are more ‘Christ’ than the non-ordained?

—The Holy Spirit blows where she will,—I use the Semitic pronoun—bestowing her charisms on the just and unjust, but she unfailingly bestows grace through those who humbly wait on her, who, in attentive receptivity, are emptied of their self-preoccupation and drawn, in Christ, to the Father.

—Christ refused the temptation in the desert, and continued to refuse throughout his life, to lay claim, to grasp, equality with God (Phil. 2,5-11). The Eucharist is the sacrament of his life. Why then do clerics and would-be clerics presume to ‘claim’ the Eucharist? Eucharistic celebration is not a ‘right’, nor a ‘call’, nor an ‘exercise of power’, nor cause for preferment. The laws of life in Christ operate on the principle of ungrasping and the principle that humility is divinity, which has its corollary in the law of the paradox of intention, the fundamental law of prayer. It is the life of one who is the most humble servant of all.

The foregoing leads to some inexorable conclusions, the most obvious being that we need to de-institutionalise the clergy. This is not the occasion on which to develop this theme, but beyond what has been suggested earlier, the question needs to be asked what feminist theologians and women in general can do to turn the situation around.

Phil. 2, 5-11 and Heb. 2, 15 offer key hermeneutical tools for unlocking the essence of both the theological and religious enterprise, for they are at the very least accurate metaphorical descriptions of the empirical laws by which the human psyche operates in relation to God in both men and women. The suspension of the grasping self-consciousness and freedom from the fear of death are absolutely central to creative human endeavour of whatever kind.

Theologians, feminist or otherwise, need to stop doing theology in reaction with an eye to reaction and be courageous enough to take an independent line, no matter what the price. This requires freedom from the fear of death in all its forms. For women this additionally means willingness to face the threat of physical violence and coercion that are all too familiar and do not need to be detailed here. For men, who tend to feel that the world is out of control if a woman thinks differently, freedom from the fear of death means not feeling castrated or threatened when women oppose them or propose an alternative methodology.

How are these goals accomplished? In stillness, through beholding. To change something, writes a contemporary Carthusian, and it is clear that the need for change is undeniable, ‘you must first will it, or rather will God in it.’

'The willing of what is, is, at once, utterly simple, yet very mysterious...of the order of intuition and practice. One would perhaps go a step further and speak of willing God in a situation, rather than the situation with God. One would quit oneself as initiator and base of attitude and act and plunge into the act by which God wills and creates what is, in willing Himself. By willing God, in this concrete context, we will al that is, not as we perceive it to be, but as God wills it to be and how he wills it to be in the mystery of his wisdom and love...To which must be added that this willing is something that God does or is in us....

'The life of prayer entails going beyond without end, a refusal to rest content, a thirst for the infinite that shatters the pious, safe idols we are endlessly making one after another. This is the desert.

'It is possible to live for years... occupied solely with the things of God, without even passing the threshold..., for want of leaving an infantile world people with images, ‘spiritual’ pleasures, and words without end. An entire world that reflects only the multiple facets of our own self and our unconscious desires. It is this self that one risks adoring, and not God. We need images, sensibility, concepts, but we must know how to go beyond, to leave the surface to plunge into the silence of faith, the humility of solitude, the boundless infinity of Love.'

Abba Poemen asked Abba Macarius, weeping, ‘Give me a word that I may be saved.’ But the old man replied, ‘What you are looking for has disappeared now from among us.’


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