Monday, June 29, 2009

VII The Seven Devils of Women's Ordination, or, She Who Lie Down With Dogs Catch Fleas


Fundamental prayer is simple with the simplicity of convergence; so is liturgy: Christ presides in the midst of the assembly, his Body, when two or three are gathered together. It is in his presence that the liturgy is celebrated. The self-effacement of all concerned, the degree to which liturgical action effaces itself, gestures towards a present union with Christ in the eternal liturgy.

For a church that has a reputation for splendid liturgy, the Church of England’s Alternative Service Book was a rude shock. Banal and prolix, especially limp, verbose and distracting at the climax of the Eucharist, the Fraction, [26] whose significance is lost, it is like the proverbial camel designed by a committee, one that could have been produced only by a clericalised hierarchical system.

We need good liturgy. We need many different kinds of liturgies. We need liturgies that are simple and silent, and liturgies that are splendid with all the stops pulled out, but which also are full of silence (we do not, however, need the clericalism that usually is the price of such liturgies). It doesn’t matter which way the celebrant faces; it doesn’t matter which way the people face.

What matters is that the words and signs efface themselves so that the worshipper is conveyed into the ineffable where both individual and neighbour, solitude and communion are found in union in God. [27] All useful sacred signs efface themselves, even the Eucharist itself: at the Fraction, the Bread is held up and broken to reveal the emptiness that lies between its two halves, the ineffable from which fullness of life is returned. This gesture recalls the holy of holies, the empty tomb, and mirrors the dynamic by which humans pray, the grace of self-forgetfulness by which they become transfigured, the relinquishing of thoughts and self-concern into silence, and the emergence of new life from that Silence. The Fraction is visceral action: God gives himself into our hands and our lives to be broken. [28]

What matters is that entertainment and performance are not mistaken for worship; too much importance is focused on celebrants. In the liturgy, Christ is giving Christ to Himself. Instead of pointing to themselves, celebrants need to know how to efface themselves in order to point to the Christ whose self-effacing presence is made manifest. And the priestly charism (rarely found amongst the ordained, in my experience) is, once again, to plunge into God’s self-outpouring, the willingness to ‘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....this willing is something that God does or is in us.’ It is the ability in some way to express and/or manifest for others what they are unable to, while simultaneously disappearing. [29] To disappear even as the manifestation is given, which allows it to bypass the discursive mind, to plunge into and enhance the self-outpouring of the worshipping heart. In this the celebrant becomes both sacrifice (self-effacement) and priest (taking on the burden of others’ self-consciousness in order to help them express their pain/joy), and this gift comes only to, and through, the poor-pure in heart.

This means that in any given situation the same person may not be the person to preside at the Eucharist on all occasions because no one is consistently pure-poor in heart, and no one person can be inspired with the appropriate expression for every situation. This means that if the community has to discern who is the appropriate person to preside at the Eucharist on any particular occasion, its members will be required to listen to each other in a different way: each becomes a potential God-bearer for the group. The priestly charism cannot be taught; it is a gift. It can be faked, but it will turn on, and eventually destroy the faker.

One senses at least two motives behind the doctrine of ex opere: a profound exasperation that attempts to shut its eyes and bypass the problem, retreating into God’s inviolable mercy, and an invitation to license by abstracting, fragmenting and compartmentalising incarnational theology. ‘Ex opere fails to take into consideration the profound impact of psychological signals vital to the transformational context of the liturgy.' [30] While the operation of grace in itself may be unaffected in a purely abstract, artificial and disincarnate world, the ability to receive grace, which is always co-operative, may be profoundly impaired, especially by invasive, unspoken signals coming from a self-serving celebrant, given that the liturgy dissolves distinctions between outside and inside, thus bringing the context of the liturgy within the worshipper. Grace is inherently relational .


[26] The wordless gestures of the Fraction rite sum up the entire liturgy, providing a potentially fathomless resource for meditation and for study for liturgical renewal. It sends the message that there is no union without sacrifice, no unity except through our acknowledged brokenness, for pain and otherness is what humans have most in common. ECUSA’s prayer book has possibly the best extant Fraction rite, surrounded by silence. The Host is held up and broken, the two halves held widely apart for all to see, the words, ‘Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us’ are spoken, to which the response is, ‘Therefore let us keep the feast.’ This liturgical introduction in the 1979 Prayer Book won immediate and virtually universal acceptance.

[27] Cf., Anthony Bloom in Courage to Pray, London: DLT, 1973.

[28] Because sacred signs efface themselves, clumsy and theologically questionable inclusive language is often more opaque, more of a barrier to God than a help, because it refocuses the attention of the worshippers on themselves. While it is salutary to get rid of phrases such as ‘us men’ and ‘all men’ and language about abhorring wombs, to say in the context of the Eucharist ‘our brother Jesus’ as opposed to ‘our Lord Jesus Christ’ (to cite only one example) is mistaken, in part because our focus is on the historical Christ, not on the historical Jesus (the ‘humanity of Christ’ is only peripherally related to the historical Jesus). See Elizabeth A. Johnson’s She Who Is, New York: Crossroad, 1993, p. 73. Such language also misses the point that the word ‘Lord’ is not about hierarchy but a signifier for transcendence. More profoundly, such a change destroys the paradoxes necessary to contemplative prayer, i.e., the Lord who becomes a servant; the God who becomes a human being; divinity that is epitomised in lowliness; and, if one requires a feminist twist, the paradox of a prodigally generous, self-outpouring, selfless God indicated by a male signifier. Further, to change ‘Bridegroom’ to ‘friend’ (e.g., in the Advent hymn, ‘Wachet auf’) obliterates the use and transfiguration of eros which is essential to prayer. There are very good psycho-spiritual reasons that mystical language is often profoundly erotic; prayer involves the entire being and eros or ‘sexuality’ is the animator of intention. See ‘The Apophatic Image: The Poetics of Effacement in Julian of Norwich’ by V. Gillespie and M. Ross, The Medieval Mystical Tradition in England V, ed. Marion Glasscoe, Cambridge: D.S. Brewer; and my ‘Sexuality, Otherness and the Truth of the Self’ Vox Benedictina, Winter, 1993; and ‘Apophatic Prayer as a Theological Model’, cited above.

[29] See Paul Bradshaw, Liturgical Presidency in the Early Church, Grove Books, 1983, also quoted in my Pillars of Flame: Power, Priesthood and Spiritual Maturity, London: SCM, 1988 p. 35.

[30] Pillars, p. 24.


Anonymous dFish said...

"at the Fraction, the Bread is held up and broken to reveal the emptiness that lies between its two halves, the ineffable from which fullness of life is returned.


On self-effacement: it's those part of the liturgy i abhor when all "male celebrants, and not presiders, are introduced one by one, their mission stations, their seminary classmates, their dissertations. It's so tabloid showbiz distraction...

2:47 am, June 30, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said... is very informative. The article is very professionally written. I enjoy reading every day.

4:19 am, November 12, 2009  

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