Saying No to Women Bishops
Several readers have written to ask if I would comment on the failure of the vote to approve women bishops in the Church of England, and so I will interrupt this series on Why Religious Life Died to do so. Be warned: I am afraid this will be something of a rant.
I will begin by noting that the continuing effect of men's misogyny in the church means that in women's religious communities, women also adopt the same devaluing, misogynist attitude towards each other that men have towards them. It doesn't matter how profoundly or insightfully a sister may speak: until a male ordained person says something similar, no one listens. In fact, quite the reverse: the insightful sister will be persecuted, even scorned. The male, of course, is celebrated as being so original, so helpful, so holy, etc. etc. etc. Religious life of this sort deserves to die.
This mentality is just as rampant in the church at large and in the UK as it is in women's religious communities. The UK is so misogynist that even the men who purport to support the women have no awareness at all of how misogynist they are. There are exceptions, of course, but they are very few. Women in the UK on a daily basis put up with treatment from men that is appalling by any standard, but, in the vicious cycle of abuse, even they don't realise how badly they are treated.
Of all the misogynistic academic disciplines among the humanities, theology is perhaps the worst. The misogyny is inherent. Women's theological work, no matter how original and creative, is regarded as fair game, and male scholars—especially men in high positions who hardly need any more accolades—rip women off all the time, using women's research and even their phraseology without attribution.
The irony is that women also do it to each other. As someone who presents herself as a strong feminist, but who shall remain nameless, said to me after her demonstration lecture at one of the top five universities in the world, 'While I was lecturing I kept thinking about how much I owe you, but of course I couldn't footnote you because you're not fashionable'.
As far as the vote on women bishops goes, what puzzles me is why anyone is surprised that it went the way it did, after the years of GAFCON's stonewalling and intransigence, years when they refused even to pray with the other bishops but went off to party instead. There is nothing of theology in this debacle. It's all about power: about minorities holding the majority hostage; about petulant extremists refusing to play, gleeful for having succeeded in jamming up the works. But it's not just the misogynist minorities who are after power: it's the women themselves.
The women are just as oblivious to the true nature of the problems as the men; just as deaf to anyone not ordained; just as rabid for power; just as devious and manipulative as the men, if not more so, because they have not yet achieved equal power. Again, there are exceptions, but they constitute a tiny fraction of the cohort of ordained women. Doesn't anyone stop to ask what these power struggles have to do with alleviating the desperate spiritual suffering of the laity?
As I noted in my essay 'The Seven Devils of Women's Ordination or She Who Lie Down with Dogs Catch Fleas' (which was published in the book Crossing the Boundary but is also on this blog at ravenwilderness.blogspot.com/2009/05/seven-devils-of-womens-ordination-or.html [many thanks to BR for finding this link]), instead of being a force for changing the power structures of the church, the women have bought into this thoroughly corrupt and repulsive system.
None of this sorry business is about helping people deepen their life in God; none of it is about the self-emptying God weeping over the creation. The way clergy are selected and trained obviates any possibility of these two issues being addressed. The the most fundamental way we understand Christianity has become completely distorted, degenerated into a lot of fine-sounding babble that has lost its referents. The church needs far more to address this problem and to try to recover the ancient and patristic tradition, than be preoccupied with clergy power games. All of this kerfuffle about women bishops is simply rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
So much of the post-vote breast-beating shows just how out of touch the clergy are. As someone noted in one of the newspapers this morning, every time the church tries to be relevant it just becomes more irrelevant. This is not to say that women shouldn't be bishops, just that the present situation was utterly predictable.
Instead the church should wake up to the fact that its interpretation of its heritage is wildly wide of the mark because it is based on an anachronistic Cartesian methodology that makes a dog's breakfast of the ancient and patristic tradition; that it has taken all the substance, wisdom, and psychological resonances out of translations of the bible and the liturgy; that it is poisoned by the lingering magical thinking and narcissism introduced by Paschasius in the ninth century; that there is an ever broadening abyss between the clergy and the laity, which gained momentum in the twelfth century. As R. I. Moore notes in his wonderful book The War on Heresy, Peter Abelard '. . .said, citing other distinguished masters in his support, that in celebrating the Mass the words of consecration themselves were sufficient, regardless of who said them'. (p. 152) 'The idea of ordination now came to designate a ritual in which an individual was permanently endowed with the power of conferring the sacraments, rather than simply being appointed to carry out certain functions in the community. That such power could not be vested in women or laymen was not ancient or firmly established doctrine. It emerged in the first decades of the twelfth century... the clergy was a separate order of society, and set firmly apart from the laity'. (p. 155)
Someone has remarked that the church should catch up to modern thinking, but misguided efforts to apply modern thinking are exactly what has taken all the beauty and mystery out of Western Christianity, which is what people seek in this increasingly flattened, debased and ugly society which has wrecked its environment. Modern thinking is why the women have to play men's power games in order to have any role at all in the church. Doesn't anyone stop to think how insulting it is to women to be discussed as if they were problems to be solved? Do women even have to fight to be acknowledged as fully human? Which is precisely what misogynists refuse to acknowledge.
Rather, the church should provide a corrective to modern thinking. Another person said the C of E no longer has any credibility, not realising—or choosing to ignore—that no one has been listening to any church for years, not only because of the very un-Christian infighting among the factions, but also because very few of the clergy have anything worth saying beyond a lot of sloganeering. There is a dearth of practical instruction that will help people live their lives in the beauty of holiness and root their lives in contemplation so that they can survive the increasingly abusive milieu in which we live. Another person said that the church would become a laughing stock—for a lot of people it already is, people who do not realise the tragedy that is unfolding in front of their own eyes that affects their lives whether they will or not.
As for the extreme minority who claim certainties, few of their members stop to think that attributing stasis to God is a form of blasphemy. 'The compulsion to find ...certainty is its own punishment', says the poet Christian Wiman in his profound and light-filled book of essays, My Bright Abyss, to be published on April 2 of next year. Salvation, in one of its oldest definitions, means to be released from a trap, and nothing traps like the squalid little self-conscious world of certainties and navel-gazing that tries to keep the contingencies of life locked in the closet, and push every one and every thing including God in its own little procrustean compartment.
Why can't we find some way to convey the message that self-forgetfulness is the source of joy, whereas self-preoccupation is the source of exactly the sort of conflict we have seen for far too many centuries but has reached a new low in the present day?
The only certainty is free-fall in the love of God.