Monday, May 25, 2009

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

The institution and the church are not coterminous, in fact, in 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; much of the clericus seems not to be. Both sides are composed of people, but one side is composed of those who are entering the peace of Christ, who try to listen to something other than the ceaseless ranting of their own egos. It will be on account of their faithfulness that Christianity will survive even if, or perhaps because of, the demise of present institutional clerical system. Christianity will renew itself in every generation.

There are hard things in this paper that must be said so that they can be consciously acknowledged and repented of in order to prepare the way for true change. We are at a watershed in history, and it is not axiomatic for the institution any more than for an individual that the church must endlessly repeat its destructive cycles. The essential question is not the ordination of women, but how ordination in itself has affected every area of Christian life. To focus this question, I will make a few remarks about the state of institutional churches in specific areas. Next, the overriding pathology of clericalism and its effects on liturgy, theology, and ‘spirituality’. Lastly, to give some idea of what may lie ahead, a look at the American experience. These remarks are meant to provoke questions, not answer them. Some of what I say may seem unfair, but I have been asked to write from my own position and experience, which is not only that of a contemplative religious, but also that of many, many other women and men throughout Britain and America. Unlike much other writing on this subject, these remarks do not issue from a state of idealised wishful thinking and denial. First then, my own position.

My position: I dearly wish that the legislation allowing women to be ordained in the Church of England had been uncompromising. I devoutly wish even more, now that it has been passed, that women would refuse to be ordained into the clerical club and the system as it now stands in utter contradiction (as opposed to participating in the paradox of power in weakness) to the Christ whom it claims to serve, lest they, too, become corrupted, however they may vow to ‘change the system from within’. For if one lies down with dogs, it is virtually impossible not to acquire their fleas.

And in this instance the fleas are what the desert mothers and fathers recognised as uncontrolled passions, subtle, strong, ravenous drives, the demons of Power, Pretension, Presumption, Pomposity, Privilege, Preferment and Patronage, which seven Ps are the modern versions of what the desert hermits named greed, unchastity, avarice, anger, melancholy, accedie, vainglory and pride, which later became known as the seven deadly sins. [6] The contemplative peace they sought, apatheia, which is the call of every Christian, was not repression of these passions (at which the male clericus seems particularly adept) but their harmonisation, by being brought to focus on God alone.

My position: I hope to suggest how and why the only way forward is the de-institutionalisation of the clergy. This would include lay presidency of the Eucharist, a situation no less catholic nor apostolic than the system we have now, because the apostolic lineage is conferred through baptism. [7] And I use the present tense because eucharistic communities are arising across the spectrum, from Catholic to Baptist—indeed the age of denominational barriers is over, whether the hierarchies care to acknowledge it or not. There is, today, a greater ecumenical church centred on the Eucharist that knows no boundaries, harking back to Christian origins. The richness of each tradition, the contribution each has to make, and the need for diversity has never been more apparent or more appreciated in helping everyone who will to listen to the Spirit. And through this appreciation has come the realisation that barriers between denominations arise from those same uncontrolled or repressed passions that have created the reductio ad absurdum in which much institutional religion, of whatever stripe, today finds itself.

My position: when I thought there was still hope for the institution, that the clericalised could listen, I was angry (do not confuse direct speech—truth-saying—by a woman, with anger ). [8] I grieved for the loss of great beauty, [9] of a spiritual culture, of the wondrous mystery conveyed through the best of sacramental theology, as I watched its transmission become increasingly fragmented, corrupted, fossilised, and bent to abusive use. Those who deliberately have distorted it to their own exploitive ends have been too lazy or cowardly or arrogant to undergo the iconoclastic journey into the depths of God, indwelling beyond all images, a journey that requires total denudation of the tomfoolery of so-called self-image, a journey into the mystery of the resurrection, which is the heart of every Christian’s vocation. Now I believe the sooner the clerical institutions in their present form collapse the better. I still have hope, but it lies elsewhere, as I will describe.

My position: I am one of the marginalised; I avoid the institution as much as I possibly can. [10] Years ago I stopped wearing my habit in public, but the debate before the 1992 vote was so vicious that I stopped wearing it entirely, not wanting in any way to be identified, even mistakenly, with the clericus. Even the Eucharist became politicised. Going to Communion became a political act. I stopped going to Communion months before the vote. I could not have coped both with the defeat of the measure (which would have declared women something less than human and questioned Christ’s indwelling, capax Dei, supported the institution’s completely specious claims and its pathological desire to control God), in combination with refraining indefinitely from Communion should it have failed. Even so, given the circumstances of the debate on all sides, to go to Communion seemed blasphemous. I continued to fast from Communion until Christmas out of sorrow.

These days I go to the Eucharist if I can find a celebrant whose body language and vibes do not reek so much of the seven devils that they reawaken the anger and pain I have fought so hard to relinquish into the love of Christ for the sake of contemplating him alone, however badly I fail. [11] I go to beg my daily bread and to pray that Mercy will, in the mystery of love, make my ‘soul and body a living sacrifice’ in deed. Prayer and the Christian journey are subject to universal laws. Every life presents a moment, different for each person, at which one must choose between the activity of so-called morality (for example, fighting the street battles of church politics and women’s rights), and contemplative stillness, the reciprocity of God’s beholding, from which alone any true change can arise. I have long since made this choice.

But I also have come to know my own weaknesses, and am vigilant for dangerous situations. (Writing this paper is one of these, but for once I must take the risk.) Often I will come to church late and leave early. ‘Eat and run’ we used to call it. Not a bad policy. The desert mothers and fathers said, ‘flee bishops’, considering that one of the most serious temptations was wanting to be ordained or fantasising about it. I say this as one who was first offered ordination in the early sixties. I realised then, and the experience of the intervening thirty years have confirmed, that to accept ordination would compromise the priestly character of my solitary vocation, of any vocation, of the human condition. The essence of priesthood is the 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. By willing God, in this concrete context, we will all 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.’ [12]

My position: I have none, not in this world. As such, I cannot but bear in the eyes of the fearful the terrible power of Christ’s poor ones, who cannot be coerced or controlled, and who seek neither to coerce nor to control, but to adore. However badly I may fail in human eyes, I want to live for God alone, in Christ, as Eucharist, ‘a holocaust for your people...’ was the way my profession put it. I wish to live, by grace, in every moment, so completely at the heart of this Eucharist that it would be a grave failure to step back far enough even to make the gestures of offering.

So much for my position.


[6] ". . . seven deadly sins." Pride, covetousness, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, sloth. The seven gifts of the Holy Ghost are wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, fear of the Lord. The seven virtues are faith, hope, charity, justice, prudence, temperance, fortitude. It is not difficult to see which side of the balance the institution is on.

[7] ". . . conferred through baptism." See Stephen Sykes, ‘Vision and Voting: Reflections on the Anglican Doctrine of the Church’, in Living the Mystery, London: DLT, 1994.

[8] ". . . by a woman, with anger." The British seem terrified of anger, which may be why they mistakenly see it everywhere, projecting it on to quite different human experiences such as pain, especially psycho-spiritual pain, fear, grief, and anguish, and especially on women, as accusation. See Walter Brueggemann’s, Hopeful Imagination, London: SCM, 1992. Straight talk is not popular in Britain, and is becoming less so in the USA. Without it, difficult situations become complex, desperate, dire, and finally terminal. Brueggemann points out that Jeremiah’s passion is not anger but profound and terrible grief, and that it is only out of grief that newness can come. See my The Fountain and the Furnace, Mahwah: Paulist, 1987, for an explication of the psycho-spiritual dynamic at work.

[9] ". . . the loss of great beauty." See Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, vol. I, Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1982.

[10] ". . . as I possibly can." This has nothing to do with the fact that I am a professed solitary. The solitary vocation is at the heart of the church, often visibly and actively so, depending on the nature of the individual solitary vocation, and the rhythms of the Spirit.

[11] ". . . however badly I fail." I am not passing judgement here: I talking only about the impression celebrants may give; clergy are often so lacking in self-knowledge that they think their intention is what they are in fact communicating.

[12] ". . . does or is in us." The Way of Silent Love , by A Carthusian, vol. III, London: DLT, forthcoming.

Monday, May 18, 2009

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

[This chapter (from Crossing the Boundary edited by Sue Waldrond-Skinner, London: Mowbrays, 1994, pp. 93-131) is posted at the request of a kind reader of this blog who has requested more on "careerism" in the church. It is a polemic specific to the C of E in a certain historical moment, but while the details may differ, it is perhaps just as pertinent in TEC and other denominations in their terminal state. This post is a first instalment; the rest of the article will appear over the next few weeks.]

‘Where the vision fails the people perish, but blessed are they who keep the law’ (Prov. 29,18)

The Church of England as an institution is dying. It has been dying for a long time. It is dying because it has lost its vision. It is dying because it neither wishes to acknowledge nor to do anything about the seven devils that possess it. And because it is self-absorbed, because it refuses to see itself clearly in the light of the vision of God, it no longer serves as a moral force among the people. [1] And the people perish.

Anglican morbidity, which reflects that of other British Christian institutions, affects every aspect of its life, including its scholarship. For example, in what appears to be an act of unconscious eisegesis, [2] the translators of the New English Bible confused authority and power, spirit and law by interpreting this verse, ‘Where there is no one in authority, the people break loose, but a guardian of the law keeps them on the straight path.’ The REB is slightly improved, but not much: ‘With no one in authority, the people throw off all restraint, but he who keeps God’s law leads them on a straight path.’ The New Jerusalem Bible: ‘Where there is no vision the people get out of hand; happy are they who keep the law.’ The NRSV: ‘Where there is no prophecy, the people cast off restraint, but happy are those who keep the law.’ The Interlinear Hebrew Bible translates the word for ‘vision’ as ‘revelation’, and perhaps this is closer to the issue at hand: the revelation of the self-outpouring, humble God in Christ.

On the other hand, the NEB translators may have had in mind a passage in Hosea 4,6 that reflects both interpretations: ‘Want of knowledge [of God] has been the ruin of my people. As you have rejected knowledge, so will I reject you as a priest to me. As you have forsaken the teaching of God, so will I, your God, forsake your children.’

From the dismal perspective of the end of 1993, this verse could be interpreted, ‘When clergy and those who ape them listen only to themselves and refuse to acknowledge the vision of God, transcendent and incarnate, as that from which everything else must be discerned and proceed, they implode into their individual and collective ego-decoration, which substitutes for worship; and, refusing to go beyond all images and concepts, which characterises true faith in the self-emptying God, they worship the idols of their own self-image, trying to force other people to follow suit by degrading them.’ [3]

This interpretation is supported by Hos. 4,7: ‘The more priests there are, the more they sin against me; their dignity I shall turn into dishonour. They feed on the sin of my people and are greedy for their iniquity. Priest and people will fare alike.’ The rest of the chapter is well worth reading. [4]

It might be argued that the last half of Proverbs 29,18 reads, ‘blessed are they who keep the law’, but as every student of the Old Testament knows, it is the law written on the heart that the words refer to, not the dualistic prescripts and strictures of behavioural codes. It is precisely this point that Jesus makes in his teaching and in his life. Each individual, no matter what their status, is responsible for their own relationship with God, both for themselves and for the sake of the community. Each is thus responsible for leadership. In the church this used to be called the sensus fidei, the responsibility of each person to open their heart to receive their fragment of the revelation to share with others, which common vision, more than anything else, was the source of unity.

Perhaps even more pertinent, Jesus’ ministry exposes the bankruptcy of a hierarchical ‘priesthood’, which, in the name of God, pointed to itself rather than to God, and sought to control people by feeding on their fear of death, mediating forgiveness for a price. Jesus sets people free from the terror and imprisonment of the rule of law, and restores the vision to them by means of the Spirit, paying the price, and setting the example, with his own body and blood.

It is only because Jesus is a layman, and not of priestly or levitical inheritance, that he, by his obedience, can become the great high priest. And it is ironic and significant that the church founded in his name so quickly reverted to the old model. Those bent on control usually achieve power, and it is their writings which survive to be cited by subsequent generations bent on similar self-perpetuation, in other words, those least resembling the humble divinity they claim to represent.

And what of the liberation that is sacramentalised in the Eucharist? The sign of Christ’s self-emptying, of his utter obedience in conforming his will to the will of his self-emptying Father? [5] His faithfulness to the vision beyond all worldly reason is once more removed to the temple precincts, and similarly used to enslave the people. It should be noted that Christ’s obedience is given freely, not in response to coercion. It is elicited, it is called forth, a response to the self-emptying of the Father, deep calling to deep, kenosis calling to kenosis. This is the only legitimate model for obedience; obedience has nothing to do with the oppression that has misused its name to perpetuate religious tyranny, slavery and degradation, whether physical, psychological or spiritual. Obedience (from the Latin ‘to listen’) has nothing to do with the attitude, ‘Everyone in their slot, and all’s right with the world.’

But you can’t fool all of the people all of time, and particularly today, those who are not part of this compromised clerical system, and even some who are, no longer confuse God or the church with the institution. The last illusions are being shattered, institutional promises have proved empty, as the guest chair in my study, repeatedly drenched with tears over the last ten years, would testify if it could speak. But the sad fact is that there are also lay people still under the illusion that clergy want their gifts; some still equate God and the church with the institution, many of them women who are clamouring for ordination to something that is called ‘priesthood’ but which does not seem to resemble Christ’s priesthood in any way.


[1] ". . . among the people." I am writing two days after the James Bulger trial verdict. Morality, including, especially, the virtues of humility and truth, is not mere niceness in a subjunctive mode, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if...’ As the Bible points out again and again, it is a matter of life and death. Morality is contingent on the vision of God and the fundamental process of prayer, whose laws I have described elsewhere: they are universal laws. The charge that the C of E is primarily concerned with fashionable causes such as South Africa and the homeless is apt, the former being international, and therefore glamorous, the latter safe and affecting, i.e., it makes the C of E look good both to itself and to others. While there are some dedicated people working on Council estates, one wonders how many clergy really care to notice squalor, but prefer the image that appeared in the same time-frame as the Bulger trial verdict on the cover of a glossy magazine: a sporting cleric holding a hound. The issue here is not clergy in sport but the significance of the image: so concerned are clergy with image that they have tended to become caricatures of themselves. Rich or poor, sporting or sedentary, where there is no vision, and the laws of the mind which are included in the laws of prayer are not understood and practiced, there can be no integrity lived or taught, and the people perish.

[2] ". . . unconscious eisegesis." Perhaps following that of the scholar G.R. Driver, who makes a connection between the word ‘vision’ and the word ‘magistrate’, cited in Proverbs, W. McKane, London: SCM 1970. The verse is called ‘obscure’, and commentators puzzle over the shift in emphasis from community to individual. It is perhaps also significant that among these translations, it is only the British who opt for the authoritarian interpretation. An impeccable source tells me that the NEB is full of such ‘Driverisms’, i.e., far-fetched, and usually erroneous connections, and that the work of the REB has been in large part to eliminate them—that the REB scholars overlooked this one is perhaps a collective freudian lapse.

[3] ". . . degrading them." See Is. 6,10. In the final stages of writing this article, arrangements with Rome for dissident Anglicans were announced, and on the same day I came across ‘The Laity and the Leadership Crisis’ by Margaret O’Brien Steinfels in the Roman Catholic journal, Commonweal, 10 September, 1993. This article spookily echoes everything I have written here, and particularly telling—especially for those about to swim the Tiber—was this: "These internal problems are steadily exacerbated by resistance from Rome and a growing paralysis among our bishops... intellectually and spiritually; literally unable... to hear the voice of the people and to read the signs of the time...answering questions that no one is asking, performing acts that no one understands.
"In that case, the actual task of maintaining Catholic identity and salvaging a Catholic community will fall to lay people, even though they remain second-class citizens in the church and far removed from the sources of power and influence....
"...lay Catholics have finally to grow up and assume their responsibilities. The most active lay people have become complicit in a kind of division of labor, agitating for change in the church while leaving the job of maintaining continuity and personal and institutional identity to clergy and bishops. Yet every passing year makes it more unlikely that priests and bishops can carry out the assignment to the extent required. This situation requires greater cooperation and collaboration on the part of both sides; but lay people cannot become mere deputies. They must show more initiative and creativity.... the false divisions between lay people who 'work for the church' and those who 'work in the world' must be seen for what they are—false divisions....
"I look at Commonweal, at NCR [National Catholic Reporter].... I think of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker. No one gave permission and no one asked; the work was started and it has continued."

[4] ". . . worth reading." G.B. Shaw is more succinct: "Every profession is a conspiracy against the laity." You cannot pay people to be self-emptying. The corruption of leadership gives psychological permission for the same behaviour to be repeated by others.

[5] ". . . self-emptying Father." I make no apologies for using this metaphor for reasons that will come clear.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Sharing Divinity

[From a sermon preached at St John's Church, Tulsa, OK, 22 February, 1998]

Our being is transfigured into the divine likeness, our share in the divine nature, and it is not by accident that many of our moments of complete self-forgetfulness come when we are gazing into the divine light shining from the unveiled face of our friends and neighbours. Indeed, it is the soul’s practice of beholding that enables us to see beyond the surface into the heart of another, in what often seems to our blinded eyes the most unlikely people, the extraordinary in the ordinary, the divine in the human, the humility that is divinity.

But this joy is too much for us. We are afraid of joy, far more than we are afraid of our fantasies of other kinds of death, of mortality. We are afraid of joy the way we are afraid of the boundless freedom that accompanies it; we are afraid of the sorrow of longing that is its other face. We are afraid to be held in thrall by joy, to allow all the hallucinatory chains we forge for ourselves to fall away.

All our being longs for epiphanies, for the vision of God to be made manifest—but we want to control it, we want it only in the form of our safe, stereotyped ideas of so-called religious experience, in our so-called spiritual life, which often does little more than crowd our minds with even more noise and images than are already there. We are too frightened of joy to leave a space of opportunity for God to take us into unbounded realms where darkness and light are both alike, where we are guided by no compass, but solely by the coordinates of grace.

‘Now ...where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another...’ —this is too much for us. We try furtively to veil this radiance within, to hide it from our selves, and others; we engage in frantic busy-ness in order to flee from silence: we love our illusions too much, the price of letting them go is too high. But—thankfully—our efforts at hiding from this radiance are futile. In Christ, the vision of God is already among us, and the radiance of beholding is already shining in profound simplicity from the faces that surround us.

In Luke's account of the Transfiguration, the disciples were ‘afraid as they entered the cloud. And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” And when the voice had spoken...they kept silence.’

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

The Space of a Preposition

What a difference a preposition makes.

When we say, "Save us from the time of trial" in the Lord's Prayer, what do we mean? What are our assumptions about God and the way the divine love interacts with time? What is the time of trial? Is it any time of trial? Or is it something special?

When the 1979 Book of Common Prayer was being developed, this phrase in the Zebra book read, "Save us in the time of trial."

Every time I hear this prayer recited in public I find myself wishing that the Zebra version had ended up as the final version. Maybe this is due to ignorance of the process but I try to listen with the ears of someone hearing for the first time, and I know very well that God is not going to save me from the time of trial in the sense either of preventing trials or snatching me from them. Auschwitz and other horrors have taught us to refine our formerly crude ideas about an interventionist God, but the phrase in the 1979 book seems to want to keep us at that simplistic level.

Of course it may be that the compilers of the 1979 book were thinking about the Day of Judgment, or the Apocalypse, but isn't every trial infused with the end times, what we used to call "realized eschatology?" None of us is going to escape the end times, existentially or any other way, now, or then. If our lives are infused with beholding we know that all times are conflated into the present moment.

It is the knowledge that God is in the trial with me that sustains me, that in this time of transition (for example) grace is available to help me listen with an open heart and inform decisions. Sometimes this grace arises from within; sometimes it comes through the words of wise friends; sometimes (mostly) it is imperceptible, working invisibly, mostly unseen but at times glimpsed in retrospect.

Can I say I wish God had saved me from this particular trial? I don't think I have the perspective to make this or any similar judgment. That it has been traumatic and remains traumatic there is no question. No one wants to be homeless or stare into the black hole of a future without adequate funds, especially in the last years of life.

At the same time I am learning much: about human nature, both good and bad; about myself, ditto. I am grateful that the need to dismantle my life came at a time when I could do it decently and in order so as not to leave a mess, as opposed to becoming incapacitated and having to burden someone else.

I'm amazed at the power of adrenaline, how in the crunch it can kick in and push you into a certain kind of flow. How I ever sold the house, redid all my legal affairs, sorted, catalogued and shipped what is to be sold and dispersed the rest, all in five and a half weeks, seems almost miraculous. All is grace. The trial has been instructive; I have been saved in it but not from it. And it is not my place to say whether I should have been saved from it.

This attitude in no way justifies the negative behavior of others and its consequences that caused the crisis in the first place. But the task is to go forward, to receive the next moment of grace, and to pursue the necessary remedies. A kind friend who came up to Alaska from Oregon to help with the books left me with Abba Benjamin, who, when he was dying, said, "Rejoice always, pray constantly, and in all circumstances give thanks."

Save me in the time of trial, not from it.