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.


Anonymous Dfish said...

There are some disturbing things here definitely, like in my case, the "temptation to ordination." While browsing at Continuum Books, a publishing company, the book by Anglican priest Nicholas Taylor surprised me - Lay Presidency at the Eucharist? An Anglican Approach.I could only wish there would be someone within the RC who are steadfast enough in their theological stand as the few Anglicans to truly empower the laity.

10:02 am, May 30, 2009  

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