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.


Blogger Eliza Montoya said...

Interesting commentary.

11:41 pm, May 24, 2009  
Anonymous DFish said...

"but while the details may differ, it is perhaps just as pertinent in TEC and other denominations in their terminal state."

Asian missionaries are now being sent to Europe to re-Christianize the continent - very much telling of an institutional confusion that clergy supply is the panacea to a dying church. Yesterday, I read the news about the last Catholic seminary in Scotland to be closed down due to falling numbers of candidates to the priesthood ( From an institutional point of view, institutionalized priesthood is dying I guess. From a church perspective, in the sense of sensus fidei, looks like a great opportunity for ecclesial self-correction.

4:24 am, May 28, 2009  
Anonymous DFish said...

Another sign of a dying institution...
"Ireland to summon Catholic orders on abuse scandal"

6:57 am, May 28, 2009  

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