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.

Monday, June 22, 2009

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


I have used the word ‘pathology’ a lot in this paper. Clericalism (as distinct from the people it destroys) is a kind of contagious sickness. It is inherent in a hierarchical system. It infects clergy without distinction and without their knowing. It sets them apart as a class, which is a very different matter from the setting-apart of holiness that indwells the interior solitude of each human being. Clericalism is inherently destructive, both to the person who is already infected and to those affected, and therefore often infected, by that person’s life; it perpetuates the classic co-dependent cycle and its denial.

It is denial that makes clericalism intrinsically abusive to others. [24] It gives the impression of sacramentalising the seven devils: Power, Pretension, Presumption, Pomposity, Privilege, Preferment and Patronage. Clericalism is doubly destructive in that it reinforces the abuse people receive from an increasingly violent culture, which they bring to the Eucharist to be healed. Clericalism traps them in a depressive self-consciousness that is one of the most subtle and pernicious effects of any sort of abuse, and is the opposite of the freedom from self-consciousness that is called ‘salvation’.

Clericalism is a collusion among those who deliberately choose to be deaf and blind especially to themselves (Jn. 9). It arises from a need to hide: to hide from oneself, which gives the illusion of hiding from other people. The need to hide is itself pathological. Clericalism creates a Dives and Lazarus abyss. There is no way to cross it. Even supposedly well-intentioned groups such as Affirming Catholicism ‘forgot’ (I quote two of the organisers) to invite the laity to its initial meeting, and seems merely to be yet another mask behind which the old evils hide themselves.

Sometimes clericalism takes the form of clergy creating problems or eliciting them from people so that they, the clergy, will have someone to ‘help’ and can thereby feed their egos on another’s suffering. Some clergy have a genius for tapping into other people’s most vulnerable spots and throwing them off balance into dependence. Sometimes clericalism, especially when it is linked to sexual problems, takes the form of excessive devotion to Mary with its consequent hatred of flesh-and-blood women. Sometimes sexual problems are expressed in excessive, even compulsive, concern with ritual. The variations are endless.

Clericalism like other forms of addiction always needs a bigger fix. Witness the history of orders in the church. Witness the ecumenical dialogue conducted at the official level where the power stakes are highest, a dialogue that without question accepts claims that appear to have little foundation in fact for which there is scholarly evidence.

The problem is that clericalism creates a Girardian spiral: [25] when the abused take power, they become the abusers. In a society where women are held in contempt by men, women cannot but have contempt for each other. When they have had all the ground on which they might stand taken from them, they will try to take from each other the little scrap another might have in order to have the illusion of a slightly surer footing. And when women take power, they have exactly the same potential for abuse of others as men do. The men, of course, often say they have been abused by women.


[24] Not only psychologically, sexually and socially abusive: there is the shocking fact that the inventor of the neutron bomb is an Anglican (ECUSA) priest.

[25] ‘Girard’s work has been devoted to analysing these cycles of violence which emerge because we only desire that which another person finds desirable. Our acts of imitation, therefore, generate conflict. This mimetic conflict reaches a point where a victim is found who can act as a scapegoat. The scapegoat then unites the warring factions and creates a synthetic panacea which, in its turn, is deemed to be sacred. Girard develops his ideas on the scapegoat mechanism in his books Violence and the Sacred (1972, tr. 1977) and The Scapegoat (1982, tr. 1987). In his book Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1978), Girard examines how Christ effectively absorbs and defeats the scapegoat mechanism and the cyles of violence it both pacifies and perpetuates.’ —Graham Ward.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

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

The foregoing does not bode well for women coming into the clerical system. And from what I have seen in America as well as Britain, the women being ordained are becoming even more clericalised than the men, perhaps because they are the new kids on the block and less secure, like any convert, over-zealous and anxious to toe the party line. At the same time, many of them are distinctly uncomfortable, often bearing a deep and undifferentiated unease, a sense that they are betraying something.

How, under these circumstances, women will be able to turn the tide I do not know and I do not think they know, either. Certainly the faces on television in November 1992 were not encouraging, nor have been subsequent encounters with women clergy. [23] And the question has to be asked if they are not wasting their time (as well as selling their souls) by entering such a moribund system in the first place?

The only potentially hopeful sign I see at the moment is the financial disaster on the Church Commissioners’ desks. Lack of finance may force the Church of England to redefine what it means by ministry, and to ask what is worth supporting. However, given its history, and the amount of self-interested scrambling that will perhaps inevitably take place among the people who will be making these decisions, it is perhaps more realistic to regard this potential hope as wishful thinking.

There is the additional problem that people in the Church of England appear to go to church for many disparate reasons, often social ones, to engage in what might irreverently be called, ‘tea party religion’. Without excluding this valid and useful social activity, the Church of England must decide what its principal function and purpose really is, from which all else must proceed. It must prioritise.

Is this governing principle to keep the comfortable cosy, using the model of the vestigial and often mythical country parish? (Which is not to say that there are not remarkable and healthy country parishes.) To be the ritual arm of the State, and ceremonial resource for the world (for all the world knows that no one does liturgy better than the C of E at its best)? To be a political pressure group? To be a moral force (though its credibility in this area, especially after the ordination debate, is deeply in doubt)? To be a colourful tourist attraction (it has been observed that it does some of its best work simply by keeping the cathedrals open and not bothering the millions of tourists who in some mysterious way find God in them—which is not to say that there are not cathedrals that are real centres of prayer)?

Or is it to bear the vision so that the people do not perish? —Which means back to the drawing board.


[23] For example, on a rare occasion when I agreed to facilitate a workshop for about forty mostly middle-aged women, there were two clergymen present , an Anglican in a collar and a nonconformist in civvies, and a newly ordained Anglican woman deacon, also in a collar. As the day progressed, the misery and pain these women had experienced at the hands of clergy started to pour out, obviously the first time they had ever dared to speak. I asked the clergy present, particularly the woman deacon, if they wanted to respond. The men participated in a low-key, penitential way; the woman deacon declined. In the afternoon we returned to a more conventional format. Afterwards, the men were very happy with the way the day had gone; the woman deacon vanished. A week later I was informed that she had written to the bishop, the suffragan, and virtually every diocesan official who might remotely be connected with education, complaining, in effect, that I was not in lockstep with the clergy and the official party line.

The terrible pain of exclusion and condemnation among the general public is more widespread than the clergy may wish to admit, and certainly more than they want to know. At the last Affirming Catholicism meeting I ever attended—it had gradually been taken over by the clergy, who were all sitting on one side of the table, while the four laypeople (both men and women) sat on the other—I simply lost it. I was also terrified, and so didn’t articulate very well. When my outpouring had ended, the clergy hastily turned to another laywoman there, who turned out to be the omsbudsperson for the diocese, saying surely my perception wasn’t representative. Sitting there in her plaid skirt, white blouse and sweater, she had the guts to say quietly, ‘I’m afraid that’s exactly the way it is.’

Monday, June 08, 2009

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

Institutional Contradictions

In the light of these observations, the contradictions (not paradoxes) inherent in the present situation are untenable. Here are a few more:

— In Christ, both sacrifice (self-emptying) and priest (the will and gift to manifest this self-emptying) are indistinguishable. Why then do we create a duality?
— This sacrifice is made in the solitude of every human heart, and the body is the altar on which the Eucharist of each human life is made. Why then do we continue to allow the exaltation of one group of human beings to the denigration of others? What has happened to wonder, awe, reverence, before the unique mystery of each human person in whom God dwells in Christ by the Spirit? and by extension, before the unique mystery of creation?
—The purpose of Christian life is to realise our inherent gift of participation in God by becoming other Christs. Why do we imply that the ordained are more ‘Christ’ than the non-ordained?
—The Holy Spirit blows where she will, bestowing her charisms on the just and the unjust, but she unfailingly bestows grace through those who humbly wait on her, who, in attentive receptivity, are emptied of their self-preoccupation and drawn, in Christ, to the Father.
—Christ refused the temptation in the desert, and continued to refuse throughout his life, to lay claim, to grasp, equality with God (Phil. 2,5-11). The Eucharist is the sacrament of his life. Why then do clerics and would-be clerics presume to ‘claim’ the Eucharist? Eucharistic celebration is not a ‘right’, nor a ‘call’, nor an ‘exercise of power’, nor cause for preferment. Life in Christ operates on the law of ungrasping, the principle that humility is divinity, which has its corollary in the law of the paradox of intention, the fundamental law of prayer. [19] It is the life of one who is the most humble servant of all.
—The Church of England and Anglicanism in general has not become inculturated, it has become acculturated, compromised, corrupted by the very values the Christian vision opposes. Clergy no longer seem to be accountable beyond themselves. In Britain, this acculturation is tied up with Establishment; in America, with the deliberate adoption, fifty years ago, of a business model for the church. Nothing could have been more destructive or self-refuting. Acculturation is always a problem, but today there seems to be a total lack of discernment between the two, and claims of inculturation are used to justify acculturation, or hedonism, or, worst of all, ‘human nature’, which is a slur on the divine image and the true greatness of which human beings are potentially capable. While it could be argued that people have always used the church to further their own power, this does not make it right or necessary, and things certainly do not have to be as bad as they are at this time.
— Religious orders also are dying. [20] This is a pity because, if nothing else, they could provide a counterpole to marketplace ‘spirituality’. Having done exemplary work for years, they are affected by the same diseases as the rest of the church and society. They are dying from all the ills cited above and a few that are peculiar to themselves. They are not dying from lack of vocations: there are many thousands of vocations, but these vocations need simplicity, the basics, wise discernment, and thus have nowhere to go.
Like Christianity itself, Christian religious life, specifically monastic life, began as a lay movement. Benedict himself was a layman. Yet religious life, like Christianity, became clericalised within three centuries. It is arguable that any sort of clericalisation leads inevitably to decline. The ordination of women may hasten or slow the process of dying in women’s communities. One of the best-kept secrets in male communities [21] is the underlying animosity between the ordained and the non-ordained. With the clericalisation of the self-image of religious orders (a contradiction in terms), and the greater freedom men superficially appear to be able to give one another, it is a problem rarely voiced and often squelched. Male bonding and all that. The ordained, after all, run the communities. The lay brothers—well, ask them.
This situation gets even more interesting as women’s communities try to decide whether to admit ordained women or whether to allow any of their own members to ordained. Women seem to have a greater need for everyone be alike, caused in part by their second-class status in church and society. Competitive envy is rampant. [22] One can only hope that communities will awaken to the realisation of how deeply infected they are by the pathology of clericalism. After ten years in England I still find it difficult to watch what British women, especially in the church, put up with from men. Perhaps they feel denial is the only way they can survive. But it is deadly for both men and women.
—The nature of theological debate at the official level throughout modern Christendom reeks of presumption, i.e., imposed, arrogant ignorance. Some of those involved still operate on a so-called ‘natural law’ that has little to do with the way we now know that God in fact makes the creation (attitudes towards women and homosexuals, for example), and even less with Christology. Others presume to know what God thinks and what makes people tick, as if they were psycho-biological or theological-ethical machines stamped to a universal template. There are universal laws, but they work from within, not from without. These people seem unable to comprehend that by condemning parts of creation, they are condemning God who made it as it is. Whatever happened to humility before the mystery? To faith in search of understanding?
—Domestication, recent scientific studies tell us, whether the co-domestication of animals and humans, or human attempts to domesticate God, leads only to the behavioural regression of the parties involved, and, in the latter case, the trivialisation of God by religion. One does not have to look far among the clergy to see infantile behaviour.

It does not take a theologian—many theologians would be the last to be able to perceive them—to see that life in Christ and the concrete situation among Church of England leaders (as opposed to their public pronouncements) are completely at odds. It almost seems as if we have entered the phase of life in an organism where the body is killed and only the sickness, which has destroyed it, remains, having, in the process, condemned itself. It is also a commonplace that organisations have a terminal phase in which those who are less healthy and more oblivious retain control and drive the more healthy and visionary away.


[19] See Marvin Shaw, The Paradox of Intention, Atlanta: Scholar’s Press, 1988.
[20] The full text of this section had to be cut, due to length. It will be appended at the end of the article.
[21] A perennial problem, it is acknowledged in Benedict’s Rule, ch. 62. There has begun a movement in men’s communities whereby the superior can be a layperson, but clericalism still predominates.
[22] ‘...the women were virtual prisoners, living in a state of permanent squabbling and bickering, largely induced by insecurity. The only security they had was their husband’s favor.’ Jung Chang on the competitive envy of concubines in Wild Swans, London: HarperCollins, 1993, p. 40. For ‘husband’ read ‘male clergy’.

Monday, June 01, 2009

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

Discerning the Vision of God

With the institution’s failure of vision has come the failure of discernment. While many women seeking ordination are driven by their uncontrolled passions, by the seven devils, others, now ordained deacon or seeking ordination are distinctly uncomfortable with the system into which they are being forced and the process of discernment they have undergone. They quite rightly suspect, though they may not be able to articulate it, that they are making a Faustian covenant. They realise that fundamental questions have not been addressed, not just those of sex and power and pathology in the culturally compromised institution, but the much more fundamental questions of a single hearted pursuit of the vision of God, of putting on the kenotic mind of Christ, which is the only source of any non-destructive ‘good works’ that might be done.[13]

These women realise that the freedom of Christ’s promises has been turned on its head to become rigid categorisation and conformity, the creature of class and status. Some are aware, quite conscious, even, that theirs is a contemplative vocation, but since the church has no use for contemplation and will not support it no matter how piously it blathers about ‘prayer’, they perceive that the only way for them to survive physically is to become ordained. Contemplatives who follow a vision, who are compelled to follow it by the mind of Christ, do not do well in the dog-eat-dog, cut and thrust of the church of post-Thatcherite Britain or post-Reagan America. Women who have chosen the clergy option out of despair fail to realise that unless they are exceptionally lucky, the clergy club and the laity who decorate their own egos by acting as its minions, will eat them for breakfast.

What will happen to the anger of these women? Will it continue as depression in such a way that women, too, become part of the so-called ministry to women, exercised by males for centuries, a ‘ministry’ that simply feeds, feeds on, and perpetuates the hopeless closed world of their depression? For compassionate ministry is not the iron control of managed niceness and conformity with the status quo. And this sort of depression—I say this as one who knows from the inside—is often a form of accedie. Compassion is rather to help someone grow into the vision of God, and metanoia cannot take place until reality is faced, and depression broken. So often I want to say to these women, wake up! Get a life!

But before going further, let us look at what we know about the sort of God who gives the vision and what people must do to dispose themselves to receive it. Christianity was originally a vision that was communicated more by intuition and example than by speech.[14] It still is. It was the religion of the poor and poor-pure in heart. It still is. Christ’s peace was fundamentally simple. It still is. [15] And we are all called to the same degree of union with God.

What sort of God are we talking about? The essence of God revealed in Christ is inexhaustible, self-emptying love (Phil. 2,5-11). Christ comes to free us from slavery to the fear of death (Heb. 2,14 ff) and to transfigure us into himself (see the Gospel of John). [16] This Christ indwells us by the Spirit, bearing us to the Father. That is, God indwells us, and when we try to love purely, simply, in single-hearted self-forgetfulness, we are participating—a much more profoundly nuanced word than modern usage suggests—in divinity.

The New Testament is a continuation of the struggle of the Hebrew peoples, from Exodus through the prophets, to purify their own vision. ‘I despise your sacrifices...’ (Is. 1,11 ff.) The Lord demands a pure and faithful heart; faithful, though all visible signs may seem so much folly. Who will see this invisible vision? It is given to those who go, or are driven, beyond all signs and signification into the far reaches of faith: to those who ‘know their need of God’ (the NEB redeems itself here), to the pure in heart, to the merciful, to the meek, to those who mourn from abuse or repentance or who weep for joy of the divine beauty, to those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, to the peacemakers, to the persecuted. To the Mary Magadalenes who, conflated into the single figure that is transmitted through tradition, [17] has been cured of the seven devils and all her other sins simply because ‘she loved much’. She is the first to see the risen Christ—and of course the men, already caught in a cycle of pretension, and in a culture that despises women, will not believe her. In other words, those who are given the vision are those (no matter what their station, for kings have seen it as well as the poor woman, Mary, from Nazareth) who are willing to give up all worldly values in order to be plunged into divine Love, to let Love have its way with them.

'Do not set your hearts on the world or what is in it. Anyone who loves the world does not love the Father. Everything in the world, all that panders to the appetites or entices the eyes, all the arrogance based on wealth, these spring not from the Father but from the world. That world with all its allurements is passing away, but those who do God’s will remain for ever. (I Jn. 2,15-17).' [18]


[13] ‘“But then,” the boy said, frowning at the stars, “is the balance to be kept by doing nothing? Surely a man must act, even not knowing all the consequences of his act, if anything is to be done at all?”
‘“Never fear. It is much easier for me to act than to refrain from acting.... do nothing because it is righteous or praiseworthy or noble to do so; do nothing because it seems good to do so; do only that which you must do and which you cannot do in any other way.”’ The Farthest Shore, by Ursula K. Le Guin, New York: Bantam, 1969, p. 67.

[14] See Aloys Grillmeier, S.J., tr. John Bowden, Christ in Christian Tradition, vol. I, London: Mowbrays, 1975, p. 35.

[15] See The Way of Silent Love, by A Carthusian, London: DLT, 1993, and my ‘Apophatic Prayer as a Theological Model’ in Literature and Theology, December, 1993, pp. 325-353.

[16] For an extended practical exposition, see the series by Carthusian writers cited above. See also O. Clément, The Roots of Christian Mysticism, London: New City, 1993, and André Louf, Tuning Into Grace, London: DLT, 1993.

[17]Benedicta Ward, Harlots of the Desert, London: Mowbrays, 1987.

[18]It is interesting that the REB has far and away the most sensual of all the translations of this passage.