Monday, July 20, 2009

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

The American Experience

To have some idea of what ordination of women may mean for the future, it is useful to look at the American experience.

In response to an invitation to pursue research, I left America nearly ten years ago. I have great love and respect for my adopted country, enough to observe it closely, if not uncritically. If I preferred the USA I would live there. I go back every year partly for family and business reasons, partly out of horrified fascination, and mainly to have solitude in the Alaska wilderness. In the past ten years, I have watched the situation in ECUSA (Episcopal Church in the USA) continue to deteriorate. That women have been ordained for fifteen years or so is merely incidental to this process of decline, which has been going on for at least half a century.

Around the time women were first ordained in the USA, there began a mad general rush for ordination. There were a lot of reasons given, personal call (always questionable and rarely properly discerned); desire to celebrate the Eucharist (subtext: a weak personality, that is, inchoate, unintegrated, seeking a form exterior to itself by acquiring personal power over others); gifts that ‘must be shared [read forced on] with the [poor benighted] people’; ‘worker priest’; and the most distorting of all, a reason I have often heard voiced in Britain as well, that one is not really a ‘complete’ Christian until one is ordained. [40] The selection process in ECUSA is slightly different in each diocese, but it is so haphazard, and relies so thoroughly on American self-promotion and sales ability, that the people who perhaps might be bearers of ‘the vision’ and able to convey it either don’t bother to apply or are turned down.

If you look at the American ‘Red Book’ or at ECUSA’s equivalent of Crockford’s (which goes by a slang name too vulgar to print in a respectable English volume on religion), what is immediately noticeable is that in many dioceses there are twice, even three times as many nonstipendiary clergy as there are stipendiary. They predictably cluster around the richest areas of the country. There appears to be a geographical parallel among nonstipendiary clergy in England, although, at least until recently, these were usually ordained for entirely different (and equally questionable) reasons than their American cousins.

In ECUSA, the clergy glut is so great (and the quality often so appalling) that some dioceses have now put a moratorium on ordinations. There are so many clergy in some parishes that at an early service there will be more clergy in the sanctuary than worshippers in the pews. ECUSA is arguably one of the most clericalised churches in the world. It has reached the point that when I am in the USA I go to one or two ECUSA services in a vain search for signs of hope, and the rest of the time go to Roman Catholic Mass. A lot of people do this, and the traffic is both ways. As a Catholic friend of mine, who goes to an ECUSA parish, says, ‘I can pray there. It’s not my politics. I can leave politics behind.’

The promise of new vision and a new church associated with having ordained women has not materialised in ECUSA. In fact, the women seem more and more to be adopting the ‘executive’ model, and they dress like upper-level management cum dog collars. Or perhaps they have opted for the earth mother/goddess model. Whatever, when I see one of these assertive types coming—the attitude is set in the face—I run (some things are identical on both sides of the Pond). I have come to dread clergy (female or male) who come at me with an agenda more than those who try to degrade me by their elitism (male or female). This says something about me, of course. If I were utterly receptive to the vision of God I should not notice, for love does not take offence, and humility is not aware of injury. But I am weak, and I bear wounds I cannot afford to have reopened quite yet.

ECUSA is in a state of decline. The usual placebos of ‘programme’ are offered, but the subtext can no longer remain hidden: the clergy are the problem. There is also a financial crisis: people refuse to give money for the ‘CEO’s office’ in New York, or for centralised programmes. Thus, proposals are being prepared for decentralisation. However, it is questionable how effective any remedy will be because, as with the C of E, the basic issues have not been addressed, and the vision of God is virtually never mentioned.

For example, this past summer I was shown a draft document from a committee on the environment (first year’s budget: $30,000). I have had lifelong involvement in ecological issues. This document was one of the few developments in ECUSA that prompted any curiosity. I read it, and handed it back to the member of Executive Council who had shown it to me. ‘What’s wrong,?’ he asked. I just looked at him, wondering how to put it. He is an old and dear friend.

Finally I said, ‘Where is there anything about repentance, especially repentance for presumption and exploitation, where is there anything about wonder, about humility before the mystery of creation? Where is that key Native American word, “respect”? Where is there mention of the vision of God from which any accurate perception of the interrelatedness of creation must arise? This document is entirely presumptuous.’

My friend was scribbling as I talked. He handed the document back. ‘Where would you put such statements?’ I did my own scribbling on the opening preamble, and the papers changed hands again, as I said, ‘There’s no place here to put something in about the vision of God. This document should be redone from scratch.’ ‘There isn’t time,’ my friend said, ‘it has to be through the committee process for General Convention next year.’ Then he looked at me: ‘It would have been pretty futile to have put you on the committee, wouldn’t it?’ ‘Yes,’ I responded, thinking how much ECUSA committees resemble the British syndrome of not really wanting to solve problems but merely talking about them endlessly.


Trying to comfort me, my friend voiced what I had been thinking by saying, ‘Next year when I have all this bureaucracy out of the way, I’ll try to get back to having something of a spiritual life.’

‘Isn’t that exactly backwards?’

But I didn’t say it.

The American experience: having women at the altar is more or less routine now. Some of them still try too hard. Most have faded into the clerical landscape and are lost to the rest of us. Only the most conservative parishes and ‘the Synod’, an Anglo-Catholic rump, still make a fuss. No one pays much attention because the pathology is self-evident. What has not changed is discrimination. In fact, it is almost harder for women now that the law is in place. ‘What are you complaining about,’ a clergyman will say when discrimination is pointed out, ‘women have equal rights under canon law.’ But the law and its implementation, the changing of cultural perceptions, are two very different matters.


[40] ‘I use the term “call” not in the sense of a datable experience, but as a sense that one’s life has a theonomous cast, is deeply referred to the purposes of God, which gives freedom and distance and perspective in relation to all other concerns. Such a call is not an event, but an ongoing dynamic of a growing and powerful claim [on the one being called]....We need to recognise that such a sense of call in our time is profoundly countercultural, because the primary ideological voices of our time are the voices of autonomy: to do one’s own thing, self-actualization, self-assertion, self-fulfillment. The ideology of our time is to propose that one can live “an uncalled life,” one not referred to any purpose beyond one’s self....If the ideology of autonomy talks us out of our call as it talked Ancient Israel out of its call, we too may settle for idolatries that feel and sound like a call. An idolatrous alternative may take the form of a moral crusade in which we focus on one moral issue to the neglect of everything else...a dogmatic crusade, which is often a disguised form of maintaining monopoly, an ecclesiastical passion, or an echo of civil religion...all diversionary activities to keep from facing the yielding in obedience that belongs to all who are called by this God....They are in fact attempts to keep the known world safe, to preclude the dismantling work of Yahweh....Jeremiah understand call to be deeper and more dangerous. The holy purposes of God move in upon and against all of our arrangements....[Jeremiah’s] yearning for God is not a pious or mystical quest. It is a court of last resort after every other yearning has failed (18:19).’’ Brueggemann, pp.18-22.


Anonymous dFish said...

I simply chuckled upon the "dog collar". Never encountered this phrase before. I read everything you write though I may not understand every point because it is so attached to deeply held vision i perhaps seldom hear, much more from the pulpit. But your take on "call" as a process, as a continuous conversion, it's worth a day's read and be silent from there...I did try to "force" myself into the Episcopalian clericalism a couple of years ago to no avail. Graced decline perhaps. Is there anything from your blog about the Mary/Martha gospel "controversy"? So many contemplatives seem to have different take on this - the silence/action stuff...

4:22 am, July 21, 2009  
Blogger deacnaumann said...

Maggie, I have been thoroughly enjoying your blog entries. It seems that the text written in 1994 is just as appropriate to today's scene as it was when written. [I appreciate some of the cultural notes too, being a British citizen living in the US.]
Deaconess Cheryl D. Naumann

3:49 pm, July 21, 2009  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Thank you for your kind words.

I haven't done anything on the Mary/Martha thing. However, several of the great medieval writers have, including Bernard of Clairvaux. I can't remember which sermon it is—the second or third for Advent? But it's great reading!

Off the top of my head, I would have thought it's rather like the kataphatic/apophatic thing: you can't have one without the other. Bernard is often put in the "affective" slot but his affectivity is in service of the apophatic. Same with medieval women visionaries: their visions were part of their lectio divina; they were taught to do it in this way. Their visions are in service of The Vision, which, again, is apophatic.

4:49 pm, July 22, 2009  
Blogger it's margaret said...

blessings! i love your catalog of "calls." mine was simply--I couldn't get the monkey off my back...!

Hope you are well, dearest Maggie.

1:46 am, July 23, 2009  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

On Martha and Mary: i was thinking of Bernard's third sermon on the Assumption. McGinn's "The Growth of Mysticism" has several references to this discussion in Gregory the Great, Bernard and others.

5:41 pm, July 23, 2009  

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