Monday, July 27, 2009

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

Some Conclusions

The foregoing leads to some inexorable conclusions: we need to de-institutionalise the clergy. [41] The more prominent the clergy, the more clerical the church, the less the self-effacing, humble Christ is revealed. We need people to take care of buildings and administer funds and be points of focus, but they do not have to be ordained. We need to find means of regularly holding up the mirror of Christ’s humility and self-outpouring love before each Christian, but most particularly before those in positions of leadership, who tend to lose their humanity. [42] This used to be the role of confession, but it, too, was destroyed by the abuse of power and the disease of clericalism. Nepsis, vigilance, was the watchword of the desert hermits against the seven devils: human beings do not have to be victims of their thoughts and impulses; they do have to want to be free from this bondage, from their sloth and self-absorption.

We need most of all to stop thinking in dualistic terms of ‘clerics’, ‘ministers’ and ‘laity’ and think instead in terms of persons who have equal membership in the Body, to examine from scratch what we are in fact doing in the liturgy. The gifts of the Spirit are not magic, which is a function of the pathology of control; the gifts of the Spirit are as vast and free as God’s immense love, and are given everywhere and to all, according to the individual capacity to receive. How to increase the capacity of each person to receive God’s gifts is the primary teaching task of religious leaders, to teach themselves, first of all.

Sometimes the image arises of the wider institutional church as a person who sits in my tear-drenched guest chair. Shaking this off, I sometimes wish instead that I could write a letter to the churches, particularly to the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church. This is what I would say.

I would remind each person, ordained and baptised, that God loves every one as a dear child, that it is possible to rest and weep in the lap of God, who cradles us in the Holy Spirit, who, in her womb, can bring us to new birth in Christ, who bears us to the Father. If we would only be empty, we can be filled with God, and by this Love we would learn that being obedient is not as to a sovereign, but a response of love called out of us by One who continually pours out his life for us, and in us, as deep calls to deep, kenosis calls to kenosis. ‘The God we pray to is always more humble than we are.’ If we can only learn to be in the present moment, to ‘will God’ in the present moment of eternity, a present moment that requires no doing—we must be done with doing until the vision is restored. The vision of God’s love from which the churches began, like Abraham’s vision, changes even as we approach it, and will never desert us, not ever, no matter how we might feel inside, if only we will contemplate this immense, fathomless, enfolding humble Love, and listen to its voice.

Those of us who care deeply enough about the institution to risk criticising it, who have risked so much for it, will not desert it, for we know that underneath the burnout there is still the inner ear to hear, the luminous eye to see, the heart to love, and the humility to forgive others, to forgive itself, and most of all, to receive God’s loving forgiveness.

To will God. What does this mean?

A Carthusian describes it thus: ‘To change something you must first will it, or rather will God in it.’

'The willing of what is, is, at once, utterly simple, yet very mysterious...of the order of intuition and practice. One would perhaps go a step further and speak of willing God in a situation, rather than the situation with God. One would 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.' [43]




The Church of England as an institution is dying. The ordination of women will not hasten that death, but in the present climate there is little reason to hope their ordination will arrest it. Perhaps in extremis the Church of England will be delivered from its devils; perhaps in extremis it will be able to receive deliverance into faith, silence and stillness; perhaps it will be given a near-death experience. In stillness, in the vision of God, there is neither up nor down, neither career success nor failure, no pinnacle and no long slide down from it. There is only the union of beholding and the action that issues from it (2 Cor. 5,14).

It might be argued that this hope begs the question, but that is precisely the point: we are now beggars, or ought to be. We don’t know what to do. Instead of making something up to make ourselves feel better, we need to wait and listen, without images and without plans, and, as anyone who truly prays will tell you, from this silence will be given more in concrete reality than we could possibly ask or imagine. But there must be faith, there must be patience, there must be willingness to ‘will God’, who is the source of all real vision and its working out in the nitty-gritty. Thus for me to make specific suggestions would be simply to set up a new set of stereotypes, a new set of slots for people to be crammed into; it would be to grasp at power; our only hope is to ungrasp. [44]

I have written this paper from the point of view of someone who has nothing to lose, to whom the institutional church on both sides of the Atlantic has done everything it is possible to do to a woman except take my life, and once or twice it has come pretty close to that. [45] Yet, without in any way caving in, I can say with Julian of Norwich, that this too can be turned to God’s purpose, who saves his Word in all things; that, while injustice is never God’s will, these ‘harrowing’ experiences have been woven into that holy will, which is perfect, that is to say, not static, but mature in its fullness. The insight that there is an immense love behind the universe is, as Helen Waddell observed, quoting Dante, initially a kind of outrage upon the soul. But as the gift of faith is given in the far reaches beyond all reason and understanding, it is the source of the only life worth having, an unspeakable solemn joy.

The grace to put on the kenotic, inviolably vulnerable mind of Christ, to adore, bestows on Christ’s poor ones the joy no one and nothing can take from us, however badly we may fail. It is a freedom to which each human being is invited. It is not anarchy leading to the fascism in which individualism invariably ends, but solitude cultivated for the sake of community. It is not rebellion against authority, but surrender to the highest authority, responding with obedience to those who also seek the mind of Christ, the most humble servants of all, who therefore may be legitimate authorities. (Phil. 2,5-11) To choose otherwise would be to fail the temptation in the desert, to adore the Adversary in exchange for the sorry kingdoms of this world.

What I have learnt from all of this is the age-old lesson that people, however well-intentioned, will always fail. God, and the fathomless vision that God longs to give, will never fail. It requires only that we acknowledge the gift in utter gratitude by cooperation with the grace that enables our simplicity, that opens our hearts to God for God to enlarge and purify with the fire of love—God, whose thoughts and ways are not ours. Christ’s peace is utterly simple, a simplicity that can never be comprehended, only received, and through it we are drawn into the mystery God’s own self-outpouring, into speechless wonder and ineffable joy.

They who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint. (Is. 40,31)


[41] See ‘The Shadow of God: Issues of Vocation for Women’, by the Rt. Rev’d. Dr. Penelope Jamieson, The Orr Memorial Lecture, 1993, Huron College, London, Ontario.
[42] ‘Power is a fabrication, a fraud that separates men from their humanity.’ Stephen Schiff, commenting on the work of Alan Bennett in The New Yorker, September 6, 1993. The Native American writer Gerald Vizenor, in his story ‘The Moccasin Game’ has the same insight. ‘Men who had dreamed too much [i.e., their own projections instead of waiting for a complete vision] were transformed with only parts of birds and animals....Migizi, the eagle, was no more than the head of the bald eagle and he screeched his words.
‘“Migizi pretends to be human because he tried so hard to be an eagle,” said Nawina. “He shouts that the men who dream too much, the men who try so hard to escape their human bodies, are the men with weak visions. The humans with unbroken visions hold the bear and eagle in their hearts. Baapi and the hand talkers [deaf-mutes] are the ones with visions, and they do not wear feathers and claws as a disguise.” Earth Song, Sky Spirit, ed. Clifford E. Trafzer, Anchor, 1992.
[43] unpublished Carthusian novice conference.
[44] ‘Whenever someone still unconditionally hopes beyond all empirical hopelessness; wherever a particular joy is experienced as the promise of a joy that is limitless; wherever a person loves with unconditional faithfulness and resolve, although the frailty of such love on both sides cannot possibly legitimize this unconditional determination; wherever radical responsibility towards a moral obligation is maintained, even when it seemingly leads only to disaster; wherever the relentlessness of truth is experience and unconditionally accepted and grasped; wherever the unsurmountable discrepancy between what is individual and what is social in the plurality of man’s different destinies is endured in a seemingly unjustified resolve to hope for the meaning and blessedness which reconciles all these situations already experienced and accepted, even if this is not expressly and objectively formulated.’ Karl Rahner, SJ, ‘Religious Feeling Inside and Outside the Church,’ in Theological Investigations, vol. 17, New York: Crossroad, 1981, pp. 236-237.
[45] See my Seasons of Death and Life, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990.


Anonymous Josh Indiana said...

"The gifts of the Spirit are as vast and free as God’s immense love, and are given everywhere and to all, according to the individual capacity to receive."

Exactly right. Though I've never seen or heard it expressed before.

I pray that my capacity to receive will increase; my capacity and ours.

10:35 pm, July 28, 2009  

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