Monday, August 03, 2009

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

Text of footnote 38

Julian Barnes provides a parable:

Like many, I used to think that the official saturation of the country with market values was a reversible phenomenon; a little skin cancer perhaps, but no irradiation of the soul. I abandoned this belief—or hope—a few Christmases ago, and when I want an image of what Mrs. Thatcher has done to Britain I think of the carol singers. At the time she came to power, they would, as they always had, stand outside your house, sing a carol or two, then ring the bell and, if you answered, sing some more. Halfway through the rule of Thatch, I began noticing that they wouldn’t bother to start singing until they had first rung the bell and checked that you were there to listen and pay up. After she had been in power for about ten years, I opened the door one Christmas and peered out. There were two small boys some distance from the house already, unwilling to waste their time if they got a negative response. ‘Carols?’ one of them asked, spreading his hands in a businesslike gesture, as if he had just acquired a job lot of tunes off the back of a lorry and could perhaps be persuaded to cut me in. [1]

Text cut from section on Religious Orders, originally after the ‘spirituality’ section.

Religious Orders

Clericalism can be held primarily responsible for the decline of religious life. Anglican religious orders share some problems with their Roman Catholic counterparts but have others peculiar to themselves. Some Anglican problems are historical. Many communities were founded in the Victorian era and still confuse Victorian manners with monastic decorum. The one is imposed from without, the latter arises from a deep listening to the Holy Spirit. They were founded, often, by the most clericalised of clerics. They were founded, often, as a function of class, the wealthy upper class. They were founded, often, even when there was a foundress, even if they were unaware of it, to fulfil male clerical romantic fantasies about a tridentine ‘catholic’ church that has never existed.

This fantasy persists in the imagination of the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Anglican Communion, although they now regard many religious as ‘unreliable’ because of their distressing tendencies to act and think for themselves—even getting so above themselves as to speak in Synod!—and in need of further and tighter control. And while many communities have distanced themselves from the political wing of Anglo-Catholicism, fear of ‘what will Fawtha think’ is the source of terror many women religious feel about change. In consequence, Anglican religious women have been slow to exercise the freedom they already have. One sister from another community asked another, ‘who allowed you to go without veils?’ Roman Catholic women have greater cause for fear, as they are enslaved by canon law.

Romantic fantasy has spawned another problem. To the many layers of self-consciousness already present, another has been added (two more if the order is Anglo-maniac American, where eyes are additionally fixed on Mother Church at Canterbury): one eye, full of self-doubt (which is really doubting the ability of the Holy Spirit to do her work), is always fixed on Rome, and the underlying question whispers, ‘Are we real religious’? Whether they are aware of it or not, this question affects everything Anglican communities do or think. Roman Catholic religious are unfailingly polite about Anglican religious, but when pressed they will admit that this attitude is sad, and that it often seems to have made Anglican religious ‘strange’ or ‘quaint’. For all of that, one can only give thanks that the preparatory documents for the forthcoming Synod in Rome on the Religious Life urge ‘communio’ with Anglican, Protestant and Catholic communities, for ‘experience shows that a religious order has limited power to renew itself’. [2] For many of us, this is old news, but it is good to see it officially acknowledged, whatever other failings the Synod preparations may have.

But for Anglican communities, what the Roman Catholics ‘think’ (as opposed to communio) is precisely not the point. As long as a religious life is lived as a lifestyle as opposed to a way of life (the distinction is critical), as long as it is so utterly self-conscious, it cannot be authentic religious life, because it is not possible simultaneously to be self-conscious in this way and to be receptive to God. Thus the question that compares is self-defeating. [3]

One has only to read the guidelines issued by the Bishops’ Advisory Council on the Religious Life to see why Anglican communities are dying. It is evident that the most fundamental issues, the most trenchant of modern insights about the human person have not been incorporated, or, one suspects, even addressed. The attitudes this booklet contains are out of date by half a century. And there is a subtext of competitive envy that seems to say, ‘If you don’t do it this way, our way, you’re not authentic.’ Never mind that ‘our way’ leads to death. Even more telling, while Anglican religious were more than happy to quote from the 1917 Roman Catholic Code of Canon Law, 1983 code seems for them not to exist, especially Canons 603 and 604 which allow for solitary vocations and recognise them as religious.

This is not to say that the Roman Catholic Code of Canon Law is anything to admire: in general, it, too, has failed to reexamine its fundamental assumptions about the human person, evidenced in the most radical ways today, particularly in sexual scandals. Such scandals are not prevented by an overload of canon law that tries to allow for every eventuality, as any Anglican can (but probably won’t) tell you. In the event, I have yet to meet a British person who can talk in a matter-of-fact way about sex, and it is increasingly difficult to find Americans who can—for the same reason in an opposite expression: it’s hard to get Americans to shut up about their sexual obsessions.

The situation for religious is little different in the United States. The 1987 meeting of the Council on the Religious Life illustrates the degree of pathology that is at work. At this meeting the older, established communities were trying to resolve the bad blood between themselves and the newer communities, some of them non-traditional. The question, as always, was ‘who among is a real religious?’ As if this could be known to anyone but God. And as if religious were somehow a different class, a special species.

In a typical move, without consulting anyone—no solitary was at this meeting, nor any of their bishops—this group found unity by identifying a common enemy. They too it upon themselves to issue a resolution that said (I quote from memory) that they, the religious communities, ought to ‘control the solitaries to keep them from aberrations and bizarre behaviour’ and that solitaries should be centrally registered. One is tempted to ask, why not issue them yellow stars while you’re at it? This resolution has now been hardened into a set of ‘guidelines’ taken mostly from the anachronistic British guidelines. They are designed to kill any genuine solitary vocation that might emerge, should any bishop be foolish enough to pay attention to them. Fortunately there are still a few bishops with their eyes open. [2009: judging from the recent debate over union with God vs. blood atonement, there are no American bishops who have a clue.]

And any solitary in England, America or South Africa will tell you that the most frequently asked question, which usually is asked immediately after ‘how do you do’, is, ‘Who controls you?’ The assumption seems to be that solitaries have taken leave of their dignity and maturity as human beings simply because they have vowed themselves to God. And most of them are solitaries precisely because of the ‘aberrations and bizarre behaviour’ they have encountered in community. No one I know who has contemplative vocations in their care would send them to any community extant, in either the Anglican or Roman Catholic church. [4]

The plight of women has been and continues to be particularly poignant. Women’s communities still suffer from male control and the ancient male idea that womens’ minds are too weak for pure contemplation. In consequence, they have been herded into ever-smaller groups and their contemplative space and time crowded with busy-work, with many offices and recreations in common (the ‘Protestant’ work ethic is not news to contemplative nuns). Having been treated like this, women often so devalue and mistrust each other that they are unable to give one another the freedom that men seem to, or to leave one another alone at any level, an ingrained attitude that is exceedingly hard to change. Male oppression and devaluation of women, in religious life as in life in the world, also creates physical and mental disease, as has been repeatedly demonstrated.

Just to give an example: Carmelites who want more solitude, to return to an earlier rule are afraid to do so for fear of being accused of ‘not being Teresian’ by other Carmelites. Teresa would be appalled by such an accusation. Roman Catholic nuns in solemn vows (of whom the Carmelites are but one order) are required to keep papal enclosure and are subject to the local bishop, while men of the same order with identical vows are not subject to papal enclosure and are responsible only to Rome. The list of such disparities is endless. Although harder to specify, the same mentality exists among Anglican communities.

This situation has been compounded by the fact that women have a greater need for physical space than men, and have usually had less of it, due historically to having had less money and land to work with, generally speaking. [5]

We need also to remember that conditions for monasticism are completely different than they were when the cenobium appeared in the West. In a sparsely populated world, community takes on a very different meaning, as it still does in areas where there are fewer than two people per square mile. In an overpopulated world, the most valuable spiritual gifts community can provide for its members is silence, peace, and solitude.

The attitude that female religious are mindless ninnies, decorative religious objects for men to project off of and act out on, who need to be controlled, the idea that maturity vanishes with profession, must change. But the religious orders themselves must also change, so that they do not invite these attitudes. And they must listen to what the Spirit is saying in the churches and be willing to relinquish what is not essential. But they must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater as has so often been true in the past, particularly not to lose the context of beauty, however simple, that can enhance a life of prayer. [6]


[1] ‘Letter from London: The Maggie Years’ in The New Yorker, 15 November, 1993.
[2] Towards the 1994 Synod, ed. Austin Flannery, OP, Dominican Publications, 1993.
[3] To illustrate, take a long piece of paper about two inches wide. Draw a line the length of one side. Bend the ends and join them into a circle (like Christmas paper chains). This is a closed loop. Note that the line is always either inside or outside. There are two surfaces and two edges. The inside communicates only with the inside and the outside with the outside. This is the closed loop of self-consciousness; it is a closed system.
Now separate the ends, give one of them a half turn and join them again. This is a möbius loop. It has no ‘inside’ nor ‘outside’ (it should be imagined to be spinning); it is a model of perichoresis.
[4] There is a desperate need for an English-speaking, ecumenical Charterhouse in England. It does not work to send English-speaking women to the Continent, and the continental houses are in transition. [added note in 2009: The Carthusian order is closing novitiates and houses because they cannot break out of the illusion of believing their own mythology.]
[5] Sometimes the nuns have in fact had some money but have been forced to entrust it to men who have then appropriated it. Just ask the Benedictine nuns at St. Joseph, Minnesota.
[6] See the work of Robert J. McAllister, M.D., especially Living the Vows, Harper and Row, 1986, p. 225. It is significant that many men’s communities have come to easy terms with questions such as when and where it is appropriate to wear the habit, including individual discretion about the matter, which is still a vexed question that causes painful divisions in women’s communities, because habits have been used by men as a sign of oppression. A simple habit or cowl, appropriately used, can be an aid to prayer and many other things, but it can also be used to hide behind and to put people in slots. If we never get out of the habit, it is all too easy to lose our humanity. If we never wear it, we tend to lose a sense of the transcendent. The Cistercians, for example, sometimes refer to their voluminous cowl as ‘a prayer-tent to get lost in’.


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