Thursday, November 22, 2012

Saying No to Women Bishops

Several readers have written to ask if I would comment on the failure of the vote to approve women bishops in the Church of England, and so I will interrupt this series on Why Religious Life Died to do so. Be warned: I am afraid this will be something of a rant.

I will begin by noting that the continuing effect of men's misogyny in the church means that in women's religious communities, women also adopt the same devaluing, misogynist attitude towards each other that men have towards them. It doesn't matter how profoundly or insightfully a sister may speak: until a male ordained person says something similar, no one listens. In fact, quite the reverse: the insightful sister will be persecuted, even scorned. The male, of course, is celebrated as being so original, so helpful, so holy, etc. etc. etc. Religious life of this sort deserves to die.

This mentality is just as rampant in the church at large and in the UK as it is in women's religious communities. The UK is so misogynist that even the men who purport to support the women have no awareness at all of how misogynist they are. There are exceptions, of course, but they are very few. Women in the UK on a daily basis put up with treatment from men that is appalling by any standard, but, in the vicious cycle of abuse, even they don't realise how badly they are treated.

Of all the misogynistic academic disciplines among the humanities, theology is perhaps the worst. The misogyny is inherent. Women's theological work, no matter how original and creative, is regarded as fair game, and male scholars—especially men in high positions who hardly need any more accolades—rip women off all the time, using women's research and even their phraseology without attribution.

The irony is that women also do it to each other. As someone who presents herself as a strong feminist, but who shall remain nameless, said to me after her demonstration lecture at one of the top five universities in the world, 'While I was lecturing I kept thinking about how much I owe you, but of course I couldn't footnote you because you're not fashionable'.

As far as the vote on women bishops goes, what puzzles me is why anyone is surprised that it went the way it did, after the years of GAFCON's stonewalling and intransigence, years when they refused even to pray with the other bishops but went off to party instead. There is nothing of theology in this debacle. It's all about power: about minorities holding the majority hostage; about petulant extremists refusing to play, gleeful for having succeeded in jamming up the works. But it's not just the misogynist minorities who are after power: it's the women themselves.

The women are just as oblivious to the true nature of the problems as the men; just as deaf to anyone not ordained; just as rabid for power; just as devious and manipulative as the men, if not more so, because they have not yet achieved equal power. Again, there are exceptions, but they constitute a tiny fraction of the cohort of ordained women. Doesn't anyone stop to ask what these power struggles have to do with alleviating the desperate spiritual suffering of the laity?

As I noted in my essay 'The Seven Devils of Women's Ordination or She Who Lie Down with Dogs Catch Fleas' (which was published in the book Crossing the Boundary but is also on this blog at [many thanks to BR for finding this link]), instead of being a force for changing the power structures of the church, the women have bought into this thoroughly corrupt and repulsive system.

None of this sorry business is about helping people deepen their life in God; none of it is about the self-emptying God weeping over the creation. The way clergy are selected and trained obviates any possibility of these two issues being addressed. The the most fundamental way we understand Christianity has become completely distorted, degenerated into a lot of  fine-sounding babble that has lost its referents. The church needs far more to address this problem and to try to recover the ancient and patristic tradition, than be preoccupied with clergy power games. All of this kerfuffle about women bishops is simply rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

So much of the post-vote breast-beating shows just how out of touch the clergy are. As someone noted in one of the newspapers this morning, every time the church tries to be relevant it just becomes more irrelevant. This is not to say that women shouldn't be bishops, just that the present situation was utterly predictable.

Instead the church should wake up to the fact that its interpretation of its heritage is wildly wide of the mark because it is based on an anachronistic Cartesian methodology that makes a dog's breakfast of the ancient and patristic tradition; that it has taken all the substance, wisdom, and psychological resonances out of translations of the bible and the liturgy; that it is poisoned by the lingering magical thinking and narcissism introduced by Paschasius in the ninth century; that there is an ever broadening abyss between the clergy and the laity, which gained momentum in the twelfth century. As R. I. Moore notes in his wonderful book The War on Heresy, Peter Abelard '. . .said, citing other distinguished masters in his support, that in celebrating the Mass the words of consecration themselves were sufficient, regardless of who said them'. (p. 152) 'The idea of ordination now came to designate a ritual in which an individual was permanently endowed with the power of conferring the sacraments, rather than simply being appointed to carry out certain functions in the community. That such power could not be vested in women or laymen was not ancient or firmly established doctrine. It emerged in the first decades of the twelfth century... the clergy was a separate order of society, and set firmly apart from the laity'. (p. 155)

 Someone has remarked that the church should catch up to modern thinking, but misguided efforts to apply modern thinking are exactly what has taken all the beauty and mystery out of Western Christianity, which is what people seek in this increasingly flattened, debased and ugly society which has wrecked its environment. Modern thinking is why the women have to play men's power games in order to have any role at all in the church. Doesn't anyone stop to think how insulting it is to women to be discussed as if they were problems to be solved? Do women even have to fight to be acknowledged as fully human? Which is precisely what misogynists refuse to acknowledge.

Rather, the church should provide a corrective to modern thinking. Another person said the C of E no longer has any credibility, not realising—or choosing to ignore—that no one has been listening to any church for years, not only because of the very un-Christian infighting among the factions, but also because very few of the clergy have anything worth saying beyond a lot of sloganeering. There is a dearth of practical instruction that will help people live their lives in the beauty of holiness and root their lives in contemplation so that they can survive the increasingly abusive milieu in which we live. Another person said that the church would become a laughing stock—for a lot of people it already is, people who do not realise the tragedy that is unfolding in front of their own eyes that affects their lives whether they will or not.

As for the extreme minority who claim certainties, few of their members stop to think that attributing stasis to God is a form of blasphemy. 'The compulsion to find ...certainty is its own punishment', says the poet Christian Wiman in his profound and light-filled book of essays, My Bright Abyss, to be published on April 2 of next year. Salvation, in one of its oldest definitions, means to be released from a trap, and nothing traps like the squalid little self-conscious world of certainties and navel-gazing that tries to keep the contingencies of life locked in the closet, and push every one and every thing including God in its own little procrustean compartment.

Why can't we find some way to convey the message that self-forgetfulness is the source of joy, whereas self-preoccupation is the source of exactly the sort of conflict we have seen for far too many centuries but has reached a new low in the present day?

The only certainty is free-fall in the love of God.


Anonymous BR said...

Maggie, love & blessings to you.

Here are the links to the twelve-part essay "The Seven Devils of Women's Ordination" for those who wish to read, it's from May to August 2009. I hope the HTML works for the links:

Part I:

Part II:

Part III:

Part IV:

Part V:

Part VI:

Part VII:

Part VIII:

Part IX:

Part X:

Part XI:

Part XII:

5:53 pm, November 22, 2012  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...


Thank you VERY much!!!


6:54 pm, November 22, 2012  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As someone who presents herself as a strong feminist, but who shall remain nameless, said to me after her demonstration lecture at one of the top five universities in the world, 'While I was lecturing I kept thinking about how much I owe you, but of course I couldn't footnote you because you're not fashionable'.

Pardon my language, but HOLY SHIT. And she said that with a straight face???

I don't even count myself a Christian any longer, but I constantly mention how much you have influenced my thinking.

7:09 pm, November 22, 2012  
Anonymous sgl said...

re: churches (not just CofE) losing credibility

there was a survey done of the attitudes of young americans today re: christianity, and a book titled "unChristian" written about the results. I haven't read the book, but one of the reviews on amazon summarizes the results, and perhaps you or your readers would find it of interest:

good news gone bad, January 9, 2008; By Daniel B. Clendenin

In his book The Heart of Christianity (2003) Marcus Borg of Oregon State University describes how his university students have a uniformly negative image of Christianity. "When I ask them to write a short essay on their impression of Christianity," says Borg, "they consistently use five adjectives: Christians are literalistic, anti-intellectual, self-righteous, judgmental, and bigoted." [....]

A new book called unChristian (2007) by David Kinnaman of the Barna Group presents objective research that supports Borg's subjective anecdote. Kinnaman's three-year study documents how an overwhelming percentage of sixteen to twenty-nine year olds view Christians with hostility, resentment and disdain. [....]

According to Kinnaman's Barna study, here are the percentages of people outside the church who think that the following words describe present-day Christianity:

* antihomosexual 91%
* judgmental 87%
* hypocritical 85%
* old-fashioned 78%
* too political 75%
* out of touch with reality 72%
* insensitive to others 70%
* boring 68%

It would be hard to overestimate, says Kinnaman, "how firmly people reject-- and feel rejected by-- Christians" (19). Or think about it this way, he suggests: "When you introduce yourself as a Christian to a friend, neighbor, or business associate who is an outsider, you might as well have it tattooed on your arm: antihomosexual, gay-hater, homophobic. I doubt you think of yourself in these terms, but that's what outsiders think of you" (93).

Gabe Lyons of the Fermi Project who commissioned the Barna research remembers his first look at the data. "I'll never forget sitting in Starbucks, poring through the research results on my laptop. As I soaked it in, I glanced at the people around me and was overwhelmed with the thought that this is what they think of me. It was a sobering thought to know that if I had stood up and announced myself as a 'Christian' to the customers assembled in Starbucks that day, they would have associated me with every one of the negative perceptions described in this book" (222, his italics). Sad to say, Marcus Borg was even more right than he knew.


7:51 pm, November 22, 2012  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have just read "The Seven Devil's of Women's Ordination" and it blew my mind. I am a male cleric and a lot of what you said opened my eyes to the problems of the church and how I/we (clerics)are part of the problem.
What I want to ask - and it might sound a bit daft - is how do we Christians get back on track with regard to prayer and liturgy. Can you say something about prayer - I know you don't like 'spiritual gurus' but some simple words that might help would be much appreciated. I loved the talk Rowan Williams gave to the Bishops in Rome. In practical terms, how do I/we go about opening ourselves to God? I have prayed the Jesus Prayer but there seems to be more to it...

11:45 pm, November 22, 2012  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reading this, coping with what's going on in the diocese where my family and I attend church, I just don't know what to think, or what to do any more. I may be done with it all. All the talk, all the nonsense. I'm embarrassed by the label "Christian" because it is associated with all those rigid, Puritanical "values" that are not values at all. I'm sick of ignorant bigots hijacking Christianity. I'm sick of people "defending" God's honor. There is no cure or salvation for me other than attending to the present moment and surrendering to silence, as poorly as I do those things. There is nothing else for me.

3:37 am, November 23, 2012  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Thank you for your comments. As to 'how do we Christians get back on track with regard to prayer and liturgy' the short answer is to learn the work of silence and beholding. Rather than write a long reply, may I suggest you read 'Writing the Icon of the Heart: In Silence Beholding', a book I published last year, which addresses the questions you ask. There is a 'Rite for Contemplative Eucharist' in this blog in January 2006. There are other writings scattered through the bog that also might be helpful.

There are also two papers coming out next year that I can send you if you will send me your email address. Send it through the comments but mark it at the top 'Do Not Publish'.

The shortest response is that whenever you catch yourself being preoccupied with interior noise, mentally turn away from it and reach into the silence that is deep within you. You can do this at any time, under any circumstances. As you deepen your own silence and self-forgetfulness, these attributes will start being communicated to those around you.

Bless you.

4:14 am, November 23, 2012  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

'There is no cure or salvation for me other than attending the present moment and surrendering to silence, as poorly as I do these things'.

This acute listening is the core; it is completed by sacramental life, but if the liturgy destroys the silence then it's counter-productive to attend.

I feel much as you do, but I find I still need to sing hymns and hear music and receive the sacrament, though I pick and choose where I go very carefully, and I attend less and less—with the exception that I go as often as I can to the Benedictine Office at the local monastic house for monks doing degrees here. Somehow the Office transcends all the difficulties, as dreadful as the RC translation is and, sometimes, there is Latin and the chant.

It's a hard road, and often you feel alone.

Bless you, and thank you for writing.

4:20 am, November 23, 2012  
Blogger Beth-Isolde said...

Ihave not commented on your blog before but had to write to thank tou for voicing so eloquently my pent up frustration and sadness concerning the institution of the Church of England.Hundreds of years of inattention to the essential messages of Christ has resulted in the production of a large mill-stone which needs to be jettisoned.
Bles you, thank you, and keep writing as long as you can! Petra

10:56 am, November 23, 2012  
Anonymous Petra said...

Good to know from comments on your blog that, worldwide, there is a community of praying, possibly church-less, faithful, silence-seeking quiet revolutionaries!

11:00 am, November 23, 2012  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

How do you change a church? Here is an ex-Anglican, now a spokesperson for the Quakers, quoted in today's Guardian (23 Nov 12): 'Once you get used to stillness – it's not silence, it's a very deep stillness, listening to one another and listening to God – I would find it hard to go back to somebody telling me what page number to turn to.'

Amen to that, Sister!

10:14 pm, November 23, 2012  
Anonymous Glenda said...

Hi Maggie
I had a similar response to a sermon I wrote. I am a Lay person and at my spiritual director's suggestion sent (on the Friday evening) a copy of the sermon I was going to preach on Sunday. His response was to say it was very good, and he asked if he could use the central idea, "but I won't attribute it to you at all"!! He is an RC priest, I am Anglican - even more reason not to attribute!! I have since found another director!

Many thanks for your courageous critique of the church. Blessings Glenda

10:47 pm, November 23, 2012  
Blogger Susan Hollins said...

Dear Maggie

I'm one of the women clergy...among the first number to be ordained to the Priesthood in 1994. I do not follow the ways of manipulation or power, although though I have responsibilities beyond those of being a parish priest. I too am a contemplative..

We are in dolorous times; a dark age for the church. Perhaps it's time for the walls to tumble...


7:54 pm, November 24, 2012  
Blogger Unknown said...

You are dead-on! You identify and name all the ills that beset the Christian churches, of whatever stripe, today. Of course, it's not fashionable to quote you. You speak the unvarnished truth and the unvarnished truth is not fashionable. It takes courage to quote you! The incident you relate reminds me of one related by Phyllis Tickle, who heard herself quoted by a clergyman from the pulpit but without attribution. On the way out, she shook his hand and said under her breath, "Copper." And he said, "Oh, I didn't see you out there", and went right on shaking hands.

2:14 am, November 26, 2012  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Jane from South Africa says:

Dear Maggi

As ever, a post that is 100%. I forget the name of the author, but a book worth reading is "If the church were Christian" - it comes out of the same space as the Barna referred to. I would also recommend your "Pillars of flame" and, if readers can get hold of it, "Your God is too small" by JB Philips.

One of your readers asks about getting back on track. I'm not expert, of course, but I would direct him to your previous post on the importance of manual work. Odd though it may sound, I have found that weaving, spinning and knitting have definitely helped to open up the inner space to which you refer.

As for your comments on not being willing to acknowledge the source of one's quotations in a sermon. That's not even common courtesy, never mind not Christian.

But then who wants to listen to a sermon anyway? Not me, that's for sure.

And do we need bishops of either gender?

I suspect we don't.

Jane Smith (Pretoria, South Africa)

9:30 am, November 27, 2012  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Dear Jane,

Thanks for your good comment. You are so right about manual work.

As for the person who refuses to acknowledge, I wish it were confined to a sermon. But my work is foundational to hers and perhaps ongoing. For my peace of mind I don't read anything of hers.

Academia can be very nasty,


2:21 pm, November 28, 2012  

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