General Synod members, please ignore: On receiving women as “non-Bishops”

6 Feb

I rarely write about intra-church politics and I try to limit my participation in such debates.  I find that one can get so caught up in arguing one’s “side” that tempers are frayed, the argument becomes the issue, and the gospel message is abandoned on account of the tone of the conversation.

But I feel pretty strongly on the issue of receiving women into the episcopate because I’m a feminist Anglican.  If I did not love women, I’d  not be concerned about their being sidelined.  If I did not care about the episcopate, I would not be Catholic, and were I not Catholic, I wouldn’t be Anglican.  For many Anglicans, I think Bishops play a rather shadowy role, they get a mention each week in “the intercessions”, they show up every so often for a confirmation, and that’s about it for your average C of E pew warmer.  But that’s to considerably downplay their significance.  The episcopacy matters on account of its existence as the sign of unity in Jesus Christ.  See the excellent article, That We May Be One on Edward Green’s + blog.

The bishop (whose role seems minimised in Anglican circles) is the one from whom his/her priests’ priesthood is authorized.  Individual presbyters (at least in Catholic theology) are only presbyters by virtue of their participation[1] in the office of their bishops.  This point should not be understated.  Indeed, some catholic theologies would go so far as to say that priests only exercise “second-rank” priesthood.  In the Early Church, what mattered was the episcopacy because priests were only acting, basically, as Bishop delegates.  As a result of communion with the Bishop, and authorization from the Bishop, a priest exercises priestly ministry.

Here I’d like to acknowledge a post made by Revd Lesley, who would counter-argue that Bishops are not the focus for Unity, for our focus for Unity is Jesus Christ.  To some degree, I think she’s correct, but I believe she attempts a sleight of hand.  At least in so far as we discover and receive Jesus Christ, Catholic theology would suggest that we do so through the sacraments, and since the sacraments can only be administered by a priest whose priesthood is exercised on account of authorization by the Bishop, it seems that our focus for Unity is still the Bishop.  I’d posit, in response, that Jesus Christ is NOT the focus for unity.  Jesus Christ IS our unity, as the one in whom we live, move and have our being.

You’ll note that I already said “her” when referring to the role of the Bishop because I acknowledge that we already have received women in other parts of the Anglican Communion.  You might also note that I try to use the word “receive” about women bishops.  I believe they’ve always “existed” in different ways, but the church hasn’t always acknowledged their existence in the form of ministerial office. The existence of bishops (who happen to be women) is the logical out working of the Holy Spirit’s action through baptism (which I, and many others, hope and pray the wider church will come to acknowledge).  Thus, I would like to state at the outset that I entirely, wholeheartedly support women’s participation at all levels of ministerial order throughout the church.   And that’s why I believe that women should NOT YET be received as Bishops.

You might wonder why, since I support women’s ministry at all levels of the church, I hope the move will be delayed a while longer?  Personally, I’d be as delighted to receive and pray for a woman as a Bishop as I would for a man, although I must confess that for the average pew sitter such as me, it wouldn’t affect parish daily life one iota.  That this is the case probably implies there’s something problematic about the way episcopal office is practiced.  But the question remains as to why I do not believe that women should yet be received as Bishops.  My problem is that I do not believe, whatever the result of the C of E  General Synod 2012, that even if women were granted permission to accept their episcopal offices that they would actually assume the role of Bishops.  The reception of women as Bishops (prior to a more considerable degree of agreement on the matter) does not do women or the church any favours.

It’s my concern that to receive women as Bishops would be to add an additional level of ministerial order to that acknowledged by Ignatius in the 2nd century.  Ignatius (in his letter to the Philadelphians) speaks of bishops, presbyters and deacons.  Were the Anglican church to receive women as Bishops at this moment in time, what we would do is to introduce a kind of super-presbyter, and not a Bishop (or, if you’d prefer, a second-rank Bishop).  That’s because many traditional Anglo-catholics are likely to opt for a structure akin to an additional province (which is broadly practiced through flying bishops at present), and thus wouldn’t need to acknowledge a woman as their Bishop.  The existence of an additional province would result in women bishops not being equivalent to their male counterparts in any of the provinces, and there also being a breakdown of unity between the bishops, which would essentially lead to schism in the Church of England (more serious than that which currently exists due to refusal to admit even the orders of fellow brother presbyters).  Conservative Evangelicals who, at present, are simply taught to ignore their bishops would potentially also jump into the “alternative province” fold, leading to a situation similar to that in the United States where we have both the TEC and ACNA and other branches of ever-increasing Protestant-isation.   An additional concern about  schism within the Church of England would be that it might harm fellow-Christians.  I fear the wider Church would look on in horror, note that women bishops lead to schism and move ever more firmly and resolutely away from receiving women into any ministerial office.   My contention is that the introduction of super-presbyters would not be desired by anybody.

For the bishops (as yet unelect) who were female, this would be a form of cruelty.  There is nothing more sexist than to proclaim that women are equal in role to men, and then simply to appoint them to another role entirely.  Of course, such discrimination would not be intentional, but would, I believe, be the consequence of receiving them too soon.  It is simply not fair on the women in question (and they hardly need additional opprobrium).  But (and this affects many more women), it sends out the message that “different, but not equal is OK” even though we were all dunked in the same font.  Let’s not send out the message that fudging an issue on which we disagree is good enough. For every other baptised women who seeks to root her dignity in being created in the image of God, we must continue to hold out for full equality, and voting on women bishops prior to agreement on any code of practice appears to be folly.

From an ecumenical point of view[2], a fourth “order” might not be as much of a concern as has been suggested, especially if it might be viewed in the same manner as the offices of minor-order, which are rather out of fashion since the Second Vatican Council.  (I’m not putting the office of  the “super-presbyter” in the same category as that of a minor order, merely suggesting that it could be said that the role was a superfluous office added by one part of the tradition that could potentially be ignored by the wider tradition.)  It would mean that, again, technically, it would be possible to argue ecumenically that despite its best intentions, the Church of England had never succeeded in actually receiving women as bishops!  As a result, ecumenical relations need not be hindered, but, despite our best efforts, we’d not have women bishops either.

It seems a shame, at this critical juncture to go down the route of speculating about ecumenical relations in light of the reception of women bishops[3], given that  the Roman Catholic Church at least, has made a considerable concession through their near-admission of women as occupiers of the office of ministerial priesthood.  It’s not a cut and dried affair, but I’d like to suggest that Cardinal Walter Kasper’s address to a Meeting of the C of E bishops in 2006 is remarkable on account of this statement:

A resolution in favour of the ordination of women to the episcopate within the Church of England would most certainly lower the temperature once more; in terms of the possible recognition of Anglican Orders, it would lead not only to a short-lived cold, but to a serious and long-lasting chill.”

What is not said is as important as what is stated. Bearing in mind that Ordinatio Sacerdotalis stated “the church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women…”, that here Cardinal Kasper implies a “possible” recognition of orders is in itself extraordinary.

I might, of course, be mistaken about the degrees of schism that could take place within the Anglican Communion.  There may just be a mass exodus to the ordinariate.  But if that’s the case, I can’t help but feel we will ALL have “lost”.  It would be easier, for somebody on my “side” to conclude that I couldn’t wait to see the back of a bunch of sexist, misogynistic[4] people with whom I shared nothing.  But actually, these are our  brothers (and sisters) with whom we currently eat and share friendships, and their presence is part of what keeps us Catholic.

On Twitter, a few days ago, I asked to hear from female priests within the Anglican Catholic tradition on the matter of apostolic continuity and women bishops.  I received no replies.  I’d still be intrigued to receive such a response here because I’m wondering whether there are alternative ways to imagine how to move forward that give full equality to women without denigrating the historic episcopacy?

The General Synod will begin tomorrow and happily nobody will read this blog, but I wanted to outline why I feel that women “non-Bishops” will be bad for women.  I find it immensely alarming that much of the Women Bishops  debate online is that it is couched in terms of “rights” and “fear”.  Nobody has the “right” to be a priest or a bishop or a baptised person.  We receive offices and sacraments as gifts.  I am deeply troubled by the theological illiteracy amongst bloggers and tweeters who I’m fairly certain ought to know better, and since they don’t, I believe they’ve  been failed by the church.

Whatever the outcome, we must continue, however difficult, to pray and struggle to become what we proclaim:  One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.

[1] I think “participation” is fair, but others might prefer “communion”.  See Catholic Encyclopedia Entry on Priest and The Priest and The Bishop.

[2] By “ecumenical”, I refer to Rome and the different types of Orthodox because, I believe, as an Anglican-catholic we share more with our church “parents” than we do with Protestants.

[3] I have forced myself to think long and hard about whether I’d have made this type of argument against the admission of women to ministerial priesthood in 1992.  I can only conclude that I would not, on account of the distinction between the role of priest and bishop which I allude to in paragraph three.

[4] As I hope will be clear from my argument, I don’t happen to believe that every person who refuses to acknowledge the role of women in the episcopate is sexist, misogynistic or acting out of fear.  It is the role of those of us who believe the Holy Spirit is doing something new to state our case more clearly, and name-calling does not achieve this end.


“I get the drains fixed because I believe in the incarnation” – Flash Evensong 28th October

30 Oct

I meant to blog on Friday, but time did not allow.  The disruptive peace of Christ broke in at the third Flash Evensong on 28th October 2011 outside St Paul’s cathedral, and I’ve transcribed the sermon from Bishop Alan Wilson, but you can also listen to it here on Chirbit

I was surprised to see a Bishop present for the service, but to be fair, nothing seems too out of place at St Paul’s at present.  Indeed, some of those around me failed to recognise the clergyman as a bishop, what with his purple garb being hidden under a mysterious detective-style grey raincoat.  I thoroughly approve…  Bishop in disguise!

The Bishop of Buckingham ad-libbed with nothing but the text of 1 Maccabees 2 in front of him on an iPad.  I’m afraid I missed the first 20 seconds of his sermon due to being caught up in the service (I generally do not use my phone in church!), but as I recall, he began with a brief explanation about the  long list of Maccabees featured in the reading….

“… These Old Testament heroes, if you like, for the law and traditions of their people.  That’s the story of the Maccabees and Judas Maccabeus.  Jesus suggested that singleness of mind was a great thing if the light within you was light, how fortunate you would be.  But he also taught his followers that greater than any law was the duty to the neighbour.  Far greater than any obligations to the traditions of our ancestors was the obligation to the person next door to you.  Did it matter whether they were of the temple or not?  The parable of the Good Samaritan suggests that the answer is a resounding “no”.  It matters not if they’re of the household of faith or not, simply that they are your neighbour.

We stand in the middle of an extraordinary process of discernment.  How are we to love our neighbour?  What sort of a society are we to live in?  What is a life worth living going to be like?  And how can we personally and corporately make out of the wraths and sorrows that surround us, a life worth living?  Everybody must be part of this discussion for everybody is affected by the answer that evolves in this place.  To suggest that the discussion can simply be limited to the elite who got us into this mess in the first place <single cheer from crowd> is extraordinary folly.  As Einstein reminded us, ‘you cannot solve a problem on the level on which it was created’.  A bigger, larger discussion is needed.  A bigger, larger loyalty than the narrow and partial ones that got us into this mess in the first place.  So the question for everybody here, whether in that building or in this square is the same.  How aligned can we be to our greatest,our most accepting, our most loving vision of what it means to be human and and what the possibilities of being human together might be.  And having decided that, how aligned could we be to a bigger cause, perhaps, than leaving none uncircumised and going around circumcising them valiantly?  Let’s take that as read and go after a bigger vision.

There was once a church in the south of England seeking a new vicar.  The parochial council were interviewing candidates at night in the church.  A willowy, young Anglo-catholic <St Paul’s bells indicate it’s 7pm> male came in and said, “what this places needs is not a manager, but a priest, and he had in mind the great tradition of slum Anglo-catholic priests in this city, who went out and changed it in the 19th century.  You’ll remember Dolling perhaps  <dong>, “I get the drains fixed because I believe <dong> in the incarnation” <crowd laughs>.  There’s a good tradition of that <dong> in London.   He didn’t get the job though <dong> because the next that happened was the  local <dong> bag lady burst into church saying as was her wont <dong>, “help, I need a priest”, <dong> whereupon the young, willowy Anglo-catholic candidate disappeared to the toilet.  Now if that place <Bishop pointed to St Paul’s cathedral> responds to the challenge of that place <Bishop pointed to #occupylsx camp> in that kind of way, we are in trouble.  And if we can find a better way of responding to the challenge that is all around us in this city in this square in this place tonight, maybe there is hope for this tired old world after all.

In Him, and for Him, to whom be ascribed as is most justly due all honour, might, dominion and power, tonight and forever, Amen.”  <crowd echo an audible “Amen”

You can also watch a Channel 4 interview with the same Bishop from Saturday 29th October.

I have so much that I’d like to be able to say about the Flash Evensong.  It was beautiful spine-tingly worship.  It is good to hear the Bishop speaking on Channel 4 about the Magnificat because when the choir sang, “the rich he hath sent empty away”, it seemed to have a very special resonance there on the outside of the cathedral.

There was something very primitive about gathering around the Bishop as he preached.  A crowd of Flash Evensong choir and congregation, as well as curious passers-by and Occupy protesters encircled the Bishop, very clearly engaging with his words.  I imagined the early Whitfield, not so much thrown out of the church as believing his congregation might lay outside of it.  Listening to a preacher in the bustling open air of London (and thus without altar), instead of inside the magnificent Wren edifice made it impossible not to imagine oneself cast back even further as a non-conformist, or earlier still as one of the first disciples, gathered around their Lord.

More extraordinary for me was the use of the Book of Common Prayer Evensong… I am not a liturgical Common Worship despising snob.  I don’t think the BCP is the best thing since sliced bread, but it contains prayers which are undeniably treasures of the Church of England.  The BCP was chosen on account of the fact that the setting of Evensong has had so much music arranged for it, but it seems negligent to fail to recall that the Book of Common Prayer is a deeply important theological and political document in its own right.  It is fitting that the book which has long acted as a compromise between warring ecclesial parties be cited by those (arguably) supporting the Occupy movement on the same evening it was used by the Establishment inside the cathedral.

Is it true that Flash Evensong folk support OccupyLSX against the Cathedral?  That would be too simplistic.  Many Christians are aware of the pressures that the Dean and Chapter currently face and would not wish to divide concretely into sides of “us” and “them”.  We are all in this together.  Some gathered initially for Flash Evensong because they felt that the cathedral should not be closed and since it failed in its duty to invite people to worship, the public worship must go on (I must admit, when the cathedral was closed, I couldn’t help think back to the “private” masses of the medieval priests, uttered in Latin in a way that certain scholars of the Reformation suggest they were inaccessible to the people of God)[1].  Others perhaps gathered to sing something beautiful, to make a joyful sound unto the Lord. Still others maybe came because they were curious.

I can only speak for myself.  It is firstly impossible for me to leave work early enough to attend Evensong at the Cathedral, but I love to worship and I care about protesting injustice, so I could not miss the opportunity.  I attended Flash Evensong on this occasion because I felt strongly that St Paul’s Cathedral should not have agreed to undertake legal proceedings against Occupy, especially before entering into discussion with them.  I believe that people should be able to protest peacefully, and whilst I have heard the Cathedral’s view that some of the land which the protestor’s occupy is private on account of it belonging to the Cathedral, I contest, theologically, the notion of “private”.  I’d argue that no church property is private (at least not in the way that an individual’s land might be said to be private) because I contend that the Church is first of all, the Body of Christ and thus the people.  I struggle with the theological move that I need to make to bring the metaphor to a stone building.  Perhaps I would be better instead to say, “all the while the Blessed Sacrament is reserved in the Cathedral, the Cathedral’s primary claim is not as property of the Crown, but as the home of Christ”.  There are two arguments there, one from the metaphor of the people, and one from the reserved sacrament…  They’re linked, but I cannot think how to draw this out more successfully.   Anyhow, when I attend Evensong outside the cathedral, I am saying “though we [the church] are many, we are one body, and I cannot in good conscience let this [my] body act against [the protester’s] bodies in a manner that I consider might result in violence”.

There is more to be said.  I am confident that even in a place that I sometimes think of as “St Paul’s Museum” it is impossible for the Mass, the Eucharist, not to be revolutionary.  The protesters may have defaulted to St Paul’s on account of it being the closest they could have drawn to the Stock Exchange, but I believe that this happy accident will ensure enough publicity to pursue a national debate in a manner that would not have been possible had they landed successfully in Paternoster Square.

I will learn to be a plumber because I believe in the incarnation.  Viva la revolution!

[1] I am cautious about this point.  I do not think that a service is inaccessible simply on account of its being in another language.  I am not convinced that a Mass is ever “private” because I believe in the communion of saints who partake.  And I am very cautious, post-Duffy, of assuming that lay people were automatically excluded from the pre-reformation Masses.  That said, I hope you can see the imaginative point I was making!

The last thing the world needs…

28 Oct

…is more half-baked theological ramblings from cyberspace.

What we actually all need is a church that is awake to the seductive whisperings of the Holy Spirit.  We need a body capable of witnessing the upside down, topsy turvy world of Jesus Christ in which we love our enemies and pray for those that trespass against us.  But that’s just irresponsible, right?  And utopian.  And quite beyond the reach of most of us.

To inhabit that church, we probably need to be offline one hell of a lot more than we’re online so that we can do things with bodies.  Bathe them, clean them, bless them, carry them and feed them, just like Jesus.  But that’s messy, and it’s much safer to lurk behind our screens.

Until I find myself so captivated by the church that I cannot go home, until I find myself living in the temple like Anna, I’m afraid it’s more half-baked theological ramblings from me, Shalom Activist.

To be fair, I just couldn’t resist another blog.  Things at my Real Life church are a little, well, parochial, so I’ve been doing a little activism in my spare time.  Tinkering with nuclear submarines, asking what loving one’s enemies looks like, and as usual, trying to work out what it means to be enfleshed as a queerly Christian human being.

All Christians are queer when viewed by the world, but it’s taking some time for the church to come out of her closet.  The main issue has been the realisation that some of us are naked.  The Emperor too, it turns out, wasn’t wearing any clothes either.  And it’s winter now.

Constantine is not only naked, and revealed in full glory, but most definitely dead.  Christianity isn’t the State religion anymore in anything but name.  And we’re all having to be born again in the ruins.  But being born again when you’re naked and everybody is waiting for the closet door to open isn’t easy.  To cope with our identity disorders, we’re trying to figure out how to evict the people who are making our lives uncomfortable.  Squabbling, back-biting and in-fighting have become so commonplace that nobody pays to watch us anymore.  We just about keep some of the Religious Correspondents in part-time jobs, but they’re probably paid less than the people that write the the weekend Gardening supplements…

Anyhow, just recently, a couple of fellow closet-dwellers pointed out that one of the first to have been brutally pushed from the closet into an unmerciful world was Jesus.


Now we’re watching to see what happens next…