#Reaffirm5?

For those of you inside or near the Church of England bubble, you’ll have been aware of some media furore over the last week about the incoming bishop of Sheffield, +Philip North.

In brief: Colin Podmore of the Society of St Wilfrid and Hilda (a conservative doesn’t-approve-of-women-priests society) has lamented (in laypeople’s terms), “How do we know who’s an acceptable priest now that WOMEN BISHOPS are a thing? These priests might have been ordained by a woman, or have been ordained by a bishops who has ordained women — therefore the are not ‘real priests’ and we ‘cannot accept’ their ministry. Perhaps we should have some kind of identification system so we know who’s OK and who’s not.”

In response to this, Martyn Percy, a priest and currently the Dean of Christ Church in Oxford, has called for +Philip North, who helps to lead the Society of S Wilfrid and Hilda (hereafter, SSWSH) to either radically distance himself from this group, or to not take up his post as Bishop of Sheffield.

Much opinionating has followed. As always.

The Church of England currently recognises 5 ‘Guiding Principles’ regarding this ongoing conflict between traditionalists and progressives, which point to a goal of ‘mutual flourishing’ for all. At their heart these principles are about inclusion and tolerance — not values, notably, that all in the CofE prioritise highly (especially not those opposed to women priests). In the course of this debate, a Twitter hashtag has sprung up in support of +Philip’s appointment to Sheffield: #reaffirm5. The argument there is that there church will never not be diverse and will always require the laying aside of differences for the sake of the kingdom; that Philip’s work especially promoting the causes of the least privileged make him a great bishop and a focus of unity, even though he doesn’t believe that 1/3 of the clergy in the Diocese of Sheffield are ‘really’ priests, because of their sex.

I have stayed fairly quiet during this debate, partially because hey, there’s a passel of fascists running the USA and so I’ve been preoccupied with that more than church politics. But also because, deep inside, I’ve never been certain that the 5 guiding principles can mean anything of value to anyone outside the church: the very people whom the church (should be) seeking to serve, love, and point Christward.

‘Mutual flourishing’, as Percy points out, cannot really be ‘mutual’ if one side is still denied full humanity before God. I do not doubt that +Philip has much compassion for those experiencing poverty, for the north of the the UK, and that he is a wise person who, many tell me, is a good, pastoral overseer. However, he is also a key player in the SSWSH which does two harmful things. Firstly, it believes that women cannot exercise priestly or episcopal (or in some extreme cases, diaconal) ministry, therefore denying the ultimate equality of women and men before God. Secondly, it promotes a system of ‘alternative episcopal oversight’ whereby those who do not agree with their local bishop can seek a bishop they do agree with, usually over the issue of women’s ordination. This, which a few of my colleagues refer to as ‘Tesco bishop-ing’ (in that you go to the bishops and just pick one off the shelf you like the best), undermines the collegial and ecclesiological fabric of English Anglicanism, furthering sectarianism of many kinds. So this ‘mutual flourishing’ at its heart is actually about preserving a corner of the church where it’s OK to reject women’s ministry, on either traditional or biblical grounds.

The leaders of the SSWSH have condemned a theology of ‘taint’ whereby their members refuse to be ordained by a female bishop, a male bishop that has ordained women, or where members might refuse to concelebrate with male priests who’ve worked with women or concelebrated with women, trained female curates, ever dressed in drag, etc. The reality is, however, that such a theology is alive and well amongst traditionalists on the catholic and evangelical ends of the Anglican spectrum, whether it is acknowledged or not. (If I may be permitted the innuendo: a taint by any other name would smell as sour.)

Of course the great beauty of Anglicanism is its breadth and, in theory at least, its lack of a ‘thought police’ (though it sometimes seems to be moving in this policed direction). People and priests are free to have their private beliefs so long as they show up, worship God the Holy Trinity, engage with the historic creeds and the 39 articles, and worship using the approved forms of the Church of England.

Naturally, this freedom means that sometimes people are going to pick up a bible or a bit of the historical church doctrine and see ‘Women are subhuman, women should be silent, I do not permit a woman to teach,’ etc., and decide to take these things uncritically. The bible is a beautiful, inspired book, but it was penned (mostly) by men in a thoroughly patriarchal society which didn’t have a lot of time for women. It’s a patriarchally-infused, often outright sexist, book. As are many of the writings of the church fathers, from which the earliest notions of priesthood in the western and eastern churches were drawn and developed in later centuries.

I write ‘decide to take these things uncritically’ because that is what a rejection of women’s full humanity, women’s ordination to all holy orders, is: a decision. It is not a moment of submission to a text (though it might be couched as such); nor is it a moment of seeing through to the ‘true textual meaning’. It is a decision to privilege the patriarchal content of the text as the full content of the text, rather than engaging with the text as a living document reflecting both the culture in which it was produced, and the cultures (still quite patriarchal) in which it is today read.

Naturally, as a woman in holy orders my approach to the text and the tradition are different.

And yet, I do thoroughly value a church where people are allowed to differ in opinion, allowed to doubt and challenge and change. In my life I have been a person who wasn’t OK with women’s leadership in church, much less women’s ordination; I have been someone who used the bible to excuse my own homophobia; I have been someone who could not see the grace of God for the legalism in which I bound myself. And yet, I found churches that let me exist there, let me encounter a God of grace and love who broke me — slowly, painfully — out of these places, and many others.

So, do I think there’s a place in the church for people who refuse to accept the sacramental ministry and leadership of women? Yes. Because I was once one of them.

However, do I think the Church of England should be ringfencing un-collegial, ecclesiologically unsound, sexist and donatist arrangements with the 5 guiding principles? I admit, I do not. I currently affirm them because my church — the one who trained, ordained, and supports me — requires me to affirm them, to respect my brothers and sisters who differ from me in their views. But I think this is an insufficient solution, one that is promoted by the SSWSH whose agendas and practices I find quite shocking. The SSWSH uses the language of ‘ministry we can receive with confidence.’ They reject the notion of will, of choosing to receive women’s ministry, instead suggesting that ‘there they stand, they can do no other.’ (An interesting sentiment from an often highly Reformation-skeptic group.)  I myself am highly suspicious of this passive language, as it removes the agency from the members and seeks to put it elsewhere — the church? Christ? The Godhead? Who knows. It is a triumph of the passive in English language and culture. But, as those who study grammar know, the passive does not connote inaction, or lack of will on the part of a subject. It simply is a linguistic convention designed to speak around something, for the comfort of the speaker, the listeners, the whole society. The language of ‘cannot receive’ is just an encoded language of ‘will not receive’; such resistance to the teaching of one’s church used to be called heresy, apostasy, or at the very least, canonical disobedience. These days it is given special protection.

If +Philip North cannot distance himself from this group which promotes this unjust canonical disobedience and seeks special protection for it, I have trouble seeing how any flourishing for women and men he can (or will) promote would be truly ‘mutual’. And what’s more important, I don’t know how the church of England, if it promotes sexism (even in God’s name), can speak with integrity to people and societies worldwide that are slowly but surely coming to recognise the full humanity of women as a lynchpin for human justice.

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note:  Until very recently my own diocesan bishop has been +Richard Chartres, who took a similar line to +Philip: he was a diocesan bishop who would ordain women deacon but not priest, and he would never concelebrate with anyone, to avoid that debate altogether. Luckily I’ve had a brilliant suffragan bishop who is totally supportive of my ministry, but I would be lying if I did not say that the Bishop of London’s refusal to make women priests did not (a) hurt personally and (b) exacerbate unhelpful and sexist politics in the diocese.

 

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the duchess be with you

Amidst what is quickly becoming one of the scariest and least stable years I can remember, this week news broke of some incredibly minor shenanigans at the college where I did my theological training, Westcott House. Some students organised an evensong in polari, a language that’s been developed and used by gay subcultures in the past few decades. Articles about the college’s ‘apology’ and ‘repentance’ over this service showed up in the Grauniad, the Torygraph, and the Beeb. Even NPR picked the story up, so I’m told.

I don’t really want to get into the internal politics of the situation here — though let it be known that I am entirely in support of the students who planned the service and think that they have been rather awfully thrown under the bus by some of their peers and their supervisors. What I want to muse about is *what is so offensive* about the language that was used, what is so terrifying to the religious establishment.

Complaints were made that a ‘polari bible translation’ was used. This translation uses the word Gloria in place of Godthe Duchess in place of the Lord, Josie in place of Jesus, and the Fairy fantabulosa  in place of the Holy Spirit — amongst many other substitutions. These choices and others were seen by some to undermine the historic doctrine of the church, as well as make an unhelpful contribution to the currently very-hot-indeed issues around sexuality in the Church of England. This same week, the C of E bishops issued a statement which confirmed no change in some traditional teachings around sex and marriage (not surprising, but still sad). This statement urged churches, where necessary, to repent of their homophobia and to ‘change the tone’ of their engagement around issues of (particularly queer) sexuality. I could write multiple posts about the bishops’ statement; right now I want simply to note the synchronicity of these two events.

So — back to the ‘polari bible‘ and its paraphrase of scripture, particularly its use of female God-language. Those who know me will know how dear to my heart this issue is; how incredibly important I believe it is that people of faith are enabled to see how patriarchy & phallocentrism is harmful, especially in the way we speak about God.  The God of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures refers to Herself in female terms, metaphors, and pronouns as well as male. [1]  Many reasonable theologians and biblical scholars accept this. However, it is one thing to accept the concept that ‘God is neither male nor female but both and, more importantly, beyond’. (Not all Christians accept this! If I had a nickel for the number of times I’d sat across a table from a Christian, usually a man, and been told that ‘God is not a man, but God is male!’ well, I’d probably be able to buy a coffee at Starbucks.)

It is one thing to accept this concept and quite another thing to put it into practice. Still, today, the feminine, and especially the female (see footnote for disambiguation) tends to make churchy people incredibly squeamish. [2] Even churchy people with a high regard for Mary or female saints. [3]  Why is this? I think it comes down to the famous dictum of radical feminist Mary Daly: ‘If God is male, then male is God.’ If people’s overwhelming linguistic means for describing, praising, and speaking to God is male or masculine — if we project onto God a man’s face, stereotypical properties, even genitals — then it is not long before they, before we, project what we perceive to be Godly attributes onto the males of the species, and those who display more culturally ‘masculine’ attributes.

By tightly orthodox Christian standards, polari is an intentionally irreverent, transgressive, thoroughly ‘indecent’ language  — I am reminded of Marcella Althaus-Reid’s ‘indecent theology’. The ‘polari bible’ was produced by the queer activist group the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. They’re an activist group, not a religious order. But it’s funny how the lines between activism and religion blur and swerve: how many nuns one finds on protest lines, how much space the church has made, perhaps quite unintentionally over the years, for (often closeted) gay men.

God as Gloria – Jesus as Josie – the Holy Spirit as the fantabulosa Fairy. What is it that offends people here? I ask about offence, not theology, right now. Why do these titles make people physically and mentally cringe, even before they marshal theological arguments? Changing the address ‘Lord’ to ‘Duchess’…aside from the variation in gentry rank [4], what is the problem? How are they different?

They are different, of course, because of gender. Christians are so accustomed to God as Zeus, or the Trinity as ‘two men and a bird’. We imbibe the patriarchy of the earlier centuries and millennia which produced our holy texts, and we continue imbibing the patriarchy of today which denigrates the female, and the feminine, and finds them nauseating. We perpetuate this.

To protect ourselves from realising how much of this debate is about offence and internalised, institutionalised misogyny (and homophobia), we marshal theological arguments: ‘If God were female, then God would have been incarnate as a woman, surely’; in short, ‘because Jesus was male, God cannot be at all female’. Such an argument willingly ignores St Paul’s writings on people of all genders, ethnicities, and classes as literally the body of Christ, spiritualising the bible’s words beyond all significant meaning (a heresy which is usually referred to as Gnosticism).

Alternatively, even if we can admit that God might be, somehow, in some way, female as well as male, or beyond gender, we stick to the safety of male God-language. Perhaps we stick in a bit of language around God’s ‘midwifery’ or ‘nurturing love’, but do we make that leap to God as Her, She, Mother, or Sister? Do we address God as such in the depths of our beings? I am convinced that until we learn to do so, it is very difficult to nail the last nail in the coffin of our culture’s, and our religion’s, debts to patriarchy.

The polari bible is not meant as a serious biblical translation. I don’t know for sure, but I’d reckon that no biblical scholars were consulted in its production. Raise all the questions you want about the wisdom of using that bible in a theological college evensong. The fact remains that the move in that service towards female God language, though in jest, is primarily what scares the significantly male-dominated global religious establishment — not just a branch of the Church of England. The fear felt by the establishment is the reaction to the removal of privilege: in this case, the privilege that comes particularly to men when God is imaged exclusively as male.

Such fear so often becomes hatred. Whether we call it homophobia or misogyny or not, that is what it is. No amount of card shuffling, of attempting to shift the debate back onto ‘real theological issues’ can detract from the fact that the church has demonstrated once again its deep unease, distrust, and ultimate rejection of the female, and with the queer. And believe me, those of us who are female and/or queer and love Jesus feel this rejection sharply, like swords piercing the soul.

 

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[1] An accessible book on this topic is ‘Is it Okay to Call God Mother?’ by Paul Smith.

[2] I draw a distinction between ‘the feminine’ and ‘female’ because, it seems apparent to me, that while people are born male, female, or intersex; they are also born with brains, bodies, and personalities that miraculously mix and combine traits which various cultures assign (variously!) as more ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’.

[3]  I do think, as I have argued elsewhere, that part of the reason for the strength of the cult of Mary and of female saints is the lack of space that many Christians find in their God-images, and God-language, for anything female.

[4] The Sister of Perpetual Indulgence are an American group. We Americans don’t really do gentry titles. We find them quite queer.

 

Clare of Assisi is Very Much Awesome

Me again, shamelessly stealing other people’s representations of awesome women and supplying captions of dubious hilarity. This time: Clare (or Ciara) of Assisi. First woman to be granted her own Rule of Life for a religious community. The one who kept Francis on the straight and narrow when he wanted to go become a hermit instead of shepherding the burgeoning Franciscan movement. General badass.

Let’s go!

c1

Do you know how long I’ve been carrying this monstrance? A long, long time. Bow down, already.

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Can’t…carry…monstrance…anymore…must…lie…down…

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Those bitches are lame. I can carry this thing with ONE HAND and also SAY THE ROSARY AT THE SAME TIME.

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I AM THE SAINTLY EQUIVALENT OF THE STAY PUFT MARSHMALLOW (WO)MAN IN THE WOMEN-ONLY GHOSTBUSTERS.

c3

I am wearing a star and smiling and I want to introduce you to my friend Jes–Wait! Jesus! Where’d you go?

c4

I am wearing a saucy little one-shouldered 12th century number but refusing to marry any dudes. Instead I am going to found a ladies-only religious community where we don’t even have to talk to dudes. #misandry

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It’s OK Francis, I didn’t need that hair anyway. Or the blonde jokes.

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I SAIL ON CLOUDS AND SAVE CHILDREN FROM WOLVES. WELL AT LEAST MOST OF ONE.

c12

But can you save a ship from drowning? I can!

c9

I am so fabulous I have my own personal Madame Tussaud’s in the crypt of my very own basilica! Beat that.

c11

Um Janice — what the hell are you doing? There’s no need to check out my holy feet.

c14

I’m not actually the patron saint of cats but this one is my friend. I’m a Franciscan, after all.

 

 

Holy Week convergences

I do like it when calendars cooperate.

1.

This year Palm Sunday was also the vernal equinox — the first day of spring. It might make sense to meditate on how Easter, a celebration of resurrection, has more to do with this point in the cycle of the year than does Palm Sunday. But why not take this year’s convergence as an opportunity to meditate on something different?

Palm Sunday, for me, is a deeply bittersweet day. I love a good procession with singing and waving and donkeys, but somehow I’m not capable of letting the joy of this day sweep me up enough so that I forget that this procession leads inevitably to crucifixion. And then on to resurrection, I know, but through quite a lot prior to that resurrection.

Likewise, the first day of spring never really seems like the first day of spring — at least not in west Michigan, where I’m from. More often than not it’s cold-ish with a likely frost or snow to follow. I wouldn’t put plants in the ground before late April or early May. The first day of spring always feels a bit arbitrary, a bit like cheating. The days don’t really feel longer than the nights.

Celebrating Holy Week, the week between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, in days where the daytime is longer than the nighttime seems wrong somehow, like cheating. In some of the darkest moments in the Christian story — the capture, torture, and murder of Christ — I want comforting darkness. I want to wrap the cold air around me in a vigil so, in the words of the epistle to the Philippians, I can better ‘know Christ, the power of his resurrection and participating in his sufferings, becoming like him in death’ and only then ‘attaining to resurrection from the dead.’

I don’t want this because it is pleasant, or because it is some kind of metaphysical promissory note. I want it because, to me, it is the only thing that makes sense of how wrong the world is: how many people are still tortured to death, how many people still languish in (or have been kicked out of) refugee camps, how much hurt we do to each other and this world.

The sharp contrast between the necessary comfort of the winter darkness and the vernal equinox left me in a bittersweet place indeed, moving into Holy Week with ambivalence, like someone who had been shouting ‘Hosanna’ and suddenly stopped to realise the depths of her own doubt and fear.

2.

Holy Week also saw a full moon. I am not an overly enthusiastic watcher of moon-cycles or much related esoterica but I have observed enough human behaviour to know that the full moon does something to us gravity-dependent beings. Emergency Room nurses tell stories of absolutely mad night shifts; obs-and-gynie nurses and midwives tell of more women going into labor around the full moon; hospital chaplains and mental health professionals tell of particularly ‘interesting’ or extreme behaviour around that time of the month. A friend who is a yoga teacher always cautions her students to go easy on themselves — not to demand too much of their bodies, to stay grounded — during the full moon. The fringes of our health fray when the moon is full, it would seem.

The night of the full moon (Wednesday) I traveled down to Canterbury to spend my last Easter as a layperson in the cathedral. The services for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday are probably the best things that Anglicanism has to offer in the way of liturgy (maybe in addition to the funeral and baptism services, but that’s another blog post). They are stark and moving and elemental and dramatic, and cannot be undertaken lightly, even as a first-time punter. This was my third or fourth time participating in these services, the first time in which I had no role to play in them whatsoever. My role was just to show up and be shaken.

My partner always gets his weirdest dreams around the full moon. A person who dwells quite a lot in his head already, he reports feeling muddled and off, usually without realising that the full moon is on its way. On Wednesday I rang him after arriving in Canterbury and we spoke about the brightness of the night sky, and how it seemed that might brighter because we know Maundy Thursday was the next day. It was an odd calm before the storm, both liturgically and literally, for England was about to be battered by the remains of a hurricane.

3.

Easter Eve (Holy Saturday) and the Easter Vigil in the Cathedral, 10 p.m. The hurricane was upon us and so instead of lighting the paschal candle outside and processing into the dark cathedral together, a brazier was lit at the west end, its red light casting dancing shadows of a thoroughly barbaric sort on the walls and vaulted ceilings. This is just one of my favourite parts of the Holy Week liturgy: the candle is lit, processed in, and the person holding the candle sings, ‘the light of Christ’, and is answered by the congregation with, ‘thanks be to God’. This call and response happens three times, at the end of which the congregation members have all lit their own candles from the light of the paschal candle. It is not until much later in the service, after many readings reminding us of God’s work in the history of the world through water, that the rest of the lights are flung on, bells are rung, instruments played, noise made, and the resurrection is declared with singing of hymns and many an ‘Alleluia!’.

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Water and fire/light are old, old symbols of Divine presence at work. It is because of their age, and because of the reality they speak to almost preconsciously, that they lend so much to the Easter vigil. One of the readings of the vigil is the story of Jonah and the great fish, overcome by the sea because he has disobeyed a divine mandate to go minister in Ninevah; as the story’s storm raged, the hurricane lashed the cathedral walls. The scripture and the sounds of nature begged the question: where have we God-followers refused to go because we think it is a lost cause?

4.
The uncomfortable ambivalence in which I began Holy Week was theologically emotional, given a sort of extra-personal form by the simultaneity of the vernal equinox and Palm Sunday. The heady, heavy lull of the full moon at the start of the triduum brought me out of my ambivalance into rawness. And then, there was the fiery jump forward of the Easter vigil, which ended after midnight on Easter Day.

After the vigil, coming out from under the shelter of the cloisters and running through the torrential rain, I remembered that this was the night when the clocks went forward an hour for Daylight Savings Time, changing into what is called in the UK, endearingly, ‘British Summer Time’. I have always wondered exactly when the clocks are meant to change. Which hour, each year, is lost? I have since discovered that this year, 2016, is the 100th year of British Summer Time, that horological shift which in its own modernist-enlightenment way connects with pagan equinoxes, signifying the turning of the seasons.

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Buckling into our car, my friends and I drove past the front of the cathedral, where the a little ‘Easter Garden’, complete with tomb, had been built. The large stone which had been blocking the tomb-entrance had been rolled away during the vigil. I decided that that was as good a sign as any that the clocks had already completed their shuddering jump.

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Images via Morguefile