Saint Hilda's House

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Filtering by Tag: Church

What's a Reformed Anglo-Catholic?

Read more of Ed's writing in the St. Hilda's Winter Quarterly.

Recently, when people have asked me what kind of Christian I am, I've answered by saying that I'm a Reformed Anglo-Catholic.  This has often been met with a raised eyebrow or two, then a question regarding whether or not that could possibly make sense.  With a view to exploring whether or not this is actually a coherent thing to say, I figured it'd be worth writing a post on what this might actually mean.  (I have been partly prompted to do so by my friend (and sometime-nemesis) Alec Siantonas' recent piece for the Oriel Theology blog on High Anglicanism and analytic philosophy.  Alec's post is of a different character to this, but I think it should certainly be credited/blamed and it is well worth reading.)

I'm going to focus on each of the separate aspects of the title 'Reformed Anglo-Catholic', then look at the kind of picture they might present as a whole.  This is the type of theology that I'm least qualified to write on, so I apologise for any factual errors, glaring omissions, statements of the obvious, blatant repetitions of things other people have said better elsewhere, or plain nonsense.  There are times where, for brevity's sake, I do not make direct reference to those who have written similar things.  I also apologise if the writing is pretty convoluted, and for the narrow approach taken in some areas: this post is already quite long as it is, so I tried to keep things relatively focussed.

 

Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness... 

Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness... 

Reformed

First things first, let's start with 'Reformed'. Now, this designation might seem either superfluous or contradictory here: on the one hand, the Anglican Church is a reformation church, whilst on the other to be Reformed has often (in my experience) been understood as being not-Catholic.  As far as I can see, however, the description 'Reformed' does add something to our understanding of what it is to be Anglican, whilst simply being Reformed does not in and of itself necessitate one's not being either Catholic, catholic, or even Roman Catholic.  

I believe that being Reformed means that our Christianity is fundamentally impacted by two crucial (and complementary) theological insights of the continental Reformation.  The first of these is the insight that grace alone is absolutely necessary for human salvation.  The second of these is that this grace cannot be bought, no matter what currency we seek to use. In my mind, the first insight emphasises the both importance of the doctrine of the Fall and the inherent finitude of creation alongside (not in contradiction of) the goodness of creation as it stands.  The second insight emphasises the fact that a) human works are in and of themselves powerless to attain salvation, and b) that grace is not the possession of the Church to sell or claim as a subject over which it can claim authority.  

Now, neither of these insights intrinsically contradict the possibility of Roman Catholicism, let alone a significant/substantive account of catholicity in general, whether with a big or a little 'C'.  Even given this, however, they do have serious implications for our understanding of the reason for good works and the role of the Church.  In the light of the first insight, for example, we can affirm the importance of love, faith, kindness, mercy, charity, contemplation, theology, dogmatics, and all the rest: we cannot, however, claim that these aspects of Christian living derive their importance from a capacity to ensure or guarantee grace.  Rather, we claim that they derive their importance from the prior fact of grace, which is given in the person, command, and promise of Jesus Christ (this includes faith: it seems to me that 'faith alone' only makes sense in the context of the prior statement 'grace first', a thought which seems to me to be consistent with the character of Luther's writings).  

In the light of the second insight, meanwhile, it seems to me that our ecclesiology cannot assume that the church is able to claim sacramental authority for itself.  This is not to say that the church cannot minister the sacraments to others, nor is it to say that the church is not a place within which grace is encountered: it is to say that neither the forms by which a particular church bestows the sacraments nor the hierarchies within that particular church have the character of absolute necessity when it comes to whether or not that church is a member of the body of Christ (and so a sacramental entity).  If these things are important (which I think they are), then they are important for a different reason.   

To be Reformed in this sense also has significant implications for our religious epistemology: among other things, it will impact how we understand the fact of Christian belief and the place of Scripture in the Church.  I am not going to go into a full analysis of what these implications might be here, but I will say that I think a full account of the characteristic philosophical presuppositions implicit within much Reformed thought, especially in terms of how they sometimes differ from the characteristic philosophical presuppositions of Roman Catholic thought, could be a helpful tool in ecumenical dialogue.

Anglican

Next: Anglican.  To be Anglican can mean many things, but I'm going to pick up on two particular aspects of Anglican identity.  The first of these is this: that to be an Anglican is to be a member of a church which self-evidently needs to believe in both the necessity and the power of grace for redemption, in virtue of its history.  The second is that to be an Anglican is to centre one's Christian life around prayer, whether implicitly or explicitly, whether consciously or unconsciously.

Broaching the first point first, and restating it word for word: how is the Anglican Church a church which unquestionably needs to believe in both the necessity and the power of grace for redemption, in virtue of its history?  Well, it's probably uncontroversial to say that all churches need to hold to the power of redemption, in at least some sense: when it comes to the Anglican Church, however, I think it might be a little more obvious than in some cases.  

I am not thinking here primarily in terms of the lives of individual Anglicans, but in terms of its institutional history.  First off, the Anglican Church is not a Church founded on high ideals: it was not built on the principled stands of a Luther, a Knox, or a Calvin, nor did it come into existence out of a sense of greater obedience to Christ.  It was instead the product of one man's desperation to ensure the consolidation of Tudor power in Britain.  Its spread across the world, meanwhile, was both made possible by and served the purposes of the British Empire: in this, the Anglican Communion is first and foremost a product of a colonialism and imperialism. Both its existence and its success, then, came about in part as a direct result of a sinful impulse to power and oppression. 

My intention in writing this is not to try and impute a sense of general guilt upon Anglicans, collectively or individually.  Nor is it to say that the Anglican Church should be deemed less of a Church than others in virtue of its history.  My intention is instead to claim that it is very hard to be Anglican without being at least a little Reformed in the above sense: it is hard, possibly dishonest, to be an Anglican and not to believe in the absolute necessity of grace for redemption.  After all, if a church ever stood in need of historical redemption it is one built upon the foundation of British colonial power.  It is much harder, moreover, to be an Anglican and not to believe in the sole efficacy of grace: for if grace were not efficacious, it is hard to see what kind of hope there could be for a church with such a fallen history, which has been complicit in so much oppressive harm.  

This history, moreover, has not been left behind, and nor should it be: it is not as if it were an aspect of Anglican existence which we could now ignore or forget.  It is still present and constitutive of the Anglican Church's identity as characterised by its hierarchies, its liturgies, and the character of its congregations across the world.  This history is still and will always be the beginning and middle of the Anglican story.  The history of British oppression can still be seen in the present day reality of the Anglican Church; as such, it seems to me that those of us who count ourselves Anglicans really do need to believe that grace is a real and effective power of redemption in this world if we're to have any hope of our Church serving God.  

(To lay all of my cards on the table, this reading of Anglican history is paralleled by my reading of my own history.  Quite apart from the more general privileges I possess in virtue of my gender, sexual-orientation, skin-colour, education, and socio-economic background, I personally have a concrete history of not insignificant cruelty, arrogance, and oppressiveness.  This should not be overdramatised, and I hope I am not being too dramatic: all the same, when I look back on some of the things I have done and many of the ways I have treated people, when I consider the path which actually brought me to where I am, I am conscious of the fact that if it weren't for the grace given to me, both materially and spiritually, I would be lost.  If I am able to follow God's command today, meanwhile, I believe that this is because God is capable of redeeming broken people; that it is because God is capable of inspiring love in the hearts of the loveless.  As a very British kind of sinner, then, my reading of Anglican history is informed by my reading of my own history, both of which I hope can point towards the necessity and efficacy of unmerited grace.)

Onto the second point: the centrality of prayer.  This need to acknowledge the power of grace is, I think, mirrored in the centrality of prayer in Anglicanism.  Consistent with a tradition running through from Augustine to Karl Barth, as well as many others, all theology, all worship, all dogmatics, all endeavour in Anglicanism eventually returns to a place of prayer.  In virtue of this, I think it characteristic of Anglicanism in general (though not necessarily in particular, and not absolutely) that all action eventually leads to surrender; to the surrendering of ourselves to God (n.b. surrender here does should not be conflated with self-abrogation, either ethical or mystical: we must actually have and be loved selves in order to surrender those selves to God).  This is in part because prayer is a concept reliant upon grace, insofar as it is thought of as a point of encounter with God.  

How might this be?  Well, I am not going to try and define prayer here (indeed, I think such an exercise would be self-contradictory): I will, however, say something of how it has existed in my life as part of a Christian community run out of an Anglo-Catholic parish (with no claim to originality, I should add!).  Specifically: prayer has manifested itself as a point of encounter within the silences which are folded into the words of the prayer book.  It has manifested itself as the point where words have ceased to be primarily tools for effective communication, and have instead become a space for listening in and through the process of silent speech.  For there is silence in speech: there is a point at which words cease to reach beyond themselves, where they receive meaning instead of conveying it, where they come up against their natural and internal limits and are transfigured from assertion into prayer.  For example, it is not a performative contradiction to say 'for God alone my soul in silence waits': it is instead a recognition that no matter what we might be able to say, there comes a point where our words must surrender themselves precisely as they are uttered (no matter what the words in particular might be).   Even as we pray aloud, we can still be waiting for God in silence: and the fact of this waiting can itself be a form of reliance upon grace.  (I hope this echoes Rowan Williams' writing on silence in The Edge of Words, though it might well not.)

To reiterate: it is precisely at the point of spoken silence within prayer that I believe the Anglican tradition is best placed to remember its reliance upon and its affirmation of the reality of grace.  The fact that we pray together, meanwhile, the fact that it is the Book of Common Prayer which binds Anglican Worship together, means that we are consistently brought back to prayer with each other; that we are brought back to God as a church, and so brought back to our reliance on God's grace given for the Church.  

I think that this idea is further supported by the fact that, as far as I can see, the actual words of the BCP neither try to say too much- as if our words themselves had the power to grasp mystery- nor do they try to reduce worship to total silence- as if silent speech could be replaced by a more visible silence, attempting speak all the more powerfully of mystery.  For in this they not only reflect the insight that the words of Anglican prayer do not of themselves capture or convey the essence of grace: they also reflect the fact that this is not because we are saying the wrong words, but because no words ever could.

Catholic

From the Easter Vigil at Christ Church, New Haven.  A scene of very (C)catholic joy.

From the Easter Vigil at Christ Church, New Haven.  A scene of very (C)catholic joy.

The question now arises, however, why do we say these particular words?  If no words can capture or convey the essence of grace, then why does it matter what words we say?  Why bother codifying them in prayers, in creeds, in tradition?  And the answer for this stems from my understanding of and brings us to the third of our terms, which can be properly rendered in two forms: catholic and Catholic.  The first of these, 'catholic', I understand as applying to churches visible; the second, 'Catholic', I understand as applying to the Church invisible.  Both of them relate to the unity of the church, since each in their own way (the first in virtue of the second) speaks to the fact that the Church is one body in Christ.  

How might these notions of catholicity relate to the words of the Book of Common Prayer?  Here is how: language is one of the great unifiers.  This is a fact which has a strong shadow side (the eradication/suppression of local languages is, after all, an effective strategy for colonial invaders), but this shadow side should not blind us to the relative importance of being bound together as a church by the words we speak.  We are united by these words: they remind us that we pray as a church, not just as individuals; as a body, not just as bodies.  And insofar as we are reminded that we pray as part of a church, we can be reminded that prayer is not fundamentally a moment of isolation (and so alienation), but a point around which we can then go on to be brought together into communion with God and neighbour.  In virtue of this, we can emphasise the corporate unity of the liturgy of the prayer book across time, as well as in the present day.  We can also take especial care in preserving something of beauty and reverence within the liturgy as well, since a focus on these aspects can remind us that we are not just dealing with words on a page, but seeking to worship the divine.

This, in turn, can remind us that language does not exist in a vacuum.  Meaning is never what it is apart from context, and we cannot create significance ex nihilo.  Words receive their meanings in virtue of the temporal practises they both accompany and engender, whether this be the practise of ritual or the practise of relationship.  This includes the practise of the Eucharist, the sacramental character of which suffuses prayer with divine significance.  It includes the practises of love, without which the words of prayer can lack the integrity of belief (which is not to say that prayer lacking in integrity is no longer prayer).  This basic fact of language fleshes out the role of the BCP: it illuminates the fact that words we share point us towards the form of life that we as a church are called to live.  

More than this, however, and most importantly: precisely insofar as the words of the prayer can call us to this life, they must point us towards the one who calls us in the first place.  Specifically, these words point towards the person of Jesus Christ, the one foundation of the practises which give the words sense, the one foundation of the communities they unite.

And here is where catholicity can point to Catholicity: that is to say, here is where the visible qualities which unify a visible church can receive their relative value.  They receive this relative value because they can help us to find communion with the one point of absolute value, the one who brings us into a unity which exists over and above any visible or substantive qualities.  I do not say that the catholicity embodied by the words of the prayer book, the drama of the liturgy, the hierarchy of the church, or the practises of love and charity has its own absolute value: I do say that this catholicity has a relative value insofar as Jesus Christ, the one absolute feature of Catholic unity, finds us within these things, in virtue of which they are blessed to receive their sacramental character (I further say that this relative value is still very much value; that to say this is not to denigrate, but to recognise, the value of the words, rituals, and practises which bind us together across centuries).  

Finally, I would suggest that this Catholic unity is nothing more nor less than fellowship and communion with Jesus Christ, who is Himself the fact of grace incarnate.  This fellowship and this communion are indeed the unity of a Church, made visible in the unity of churches: all the same, these churches receive their sacramental character not because their specific forms possess absolute value, but because in their particular characters they can direct our eyes and souls toward the source of grace. 

Overall

This piece has come full circle.  It began by describing the insight of the Reformation as the emphasis of two particular insights: a) that we absolutely need grace, then b) that this grace can never be bought by us.  It then described the Anglican Church as a church whose questionable historical character should not be considered an insurmountable problem, but a constant reminder of the pertinence of both these Reformation insights.  It described the most distinctive feature of Anglicanism as its constant return to prayer, a return consistent with all that had gone before.  Next it claimed that the importance of this prayer being codified in the prayer book derived from the importance of visible catholicity.  Finally, it has claimed that the importance of this visible catholicity is a relative importance derived from the fact that it can help to point us as a church towards the head of the Church invisible, the source of Catholicity, the incarnate fact of grace, Jesus Christ.  Thus, just as we began with confessing both the necessity and the freedom of grace, so we have ended by confessing that grace's reality.  

Within this I have sought to affirm wholly and truly the importance of catholicity as binding Anglican worship together.  But I hope that I have described catholicity as important precisely and only insofar as it helps to point us towards Catholicity: I hope I have said that the unity of a church visible is important precisely and only insofar as points us towards Christ, whose grace binds us together as the Church in a unity which cannot compromised by difference, however radical or substantive that difference might be.  I hope that this account can do justice to the spirit and the truth of Reformed, Anglican, and Catholic thought, each of which seeks to point in the same direction, but each of which is often (I think) confused by the fact that the others are pointing from different locations.

Summary

I hope I have given some account of what it might mean to be a Reformed Anglo-Catholic.  Summing up, I think I can say this: I believe it is characteristic of a Reformed Anglo-Catholic to a) identify as a member of the Anglican tradition in terms of both its history and its emphasis on corporate prayer, and b) to seek to affirm in one gesture both the insights of the Reformation, by emphasising the necessity and freedom of grace, and the importance of Catholicity, by emphasising the effective reality of grace as a force which can bring us as a church into communion with Christ.  This is likely not that unusual or controversial a thing, but I hope it has been worth reading all the same.

I hardly need to say that there is much more to be said here, so glaring are many of the gaps.  Even assuming that it has a modicum of validity, the above account leaves an enormous amount of doctrinal work to be done: work on the nature of the Trinity, on the fact of the Incarnation, on the movement of the Holy Spirit, on the role of Scripture, on the character of creation and the consequences of its Fall, on the character of revelation, and on the shapes which Christian living might take in virtue of such considerations.  There is philosophical work to be done by analysing the natural presuppositions which might inform the specific characters of various doctrinal presuppositions, as well as the particular natures of their linguistic and practical expressions.  There is historical work to be done, where the theologians who have written on these themes before are given their due credit and in which further parallels are unearthed; where the developments of the Anglican tradition are explored side by side with its Reformed, Catholic, and Orthodox counterparts.

In spite of all the work which is left undone, though, and in spite of the brevity of what I've said here, I hope that the above makes enough sense to not be summarily dismissed as total nonsense.  Indeed, I hope it is true to the character of the piece that it can be read as a very particular form of prayer: the prayer of an amateur thinker with an interest in philosophical theology and Christian dogmatics, seeking to figure out who and what he is in relation to Christ. 

St. Hilda's House Winter Quarterly: Voices of Young Adults for the Church

Editorial: About the Winter Quarterly

(You can download the whole Quarterly by clicking on this picture of the cover or by following this link: http://www.sainthildashouse.org/quarterly-winter-2015.)

Throughout this year, young adults have been writing pieces for the St. Hilda's House blog. The St. Hilda's Winter Quarterly is a collection of ten of those pieces, dealing with the questions which have most challenged our writers over the past three months. Leaving aside my own writings, I believe that they demonstrate how engaged, how passionate, and how informed the young adults of the Church today are. I believe they serve as powerful examples of how young adults can speak to and for that Church.

All of the pieces in this Quarterly have been written by people who either live or have lived in intentional community, serving with the disinherited as members of the Episcopal Service Corps. Megan, Will, Shancia, and I are current members of St. Hilda's House, whilst Jordan Trumble was a member of St. Hilda's for its first two years. Rosemary Haynes, meanwhile, is a member of Deaconess Anne House in Missouri. Our writings focus on the issues which this form of life confronts us with: poverty, racism, misogyny, what it means to live a Christian life, what it means to be a member of the Church.

Despite this diversity of topics, however, each of these ten pieces has one thing in common: they all hold Jesus Christ at the centre of their testimony. Whether it is Christ encountered in the Eucharist, Christ encountered on the street, Christ encountered in the Bible, or Christ encountered in the neighbour we find it hard to love, all of our writers point to him as the decisive factor. In this, these writings continue the theme of Father Robert Hendrickson's book 'Yearning', which gave young adults a platform from which they can describe how they have been formed by their encounters with God. And if this Quarterly does nothing else, I hope that it demonstrates, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that there are young adults who are dedicated towards learning what it means to walk in love as Christ loved us.

The Winter Quarterly is divided into two sections. The first section deals with concrete issues of formation and service. Jordan writes about how her experiences living in the tabernacle and the slum shaped who she was in relation to God, whilst Will delivers a powerful reflection on how Christ can test us on the streets. Rosemary writes about her first-hand experience of protesting on the streets of Ferguson after the killing of Michael Brown, whilst Shancia describes how racial prejudice in the presentation of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. prompted her to explore the theological underpinnings of his actions. Finally, I have written about how my relationship with Scripture was changed by moving from Oxford to New Haven, then on why we shouldn't talk about Church as if it's first and foremost something that we go to.

The second section focuses on more general debate, and features four longer posts by Megan and I (possibly because we're two of the more opinionated and verbose Hildans...). Two of these posts attempt to work out particular approaches to questions of religion and spirituality. The other two ask whether or not the Church of England should have consecrated the Traditionalist Bishop Philip North a week after the consecration of Bishop Libby Lane. Though these pieces are less explicitly focused on the nuts and bolts of living in community, the reflections contained within them were shaped and developed within community. In my mind, they show how important the life of intentional Christian community can be when it comes to informing general theological reflection.

It is an absolute honour to be able to make this collection of writings available for the wider public. We don't have the full resources to do a full print run, so I hope this digital publication suffices for now. I apologise for how many of the pieces are mine: I hope this is less to do with self-indulgence, more to do with the fact that my job as Digital Missioner requires that I write about 2/5s of our posts anyway. Whichever way, I cannot commend highly enough the writings of my fellow authors, and I hope they prove as spiritually enriching for you as they have for me.

[This is not in the published text, but needs to be added: I should also give enormous thanks for our Program Director, Seth Reese, without whom this would not have been possible.  Quite apart from the fact that he is responsible for making the Quarterly look so good, he makes sure that the members of St. Hilda's House can actually live and work in safety and comfort.  He does all this whilst still technically being a young adult himself.  For all of this, we can't thank him enough.]

Ed.

Download the Quarterly here: http://www.sainthildashouse.org/quarterly. If you would be interested in receiving a print edition, please email us as sthildas@christchurchnh.org.

If you want to read more from St. Hilda's House. then you can visit our blog at www.sainthildashouse.org/blog, join our mailing list, or like us on Facebook.  The blog updates on Mondays and Thursdays.

You can also support the ministry of St. Hilda's House at www.sainthildashouse.org/donate.

The Heavy Burden of Patience: An Examination of Women and Traditionalist Bishops in the Church of England

Notice anything odd about this picture?  (This is not Bishop North's consecration, btw)

Notice anything odd about this picture?  (This is not Bishop North's consecration, btw)

You can also read this piece in the St. Hilda's House Winter Quarterly.

If you haven't been following news coming out of the Church of England, you've been missing out on some fairly controversial events. Recently, Bishop Libby Lane has become the first female bishop in the Church of England. As a Christian feminist, I am inclined to see this as a victory. In another place in the world, another tier of church leadership has opened up to women, which I think can only contribute to a view that regards women as whole, unique, capable people. It was not so heartening to read about the concessions made for Traditionalists (a label applied, in this controversy, to those in the Church of England who do not believe in women's ordination). During the recent consecration of Bishop Philip North, bishops who have not ordained women (and obviously, who are not women themselves) were asked not to lay hands on him as an act of “gracious restraint.” Typically, all bishops present would lay hands on the new bishop. I believe the arrangement at North's consecration makes a clear statement from the traditionalists about the invalidity of women's ministry. It also fractures the line of bishops within the Church of England—creating one that is free from women and from those who ordain women.

My housemate Ed Watson posted last week about his views on this consecration.  Though Ed staunchly disagrees with the views of Bishop North and is himself a supporter of women's ordination, he believes North's consecration will ultimately be for the good, in that it respects the reality that North reflects the views of a significant minority in the Church of England and that it continues to allow for encounter between Traditionalists and the majority of the church. Many others have commented on these issues with a focus on ecclesiology and church polity.

Allowing for Emotion and Experience in our Discourse

While these arguments are important, this is not the angle I want to take when discussing these issues.

First, I want to consider my initial reaction when first reading an article about these events: complete frustration. To me, the arrangement seemed to undermine the place at the table Bishop Libby Lane had just been given, disrespecting her, female clergy, and consequently women as a whole.  It appeared as if the Church of England was still clinging to institutional misogyny of the past, despite making this step forward.  I admit I may have ranted a little bit.  Perhaps the intensity of my own emotional response can be linked to times in my own life where I have felt undermined in Christian settings because I'm  woman, whether it was someone blatantly telling me that a husband would one day have to be my spiritual leader (if I were to marry) or that I was unfit for leadership because I was a woman or an attitude of condescension in an argument that I sensed stemmed from a  man's view of my gender. Perhaps, some part of my subconscious recalls the fact that, even after leaving Roman Catholicism and  accepting women's ordination theologically, I did not initially have the boldness to imagine myself a minister or a theology professor, but first allowed myself to imagine being married to a man in those professions.  

It would be easy for me to write off these emotions and my own personal experience to get to what one might consider the meaty content of this debate—but this inclination is one that I think we could possibly label  as androcentric. Many feminists have  pointed out that the ranking of objectivity and rationality over subjectivity and emotion is a prizing of what we, as society, consider masculine. Some feminists challenge us to lend more respect to emotion and personal experience in our conversations as a society. I believe it is a feminist act to assert that women's emotions and experiences matter.

It can also be a subversive theological choice.  As it says in the book Introducing Body Theology by Lisa Isherwood and Elizabeth Stuart, “Actually placing what we feel and experience in our everyday lives at the heart of how we begin to understand God is a reversal of traditional theological method. This 'theology from below' makes sense in an incarnational religion” (p. 39).  They go on to posit that “objectivity enables us to have elaborate theories which 'make sense' but are often devastating, while embodied thinking can never do this as we cannot detach ourselves from how our decisions 'feel', what their lived consequences will be” (p. 40-41).

This impulse to include emotion and experience in my response is especially important in terms of this particular debate. In some ways, the compromise reached by the Church of England to accommodate its Traditionalist wing makes sense. Proponents may feel as if they are only asking people to be reasonable, level-headed, practical—to set aside hurt feelings for the greater good of the Church and the Gospel. Instead of setting these feelings of frustration aside (feelings I admit that I have, but of course that I cannot generalize for all women, and feelings that I am only having as an outsider to this particular branch of the church), I am paying attention to them.  They alert me to the deeper problem: the church's tendency to disproportionately call the marginalized and oppressed to such sacrifice, often to the harm of those groups. In this case, I am considering women a marginalized group. Women have long been subject to, and continue to be subject to, many forms of oppression, though to varying degrees depending on other factors such as race, education, and socioeconomic status.  Particularly in terms of positions of church leadership, women can fairly be called a marginalized group     

Beyond Suffering Love: Looking to Feminist Theology for New Insights

The problem, of course, is that these requests are backed up by solid  Christian principles, such as love, giving of one's self, carrying one's cross, patience as a fruit of the spirit, etc. What do we do, then, when good Christian principles seem to encourage the marginalized to stay silent or accept a place that regards them as lesser? When the feelings and experiences of those who have been marginalized seem to come in contradiction with these principles?  In cases such as these, I believe  we need to take a more critical look what our tradition is saying, see if it requires new analysis, and look to other aspects of our tradition that might speak to our circumstances. Many feminist theologians have done just that, particularly over concerns that Christianity's glorification of redemptive suffering traps women in abusive circumstances.   

I recently picked up a book called Women's Voices: Essays in Contemporary Feminist Theology, edited by Teresa Elwes.  Though, in spots, this book from 1992 showed its age, it also contained much that I found inspiring, including an essay titled “Feminism and Christian Ethics” by Linda Woodhead. This essay did a great job of tackling the romanticized notions of suffering love that can be popular in Christian circles.  The author legitimatizes self-love, the desire for mutuality in love, and the link between love and happiness through an examination of the commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

“What people want when they love one another is their own happiness and the happiness of the other as part of the same happiness,” Woodhead writes (p. 69). “If it is a legitimate Christian aim to seek the happiness of the other, then it must also be legitimate to accept with gratitude the happiness that others seek to bring me” (p. 69). This perspective is a corrective to the “elevation of suffering into a goal of the Christian life” (p. 70).

“Suffering love has too often been a 'virtue' imposed by men upon women, a 'virtue' whose destructive consequences are only really known by the latter,” Woodhead continues to say, on page 70.  She asserts, “If the world were as God intended—if the Kingdom were fully realised—the bond between suffering and love would be broken, whereas that between happiness and love would remain” (p. 71).  

I believe encouragement to accept these remnants of institutional equality is asking women to engage in this “suffering love” for the church. Woodhead's understanding of love challenges such a call.

I also see this sort of love challenged through prayer at Christ Church, where we often recite the Magnificat.  I am struck, almost every time, by this line from Mary:“He that is mighty hath magnified me.”  This proclamation stands in stark contrast  to messages hyper-focused on diminishment of the self that we often hear from our pulpits. Some might argue that this should be read as exceptional. Mary is “blessed among women,” after all--a  special case. There is also the choice, however, to take this as potentially normative. God is in the humbling business, but God is also in the uplifting business—the magnifying business for the poor, the oppressed, and dare I say, for women.  

As Lois Malcolm writes in her essay “Experiencing the Spirit: The Magnificat, Luther, and Feminists,” published in Transformative Lutheran Theologies: Feminist, Womanist, and Mujerista Perspectives,  "The Magnificat does not tell a tale of God meeting a prideful sinner. Rather, it tells a tale of God meeting a woman whom society had seen as insignificant and giving her a new status (as an exemplar of faith alongside Abraham, Job, and Esther) as well as a new sense of agency in God’s coming reign (as a prophetic witness alongside the prophets of old)...Far from recapitulating the dynamics of her previous life, Mary was transformed and entered a new beginning” (p. 172).

With this in mind, I turn back to Woodhead for a moment. In her essay, she writes that, “To love is not to deny that I am a valuable and irreplaceable individual, it is to acknowledge that you are too” (p. 78). This is a principle that I see reflected in the Magnificat and elsewhere throughout the Scriptures. God is the one declaring worth upon those who others might be tempted to think of as worthless! This can be seen in the Hebrew Bible in, for instance, God's repeated instructions to care for the poor and to welcome the stranger. This can be seen in the actions of Jesus who eats and drinks with those who have bad reputations, who tells a story in which a Samaritan plays the hero, who tells a criminal that they will be together in  paradise, and who ultimately lives and dies for each and every one of us. Sure, God does not want us to have an overblown sense of our own value... but I believe God does want us to have a sense that we do have value.

Applications to Circumstances in the Church of England

Now, how does all of this apply to the consecrations of Bishop Libby Lane or Bishop Philip North?  My position against the details of North's consecration stems from my conception of my value. For me, seeing that I have value is not just knowing that I am loved by God. It is recognizing myself as being more expansive than the gender stereotypes and limitations that someone might want to place on my life. It is recognizing that I am not inferior because I am a woman—no matter how much secular society might say so, no matter how much church tradition might say so.  It is recognizing that I  have the Holy Spirit and can be spoken through by this Spirit just as a man can—with just as much validity and just as much ferocity. Seeing that I have value is knowing that I am loved by God and loving myself, loving who I am as a woman, and loving other women. Because of these convictions, my own personal ethics as a Christian include asserting my own value and the value of other women, rather than always having to take on the self-sacrificial or cooperative role with those who demean women's value.

Some might disagree that the arrangement at Bishop North's consecration undermines the value of women. I would suggest it does. Bishop North himself has said that his consecration is a sign that “the Church has stated afresh its commitment to enabling all traditions to flourish within its life and structures”. This is in keeping with what the Church of England itself says in its five guiding principles regarding women bishops. Principle 4 states, “Since those within the Church of England who, on grounds of theological conviction, are unable to receive the ministry of women bishops or priests continue to be within the spectrum of teaching and tradition of the Anglican Communion, the Church of England remains committed to enabling them to flourish within its life and structures;” Principle 5 states that, “Pastoral and sacramental provision for the minority within the Church of England will be made without specifying a limit of time and in a way that maintains the highest possible degree of communion and contributes to mutual flourishing across the whole Church of England” North's consecration can be read as symbolic of a commitment from the Church of England to help a tradition thrive that is defined, in part, by the exclusion of women from its leadership.

The roots of that tradition's beliefs, in historical church practice and a particular interpretation of Scripture, should not protect those beliefs from accusations of sexism. A theological backing for a prejudiced belief does not make that belief any less prejudiced—even if it may mean that belief fairly well-intentioned.  I think this is something we are usually more comfortable admitting when looking backwards instead of looking at contemporary, contentious issues. Proponents of slavery, for instance, often found theological and biblical justifications for this degrading, dehumanizing system. Of course, abolitionists found their inspiration in Scripture and faith as well. I believe there are issues where we are tasked with making interpretive choices—where the Biblical text and church tradition can either be a supporting buttress for a harmful hierarchy or can be a battering ram to take those hierarchies down, depending on where we choose to look and to what we give precedence. Clearly, the Anglican tradition (even the Anglo-Catholic tradition) includes the resources needed to challenge male headship in the church. To choose to look away from such resources and towards the belief that God would not choose to call women for the work of leadership is a choice that implies some sort of insufficiency in women.  I would argue that sexism that is grounded in theology is some of the most harmful sexism that women can face, in that they are not only being told that men believe they are inferior but that their Creator believes so as well (even if this belief of inferiority is not presented as such, but masked by claims of men and women's different roles).

Ultimately, though, my concern is not with Bishop North as an individual. I believe this misses the point. Rather, I am asking: is the precedent of asking for “gracious restraint” from bishops who are women or ordain women, thus creating a separate line of traditionalist Bishops, creating a sinful system?  Perhaps an even better question might be: is this creating a system that conflicts with the liberating spirit that should be an outpouring of the Church? In one of my favorite passages from the Bible, Jesus, referencing Isaiah, says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19 NRSV). ” I believe the Church, at its best, should be acting in accordance with this spirit.  Does it fit this spirit to, in practicality, create two lines of Bishops, one of which is for the express purpose of keeping out women and those who support their ministry? My answer would be a resounding no.  

I admit that this arrangement may have been a political necessity in order to allow for the advancement of female clergy to bishop positions. I am not well-versed enough in the happenings of the Church of England to make any such claim definitely. If that is so, though, it is not something to be celebrated or given as a positive example of unity in spite of differences. We should acknowledge and grieve this as an accommodation at the expense of female clergy and bishops, who are allowed ordination and consecration but kept out of an institutionally sanctioned Boys' Club. This is an accommodation at the expense of girls and women who are receiving these mixed messages about how they are viewed by the church and by God.

Surely, acts towards women which are much more heinous happen throughout the world and throughout the Christian church. This may seem, to many, like a small-scale issue. Nevertheless, practices that only slightly chip away at the idea of women's value should not be given a free pass once they are identified as such. Such slow, steady chipping comes at women from all directions and can lead to a tremendous erosion of the self and self-worth. I pray that such chipping will stop coming from the direction of the church, the body of people with whom we are supposed to encounter the liberating love of God.

 

Should Bishop North Have Been Consecrated?: 'Tradition' and Misogyny in Places of Power in the Church

Bishop Lane and Bishop North share an embrace at the latter's consecration.

Bishop Lane and Bishop North share an embrace at the latter's consecration.

You can also read this piece in the St. Hilda's House Winter Quarterly.

Last week, the Rev. Philip North became the Rt. Rev Philip North.  Bishop North is a 'Traditionalist' with a capital 'T', who opposes the ordination of women in the Church of England on the grounds of tradition and Scripture; nonetheless, he shared an embrace with the also recently consecrated Bishop Libby Lane.  On the back of this, we posted an article on the St. Hilda's Facebook page in which Bishop North spoke optimistically about the future of the Church.  This article provoked some fervent (and I believe fruitful) discussion.

This post is an attempt to follow on from that discussion, and lay out a few arguments in a more extended format than Facebook comments allow.  To set the context: the majority of those who commented were opposed to the fact of Bishop North's consecration (or, at least, certain facts about it!), and I was not.  I'm going to try to explore in greater depth some of the stances taken and explicate as clearly as possible why I believe the consecration of Bishop North to have been a good thing, both politically and ethically.  My hope is not to close the debate, but to provoke further discussion.

(I write with some awareness that as a white, straight, privately-educated male I have never had to worry about the sort of institutional prejudices around which this debate is centred, and I thank my housemates for proofreading this piece to make sure I didn't write in too much ignorance on this front.   For another ever so slightly more informed view, I point towards these two articles by Bishop Sentamu, the first on the consecration of Bishop Lane, the second on the consecration of Bishop North.  It is also worth noting that Bishop North was not just consecrated in order to appease the Church's 'Traditionalist' wing: he appears to have been a strong candidate for Bishop in his own right.)

The Original Discussion, and the Sin in Question

As best I can understand it, the original discussion on Facebook centred around the question of whether or not someone hampered by a sin which constitutes a harmful impediment should be made a Bishop.  The particular sin in question here is that of misogyny, a misogyny grounded in a particular understanding of Scripture and tradition.  

One specific form that this misogyny takes is a refusal to recognise the spiritual authority of women as ordained leaders of the Church.  It is a harmful impediment because, in the words of my housemate Megan, it actively demeans to position of women in both the Church and broader society.  More generally, it feeds into a view of women which has had and continues to have a catastrophic impact on how they are treated and viewed by others and by themselves.  I believe that this misogyny is a sin.  I also believe that it is a harmful impediment:  as has been pointed out to me, the people who are most vulnerable in this situation are those women under Bishop North's authority, whether those who might already feel called to ordained leadership, those who might just want to be able to ask the question, or those whose presence in Church life will be demeaned due to prevailing atmosphere.  

I also believe that it is actively harmful to associate Bishop North's views with tradition, hence why I will use pejorative quotation marks throughout when referring to his 'Traditional' views.  I believe that doing so sets up a false picture of both tradition and Scripture, wherein to hold to these is to oppose the spiritual authority of women.  This in turn can lead to the argument in the Church (one I have in the past made myself) that if we wish to oppose those who hold views like Bishop North, we must therefore reject tradition and Scripture, and so to our ignoring and being ignorant of two of the Church's essential spiritual wellsprings.  Indeed, far from upholding tradition and Scripture, I believe that Bishop North's claiming of a 'Traditional' stance as one side of a polarising debate has led to a distorting and corrupting of our understanding of tradition itself, both in terms of our own tradition in particular and the nature of tradition in general.  I believe that the same holds true for Scripture.  Insofar as Bishop North claims tradition and Scripture for his 'Traditional' views, then, I believe that he is actively distorting the Church's understanding of the Word of God (insofar as it speaks through those sources), and I believe that this is a harmful consequence of sin.  (On a personal note, as an Anglo-Catholic I take umbrage at the suggestion that it must be characteristic of Anglo-Catholicism to oppose female ordination).

I am no fan of Bishop North's views, then.  I believe them to be both sinful and actively harmful.  Nor, I should add, am I a proponent of unity at any cost: almost a year ago to the day I wrote a piece for my own blog about the dangers of treating unity as an idol, and I still stand by the arguments I made there.  Why, then, am I arguing in favour of his being consecrated a Bishop?  Why would I argue for this man to be given a place of power in the Church, when I also believe his doing so will likely cause genuine harm (harm which, I should add, I will never have to fear being a direct victim of)?

How Can the Church Judge Itself?

Bishops Sentamu, North, and Lane.

Bishops Sentamu, North, and Lane.

My first reason is the slightly more ethical reason, relating to a norm of consensus which I believe holds even for cases where active harm might be entailed.  It relates to the ways in which the Church is capable of judging itself and its members; specifically, whether a Church which is divided should employ a standard of judgement in its decision making which assumes absolute unity according to the terms of one side of that division 

This is phrased somewhat opaquely, so I'll try and make the meaning clear.  First of all, the Church of England is divided on this issue.  It is nowhere near as divided as it once was, nor is it equally divided on all levels, but there is currently a real and significant division between (now just over) 2/3rds of the Church and the other 1/3rd (most of whom are in the laity).  

This division, moreover, cannot be universally characterised in polemical terms: it is not simply a matter of those who oppose the ordination of women believing that women are inferior to men when it comes to matters of spiritual leadership in an uncritical fashion (I say this from experience).  This is not to say that we should therefore accept the presence of misogyny, nor that we should not call it misogyny, nor that we should not call it sin: it is to say that the Church of England's institutional misogyny is a far more complicated affair than particular people holding particular views for particular reasons, such that those in the majority cannot responsibly characterise those who disagree with them either as simply not having thought about the issue hard enough or as being simply bigoted at heart.  

A consequence of this, in my mind, is that the majority cannot therefore summarily discount this minority from being active and vocal members of the Church of England.  As such, when we speak of the Church of England, we speak of this third as well; for my part, I speak of those neighbours who I really wish were other than they are.  Wrong as they may be (and I do believe them to be badly wrong), therefore, the fact of their presence prohibits the Church as a whole from using the opinions of the majority as its blanket standard; their presence ensures that the majority is not the whole Church, and therefore that this majority cannot assume the authority to make decisions on behalf of or claim to be the voice of the whole Church.  

(If this means that the Church itself is in part a sinful body, then so be it: as far as I can see it always has been and always will be, as a matter of necessity and even as it is the body of Christ on earth.  The fact that some of us see ourselves (myself included) as trying to work against the particular sin of a particular minority is neither here nor there: this tends to be the tenor of Church politics.  I also believe that the fact the Church has historically been at its very worst when it has tried to actively purge itself of sin is instructive here.  There is, moreover, no more dangerous response to this point than 'yes, but we're right, and this is sin we're talking about'.)

How does this relate to Bishop North's consecration?  Because the Church is divided over whether or not his 'Traditional' misogyny constitutes a sinful and harmful impediment.  I believe it does, and I believe that about 2/3rds of the Church believe so too.  There is not enough consensus, however, for the majority to claim the ability to judge on behalf of the Church as a whole on the basis that they possess the greater moral sense, and so not enough consensus to ground the claim that the Church of England should not have consecrated Bishop North on the basis of harmful impediment.

Now, this would be different if Bishop North could be shown to be trying to hold the Church hostage to his views (to use slightly inflammatory language).  If he were saying that though the majority cannot claim its standard as the standard for the whole Church, the minority can and should do so, then we would have a Bishop who was trampling over the very principle according to which he was consecrated in a Church within which he represents the minority.  

This has not, however, been the case.  In researching for this piece, I came over a piece detailing Bishop North's reason for turning down a prior call to be Bishop in Whitby; namely, that he felt his consecration would harmful to the Church's efforts to effect reconciliation and dialogue between opposing camps.  That is not a symbolic gesture: it belies a genuine humility not often associated with the 'Traditionalist' wing.  Similarly, though he does not in principle recognise the validity of Bishop Lane's consecration, his words following his own consecration showed him to be willing to set aside the authority of his own personal judgement in the name of the decision of the wider Church body.  He has not said that he will leave the Church if it goes against his views (and if he had done, I think the Synod would have been right to vote as it did anyway and bid him farewell); he has shown himself willing to engage in dialogue and compromise.

He has not, of course, changed his opinion, and this opinion does (to my mind) constitute harmful impediment.  All the same, he has shown himself willing to work and live within a Church that disagrees with him, and to follow the Church's rulings even when he thinks otherwise.  This is not a happy ending: it is, however, a situation within which the Church itself can undergo the happy and arduous business of encounter and reconciliation between divided parties, wherein sinners (all of us genuine and harmful sinners) can seek to work together to do God's will in the world despite our differences.

Encounter and Transformation

Which brings me to my second and more political reason for supporting Bishop North's consecration: the fact that this consecration ensures that we have not reached the end of the argument within the Church about the spiritual authority of women.  

Now, this might not seem the happiest of facts.  After all, shouldn't the argument be over?  Isn't it ridiculous that we could even be having this discussion?  Well, yes, it is ridiculous. The fact remains, however, that whatever should be the case, it is the case that there is still enough disagreement between relevant parties for there to be a discussion and an argument.  The fact remains that if the argument were ended now, all that would have happened is that the minority would have been defeated, the majority would have won, and we wouldn't have to deal with the uncomfortable facts that a) we still disagree, and b) we are still called to love and work with each other despite our disagreement.  What Bishop North's consecration ensures instead is that we can still have this argument, that we can still work with those who disagree with us, and that we can still encounter each other in the context of the Church.  We are not, in short, in the position that the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church in North America find themselves in, where there is no dialogue, where the only argument is over property rights, and where the possibility of transformation through encounter with each other is more or less non-existent.  

Would you want this man in charge of your Parish Council?

Would you want this man in charge of your Parish Council?

So what, we may ask?  Why should we accept harm as the cost of encounter?  I cannot answer this conclusively.  I can only point to David Horton, Chairman of the Dibley Parish Council.

Now, for those who have not seen The Vicar of Dibley, David Horton (MA Cantab) is the stereotypical Church of England dinosaur; an old money, upper class male entirely resistant to change of any sort.  He is everyone's favourite reactionary misogynist.  His reaction upon finding out that the Rev. Boadecia (seriously, look it up) Geraldine Granger has been appointed Vicar in Dibley is one of horror.  He seeks to have her removed.  He seeks to undermine her authority.  He plays the proper village villain.  

The strange thing, however, is that this reactionary dinosaur is eventually transformed by his relationship to the Rev. Granger.  He is not completely transformed, of course: he remains an old money, upper class male entirely resistant to change.  He does, however, still change, and over the course of this changing the qualities hidden by his intransigence are allowed to shine through.  He is shown to be not just a sinner, but a child of God in his own right (to pick one moment, his reaction to seeing her choice for a new window for the Church is one of the most powerful pieces of TV I've ever seen).  Had he been removed from his position, however, had his sin seen him cast down from the Parish council, this transformation would not have occurred.

Now, it may be a serious problem with my argument that my case study is a fictional character.  As it is, I believe that David Horton is a fiction grounded in truth.  I believe that the reason the CoE has been able to change its position on the ordination of women bishops is because its David Hortons retained a place in the Church after the ordination of the first female priests.  I believe that a significant factor in their retaining a place in the Church was because they retained a place at each level of the Church.  I further believe that this change is more powerful because it involved a changing of mind over and above a changing of the guard.  Finally, I believe that the ordination of Bishop North shows that this process of transformation through encounter is not at an end: that even on this divisive point, many of those who disagree are willing to encounter each other as members of the Church (at every level) knowing that in doing so they place themselves at the risk of both harm and transformation.  

I make no bones about it: I would like Bishop North to change his mind: I do not agree to disagree.  Indeed, were I in a position to do so, I would try and change his mind myself, through argument and through encounter.  I also believe that I would be transformed through such encounter; that aspects of my own sin (pride and sanctimoniousness, for example, which have been and remain harmful impediments of mine, all too evident in this piece) would be chipped away as I was forced to engage with Bishop North face to face.  

As it is, I am not in that position.  Thanks to his consecration however, there are those that are, not least Bishop Lane herself, who showed the courage of her Christian convictions by embracing a man whose views she has every reason to revile.  And thanks to his consecration, we are now at a point where the argument can continue on to that point of personal transformation so wonderfully embodied by David Horton, as opposed to remaining just a victory in the Synod.  

(It should be noted, of course, that encounter can easily lead to acrimony instead of affection.  Grace must be present, and we must do our best to try and be gracious to those we meet, even and especially to those we violently disagree with.)

Summary

I now feel in a position to make my overall claim: that if we make personal political agreement a condition of occupying particular positions at the table, we in fact neutralise the possibility of arriving at meaningful agreement.  I believe that this holds even and especially where the effect of disagreement is harm, and where to hold a particular position on an issue can constitute a harmful impediment.  I therefore believe that we must hold to a particular view of Church consensus where the majority cannot eradicate the views of the minority from power, even in cases where that minority is thought to be sinfully mistaken by the majority.  I therefore believe that we should work hard to create the space for gracious encounter within the Church, even and especially with those whom we might wish we didn't have to call our neighbours.  For it is in this space that agreement might ultimately be reached; an agreement premised upon mutual transformation, as opposed to suppression.

I do not, of course, believe this point holds unconditionally. There are cases where particular disagreements render dialogue impossible, such as when a church campaigns for the fatal criminalisation of homosexuality.  Nor should we sacrifice all in the name of encounter: the Church was right to consecrate Bishop Lane, even at the risk of alienating those who were unwilling to countenance such a decision.  In this instance, however, where those I believe to be sinners have shown themselves willing to break bread with those they believe to be sinners, I believe the point holds.  And in this instance, I believe the Church was right to consecrate Bishop North, a man who holds divisive views, in the name of a broader unity.

I will conclude by noting that one effect of the view of Church consensus outlined above is that it allows us to be a Church which serves Christ together while we disagree.  After all, we do disagree, and the argument shall continue; but while that is happening, we shall also continue trying to live out the mission of the Church as it is given to us in the person of Jesus Christ.  For his part, Bishop North has shown himself willing to be more obedient to his sense of that mission than his allegiance to 'Tradition', and I imagine he will do good work in Burnley because of this.  Bishop Lane, meanwhile, seems to have been chosen precisely because she is a walking embodiment of that mission.  And if we can continue to worship Christ together whilst disagreeing and arguing about so much else, if obedience to His mission can compel us to encounter each other in love as members of the Church, even in genuine division, then I think that there is hope for us yet; for insofar as we are united on that front, there is every chance that Christ Himself will work on us to bring us into loving community even as we continue to disagree.

If Candlemas be Fair and Bright: Guest Post

By Brendan Jones O'Connor

 Our online collaboration with the Deaconness Anne House continues, with Brendan writing a reflection on his housemate Rosemary's baptism falling upon the day of Candlemas.  Thanks to Brendan, and congratulations to Rosemary!  (You can, of course, follow Deaconness Anne House on Twitter at  @DAH_STL, and Brendan himself at @Jones_Oconnor.)

New Year's Day of 2014 was one of the most hope­filled days of recently memory. After 2013 in a failed intentional community, two terrible jobs, and a grungy living situation, I had just accepted a position as the youth ministry leader of a vibrant parish. Driving to the first meeting with my parish priest to discuss how we wanted to shape this year, I made a somewhat unusual resolution: 2014 will be the year I celebrate more church holidays.

Most New Year's Resolutions I heard up to this point tended to be about placing restrictions or obligations on oneself. However, if I enjoyed the holiday season so much, why not instead choose to celebrate more occasions? Of course, this practice was meant to be deliberate and devotional, but I also wanted to mark the seasons of the year in ways I had not thought of before.

Epiphany came without much trouble. My parish already had a tradition of recognizing the Feast of Epiphany, and it helped that there is already a multitude of images (and a perennial favorite hymn) that accompany the familiar story. I patted myself on the back for knowing that Epiphany was the official end of the Christmas season. It was time to finally start enjoying the pear trees and swimming swans gifted to me.

I hit the first obstacle of my resolution a few weeks later, when I learned that February 2 group event day, was the Christian holiday of Candlemas. My cradle Anglicanism drew a blank, and I was forced to do some research about the traditional holiday that gets overshadowed by a tourist event involving a weather­predicting rodent and a man in a tailcoat. I don't blame anybody, Candlemas is a strange name for the feast day of a relatively obscure event in the gospels, Jesus' presentation to the temple. The only thing I had remember about this story was thinking how the Prophetess Anna, who Luke tells us never leaves the temple, but prays and fasts day and night, managed to stave off boredom. Theologically, I wasn't sure what to make of the text, but culturally, I noticed something almost immediately. Candlemas and Groundhog's Day sharing February 2 long before Punxsutawney Phil got on the scene. As the old English rhyme stated,

If Candlemas Day be fair and bright,

Winter will have another fight.

If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain,

Winter won't come again.

Incidentally, that winter February 2nd was fair and bright, the groundhog saw their shadow, and the winter continued well into April. The next month I suffered a major automobile wreck after hitting an icy patch, and found myself reminded why people since time immemorial wished away the winter: snow, ice, freezing rain, fog, and lack of vegetation are all signs of death. Sailors of old wouldn't leave harbor on Candlemas, as they knew the February waters got especially choppy. Perhaps I, too, needed to check myself in mid­winter to make sure I was stable during the doldrums of the post­ Christmas dry stretch.

One year later, and I find myself in a new intentional community, an Episcopal Service Corps program located in St. Louis, MO. My six housemates and I signed our contracts with the house long before Officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown, sparking international outrage. I dislike falling back on platitudes, but the classic Grandmotherism of “You want to know how to make God laugh? Tell him your plans,” seemed especially apt. My housemate Rosemary Haynes found herself the most affected in our group by these events, and discerned that her place within the Ferguson movement was to be on the front lines, demonstrating, observing, and allying herself with those who knew oppression too well. Doing this work, she was accosted by police, arrested, and interviewed by CNN. She even wrote a more thorough article about her faith journey and the experience of being a Ferguson protester in an earlier article for St. Hilda's House. Following the experiences she movingly detailed in her piece, Rosemary decided she wanted to be baptized. The date set was February 2, 2015: I could not help but smile.

It was a fair and bright night. The moon only one day from being full, we gathered in the street outside of the Deaconess Anne House to commence Rosemary's baptismal vows. We had threaded white Christmas lights around the front of our property, and invited as many people in our community to join us in our unconventional liturgy for the evening. Rosemary found the unconditional love of Christ in the streets of Ferguson, standing with the oppressed, it made sense that's where she would affirm her devotions to God.

Calling this event a “New Beginning” did not seem right to me. Rosemary grew up Episcopalian, she just had not been baptized. She hadn't been negligent of the great deal of suffering in the world, she worked for a number of causes prior to joining the Deaconess Anne House. Baptism marked the point her desire to be a part of the church meet with the gifts, vocation, and love already given to her by God. As I repeated my baptismal vows, I recognized how baptism, and salvation for that matter, is not a one­off event, but a continuing process. What better day to celebrate than Candlemas?

Having spent 40 days since Christmas, a month since New Year's, and ten weeks since Advent, Candlemas is a holiday smack­dab in the middle of a liturgical season. Nothing starts or finishes with Candlemas, and the goofy weather tradition and the blessing of the votive candles seems almost too minor to really pay attention to. But Candlemas is a time to breath. A recognition of that long, dark, and often lonely time between Christmas and Ash Wednesday, especially in a culture that likes its holidays about something flashy or heroic. Candlemas is the perfect holiday for the mid­winter, as it allows for waiting, praying, and hope for a distant spring, just as how the frail Anna saw Christ in the Jesus child that Mary brought to the temple.

In these days when I am daunted by the unfinishable work of perusing social justice in a broken world, I take great comfort in the message of the baptismal vow and the Day of Candlemas: God's Covenant began before us, continues after us, and is here for us, even in the darkest of seasons.  Especially in the darkest of seasons.