Saint Hilda's House

through the gates and into the city

Filtering by Tag: Tradition

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. 

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.