Power, Jesus, and Women

It was a cold, rainy New England day (in June!). We sat in the offices of the Anglican Diocese of New England, once a grand Roman Catholic parish complex, now stripped of its ornaments, looking like an old plain wrinkled Puritan lady, no longer a bejeweled and adorned beauty.

A good place and time for an epiphany, and I had one. The forty or so Anglican Church in North America bishops, myself included, had set aside the day to talk about women priests. It was not enjoyable. Sincere Christians have opposite viewpoints on this. But the normal Anglican instinct of avoiding, postponing and ignoring controversy simply wasn’t working, so there we were.

It should have been a discussion some four decades earlier. But the Episcopal Church of the time decided by political power, not theological persuasion. And political votes in Church have their limits. For instance, if you were to vote that God is not a Trinity, it is like telling your cat not to scratch the furniture. God and the cat will regard it as distressing, but not at all persuasive, and neither will change as a result. So the issue did not go away, even with heavy-handed enforcement of the edict. The theology of it remained unformed.

The Episcopal Church also ignored the rest of the whole Church, the Body of Christ, which transcends time and national boundaries. To make a unilateral decision overturning a 2000-year practice without consultation with other Christians was predictably divisive.

The arguments at the time were mostly innocent of real theology and Biblical grounding. Both pro and con positions generally used sociological thought more than theological depth. Often, a whole domino row of false assumptions was involved. By 2011, a real analysis was overdue.

The epiphany that day was threefold;
1. The series of false assumptions leading to the present situation have to be peeled away before we can talk rationally with each other about this,
2. The Bible is entirely relevant to the discussion, beginning in Genesis. It carries no weight to simply say, “Times have changed.”
3. Your theology of priesthood mostly determines your view of women’s ordination. When we ignore this, we just talk past each other.

What are the false assumptions? The first is that the Church is a power-based structure. But Jesus is crystal-clear that the “first shall be last,” and the humblest child has at least equal status with the most powerful leader (see Matthew 18:1-5). The discussions among the disciples as to who is the greatest always ends with a powerful put down from Jesus.

The Body of Christ, the Church, is not an institution at all, but a Sacrament. God conveys his grace through the earthly means of the Body of Christ. It has an institution attached, but the Church is the gathered individuals of the Body formed into one loving inseparable union with Christ and each other (as the grain is gathered from the hillsides and kneaded into one loaf, to use an analogy of the early Church). We call it “theosis.” While it has eschatological implications, it is powerfully present with us right now. The attached institution is about loving union with Christ, not about power.

The corollary of the false assumption about the Church being an institution is that the clergy have been given the power in the institution. But the earth is the Lord’s, and our stewardship of that earth is given to all of us in our baptism, not to only a few in ordination. All have a calling to do God’s will on earth. All vocations are equal, even as each is different, tailored to every individual. They all fit together, as a beautiful mosaic, in the Body of Christ. All are needed to complete the mosaic, none are able to be the mosaic without the others. None are “secular.” There are only sacred callings, so all are “church” vocations, in the Body. Each has its own office and purpose, as needed.

To follow Alexander Schmemann, if the church is about power, and clergy have the power, then of course, it is right for women to share that power equally as clergy. Because many see church governance as about power, it is not until the true purpose and nature of the Church is restored that we can discuss the role of gender.

Many Church leaders are quite uninterested in meeting the clear intentions of Jesus on this point. Taking shortcuts in the discussion on women’s ordination is not simply laziness or the need to be in tune with the latest trend. Shortcuts avoid an uncomfortable look at a power-oriented and clergy-dominated Church. And this false assumption about clergy power is shared by both opponents and advocates of women’s ordination.

Therefore, we are not ready to discuss women’s ordination until we understand the nature of the Church. When the reality of theosis is clear, we can go to the next point.

To be continued next week.