"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Is the threat real, and what is at stake?

According to the BBC, "hundreds of traditionalist [Church of England] clergy may leave for the Roman Catholic Church if women are ordained as bishops." I hope they really, really mean to. Their most prominent spokesman is the Bishop of Ebbsfleet, Andrew Burnham (pictured), who together with Richborough's Bishop Keith Newton have issued the official statement on the issue for the traditionalist C of E organization Forward in Faith. I'm sure the Pope is (quietly) delighted by such news as he vacations in the Alps: the line is not only being drawn somewhere but might actually be crossed in the right direction en masse. But I admit to some puzzlement as to why it's being drawn only where it is and only now, years after women have admitted to the "priesthood" in the Anglican Communion.

As a Catholic, not an Anglican, I cannot pretend to speak for Anglicanism—which is just as well, since most Anglicans can't either. But it seems to me that once one allows that women can actually become priests, there is no logical obstacle to allowing women as bishops. After all, bishops have the fullness of the priesthood; what special, fuller aspect of priesthood can people who approve female priests identify that female priests are unable to share? I can find no rationale for a glass ceiling here, and it appears that Canterbury and York can't either. So even as an outsider in this controversy, I would venture to ask why it takes the impending ordination of women to the C of E episcopate to induce the traditional Christians in that communion to say "Basta!" and bolt for Rome.

To orthodox Catholics as well as to some Anglo-Catholics, the logic of the situation has been clear for many years. Perhaps the traditional Anglican inclination to "fudge" potentially church-dividing issues is all the explanation that's needed. If so, it would appear that the fudge is becoming ever less workable. That is mainly because this is just one subplot in a saga unfolding throughout Christianity—except among the Orthodox, for whom women's ordination remains admirably inconceivable.

It has often been noted that the sharpest religious divide in our era is not interchurch but intrachurch: that between the "mere Christians" striving to adhere to the ancient faith and morality, and the progressives who want to reinvent Christianity in a postmodern idiom. That contrast is almost as clear among Catholics as among Anglicans or indeed among members of the mainline Protestant denominations. Thus it is no accident that many people who favor women's ordination see nothing wrong with same-sex marriage but that those who oppose the former almost uniformly oppose the latter. If you can't see what's wrong with female priests, then it's that much harder to see what's wrong with men marrying men or women marrying women: "It's all a matter of human rights, you see. Genitalia have nothing to do with that."

Wrong. This is not a matter of human rights but of the nature of divine revelation itself. Nobody has a "right" to ordination, and not everybody who wants to be sacramentally married can be married in that sense. As I implied in an earlier post, the ordained represent one pole of a spiritual polarity in the Church, the "Petrine" charism, of which the other pole is the "Marian" charism of "receptivity to God, submissive fidelity to Jesus Christ, and fruitfulness in bearing him into the world." The latter "is fully shared by every member of the faithful, from the bottom to the top; it just is the superordinate, multi-layered gift of grace empowering the Church to be the Bride of Christ and thus, by the power of the Holy Spirit, bear his children into the world. The Petrine charism of teaching and governing authority, invested primarily in bishops and derivatively in priests and deacons, exists to facilitate and serve the Marian by efficaciously signifying Christ as the self-immolating Bridegroom and Head of the Church. Hence the hierarchical nature of the Church—her hieros arché or “sacred order”—is an unpagan kind of hieros gamos, a sacred marriage. Just as Jesus is the male Bridegroom of the Church [cf, e.g., Ephesians 5], all the faithful together as his Bride are female. That is the sacramental sign by which the ecclesia, the assembly of the faithful, is effectively related...to her Lord as he intended." That is why only men can be in the sacrament of Holy Orders and why the sacrament of marriage must be heterosexual and indissoluble. Insofar as it pertains to specific vocations among the baptized, the sacramental economy of the Church—which not even the pope has authority to change in any but minor details peripheral to Tradition—is predicated on the revealed symbolism of the man-God Jesus Christ's relation to the Church as that of Bridegroom to Bride.

Advocates of women's ordination and gay marriage reject all that as "culturally conditioned" and now tragically outdated. They are among the new Gnostics of the age, who believe that the obvious and not-so-obvious differences between male and female make no spiritual difference. If God the Son chose to incarnate himself as a man in a patriarchal culture—well, sexism was too strong even for God back then, and we're no longer obliged to accommodate his weakness. If marriage was for so long assumed to be inherently heterosexual—well, human reproduction used to be much more important than it is now, so of course people were more prejudiced against the otherwise perfectly harmless activity known as sodomy. Well. People who think like that are no more Christian than the Gnostics whose writings the Church rejected during the formation of the New Testament canon. It's the same struggle today as then. The difference now is that a lot more knowledge and responsibility are involved.

Bishop Burnham and his allies are a bit late, but they're coming to see what's at stake.
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