Spinning aged yarns
Mark Stevens mocks the recent emergence of priests and inclusiveness as Anglican traditions
Those who are familiar with the entertaining collection of essays edited by Eric Hobsbawm and entitledThe Invention of Tradition [1983, Canto, latest printing 2005] will be familiar with this notion: ideologically motivated groups habitually fantasize about the past.
So Queen Victoria (to adopt a portmanteau phrase) invented Scotland. It was a generous gesture after Dr Johnson’s debunking of Ossian. And the Romantic Movement invented Wales: eisteddfods, druids, bards and all that. The British monarchy, as David Carradine and Bernard Cohn point out, reinvented itself between 1820 and 1953 (and decked itself out in ‘traditions’) in order to deal with the twin challenges of democracy and empire.
Feminist Christians have been in the forefront of this tradition of tradition-making. They have needed to be.
Famously they have imaginatively re-written the history of the early Church, populating the first century Mediterranean with Christian priestesses, second century catacombs with lady concelebrants, and eighth century Rome with a female bishop called Theodora. The wildest and weirdest among them have even revisited the old wives’ tale of Pope Joan. But the ingenuity does not end there. Albeit most commonly in the composite form ‘womanpriest,’ ministers of the Church of England are now called ‘priests;’ so frequently and naturally that you would think the term thoroughly Anglican. But not so.
As recently as the Sixties of the last century, ‘vicar,’ alongside the more correct and formal ‘clergyman,’ was the preferred term of the English when referring to the officials of the Established Church. ‘Priest’ was a term which smacked of Romanism, and was generally employed only by the very High Church – and then only of themselves. Its current general usage is largely the result of the campaign for the ordination of women.
That campaign, as some were astute enough to grasp from the beginning, was not primarily about ministry in the Church, but about the nature and person of God himself. The project was neatly summarized long ago by an Episcopalian bishop of New York:
‘God as Father and God as Son invoked by a male minister during worship creates in the unconscious, the intuitive, the emotive part of your belief an unmistakeable male God. However, when women begin to read the Scripture, when they preside at the Eucharist, when they wear the symbolic robes of Christ, this unconscious perception will begin to be redressed and the femininity of God will begin to be felt.’
Bishop Paul Moore’s argument is more than merely reminiscent of the thinking of Christian radicals like Rosemary Ruether. It also mirrors the sentiments of the anti-Christian feminist Mary Daly (cf. Daly’s crisper and more famous aphorism: ‘if God is male the Male is God’).
For someone who thinks like this – whose ultimate aim is to mitigate the offensive masculinity of the Godhead – ‘priest’ with its iconic implications is an essential piece of vocabulary. ‘Lady vicar,’ worse still ‘clergyperson,’ just will not do the trick. It is precisely the ‘priestcraft’ with its suggestion of status and magic, so offensive to the Protestants of former days, that feminists crave and need.
Bishop Moore got it exactly right. And ‘priesthood,’ with all its overtones, is what the CofE got in consequence, whether it likes it or not. Even conservative evangelicals now talk about ‘womenpriests’ as though that were the most natural thing in the world.
Some of the early campaigners for women’s ordination, as a matter of fact, were disarmingly frank. They described the Absolution and the Eucharistic Prayer – the only parts of the Communion Service specifically restricted by Anglican practice to the priest – somewhat derisively, as ‘the magic bits.’ It was the ‘magic’ they were after.
An even more audacious invention is the ‘tradition’ of Anglican ‘inclusiveness.’ A picture has been created of a tolerant church which has ‘traditionally’ embraced divergent and sometimes mutually exclusive opinions with enthusiasm or at least charity. Appeal is made to a mythical ‘Elizabethan Settlement’ in which Puritan and Catholic could cheerfully co-exist. As the recent Rochester report puts it, ‘One of the important features of the Church of England is that it models an ability to live with difference in a creative rather than a destructive fashion.’
The truth is very different. Anglicanism has always had its share of bigotry, and the sixteenth century can hardly be held up as a period of doctrinal indifferentism. The same is true of more recent times. The ritualist controversies of the nineteenth century were viewed by both parties as a battle to the death; and when the missionaries descended up the Dark Continent they took with them the badges and superstitions of their several parties – not onlyHymns Ancient and Modern and the English Hymnal (as Rowan Williams has recently remarked), but floppy bibles and a Zwinglian liturgy to Uganda; thuribles and fiddle-backs to Central Africa. Evangelicals and Catholics were engaged in a struggle for the heart of Anglicanism, and they created one party churches wherever they could.
‘Inclusive Church’ and ‘Via Media’ disingenuously appeal to this invented tradition in order to legitimize views which Anglicanism has never previously comprehended, and which remain anathema to a majority of Anglicans. Women priests and gay marriages, whatever we may think about them in the present, are not part of our past.
Nor do those who advocate them do so in a genuine spirit of inclusive tolerance. They are wrestling for control of the institution quite as seriously as were the High and Low Church parties during most of its history.
Again there is an irony. The invention of a tradition of tolerance and inclusiveness would not necessarily be all bad. We need, at the least, to hear those with whom we profoundly disagree. But toleration was not the end purpose of this invention. ‘Via Media’ and ‘Inclusive Church’ have embraced it only to secure their own inclusion in the first place. Once inside the nest, the cuckoos have every intention of expelling the former occupants
Reality, however unpalatable, is always preferable to fantasy. It might be comforting (to some at least) to view our church’s past as a stately progress towards the benevolent inclusion of every opinion under the sun: Ronald Knox’s ‘Ecumenism All Round.’ But that is an invented ‘tradition,’ and behind every invented tradition is an axe being ground. And to every axe its victim.
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