Baptism of Fire

George Austin reflects upon an incendiary relationship

THE FLAGSHIP DIOCESE of Brechin has been a constant delight to readers of New Directions. Even so, the current saga could not been dreamt up even by the creator of the April Heavisides column. Great had been the rejoicing on the feminist fringes when Bishop Neville Chamberlain fulfilled his vision and appointed the first woman Provost of any cathedral in Britain. Readers of Thirty Days will know only too well how his vision became a nightmare.

Little time passed before long-standing members of the cathedral congregation began to leave, unable to face the rapidity and nature of the changes which Miriam Byrne was quick to introduce. She enjoyed the fulsome support of the bishop, who was no doubt delighted that his ground-breaking and far-reaching policies were bearing fruit. As disaffected members of the Vestry resigned, they were replaced by supporters of the Provost who had become known as 'Attila the Nun'. Eventually even the bishop became exasperated and suspended her.

At this moment in the red corner stands Miriam and her supporters, suing the bishop in Dundee's Sheriff Court. In what in his case perhaps ought not to be described as the blue corner, stands Neville, who has brought 69 charges under ecclesiastical law against the provost. And muddying the waters still further is the allegation that, in an earlier attempt to force the provost to resign and keep silent, a sum of money (reportedly 85,000) was offered to her.

As in any good soap saga, yet another story has now emerged. For our Miriam has rewritten the Baptism Service, and last year the fruits of her labours were revealed to her admiring congregation. As it is perhaps a first draft, some traditional elements remain. The godparents for instance are asked to declare that they reject evil and repent of their sins. But instead of turning to Christ, they are asked, 'Do you accept the power God gives you to resist injustice?' Does she, one ponders, believe with the American feminist theologian Mary Daly that 'Christianity has become, over its two millennia, a necrophilial religion centred around the dead man'?

To be fair, she does also require that they 'accept Jesus Christ as Saviour, trust in him, live according to his teachings, and promise to serve him.' But what she actually believes about salvation in Christ is not entirely clear, at least from the profession of 'faith' with which she has replaced the Creed. In fact, apart from proclamations that God 'called the world into being' and 'entered the world to share our humanity', all references to the historical and doctrinal truths which are the normal content of a Creed, have been deleted. What is left reads more like the social worker's mission statement with a few concessions to a genderless God, and a mish-mash of pious hopes about wanting 'to believe in human rights in the solidarity of all people in the power of non-violence.' Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it is hardly a credal statement.

It is however in the words of the actual baptism that the real difficulty arises, for she requires that the child is to be baptised 'in the name of God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit', after which she pronounces 'the blessing of God, the Almighty, the All gracious, the All loving.' Some senior clergy in the Episcopal Church have declared the baptism to be 'heretical' and 'totally invalid'. It is no surprise that the Bishop of Edinburgh disagreed, describing the words of baptism simply as 'an non-sexist formula which does not use gender words.' He added that it was not the traditional formula but equivalent to it. 'Clergy,' our Richard pontificated, 'can get very fidgety about unimportant things.'

A story doing the rounds a few years ago claimed that Bishop David Jenkins of Durham was once faced with a difficult theological problem with one of his women ordinands. She had been 'baptised' in a San Francisco Episcopal Church 'in the name of God the Mother, God the Daughter and God the Holy Wisdom.' He had no hesitation in deciding that she had not been baptised and proceeded to make proper amends.

Provost Byrne did not of course go so far, and we have no evidence that she would have wanted to. Nevertheless it can be said that a 'non-sexist formula which does not use gender words' in reality de-personalises a God whom the entire biblical revelation shows to be intensely personal. It is therefore as unacceptable as it is to speak of God the Mother and God the Daughter. In any event, it is a step in the direction, just as are the recent liturgical innovations 'innocently', but deliberately and persuasively, introduced into the new liturgies by the General Synod.

Far from being 'unimportant', both the depersonalisation and the feminisation strike at the heart of biblical truth. The stage was set for Christians in the first chapter of Genesis, where the theological genius of the children of Israel shone forth. In exile in Babylon, they were faced with the danger that the purity of their faith would be undermined and destroyed by the pagan influences around, just as we are today. Not for them gods and goddesses made in the image of human beings with all their faults and failings yet on a divine scale. Their God was not a panentheistic being who had been divided in order to create heaven and earth, so that all around them was God. The God of the Jews was outside his creation, which was made not of him but wholly by him.

He is, in the words of the Thirty-nine Articles of religion, 'one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible.' Above all, it is we who are made in his image and not he in ours. For the sake of procreation, it is we who must be male or female, and to invest God with that need is to return to the paganism of the Babylonians, and the exile and slavery from which the children of Israel were determined to escape.

It would introduce into liturgy a theology that Christians could not accept. It may appear that this is just another abstruse theological dispute of no relevance to real life, with out-of-date and out-of-touch clergy simply getting fidgety, rather as if we were arguing as to how many bishops could perch on one fence post. But since lex orandi, lex credendi is a firm principle of Anglicanism, those of us who could not pray that which we were officially expected to believe would really have no choice of belief. The radical reformers who are forcing the pace on this must recognise that, were this point to be reached, it could not be met by a further Act of Synod, and it is unlikely that a Free Province still in communion with an heretical Church of England would be acceptable.

Moreover, those of us who are orthodox Catholics and especially those of us who belong to Forward in Faith, must be ready to recognise that in this battle, on a much more fundamental issue and the ordination of women, our position will be shared not only by many Evangelicals but also by not a few of the women clergy.

Ten years ago, when I tried in a sermon in York Minster to warn of the battles to come, I was accused of attempting to make people's flesh creep about this and other issues in the liberal agenda. I could wish that events since then had proved the wrong. Yet when, perhaps even during the Synod's next five-year term, an attempt is made to call God 'Mother' it liturgical proposals it will surely be argued, ' But you've already moved in the direction -- what is wrong with this? All we're doing is just putting it in another way.'

The Porvoo Agreement, in its abandonment of the principle of historic succession in episcopacy, deliberately prepared the way for Anglican Methodist reunion, and Methodists have already accepted Mother God in their liturgies. It is commonly used, so we are told, in some theological colleges and courses, as well as in an informal way in diocesan and deanery worship. Even in the diocese of York at a recent clergy conference, it was used in evening worship to the fury of orthodox Evangelicals who were present (catholic clergy were naturally in the bar at the time). And only a few months ago, controversy was aroused when the new bishop of Leicester demanded that he had such a form at his enthronement.

Orthodox Christians would be foolish to dismiss events in the cathedral at Dundee as just one more bizarre occurrence in a tiny Province on the far fringes of Anglicanism. In reality, it is one more attack -- and a serious one that -- on a fundamental understanding of the nature of God and of his revelation in Holy Scripture. We are to be sober and vigilant, ever watchful for the Devil and all her works under whatever innocent guise they may appear.

George Austin recently retired as Archdeacon of York

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