LETTER FROM AMERICA

Feminist Patience topples off her monument!

It had to happen sooner or later. Given the conviction of some people that women priests and bishops (and a whole raft of other novelties) are simply a question of ‘natural justice’, add the insatiable American appetite for litigation and it was only a matter of time before someone would effectively declare that their patience was at an end.

That someone is Jane Holmes Dixon, the suffragan bishop of Washington. She has gone to federal court in Maryland, seeking to oust the Reverend Samuel L Edwards from his tenancy at Christ Church, Accokeek, Maryland. Her determination, as William Murchison (an on-the-scene journalist) says ‘shows that in the bishop's eyes, Fr Edwards has become more than an irritant, a momentary annoyance, like a toothache. He is theological cancer – ecclesiastical aneurysm. He threatens the even tenor of Jane Dixon's way. Leave a man like that undisturbed in the propagation of his viewpoints, and, well, who knows?’

Courting disaster

In a nation which regards the total separation of Church and State as the Eleventh Commandment, hers was a risky course of action. The more so, because a similar attempt in the Carteret County Trial Court by the Diocese of East Carolina, designed to wrest the property from the parish of St Andrews, Morehead City following their recent affiliation to the Anglican Mission in America, after a five-day trial to determine whether the bishop and the diocese, or the priest and its parish, own the property ended in a 9/3 hung jury in favour of the parish. So they stay!

Whilst it’s not known whether Bishop Clifton Daniel III will mount another legal challenge, informed legal opinion suggests that the likelihood of the diocese obtaining the necessary twelve-nil verdict is negligible.

With Accokeek and Father Edwards it’s not a case of whether joining AMiA is a ‘schismatic act’ liable to confiscation of property; it about the ‘suitability’ of Fr Edwards in the mind of Jane Dixon to officiate in any parish in her diocese. His offence? To entertain grave doubts about whether Jane Dixon and others of her kind, are in fact the bishops in the Church they claim to be.

Impatient receptionist

For us outside America to understand what is happening in places like Accokeek and Morehead City, it’s important to remember two things.

The first is that it cannot be said too often that opposition to ordaining women as priesthood is still ‘a theologically recognized position’ in the Episcopal Church. The Eames Commission report stated that ‘reception’ is expected to be ‘a gradual process’ and that Period of Reception may last as long as two or three centuries. Meanwhile, traditionalist Episcopalians who believe that such ordinations have a degree of provisionality about them (Eames’s phrase again) and cannot be sure that women ordained as bishops and priests are what they suppose themselves to be, need assuring that the sacraments they receive are valid.

Second, we need to grasp that it is a dogmatic certainty of the liberal creed requires the principle of Natural Justice to be the final authority on any disputed matter. This dogma is wholly incompatible with the belief that, on the contrary, Divine Revelation, ‘at sundry times and in divers manners’ but finally and completely in our Lord Jesus Christ’ is the only final authority, the ultimate frontier, so to speak, beyond which the faithful may not stray.

Whilst it might seem that these two stances are equivalent to one another there is, in fact, a critical difference between them.

According to the Enlightenment view, when Natural Justice and Divine Revelation conflict in a given instance, the former, Natural Justice must inevitably be right. For Jane Dixon and her fellow-believers to imagine anything else would be inconceivable. Whoever questions this ‘self-evident truth’ must, in their eyes, ipso facto be unreasonable. Hence, for Jane Dixon, Father Edwards’ belief that, according to the God’s will women should not, or perhaps cannot, rightly be ordained as priests and bishops only proves his unsuitability to minister as a priest in her diocese. He is denying one of the cardinal principles upon which her faith is, and his should be, based.

The ‘traditionalist’ view does not attempt to deny the importance of Justice, but insists that when Justice and Revelation appear to conflict with one another, then Revelation must be take precedence unless and until it becomes obvious that the conflict is an imaginary, not a real one.

Crash barriers

The difference between them comes out in the practical wash. The Enlightenmentalist such as Jane Dixon can brook no delay or barrier to the fulfilment of her policies; Natural Justice must rule OK and anyone standing in its way had better watch out! The Traditionalist, in contrast can afford to suspend judgement, either until the conflict has been resolved, or until it becomes sufficiently apparent that the tree bearing a seemingly novel fruit is a sound, not a rotten one. What, at first sight, appears to be a suspect novelty turns out to be the recovery of a neglected truth. Revelation is more like recovery than discovery.

Let the last word come from William Murchison. He says:

‘Can Jane Dixon's suit hope for prosperity in federal court? Her fiercest foes would never call her a namby-pamby; she will fight as long as the money to pay the lawyers holds out. On the other hand, not every question in the United States is a federal question. The rights she claims under an old Maryland statute cannot disguise the fact that a bishop suffragan is inviting a federal magistrate to judge who should hold divine services at a small rural church. This is one time the recent American mania for ‘separation of Church and State’ under the First Amendment to the Constitution could work to the advantage of traditionalists friendly to public prayer and the like. How ‘separate’ are the two if a federal judge settles down to decide whose voice God would rather hear, the plaintiff's or the defendant’s; who is worthy and who is not to proclaim the word of God at a particular location? In short, the judge might say to the bishop (though not in so many words), Look, lady – why don't you and your Church just sort this thing out and make us all happy?

‘The Edwardses – father, mother, 14-year-old son, 12-year-old daughter – are a likeable and godly family. (This I say from long personal friendship with them.) None but the Lord himself can define their ultimate destination. Should they, prudentially, start cruising around northern Maryland, bags packed, as they scout motel vacancies? My advice for now would be: Save the gasoline.’

Francis Gardom is Hon Secretary of Cost of Conscience. This article has drawn extensively on information received from the USA by email.

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