THE TRIUMPH OF OPTIMISM OVER EXPERIENCE
David Mills, our American correspondent, argues that theology has logic
WHILE IN ENGLAND last September for the meeting of Forward in Faith, a few people told me, quite serenely, that what has happened in America will never happen in England. “You mean such things as the ordination of women?” I asked, with as serious a face as I could manage and the feeling, which I have fairly often, that if there is a Purgatory I am going to pay for this.
Plotting the course
For several years the leaders of the “orthodox resistance” in America have been assured, by visitors some of whom are now leaders of Forward in Faith, that the Church of England would never vote to ordain women.
We were told that most of the Catholics and the traditional Evangelicals would stand firm, and that many Evangelicals and even some liberals valued the ecumenical progress made with Rome too much to lose it by ordaining women, that many people, especially among the bishops, valued too much the unity of the Church of England to risk it, that the English are a naturally conservative people unmoved by ideological enthusiasms, that your system of synodical government would prevent such a radical innovation, and that anyway, you had learned from the experience of the Episcopal Church.
As it proved, none of these was true. The political power of traditional Anglicans and the reticence of the rest were not strong enough to withstand a movement that so well expressed the assumptions of the culture and the conclusions of mainstream Anglican theology and practice. Nor the desire for social “relevance,” the taste for innovation and change, and the passion for “equality” that characterized many modern Anglican leaders. Only a fixed doctrine, held firmly by a sufficient number of people, can withstand such forces.
As Newman wrote somewhere, “Many a man will live and die upon a dogma; no man will be a martyr for a conclusion.” Judging from the loss of votes among the laity from the penultimate vote in July 1992 to the final vote in November, and the number of bishops, priests, and laity who have since come to accept the innovation, you have had too many people with conclusions but not dogmas.
The Episcopal experience
That has been our experience, and one of the reasons that our resistance has not been very successful, even in holding its members. The vote in 1976 to ordain women threatened martyrdom, and too many of us were rather vague about women’s ordination.
Too few held a settled – a dogmatic – conviction that the New Testament teaches what it seems to teach, and that the tradition of the Church had faithfully understood Scripture on this matter. (I obviously write as an “impossibilist.” The Synod’s position, adopted at the very first meeting, is that the innovation is contrary to Scripture.)
In the Episcopal Church twenty and thirty years ago, the majority of Anglo-Catholics pleaded agnosticism about women’s ordination but insisted that the Episcopal Church should not make such a great change on its own, without the approval of Rome and Orthodoxy. This seems to have been a dishonest argument, because many of them were convinced that women should not be ordained.
They wanted to win approval or at least tolerance by saying that they were open to the possibility, but they also knew that Rome and Orthodoxy would never agree in their lifetimes, which let them decline their support with a great show of regret. It was a way of having their cake and eating it too.
Some Anglo-Catholics were sincerely agnostic, of course, but this seems to me to raise questions about the Catholic movement’s understanding of Scripture – which is not that of the Pope, among other notable Catholics. One found then, and still finds, Catholics as deeply afraid as any liberal of being “fundamentalists” or “literalists” and as deeply opposed as any liberal to the patristic understanding of Scripture summarized in the twentieth of the Articles of Religion. A proper “literal” reading of Scripture that assumes Scripture does not contradict itself, leaves little chance that women can be made elders.
This may seem over-stated, but think: first, how just a few decades ago my comments would have seemed self-evident to almost any Anglo-Catholic. And second, how the way of reading the Bible needed to justify ordaining women has been so easily turned to justifying moral and liturgical heresies as well. If St Paul’s teaching on headship is merely cultural, perhaps his opposition to homosexuality is merely cultural as well. If Galatians 3.28 trumps the Bible’s teaching on the differences between men and women, so might Jesus’ instructions to love one another trump the Bible’s teaching on marriage.
The majority of Evangelicals seem to have been equally pragmatic, believing or suspecting that the innovation was unbiblical but arguing either that it was not important (“does not touch the core of the Gospel”) or that it was not worth opposing (“is not a hill I am going to die on”). And sadly, some, as in England years later, were pleased simply to strike down Anglo-Catholics.
The Problem with Pragmatism
The pragmatic response may have gained some time, but it could not work over time. It was bound to fail personally, politically, and theologically – or personally and politically because theologically.
Personally, a pragmatic reason for opposition can easily be overturned by a pragmatic reason for support. This we have seen happen to hundreds of priests, who had no unchangeable reason to resist temptation and threats and the loneliness of being in opposition.
A man who believes that it might be all right to ordain women but that we should wait as a matter of prudence, can easily come to feel that we ought to do it now as an act of prophecy. A man who believes that we ought to wait for Rome can easily come to feel that we ought to set an example for Rome. He has not changed his beliefs; a different reading of the situation, or of his own prospects, has led him to apply them differently.
Politically, such agnosticism prevented the orthodox from making any theologically coherent, and therefore any politically coherent, response – except the disastrous one of simply going along and hoping for the best, of saying “I’m not threatening to leave, I’m threatening to stay,” as it was usually put, with some self-satisfaction. The threat was not a real threat, nor one likely to work, without a theology that specified acts of resistance.
At the same time, the public agnosticism of the two major groups expected to dissent only encouraged the innovating party, who were dogmatically certain that they were right and rightly acted on that belief. The biblical evidence being what it is, they could assume that they had frightened the orthodox into ignoring it, which confirmed their iconoclasm and encouraged them to move on to new causes.
Theologically, the pragmatic argument is vulnerable in three ways. First, it is vulnerable to the claim that ordaining women was not such a great innovation after all, and did not affect Catholic order, the sacrament being Christ’s sacrament not the priest’s, and so on. The only argument against this was a dogmatic definition of headship and order and the relation of sex thereto, which these Catholics had explicitly avoided.
Second, it is vulnerable to the claim that even if it is a great innovation, the Episcopal Church might be called to test it, so that the rest of the Church could make a more informed judgment about it. The only argument against this was a belief in the dogmatic basis of action that in claiming to be open to the innovation these Catholics had lost.
And third, it is vulnerable to the claim that if it were right to ordain women, the Episcopal Church must go ahead despite the opposition of Rome and Orthodoxy, whose final authority in such matters Anglicans by definition do not recognize. There is, as far as I can tell, no good argument against this, and certainly Catholics, who had often disobeyed the formularies of their own Church to introduce Catholic practices, could say nothing against it.
This argument returned the debate to the question Catholics had tried to avoid: was it right or wrong to ordain women? And if it is wrong, what sort of error is it, and what must the orthodox do? Having avoided answering the first, theological, question, Anglo-Catholics were unable to answer the last, political and pastoral, question.
A momentum of their own
A merely pragmatic opposition is weak. At the same time, if that weren’t problem enough, the beliefs of the innovators lead logically to the exclusion of dissent and the development of new innovations.
The English optimists I’ve talked with didn’t seem to realize that changes have a movement and momentum of their own, because even bad theology follows its own logic. Although the General Synod followed the Americans and voted to ordain women, these people tell me that the Church of England will never follow the Americans and try to exclude opponents of the innovation – or, for that matter, create official feminist liturgies or approve the celebration of homosexual marriages. Well, I’m afraid, they will.
One can predict the course of such movements from what its supporters have said and done. There is a logic to theology, if you will, even if it is bad theology. Peoples’ beliefs, even if muddled and confused, contain certain assumptions which logically lead to certain conclusions. People do tend to act logically, even if they take a while and a bit of wandering about to get to the logical end. Taken as a whole, they will act logically, no matter what their intentions or feelings. Some of them will manage to act inconsistently, but they will be an increasingly small minority as the innovation becomes established and it becomes easier and safer to act consistently.
This is a point many conservative Episcopalians still do not understand. If they think about the problem at all, they say something fatuous like “God will not desert his people” or “The Church has always had problems” or “Let’s just get on with the work of the Gospel and stop worrying about issues.” They act as if the avalanche, having started at the top of the mountain, will not eventually reach the valley in which they live. As the avalanche comes down, one should pray for a miracle, but only while jumping in the car and racing out of town.
They took comfort that the last General Convention in 1994 – our governing body meets only every three years – declared opposition to the ordination of women “a recognized theological position,” while ignoring the fact that in several votes it refused to declare ours a legitimate or accepted position. They held to a single phrase in a measure passed at the very end of the last day against all the evidence to the contrary that the large majority of deputies and bishops hold women’s ordination to be an unquestionable good and believe opposition to it allowable only as an act of pastoral care to those for some reason as yet unable to accept it, and (as many said then) allowable only a short time longer.
Such Episcopalians were duly shocked when just a year later a huge majority of the bishops voted that no one should be allowed to act on the traditional conviction (though they may hold it as a theory) after January 1, 1998. They would not have been shocked – as even now some English traditionalists are shocked by acts of liberal intolerance – had they listened to the majority and took them at their word.
The logic of ordaining women
If the innovation of women’s ordination really is so obviously right as to be worth the pain and division it caused, and if it really is a clear advance in human dignity and freedom, and if the Holy Spirit really led the Church to do this new thing, and if it really has produced the fruits its supporters claim, they cannot allow people to oppose it.
If you listen to all that they say, invocations of “reception” and “provisionality” were in effect, if not always in intent, merely rhetorical gestures to soften the opposition and justify the hesitant in voting with the majority. A question to reflect upon is how many of them have talked of reception since November 1992.
One can’t speak of ordaining women in the way its supporters do and then say that people, and especially bishops, should be allowed to oppose it. On the other hand, one can’t repeatedly call its opponents “heretics” or “mean-minded sods” and “miserable buggers” and honestly promise them an honored and secure place in the Church. (Another question to reflect upon: How many liberals reacted as loudly to Bishop Holloway’s slanders as to Bishop Barnes’ prediction that women’s ordination will eventually be rejected?)
This is a simple point. People who believe that ordaining women is a wonderful advance in our practice of the Gospel and in fact the clear will of God for the Church, whatever they may say about its provisionality and their respect for the other integrity, must eventually make sure that God’s will is not impeded and that the wonderful new world is reached. To encourage continued opposition is to resist God Himself (or Herself, as the case may be).
It is to let a few people, who are at the best misguided, keep others from the promised land. Tolerating them is not pastoral, for it is pastorally harmful to the Church and society and particularly to women who either need their vocations affirmed or need their sexuality valued by seeing other women ordained.
A sociological logic
And there is a certain sociological logic to the advance of the innovation as well. For one thing, the supply of women priests will inevitably exceed the demand, both because so many new priests are introduced into the system so suddenly, before the positions are open, and because very many people in favor of women priests as an idea will still want a man as vicar. The women will demand jobs, which in a way they’ve been promised, and pliable diocesan bishops and bureaucracies, both of which are moved by threats, will try to find them jobs by eliminating resistance to their employment.
For another, institutions as big as churches naturally prefer conformity and dislike dissent. Institutions are organized to get things done, even if the only thing to be done is to keep itself going.
People who dissent, especially if like parish priests they have some minor executive job, make it more difficult to get things done, because one always has to work around their dissent. Worse, one never knows when they might cause a problem: when they might ask a difficult question at a diocesan synod, or refuse to give the diocese all the money it wants, or upset some influential woman priest by declining to recognize her orders.
These are only two examples of the sociological logic that will almost certainly bring the Church of England to follow the Episcopal Church in trying to exclude orthodox believers.
A psychological logic
There is as well even a psychological logic to the drive to ordain women, in the establishmentarian’s irritation when things are out of place and in the rage of the reformer who finds his reforms resisted. The Church leader who believes that one should do more or less whatever the Church does finds dissenters irritatingly out of place, as a dirt spot on a white shirt attracts one’s attention. For him dissent is untidy, and he feels the need to clean up.
The reformer feels dissent as a threat and feels driven to eliminate it. I remember taking a pottery class as a child. The instructor would throw down a lump of clay on the wheel, start the wheel spinning, and with no visible effort would very quickly shape with his hands a beautiful vase. When I and my friends tried, the clay resisted all our efforts to shape it, apparently with a malign will of its own. Its resistance to our well-intentioned attempts to transform it from ugly lump of clay to beautiful vase, left me, and as I remember my friends as well, in a cold rage.
This was a childish reaction, but it suggests the way the reformer feels when his subjects resist being transformed into his vision of them. His vision is so beautiful, yet these wretched people just won’t cooperate. The problem must be their resistance – their chauvinism, ignorance, selfishness, misogyny, whatever – not his beautiful vision of a new humanity. Such people, he thinks, should not not be allowed to stop the New Heavens from descending.
It is the rage, the usually implacable rage, of someone who finds his pleasing dreams defeated by reality. When you take away from such a person his dream, you are taking away a drug to which he is addicted, and taking away something from which he often derived much of his identity and usually a sense of moral superiority and spiritual elevation.
The combination of the establishmentarian’s taste for a tidy conformity and the rage of the reformer who finds that human nature is not as plastic as he thought it was, drives many of the attempts to enforce obedience. The first may dislike the second’s manners and tactics, but he welcomes his help. The reformer gives him someone to do what he’d rather not be seen doing, but wants done.
And people will continue to resist. The feminists ascribe this to a deeply entrenched misogyny, so deeply entrenched that it can only be eradicated by force. Though bigotry is sometimes part of the reason, the resistance also reflects an instinctive understanding of male headship, even among people who think they don’t believe in it.
In this country, Evangelical or Charismatic parishes whose clergy support the ordination of women, and even have ordained women on the staff, and whose people have a somewhat vague understanding of biblical teaching, put forth for ordination at least five to ten men for every woman. With very few exceptions, they call men as rectors. Some leading liberal parishes, which have had women curates for twenty years, have chosen a man as rector, in part, it seems, because their image of a rector was a tall, patrician, white-haired, deep-voiced man.
The feminists and their allies, realizing that for the moment they cannot do much about this, demand the exclusion of the orthodox. The orthodox are not only forces of reaction, but must be removed so that the “sexism” of the rest can more easily be assaulted.
Some people respond to this sort of argument by saying that it hasn’t happened, and that the English value the unity of the Church and respect the traditionalist integrity, and so on. I think they dangerously underestimate the power of these logics, and forget that their effect is now restrained because so many people know each other so well and because, given the size and conviction of Forward in Faith and Reform, the costs of too public and decisive an assault on dissenters would be too high.
Despite their totalistic rhetoric and the pressures upon them, many liberals can’t really think of excluding old classmates and colleagues. (Many, alas, can.) But when they pass on, a new generation less bound by friendship will rise to power and begin to put their theology more thoroughly into practice. The theological, sociological, and psychological logics will begin to play themselves out much more clearly.
I don’t mean to say there is no hope, because people can act in unexpected ways and God can always intervene. People are inconsistent and God redemptive. Though nothing is certain, however, one can be fairly sure that a man who has just said “a, b, c, d” is going to go on to say “e.” The leaders of the Church of England have set their course – which is not quite the course they think they’ve set – and in the normal course of things they will follow it fairly closely and get where they are going.
All of this is to say, that what has happened in the Episcopal Church will almost certainly happen in the Church of England. I don’t mean to encourage despair, but to warn against complacency and against too much trust in princes and synods, and against the besetting Anglican belief that theological differences can be ignored or “nuanced.” And against such theological pragmatism as will prevent you from acting with the needed clarity and unity.
Such logics as I have described can only be resisted by people who hold a defined and articulated doctrine, which tells them what they must do and must not do, and what they can and cannot accept. The only way this progress will be avoided is by the massive conversion of souls and minds in error, in other words by a revival, for which we can work and pray. And indeed should, whatever the Church’s state or direction.
How different the Church is
A few days ago I was reading old issues of The Evangelical Catholic and the statements from the Synod and its predecessor the Evangelical and Catholic Mission. The Episcopal Church was very different, or looked very different to us, just a few years ago.
The liberal party seemed truly liberal, accommodations seemed possible, and even the feminists were asking only to have a place in the Church. The center, having bent to accept women priests, seemed to be holding, the moral innovations and “inclusive” or goddess liturgies the pet causes of a loud but weak and eccentric left.
But the orthodox were theologically weak and the logic of the innovations working itself out. Today we see the likely exclusion of the orthodox, the center moving slowly left even as it seems to sleep, the approval of moral innovations and “inclusive” liturgies spreading even as the Church again and again proves unable to say a final word for the teaching of the Church on any of these questions.
In 1988 John Spong stood alone in support of homosexuality, and was spoken of as an eccentric even by some other liberal bishops. In 1996 more than eighty bishops signed his Statement of Koinonia, and many more agree with him but will not say so in print.
This is where we are, and this is where, in all probability, without a revival of Wesleyan or Tractarian proportions, in a few years you will be also. But I must say one other thing, one perhaps surprising thing: that nevertheless, many of us are happier, and more hopeful, than we have been for many years.
Faced with the loss of status and power and for many of us even our places, we can see the new world God seems to be revealing: of pointless strife ending, of new friends made, of old divisions reconciled, of new things learned, and through all these of lost souls saved.
David Mills writes our “Letter from America.” He was in England in September as a member of the steering committee of the Episcopal Synod of America, who attended the AGM of Forward in Faith. He also met with the leadership of Reform.