Chickens come Home
George Austin on a self-proclaimed member of the ‘liberal intelligentsia’
Orthodox Anglicans should surely now be immune from being shocked at episcopal utterances. At least, I thought so. That is until Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford since the glory days of Robert Runcie, was reported in The Times as claiming that people are ‘repelled by the imagery of eating God.’ The ‘sacrificial, cannibalistic language of the Eucharist’ should be qualified, he declared, and we should use images like ‘the food of angels’ and ‘the bread of life’ instead.
Now people outside the Church may have such problems with the language. But then they always did. When Jesus first gave the teaching in Capernaum (in John 6) he captured the audience by first speaking of the bread of life. But he soon went on to horrify them by that very language the bishop wants to avoid: ‘Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.’ You can almost hear him shouting over the angry clamour of the crowd.
No dumbing down there, no desire, as the bishop puts it, to ‘regain the respect of liberal intelligentsia’ so that the new church might ‘survive and grow’ in the Holy Land of the first century.
Wounded and sickened
To say I was shocked is not enough – appalled, deeply wounded, physically sickened, these words hardly come near to expressing the disgust I felt at such an attack on the language of the central act of devotion, on words given to us by Jesus himself. Could a bishop, the shepherd of a flock committed to him by God, really care so little for the religious sensibilities of millions of devout Christians? I doubt if he would have been as rash had he been talking about Judaism or Islam, but I suppose we are fair game and do not deserve to have our sensibilities respected.
But there was more to come from the bishop. ‘Christianity is struggling because too many of its tenets seem to be at odds with modern social and intellectual thought, with God seen as a despot male, who imposes eternal punishment on his purported children while claiming to love them.’ Has Christianity ever been other than at odds with current secular thought? And isn’t that why it is St Paul’s ‘more excellent way’?
The Church of England Newspaper in its report concentrated on the ‘despot male’ aspect. It is in the bishop’s view ‘no longer acceptable’ to view Christianity as a series of ‘a male boss and male bosses all the way down’. Such a ‘hierarchical and chauvinistic’ view is out of date. Well, in a sense, yes, if you identify ‘equality’ with ‘sameness’ – and if you see the role of the bishop as one of the ‘male bosses’ on the way down through archdeacons, canons, vicars, curates, and with lay members at the bottom of the pile. But that is far from the concept of ordained ministers of God, especially bishops, as the servants of the servants of God.
The Sunday Times reported that Rowan Williams has already called for the ‘upper echelons of the clergy’ to become ‘less grand’, and has attacked the Church of England’s preoccupation with ‘status and grand titles’, which he described as ‘anti-Christian’. Oh dear, that will go down like a lead balloon with some of the bench of bishops, as will his concern ‘about privileges such as chauffeur-driven cars and opulent housing’. They expected women bishops and the marriage of gays, not attacks on their lifestyle. What have they done in urging his appointment?
The point Harries was leading up to, of course, was the use of feminine language for God. The new Common Worship has prepared the ground for this in expunging references to the first person of the Trinity as ‘He’, and has included, in Eucharistic Prayer G, the description of God as a ‘mother’ who ‘tenderly gathers her children’. Isn’t it curious how feminists usually – but not of course in this case – insist that we should avoid implying there are distinctly male and female roles? In deference to their concerns, I always change the phrase to ‘as parents tenderly gather their children.’
But the bishop wants to go further, welcoming the progress being made in some traditions where God is referred to as ‘mother’ during prayers. The New Zealand Anglican Prayer Book, for example, has a Lord’s Prayer with ‘Loving Father and Mother’ in place of ‘Our Father’. Bishop Richard need not worry. Just as the Porvoo Agreement forestalled any problem with the principle of apostolic succession in Anglican Methodist reunion, so the Covenant with Methodism is with a church already officially praying to God as ‘mother and father’. A back-door fait accompli is so much less effort than having tedious synodical discussions about it.
It does of course raise yet more problems for orthodox Anglicans, not too unlike those faced by the Jews of the Old Testament when in exile in Babylon. How could the distinctive monotheism of Judaism be preserved when faced with the pressures of the cultural tradition of the nation where they lived and to whose people they were subject?
The God beyond god
The answer is in the very first chapter of Genesis. For it was not battles between gods, male and female, that caused the world to become as we know it, no slicing of a god into two to make the division between earth and heaven, and so on. The amazing religious genius of the people of the Jews showed that their God was outside his creation, not part of it; and that we were made in his image as creatures both with the power to love and with the free-will that allows us to make the choice whether we love or do not love.
If we were to follow Oxford’s plea, we would be turning that full circle and making a god in our own image, with the male/female division we need in order to procreate and of which our God has no need.
Ten years on
Ten years ago, I prophesied that this would be one of the inevitable developments once women had been ordained to the priesthood. But is it the bottom of the slippery slope or just a momentary pause? Shall we soon have a bishop asking us, like a seminary professor in America, to replace Christ with Christa, who ‘represents the erotic as power and the love of God as embodied by erotically empowered women’, so that we can, in feminist Mary Daly’s words, move away, from ‘a necrophilial religion centred on a dead man’?
Watch this space!
George Austin is a writer and broadcaster.