Geoffrey Kirk on how Christina Rees’ attempt to argue in favour of
women bishops actually results in an argument against Christianity
How to distinguish between zeitgeist and heiligegeist: that is the question which dominates the culture wars in the Anglican Communion. Into that intellectual minefield – like Dorothy making her naïve and innocent way along the Yellow Brick Road – steps everybody’s favourite frontline feminist, Christina Rees.
In a recent internet interview, Mrs Rees told Wrinkled Weasel (!): ‘working for greater opportunities for women is not following the spirit of the age but the Spirit in the age, and what I mean by that is the divine spirit that is telling me and thousands of others that this basic inequality of the sexes is wrong and has been so for many centuries.’ It is, you will agree, a nice distinction. But how does Christina make it? How does she decide what is the outworking of a transient ambient culture, and what the authentic expression of the eternal mind of God?
The first clue comes with the appeal to ‘thousands of others’, the second with the assertion that what is complained of ‘has been so for many centuries’. Christina is claiming, at one and the same time, a contemporary consensus and a past of unremitting prejudice. Neither claim is credible. Beyond the narrow confines of the western democracies the Rees brand of sexual egalitarianism is a rare flower; nor is it true that the social mores of past generations have been universally marred by hatred and denigration of women. On the contrary, many customs now complained of existed precisely to protect the vulnerable – both women and children – in eras of violence and insecurity.
But if neither the argument from contemporary consensus nor the blanket condemnation of past generations is persuasive or sustainable, we are in dangerous territory: not a dance down the Yellow Brick Road, but a hike across country in the inhospitable terrain of classical Christology.
Christina is telling us that God the Holy Spirit is doing a new thing in our generation. Gene Robinson recently made the same point when he issued his own paraphrase of John 16.13: ‘don’t think for a minute that God is done with you – or done with believers who will come after you. There is much more that God wants to teach you, but you cannot handle it right now. So, I will send the Holy Spirit who will lead you into that new Truth’.
But there are obvious problems to such an approach.
In the first place it ignores an important part of the very text on which it relies. Jesus also said that the Holy Spirit ‘will not speak on his own authority’. The text seems to be saying that the Spirit cannot contradict what has already been revealed, and to imply that Jesus himself is the final and definitive revelation of God’s purpose. So, in the second place, the Rees/ Robinson approach raises serious issues about the sufficiency of Holy Scripture for salvation and the uniqueness of Jesus as Saviour and Lord.
The argument of course is that sexual egalitarianism, in this modern sense, is implicit in the Scriptures and in the teaching of Jesus – so that the Holy Spirit in our day is not innovating but merely explicating. But this simply will not do.
Christianityis, above all, an historical religion, such that Christians believe that God is in some sense differently related to particular events, or may be said in particular to have revealed himself through those events in a way which is not true of all other events or periods of history. The absence from the account of those particular events of any reference to what is now taken to be a guiding principle of the moral life is bound to be seen as problematic and disturbing. And yet, as the feminist theologian, Judith Ochshorn, frankly admits, that is exactly the case. That Jesus was personally kind to women there is no reason to doubt. That he sought to free people to be themselves and to be present for others is the undeniable witness of the texts. But that he had a feminist analysis of society is something for which there is not a shred of evidence. ‘Jesus was neither feminist nor a misogynist. His central message simply lay elsewhere.’
The problem, however, is not merely that the Word made Flesh seems to have been insensitive to what modern analysis sees as the appalling condition of women in his own day. It is that the Holy Spirit of God (who leads into all truth) allowed that sad state of affairs to subsist for the best part of two millennia.
In short Mrs Rees’s argument from a supposed contemporary consensus aided by an inventive pneumatology results in what we must suppose to be the opposite of her intention: it turns out to be, not an argument for women bishops, but an argument against Christianity itself. Its doctrine of the Holy Spirit is not that of the New Testament, and its understanding of the incarnation is suspect and deficient.
The question for Christina – which her form of words is clearly designed not to answer – is precisely this: Is the equality of women compatible, after all, with a religion which has come from a patriarchal age? Can feminism usefully bond itself with an historical religion which names God as ‘Father’, and his incarnation as ‘Son of the Father’; a religion, moreover, which has been guilty of age-long discrimination?
Better surely to give up on the mystical trappings of the misogynist past and tread boldly into the brave new world of post- Christianity: fresh expressions, re-imaginings! ND