Kevin O’Donnell pleads for an abandonment of stereotypes

I WRITE AS SOMEONE who has struggled with the ordination of women from various angles – theological and ecumenical, and who has accepted the vote as ‘the mind of the Church’. That a supporter of women’s ordination should be writing a piece for ‘New Directions’ might come as a surprise, but I want to tease open several issues in a spirit of dialogue.

I am concerned with the use of terms in Forward in Faith – orthodox v. liberal. Just what do people mean by each of these? They are ill defined and sloppily bandied about, and such lack of clarity means that they are at best useless and at worst distractions. I presume that ‘orthodox’ refers, primarily, to those who accept an all male priesthood. I perfectly understand, and sympathise with many who hold this position. It is a matter of conscience and doctrine for them, that is not necessarily anti-women, and I often speak up for the rights of those who are seen as ‘traditionalist’ in this manner. I remain good friends with a number of people in Forward in Faith or who have gone over to Rome.

Yet, ‘orthodox’ should mean much more, in holding the essential and central truths of the Gospel. There is an understandable concern expressed in publications such as ‘New Directions’ for the way that some points of doctrine and morality are being questioned and rejected. But here’s the rub – many supporters of women priests, including the women themselves, are as concerned about being faithful to the Gospel.

This leads me on to the term ‘liberal’. This seems to mean more than simply saying ‘Yes’ to women priests, and implies accepting a whole agenda. I hear people, time and time again, castigating ‘the women and the liberals’. One priest implored me, ‘You’re Catholic… leave the women and the liberals and join us!’

What is this liberal agenda? If it is being prepared to think issues through, aware of subtleties and issues that are grey areas, admitting it when we haven’t got the answer, then I am happy to be called a ‘liberal’. But I do this from a secure position of strength, trying to be as faithful to Christ as I can, with the riches of Tradition and Scripture to guide me. There is a sense in which the faith is the same in all ages “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever…” but there is evolution and development, and the faith has to be expressed anew in each age. We are not living in the first century AD, nor should we see this as an age blessed with a divinely sanctioned socioeconomic order. It was fallible, and needed challenging in all sorts of ways. There is new knowledge since then. Perhaps we have been given a gift to hand on that we cannot fully fathom until the end of time, as new insights make things clearer. If the Church is doing its job properly, then it is not acting like a museum curator, but a living organism, growing and developing. We have to discern the mind of Christ for today, by following the consent of the faithful, aided by the hierarchy and the researches of experts in different fields.

The homosexual debate reflects this. What was meant by same sex relations in the Scriptures? Usually humiliating or idolatrous acts. There was no awareness of homosexual orientation that can be with some people from birth, and might have some genetic basis. How do we handle these new insights? With care and caution, is the answer, if we do not want to play fast and free with the mind of Christ, but we have to recognise that there is a debate to be held, and with considerable sensitivity for the people who have this orientation. It is no use, like the fundamentalist Evangelical, just quoting the Bible. Even the RC declaration on homosexuality recognises that. This falls back on the norm or order of creation, and admits that a case cannot be built upon the half a dozen or so texts that talk about same sex relations in the Scriptures. Discerning the mind of Christ in a new situation, with new insights, is what has happened over women priests. There is a strong consensus and mind in the Anglican Communion in favour, as in the Free Churches, with pressure building among RCs. This does not necessarily lead to a slippery slope of radical feminism or androgyny. Differences in the sexes can be affirmed in the manner in which men and women exercise their priesthood. These differences do not have to set them in particular social roles for all time. Neither does it necessitate any change in doctrine, as Jeffrey John has often maintained. It is a change in discipline, and that is how many ‘out there’ perceive it. It is not some wilful attempt to change Christianity into a different faith.

The American fundamentalist preacher, Jerry Falwell, has a rhetorical style. He uses extreme examples to stir up emotions and push forward a cause. Thus, women leading Church services will result in naked circle dancing in the sanctuary! (And in the USA, there’s bound to be one kinky group doing the latter, somewhere!) I hate to say this, but much Forward in Faith rhetoric sounds the same. Extreme examples are taken and fears are played upon. This, I suppose, is the sociological psychological tactic of a group that feels it is being marginalised. THEY are doing it wrong and are against US. It is all too easy to become so defensive that you cannot think straight, and cannot admit your own difficulties and doubts. Issues which should be recognised as worthy of real debate and struggle and dismissed with a wave of the infallible hand.

The issue of inclusive language illustrates this – having a measure of this does not lead to paganisation of liturgy and the worship of a Mother goddess. Daffy examples of Wicca groups and hair-raisingly odd women’s groups can be found if we trawl hard enough. The majority of Church members do not wish to go anywhere near that far. The danger is that by putting up defences against any inclusive language, traditionalists, ‘orthodox’, call yourselves what you will, leave the debate open to more extreme groups. Your checking and balancing influence is removed.

Further to this, we can see that something of the mystery of the faith, of the transcendence of God, is ignored. We have to speak of God in human language that is adequate, to quote Aquinas God is beyond the physical, beyond human sexuality “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God…” , though something of male and femaleness is reflected in the divine nature as we are in God’s image. There are elements that attest to female aspects of God in Scripture and Tradition that are too easily overlooked, such as Isaiah 49:14-16 and ancient Syrian prayers that call upon the Holy Spirit at baptism, “Come, Thou compassionate Mother…”

On the level of doctrine, there is also a spectrum of affirmation and faith, not just two hermetically sealed groups ‘orthodox’ and ‘liberal’; ie. believers and unbelievers. Many might question or wonder about details, this miracle story or that, but affirm the central tenets – God is real, alive and active to call, bless and heal in our world, and God came uniquely in Jesus of Nazareth, and ( in some sense, at least ) rose again. David Jerkins was passionately more orthodox when you actually read him, than reports in the media suggested. While he had a reverent agnosticism about a literal virgin birth and physical resurrection, he believed in the incarnation and that Jesus lives. If we adopt Vatican II’s hierarchy of truths, then the essential tenets of the Gospel were being adhered to. A similar case can be seen with Richard Holloway, a name that has many traditionalists hissing. How many of you have actually read his works, such as ‘Dancing on the Edge’? I challenge you to read that, and though you might reject some of his position, surely we can discern a commitment to Christ and the basic Christian faith in that man? It is pastorally motivated and sensitive to people who feel threatened and hurt by the Church.

Of more, and genuine concern are the various people whom we might term ‘the Church of England plc’, a rather confused, fuzzy gang who are simply for routine and establishment. They seem to drift into orders, and disparage any sense of spiritual edge and passion. The most depressing detail about Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Runcie was the sense of drifting along, half-believing, bumbling establishment that was running things. It’s the old school tie network that is creaking and losing influence in the unchurched public at large. It is one thing to doubt and struggle at times – I could not survive in a credulous, easy-believing atmosphere full of easy answers and total credal conformity – but there must be some bedrock conviction and vision, or what are we bothering for?

Of real concern are the radicals, the Sea of Faith group who follow Cupitt as far as denying any objective reality to God. I have met newly ordained curates who spouted this form of unbelieving humanism, and it was chilling! How on earth had they been selected and accepted for the bishop’s hands? I applaud the courage of Eric Kemp for refusing to licence Anthony Freeman a few years ago. There comes a point when some have to realise that it is time to go. I recall interviews at the time with Freeman’s parishioners, who wanted him because ‘he was a nice fellow’. This is the real worry, that people are spiritually adrift and we need some cutting edge in the Church. Sharpness does not have to be clumsy, unintelligent or isolationist, though. It has to be sensitive to where people are, honest about difficulties, but positive about what can be believed.

In short, there are many faithful, Christian people ministering in parishes who are more orthodox and careful than groups such as Forward in Faith give them credit for. We do not want to change the Gospel, but to struggle to discern the mind of Christ for today. It is in the parishes that the real work must be done, and women can be a great gift to that work. God has not deserted the parts of the Church that use their gifts – they are blessed. It is essential, that if two integrities are to work, then we must remain on speaking terms, and to be able to see where we can agree and where we can cooperate. There will be some issues that we are all confused about, and can help each other with. I know that many in Forward in Faith are sincere, devout, energetic believers, and we need to walk together as often as we can. If you caricature anyone outside your camp, it does no one any good. Service to Christ means service to truth, and while we might react in all sorts of ways if we are hurt, it is important to think clearly and to define terms properly. Labels are awkward things; perhaps I am trying to say that there are many people who are ‘liberal orthodox’ – sort that one out!

Kevin O’Donnell is Chaplain of Heathfield School, Ascot.