Cuckoos in the Nest

LAVINIA AND MIRIAM BYRNE, so far as I know, are unrelated except by ideology; yet it is no accident that these turbulent women have hit the headlines simultaneously. Westcott House luvvies both, they represent the strident face of women’s ordination which the establishment is presently trying to play down.

In the period since the first ordinations of women in 1993, it has become increasingly clear that the wild claims of Monica Furlong and her gang were always unsustainable. The attendance figures of the Church of England have not been affected (unless adversely); new and less confrontational ‘management styles’ are not in evidence; the ‘relevance’ and credibility of the Church has not increased.

As many of us predicted, the liberal agenda (whose very existence, prior to 1992, many denied) has moved on to gay rights, leaving women bishops as a minor skirmish to be tidied up at leisure, when the occasion is ripe.

The remaining part of the Furlong programme – the avalanche of theological change which was confidently predicted – is what the establishment has presently put on hold. Only that garrulous old bell-wether, the Bishop of Edinburgh, is carrying on regardless…and of course, Miriam and Lavinia!

Lavinia has had a recent and acrimonious run-in with the Vatican.

Apparently she thought the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith ought to be grateful for her vociferous support of birth control and women’s ordination. When they attempted to curb her interventions she accused them of hypocrisy – which can hardly have made friends and influenced people. Now, quite appropriately, she has left her Order.

Appropriately because Lavinia’s prime complaint was that the Holy Office did not deal with her directly and personally, but through her Superior. She failed, in other words, to recognise and accept the patterns of self-restraint, mutual accountability, poverty, chastity and obedience, which go to make up the religious life.

But Lavinia’s is not just the case of a stroppy nun. It is an issue of authority which goes to the heart of what it is to be a Catholic Christian. An infallible Pope has solemnly declared that he supposes the Church to have no authority to make the changes in doctrine and order which the ordination of women would require. The highest authority in the Roman Church has perceived a limit to his own and the Church’s competence, which Lavinia, it seems, will not and cannot place on her own. (Even the Archbishop of Canterbury, who gives himself a good deal more lee-way in such matters than the Bishop of Rome, has publicly admitted that he might have been wrong!) In the face of this humble obedience to scripture and the tradition on the part of the magisterium, Lavinia fiercely protests the sovereignty of her own conscience. Hers is a tenable position; but can never be the stance of a religious and a Catholic. Call it Protestantism and you would be nearer the mark.

Miriam’s case is not dissimilar.

She had already thrown off the straight-jacket of the religious life in favour of serial monogamy. Then, intoxicated by the heady heights to which (after a mere four years in the priesthood) she had been projected (and, no doubt, encouraged by the enthusiastic and uncritical support of her bishop, Neville Chamberlain) she unilaterally extended her competence to the writing of creeds. Before baptizing children (according to a formula of her own invention), she took to exhorting their parents to make a declaration of Christian faith in propositions of her own confection. This has brought a predictable cessation of ‘peace in our time’, and an outbreak of legal charges and counter-charges unprecedented in the life of the Episcopal Church.

All of this was predictable. Indeed (see Thirty Days passim), we predicted it.

The Byrnes, in their self-opinionated stridency are, after all, merely particular cases of a general principle. Lavinia appeals beyond the Vatican to God, and Miriam constitutes herself a one-woman Ecumenical Council, because both see themselves as custodians and champions of a self-evident truth. Theirs is an ethical a priori position, and as such strictly non-negotiable. Women’s ordination and inclusive language are for them matters of primary justice. Against such arguments appeals to scripture or the tradition carry no weight. Their dogma is formally intolerant of any opposition, contemporary or historical, which is necessarily viewed as blinkered and intransigent. (If you don’t believe me, just consult Dick Holloway, who will call you ‘infantile’ and ‘imbecile’ merely for asking.)

The extraordinary thing is that church leaders at every level, even in the Roman Church, seem reluctant to grasp this elementary truth. Benevolent, non-doctrinaire liberals, for the most part, they go on busily feathering the nest and feeding the cuckoo until, as with Neville Chamberlain, the catastrophe overtakes them. It never seems to occur that their protégés make a speciality of biting the hand that feeds them.

When a Church which has allowed the creation, development and exploitation of the Permanent-waved Media Nun begins to call in its favours, it is accused of hypocrisy, book-burning and intellectual suppression. When an indulgent episcopal patron draws the line at outright heresy, he is threatened with a law suit for £250,000.

One’s first instinct is to be sorry for the victims of these flagrant impostures. (Poor, simple Neville, who unknowingly nurtured a monster which could now single-handedly bankrupt his already fragile diocese!) But sympathy is misplaced. The writing has been on the wall for long enough. And someone called Chamberlain, should have grasped (one would have thought) what appeasement of totalitarianism invariably leads to.

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark