I owe my defection from the Methodism of my upbringing to a girl called Judith. We were both about nine and in the same Sunday School class. The teacher was a formidable Yorkshire woman who (though of course she did not know it) might well have provided Alan Bennett with suitable material, and been played, in the film, by Maggie Smith.
That particular winter morning we were being treated to an impassioned explanation of the necessity of Temperance (in those days the Methodist word for total abstinence). As her attention strayed away from the flannelgraph, the Devil entered Judith. ‘But didn’t Jesus give wine to his disciples at the Last Supper?’ she asked innocently. The intervention was treated with a mixture of incredulity and pity. ‘That was non-alcoholic wine, Judith,’ said our teacher. ‘You should have known that.’
What was the long-term effect of this response on the religious allegiance of Judith I cannot say. But it was quite enough for me.
I was reminded of this incident only the other day when I met a recently ordained deacon at a funeral in Eastertide. It turned out that he was both a supporter of women’s ordination and a vegetarian. He was not, he later told me, a teetotaller as well; but, Judith-like, I could not help wondering what he had made of the liturgy of Holy Thursday.
‘On the tenth day of this month each man must take an animal from the flock, one for each family: one animal for each household. If the household is too small to eat the animal, a man must join with his neighbour, the nearest to his house, as the number of persons requires. You must take into account what each can eat in deciding the number for the animal. It must be an animal without blemish, a male one year old; you may take it from either sheep or goats. You must keep it till the fourteenth day of the month when the whole assembly of the community of Israel shall slaughter it between the two evenings. Some of the blood must then be taken and put on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses where it is eaten. That night, the flesh is to be eaten, roasted over the fire; it must be eaten with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. You shall eat it like this:
with a girdle round your waist, sandals on your feet, a staff in your hand. You shall eat it hastily: it is a passover in honour of the Lord.’
A more blatant example of carnivorous male chauvinism it would be hard to find. But there it uncompromisingly sits, at the heart of the rite which commemorates the institution of the bloodless sacrifice: a male yearling eaten roasted. It is quite as explicit as the Lord’s command to Peter on the housetop at Joppa (later
this is a serious point: how far, in a sacramental system, can you stray from its fundamental imagery?
emblazoned on the arms of the Guild of Butchers of the City of York): ‘Surge, occide et manduca.
Boyhood reminiscences apart, there is a serious point here: how far, in a sacramental system, can you stray from its fundamental imagery? I don’t just mean physically (though that is important: the Methodists of my youth used Ribena) but also morally or conceptually. If you come to believe that meat-eating is morally reprehensible – that, in the words of a vegetarian friend of mine, the consumption of dead animals is ‘barbaric’ – how do you relate to a religion, like Christianity, whose roots are quite literally steeped in blood, and whose most solemn rite describes itself as a mystical anthropophagy? I have never quite understood what Eliot meant by ‘dissociation of sensibility’, but in such a circumstance you must need a lot of it!
And what if you have come to hold that not to ordain women is to perpetuate a primeval injustice? It will surely not be enough to reverse the process in the present: there is the enormity of an immemorial past to be expunged; and the ultimate offence of a male incarnation and of male language about God. In the sacramental system the male priest represents the male Jesus. What is wrong with the male priest must also – and more so – be wrong with Him.
I hope, if I embraced either of these commonly held opinions, I would at least
have the courage of my convictions. As a vegetarian I could have no truck with a God who sanctioned – indeed commanded – meat-eating. It would be apparent to me that a divine being who could be morally wrong about a matter so simple, and yet so fundamental, would be unlikely to be a trustworthy guide in anything else.
As a supporter of women priests I would have to adopt the impeccable logic of Daphne Hampson, and reject not only the particularity of the incarnation, but the very notion that God could make particular choices or be more closely related to one person, time, culture or worldview than another. I would find the soft shoe shuffle of people like Revd Dr Jane Shaw, seeking to repopulate the first-century Mediterranean with prototypes of themselves, absurd and not a little pathetic. The attempt to emphasize the undifferentiated ‘humanity’ of Jesus as the locus of the incarnation I would regard as a shameful sophistry, which wilfully failed to take account of patterns of male imagery stretching from Genesis to Revelation.
In short, if I were (heaven forbid!) to adopt an ethical a priori position as intransigent and censorious as are both vegetarianism and feminism, I would not dally with a religion which erroneously purported to reveal the contrary.
But I would be ploughing a lonely furrow. Like the lady who sought to persuade Judith and me that she had the authority of Jesus Christ for total abstinence, enthusiasts cannot resist the temptation to hitch religion to their bandwagon. They peddle a variety of what C.S. Lewis called ‘Christianity and…’, where the subsidiary interest gradually becomes paramount and the perennial Gospel loses out to the enthusiasms of the moment.
The problem with ‘Christianity and…’, of course, is its growing intolerance. The enthusiast knows she is right. Just as, though you prepare her a nut cutlet, your vegetarian friend will never grill you a pork chop, so, in a matter like women’s ordination, the very existence of dissent will eventually be seen as offensive, and the continued ordination of opponents as unacceptable.
I can see that it all follows as the night the day. I owe a lot to Judith.