Saturday, November 24, 2012

(On Women Bishops) Dear Anglicans,

The Church of England has just defeated, by a very narrow vote, a proposal to allow women to become bishops. The measure needed two-thirds of the vote in each of the houses: the House of Bishops, the House of Clergy, and the House of Laity. It passed the first two, but lacked 6 votes (or five, according to one source) in the House of Laity. Now my friends in England are too, too outraged. They hope the State will impose fairness on a body which cannot seem to achieve it on her own. They feel stunned, they feel almost physically sick, they are ashamed, they say, to be laypeople in the Church of England.

Now all of this I can understand, but ladies (and gentlemen) of the UK, take a deep breath.

The first thing we all need to remember is that it is virtually certain you will have women bishops in the not-so-distant future, just as Episcopalians here in the U.S. have. You’ve waited 2,000 years; what’s five more? I doubt it will take even that long, but whatever the duration, it gives you time to pause and look at the whole complex of issues from a different perspective, so it’s a blessing in disguise, if one lets it be.

Ask yourselves, with all brutal honesty and seriousness, what do you want to be bishops for? I mean, what do you want to be bishops for? And to this question there’s really only one Christian answer, isn’t there? “To love and serve the Christian people.” But of course you can already do this! You can comfort the bereaved, visit the sick and imprisoned, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, counsel the perplexed, instruct the ignorant, proclaim the Gospel, etc., etc., etc. You do not need to be a bishop to do these things; you don’t even need to be a priest .Why let hot tears of indignation distract you from the work at hand? Just do it. Exercise whatever gifts God has already given you.

Ah, but there’s more to it that this, isn’t there? God has given some of you, you tell me, gifts of leadership, which the Church of England isn’t letting you fully use. In effect, you’re telling me your church has been at odds with God from the beginning. And after 2,000 years, you are trying to correct that.

Among the Orthodox Christians here in Richmond, among the Greek ones at least, our spiritual leader is an elderly woman named Adamantia. She’s the one people go to when they need personal advice, when they are wrestling with a church teaching or a spiritual issue such as forgiving others or dealing with bereavement. You already know the Orthodox do not ordain women, so obviously Adamantia holds no church office. So how did she get to be so influential? Is she rich? Is she beautiful? Is she highly educated? Is she the sort who just naturally takes command? No, no, no, and no. Her one and only qualification is that she is Christ with skin on. In her flesh, one readily sees Christ moving and breathing and acting. In her, you encounter His own compassion, kindness, love, humility, wisdom. And that qualification is the greatest, the highest, the all-sufficient. That is what makes this woman our spiritual leader.

Adamantia doesn’t get to be center stage in worship, but she does get to do far more important things. Like praying. And the highest function of all that we mere mortals can perform within the Divine Liturgy, namely to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, she gets to do right along with the rest of us, ordained or lay. (Yes, consecrating the bread and wine may possibly be an even "higher" function, but the priest doesn’t do that; the Holy Spirit does.)

In this same way, you, too, can exercise whatever gifts of leadership God has given you. But being a genuine Christian leader is much harder than merely being made a priest or a bishop; it involves being re-fashioned into Christ. You really don’t want to take the cheap way out, do you?

But I fear all this is still missing your point. There appears to be yet more involved with this highly-charged issue. And it has to do with fairness and rights and equality, and even with how the wider society will regard the Church of England if she is so backward in these things. Is that it, or part of it?

The issue of the wider society is obviously a pressing one, given the hemorrhaging of membership you’ve been experiencing. You desperately need to attract new members. But do be careful! Satan is very subtle, and here is just where he sets his traps for you. There are at least two of them.

One is, you must never be motivated by your church’s needs. God will provide for His Church. God will “grow” His Church. (And if He does not, then one must seriously question whether this church really is His or whether He is deliberately letting her die.) Christians are to leave God’s job to God and let themselves be motivated always and only by love — love unmixed with other motivations, ideally.

The second trap is the temptation to conform to the values of this world. That’s actually the opposite of the Church’s mission to help the wider society conform more nearly to Christ.

What’s worse, and I’m not sure I know yet how to explain why this is so, this temptation to adopt the values of the pagan society around you is, in a terrible irony, the very thing killing the C of E. I stand by distressed to see the C of E committing ecclesiastical suicide and not perceiving that suicide’s exactly what it is.

So to tie the issue of women bishops to the opinions of the secular society is a mistake. Our only legitimate concern is what Christ thinks of the Church, not what anyone else does. Whether Christ calls women to be priests and bishops is a legitimate question, but whether society approves is not.

Rights? But the priesthood and episcopate are Christ’s! Christ chooses whom He will. Nobody, but nobody, male or female, has any “right” to it. That you believe Christ chooses women as well as men to be priests and bishops I accept, but let us dispense with the language of “rights” when it comes to the things of Christ’s.

Equality? Every woman knows in her heart she is equal to men. (Admit it, ladies, most of us even harbor the suspicion that we are more than the equals of men.) We know it already; we do not need to be priests or bishops to know we are their equals. We need not whine if they do not bless us by their affirmation of it, for St. Paul does. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

With equality I think we probably come to the heart of the matter. It means equality of rank, doesn’t it? And equality of power. And I think that in non-Orthodox circles, these two go together. I mean, there are higher and lower ranks and rank confers power. Bishops have the highest power in the C of E, and women are going after their fair share of it. And within any secular organization, this would be indisputably right and proper. But what does Christ teach? From Matthew 20:

20 Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Him with her sons, kneeling down and asking something from Him.
21 And He said to her, “What do you wish?”
She said to Him, “Grant that these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on the left, in Your kingdom.”
You know the rest of the story. Their mistake was not so much in supposing Christ’s kingdom would be secular (that, too) as in power-seeking.

25 But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. 26 Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. 27 And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”
So seeking after such vanities as power, rank, status, and prestige is a thoroughly unchristian pursuit. We Orthodox do not think anyone at all should ever aspire to be a bishop; it is a hard form of servitude and it is dangerous to ones spiritual well-being. When we encounter a priest or bishop who shows any interest in rank or power, we laugh him to shame. We do not hear in him our Shepherd’s voice; we do not respond. We tolerate him and we show respect to his office, but he personally is going to be scorned and the subject of innumerable jokes. I even know of one priest in Greece whose parishioners contemptuously call him “John Boy”, in English.

If in the Church of England leadership is equated with being a priest or bishop, and if leadership means being the boss, and if priesthood and episcopacy are matters of rank and power, then you have a secular instead of a Christian system; and that is a much bigger problem than simply what a woman’s place in it ought to be. Frankly, the sons and daughters of the Reformation ought to have repudiated these notions centuries ago. But better late than never; do it now.

And when you do, and when it becomes very clear that church office truly does mean being a servant to the servants of God, well, I wonder how many feminists will aspire to servanthood, or how many women will aspire to be first, knowing that the first shall be last?


Anam Cara said...

My (snarky) facebook post from Wednesday:

well, of course. That clears it all up for me. (see the last sentence). It had never occurred to me that a male bishop could never be caring and firm at the same time. Only a mother can do that. It makes me wonder how the Church survived all those millenia without woman bishops.

My facebook post from Thanksgiving Day:

I am thankful that I don't have to worry about such things for myself! Very thankful. Not enough ways to say how thankful I am. Most thankful that Orthodox bishops hold dear the trust from the Apostles that was given by St. Paul to his disciple St. Timothy: “That good thing which was committed to you, keep by the Holy Spirit who dwells in us” (2 Tim. 1:14) instead of making it up as they go along.

Unknown said...

If Anglicans were really, really honest (and, personally, I find them to be very duplicitous), the cry for women bishops is not about equality nor is it about serving (because, as you already pointed out quite clearly, service can occur in many other roles besides that of bishop or priest), but it is about power, pure and simple. The rallying cry for women bishops and women's ordination in both RC and Anglican camps has used "equality" but then they show their true colors when the vocabulary changes to that of "power." Women need to share in the "power" structure and wield "power"; equality in the presbytery and episcopacy grants women "authority." Again, if Anglicans who favor women bishops were really honest, they would just say up front "we don't want to serve, we want power."

Frankly, I'm very happy that the Orthodox Church doesn't have to wrestle with this (at least not yet), but I'm of the belief (and I could be wrong) that a church which is rooted in its own tradition firmly with an anchor in both theory AND practice, will have to deal with things seldom.

Thanks for your thoughts, Anastasia. ALways a pleasure to read--Chris

Matushka Anna said...

Excellently put. It's always been about power for them. Anything else is just window dressing.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

If, in the C of E, the hierarchy really is all about authority, power, then it is quite right and proper for women to have as much of it as men. The much larger problem, as I've tried to point out, is that way of understanding "hierarchy".

Unknown said...


I see your line of reasoning and if the hierarchy is set up along lines of authority and power, then, in the C of E, women should not be excluded from it. However, no episcopal polity that is set up is rooted in authority and/or power. The episcopacy in the Christian churches has always been one of service just like any other ministry of the church (as you very clearly elucidated in your initial post). Those clamoring for women bishops have confused service for power or power for service. Either way you slice it, those proponents want power, nothing more nothing less.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

One thing that is so ironic is, here we have women struggling to have the power of bishops, and yet in this Synod, it was the power of the laity that trumped that of all the bishops (and priests) combined.

John said...

Nice article. I've got nothing to say, because you said it all.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Not to leave a wrong impression, I'd like to make it clear that people, including me, do also go to our parish priest. It's just that the the ones who know her go to Adamantia more.