Sunday, 20 July 2014

On Women Bishops and Differing Views of Human Nature

I was mortified to see Jane Bisson, lay representative from Jersey, at the General Synod clutching a black leather bible. Urging members to vote against the measure, she said of Christ: "His direction should be the final direction we should take."
It is bad enough that some members of the Church of England managed to wreck a debate on civil - not religious - marriage for same sex couples in Jersey, but this gives the impression that Jersey is a misogynist backwater, in which people believe those voting for women bishops are in fact doing something against God's will.
People like this are so convinced they are right that they write off other Christians as imperfect, not living up to the high ground that they do. They never change their minds. And their language is often apocalyptic - if something goes ahead, major disasters will follow.
When there was a debate on women bishops on an earlier occasion, in the General Synod of 2006she said: "The sacraments will be brought into disrepute and disrespect, and the communion of the church will be annihilated". Indeed, on that occasion, according to the Church Times, she also suggested that the speed at which women clergy were trying to climb the ladder was unworthy!
Jane Bisson hails from Grouville, and also in the east of Jersey, at Gouray Church, is Gavin Ashenden, a long term opponent of women's ministry. From interviews on BBC Radio earlier this year, it seems apparent that he does not acknowledge the ordination of women at all, let alone that of Women Bishops.
His views against equality are strident, and part of what he sees as a battle against the secular world:
"As the secular drive for equality and even gender reparation developed in society and the Church, there was no other language available to counter the question (which was designed to have only one answer) 'if men can, why can't women?'
"In a context where priesthood had become synonymous with power and status, the language of power fixed its sights on the goal of priesthood and demanded the capitulation of the concept of priesthood to the categories of the age."
His ideal model for women is the Virgin Mary, and he sees the move to equality as something that happened when the Reformation lost sight of devotion to Mary within its worship.
"The movement for the ordination of women to both priesthood and episcopate has mimicked secular values in the absence of a theology of womanhood and motherhood that Mary offers. Power and status, inimical to real Christianity, are replaced by the role of co-creator and interdependence."
And he sees the ordination of women as an aping of the trappings of male power and status:
"For as long as the Anglican Church pursues the masculinization of womanhood in the pursuit of ordaining women to masculine office, it denudes itself of the charisms and patterns of mutuality that God has given his Church, confines it as it were to limping on one leg, when it might have run on two."
To see the ordination of women primarily in terms of power, reflects his view of the secular world, which, while he pegs it to an interpretation of the Bible, actually harks back to Victorian ideas about the role of women in society
"When rights are sought in our quest for egalitarianism, someone always has to pay the price. In our case it is not so much men who pay, as the popular take is, but children. One of the marks of our capitalist and secularist culture are homes where the children have lost their mothers to a quest for status, money, power or an alternative identity."
"Capitalism takes what was briefly, for a decade or two, a choice, away from a couple and turns it into a bondage."
There seems to be no consideration of the fact that some women do not want to be placed in the role of the dutiful mother, while the father is in the role of the worker, the breadwinner in the family.
Paul Heelas, in his investigation of New Age Spirituality, notes what he terms a "subjective turn", whereby people began to identify themselves by who they were, rather than by the particular roles they fell into in society - worker, office clerk, manager etc. This is a change which began in the 1950s, and represents a break away from the more traditional culture of the age.
In particular, religion is something that requires you to live your life according to norms set out by some external higher authority, while spirituality involves taking ones inner experiences as one's final authority. As Heelas says:
"The key words of New Age spiritualities are 'experience' and 'practice'" Rather than attaching importance to the beliefs, doctrines, and ethical injunctions of theistic traditions, importance is attached to experiencing the heart of life. Practices are taken to facilitate the inner quest."
That does not mean that practices are unimportant, on the contrary, New Age meditations are often well structured. Wiccan rituals follow a clear pattern. But the emphasis is upon praxy rather than doxy, on how one lives a spiritual life rather than what one believes.
Again, that doesn't mean that people do not believe anything, but it is rather that belief has not the high priority that it has often been given in Christianity. But this approach is wholly antithetical to Gavin Ashenden's theology, where Christianity is bound within traditional and largely unchanging structures, and the place of people within those structures is itself firmly determined.
This can also be seen in the letter in 2012 regarding women bishops, but pronouncing on the status of women in general, where he was one of the clergy signatories:
"The Bible teaches - and the Church has traditionally understood - that men and women are equal before God and yet have different, complementary, roles in the Church. By maintaining these different roles, neither men nor women are diminished; rather, we demonstrate God's wisdom in creating us to operate in this way."
The language suggests equality, but it is a verbal sleight of hand which actually manages to keep women in a subservient role, while at the same time, by words such as "complementary" and "different" suggest that this is not in fact a case of subservience at all. We are not too far removed from the idea of the "happy" slave, an argument used by a slave owner in South America on which Charles Darwin poured considerable scorn.
It is perhaps not surprising that Gavin Ashenden is also opposed to same-sex marriage, and describes sexuality in a vivid way which would not be out of place in some of the lurid passages of the Malleus Maleficarum:
"the moment Jesus warns that even looking at someone with sexual appetite opens the floodgates of desire in a way that takes us in a direction that is unacceptable to God, I and the majority of people are engaged in a struggle that will carry us to the limits of our self control and beyond. Worse than that comes the moment of falling in love with people we are not married to, and becoming imprisoned by feelings that carry us close to madness."
There's a strong puritanical streak in this which comes out in his writing on sexuality as something which needs "to be tamed":
"Christianity, or Christ, comes to the human appetite, whatever it is , sex, money, booze, pride, revenge, and offers to tame it; to tame and transform it. Sex is not a different special appetite, exempt from the touch or call of God, it's just one that society has become most fixated about, and screams abuse at any attempt to tame it"
And this is located - back in the territory of the Malleus again - in a world where the demonic and powers of evil rule:
"There is no sense that there is a real agency of evil that sets itself against the patterns that God has laid down. There is no awareness that evil sets out to twist and deform what God has made good."
And this is at the heart of his dualism between the secular and the religious:
"One secular and self indulgent, already experiencing the spasm of its own impotent death throes; and one transformative and with the experience of being always renewed and capable of capturing whole cultures and  civilisations with its empowered sacrificial love."
What is striking about Canon Ashenden's writing is the way in which he paints the secular world in the worst possible light. It is depraved, a place full of sexual appetite and self-indulgence, and only his brand of Christianity stands as a bulwark against it.
It overlooks all the compassion, all the goodness, all the acts of kindness that people do, and people that may or may not believe in God, but certainly who do not believe in the kind of Christianity which the good Canon sees as the only way to stem the descent into moral degradation.
I would sooner take a more positive view of my fellow human beings. And against a world in which Canon Ashenden sees dominated by powerful secular forces, I would also ask to be weighed in the balance what the late Stephen Jay Gould described as "ten thousand acts of kindness".
In that article, written in the aftermath of the destruction of the Twin Towers, he spoke eloquently of the need not to overlook the ordinary, and the goodness in the everyday, just because it is not as noticeable:
"History is made by warfare, lust for power, hatred, and xenophobia (with some other, more admirable motives thrown in here and there). We therefore assume that these obviously human traits define our essential nature. How often have we been told that 'man' is, by nature, aggressive and selfishly acquisitive?"
"Such claims make no sense to me - in a purely empirical way, not as a statement about hope or preferred morality. What do we see on any ordinary day on the streets or in the homes of any American city - even in the subways of New York? Thousands of tiny and insignificant acts of kindness and consideration. We step aside to let someone pass, smile at a child, chat aimlessly with an acquaintance or even with a stranger."
"At most moments, on most days, in most places, what do you ever see of the dark side - perhaps a parent slapping a child or a teenager on a skateboard cutting off an old lady? Look, I'm no ivory-tower Pollyanna, and I did grow up on the streets of New York. I understand the unpleasantness and danger of crowded cities. I'm only trying to make a statistical point."
His argument is there is an asymmetry of effect, and we forget that: "One incident of violence can undo thousand acts of kindness, and we easily forget the predominance of kindness over aggression by confusing effect with frequency.
And John Lienhard comments on Gould's point:
"Like all fine teachers, Gould uses metaphor to help us see how that works. To make his point, he asks, 'Are we humans cruel or are we considerate?' Of course, the record of history is written in blood -- in wars, treachery, and competition.
"But what does our experience tell us? Walk through your day and count the transactions. What's happened to me by noon today?"
"My wife had interesting things to talk about before I left for a dental appointment. The technician and I compared pictures of her new baby and my new grandson. When I entered my office building with an armload of books, two students held doors for me. The man at the lunch counter shared greetings with me. Students in the overcrowded lunchroom graciously shared a table. Back at the office, my e-mail misbehaved, and a colleague helped me sort it out. Once it was working, a colleague in another state responded to my testy message with grace and good will."
"I seldom look at my days like this, but the simple fact is, people who hardly know me have treated me like a king. I've been met with kindness everywhere. Yet you and I let ourselves be diverted by those rare occasions of human meanness."


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