This blog provides a meditation on the Episcopal daily readings along with a headline from world news:
Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?2You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet* something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask.3You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.4Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.5Or do you suppose that it is for nothing that the scripture says, ‘God* yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us’?6But he gives all the more grace; therefore it says,
‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’
7Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.8Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.9Lament and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection.10Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.
Warning against Judging Another
11 Do not speak evil against one another, brothers and sisters.* Whoever speaks evil against another or judges another, speaks evil against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge.12There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy. So who, then, are you to judge your neighbour?
“These conflicts and disputes amongst you…” On a day when the Church of England is torn asunder by its disagreement over electing women bishops, it’s reasonable to note that sincere people are risking hurt on this issue while the largest denomination in the world, the Roman Catholic Church, sits in quiet self-satisfaction that it continues to deny any degree of priesthood to half the human race. It’s a tribute to the people of the Church of England that they’ve tackled the issue openly. But while making this tribute it’s right to acknowledge that reformed churches such as my own Church of Scotland have dealt with this matter some time back and have benefitted from the full ministry of women ever since. Full ministry? Well of course, we don’t have bishops, we have presbyteries. And that’s another illuminating aspect to this dispute, that the evangelical wing of the Church of England, which thinks that the Bible prohibits women bishops, still supports the institution of bishops for which there is no evidence whatsoever in the scripture.
So can we say that the interpretation of scripture is at the root of this problem? Certainly it seems so. Those who oppose women bishops think the scripture also opposes it, and they believe that scripture is always unambiguous and authoritative. It may surprise outsiders to know that there is not a single word about women bishops in scripture. Now come on, they will say, you telling us that these scripture geeks are causing this fuss on no evidence at all? Yep, that’s what I’m saying. But wait a minute, some scripture geek will shout, the Lord Jesus appointed no women as disciples! No? What about his approval of the woman who insisted on being a disciple rather than making the tea? And in any case, we’re not talking about disciples, we’re talking about bishops of which Jesus had, as far as we know, never heard. It’s true that there are in scripture instructions from men that women should be silent in church or not rule over men, but these seem to contradict the evidence of scripture that some women at least did speak and hold authority in the first churches. Any reasonable person looking at the New Testament would conclude that although there is evidence of a culture of male domination it is by no means unchallenged by Jesus or by the first churches, and that the scripture cannot therefore be used to deprive women of an office which is itself unscriptural – oh alright, there are a few mentions of episcopos in scripture but it should clearly be translated “overseer” as there is absolutely no sign in scripture of a developed episcopate in the catholic sense. All this should be evident to any prejudice – free person.
So the dispute is not really about the interpretation of scripture?
For some, it’s a question about the status of scripture, which they think is immediately given by God and inerrant. Every sentence, every word indeed, is of God and must guide our lives. This belief offers its adherents a pocket idol to which they can turn in any perplexity to find infallible truth. This is faith but not Christian faith. Those who espouse it, or preach it, ought to be placed under kindly discipline, until they free themselves from idolatry.
For others it’s rather an aspect of their catholicity which involves an almost mystical belief in the rightness of catholic tradition and order as an unchanging, holy structure in the midst of time and change. This too is a form of idolatry whereby the unchangeableness of God is transferred to the church. These people too, need help.
But why do decent people become idolaters? I’m afraid that the answer has to be that such idolatry meets their needs in a way that orthodoxy can’t. Perhaps they hate women. Perhaps they are women who hate other women having power. Perhaps they are people who can’t live without certainty that they’re right. Perhaps they are men who’ve never escaped from their English public school boys – group. Perhaps they are desperately troubled by the follies of the modern world and need something to hang on to. Perhaps they can’t see how Christian faith can survive without either an authoritative church or an authoritative book.
None of these needs however can justify the transfer of attributes of the eternal God to worldly persons, objects or institutions. (Well, what about Jesus then? Good question. The answer is that the only human who can bear the name of God is the one who poured out his human life for others, the one who made himself nothing, he only, the crucified, can be called God of God and light of light.)
As regards scripture, tradition and institutional church, there is a vital truth. They are not divine, not do they derive directly from God. All three are the creation of human imagination, trust, courage and hope; all three are therefore fallible, even if they are also inspired by God’s love; all three have also been chosen by believers because they liked them enough to give them their allegiance. Nobody can hide behind them, saying the scriptures command, tradition requires, the church teaches. We are responsible for what we believe because we choose to believe it. Christians are no more excused by saying we are only obeying orders than Nazis were. If for example scripture appears to tell us we should do or think something otherwise abhorrent, we must ask ourselves whether we will obey it. And if we decide to disobey we must ask if that affects our view of scriptures as a whole, and perhaps our view of belief as a whole.
If I really thought that scripture, tradition or church required me to consider women as unfit for authority amongst God’s people, I would bin the lot and good riddance. As it is, I recognise that all three are human creations, requiring interpretation and correction with the aid of fellow believers and God’s spirit. I can see that the scriptural witness about women’s authority is more various than the church has usually acknowledged, even while I think I can see in scripture and early Catholicism a weakening of Jesus’ radical, scandalous treatment of women as equal with men.
Unfortunately this deprives me of three pseudo-Gods which spare many people the effort of thought. Thank God there are many people in the Church of England prepared to make this effort even if it brings the church into temporary disorder.