Thursday, July 06, 2006

The Tom Cruise Factor

I would like to say Andrew Brown is wrong on all significant counts; but I can only quibble with him:

Colin Haycraft, the atheist publisher husband of the very devout and very rightwing Catholic novelist Alice Thomas Ellis, used to dismiss questions about his wife's religious fervour, which led her to say some very lunatic things, by saying: "Religion is for women and queers."

This thesis may seem very little on which to found a schism. Luther needed 94 more to nail on the church door at Wurtemburg and start the Reformation. But the election of a woman, the Rt Rev Katharine Jefferts Schori, to head the American Episcopal church, and thus to be one of the leaders of the worldwide Anglican communion, shows very clearly that Haycraft's thesis forms the great dividing line in world Christianity today.

It is very difficult, doctrinally, to say what turns a liberal into an evangelical: you can dress it up in all sorts of talk about the authority of the Bible, but, in the end, what puts the hatred into the relationship between the two sides is precisely the belief of the liberals that Haycraft's thesis ought to be true, and the fear of the conservatives that may indeed be true, and that if they do not fight, everyone will realise this.

In a sociological sense, Haycraft's thesis is undoubtedly true today, and probably always has been. Most of the laity consists of women; it is women who transmit religious belief to their children; and a disproportionate number of priests of both sexes are gay.
A "disporportionate number of priests of both sexes are gay"? Really? So why haven't I met any? Or do they all have "beards"?

Otherwise, of course, he's right. Women transmit religion. In the small country church I first pastored, the women were the backbone of the congregation. Men came to church on Sunday morning because they were expected to, by and large (and most didn't bother to do that much). It was the woman's group who had kept the church alive in hard times; had raised money to build the steeple and belfry from which a man rang the bell every morning at the start of the service. Women taught the children in Sunday school; played the organ; led the singing; saw to it the altar was properly adorned and the Christmas decorations or Easte lilies set out. Women were the reason the place kept running, even if men ran the fish fry and generally strutted around at public events like they were in charge. In reality, most of them acted as if they agreed with Colin Haycraft, and were more than a little concerned lest their boys start acting too "queer." Not that they were as hostile to religion as Mr. Haycraft; but they were almost as supportive of it as he was.

And then there are, as Mr. Brown points out, the men who actively support religion. Pastors and priests are still predominately male; Bishop Schori can't even be recgonized as a Bishop in England, which is a whole other wrinkle to her elevation to Presiding Bishop. I think, too, of the largest Baptist church here in town, where we went for training to volunteer to help the people from New Orleans living in the Astrodome last September. Everyone in attendance, everyone in charge, was a man. Women had secondary roles, if they were present at all. As Mr. Brown says:

There is something about the appeal to the outcast and the underdog that renders Christianity attractive to both groups. But at the same time it has always been attractive to men who want to be neither outcasts nor underdogs, and who see in the church a way to escape both fates. This type of Christian does not, on any account, want to be confused with the other type. They see sex roles as being divinely ordained, and heterosexual attractions as being still more so.
Those are the people I know as the power brokers, the movers and shakers, in local Texas politics. Certainly the largest Baptist church in town is very politically connected. They are the very Christians mocked by Jesus' General, because they seem so clearly to be in it only for the power. None of that suffering servant stuff for them. They are on God's side, and they aren't ashamed to admit it! (Indeed, why should they be, since God is on the side of their political power and middle-class aspirations.) And this, of course, is where the fight is. If the kingdom of heaven is open to all, what's the purpose of joining up?

There is an old joke about a man who is being shown around heaven by St. Peter. They pass various groups, then come alongside a wall. From the other side of the wall come cheering and shouting and sounds of jubilation, yet St.Peter walks past very quietly, and only whispers to his guest. When asked why he does this, St. Peter answers: "Those are the Baptists [or fill in the blank with the group of your choice]. They think they're the only ones here."

It would be tedious in the extreme to point out the number of women who play significant and important roles in the Bible, or to reiterate the scholarship which has pointed out how those roles were effectively diminished by later hands and more recent orthodoxies (another term which means whoever is in charge to shape what is deemed acceptable or worthy of approval). The song of Miriam precedes the Song of Moses after the passage through the Red Sea, but most of it was either relocated or simply removed by later hands, the better to push her story down and raises Moses up. Matthew makes the geneaology of Jesus hinge on three women, but unless you are shown the importance of those names and their stories, it's easier to simply hear "Abraham" and "David" and "Jesus," because, after all, it is the men who are important. (Sarah is, in many ways, the more interesting and laudable character in the stories of Abraham, but she's mostly remembered and regarded as Abraham's first wife and the mother of Isaac.) It goes on and on. There are several more examples in the Hebrew Scriptures alone. Many of the first Judges are women, and they lead Israel wisely. It is after Israel insists on a king, over even the protests of God, that real trouble begins for the nation; and the kings are all men. The woman who washes Jesus' feet at the end of Luke 7 serves as prelude to the number of women in Jesus' entourage, named at the very beginning of Luke 8 (the naming of Mary Magdalene as one of them gave rise to the legend that the weeping prostitute was this same Mary, and history has gotten her story wrong ever since). It is women, and women alone, who come to the empty tomb in all four Gospels. Paul traveled with women as equals, but as Crossan and Reed point out, even the picture of a woman on equal status with Paul was too un-orthodox for early Christianity, and the picture of her was all but erased from a fresco of the saint. (In the grotto of Paul at Ephesus, Theoklia, a woman, is shown on equal footing with Paul, in the same posture as the apostle, right hand raised, first two fingers extended. As Reed and Crossan point out, "later visitors" scratched out the woman's eyes, and someone literally burned away the plaster where her extended fingers were. Women on equal footing with men are not in the "traditions" of Christianity. Well, not anymore, anyway....)

And now we have Canons in the Episcopal church still arguing an issue that was settled 30 years ago, which is long enough that at least one generation has grown up thinking it the norm for the Episcopal Church. It is simplistic and naive to think that the current issues roiling the Anglican Communion simply rose up with the ordination of Bishop Robinson, or simply have to do with "same sex relationships," or even honest disagreements over doctrine. Indeed, the Forth Worth Diocesan Canon Heidt speaks for decided the day after PB-elect Schori's election to seek "alternatice canonical oversight" from the Archbishop of Canterbury. Church judicatories simply do not turn that rapidly on the dime; that action was planned ahead of time, and very likely, considering the gravity of the position, long ahead of time. Because she is a woman? Well, no, they'd never say that. But yeah; because she's a woman. She's got the wrong genitalia, or the wrong genetic code, for the job; something like that, anyway.

It's fascinating how excuses for these positions continue to dance around the reason for the opposition. The only theological reason I've heard for why women cannot be Episcopal priests is that they cannot be the sacramental presence necessary at the eucharist. Why? The basic argument is, because Christ did not pick any of them to be apostles. That argument, of course, rests on a very literal reading of the gospels, one far more restrictive than you would find in the works of a Biblical scholar like Fr. Raymond Brown (whom my Jesus Seminar NT professor strongly disagreed with as a scholar, although I admire both the work of the Jesus Seminar and of Fr. Brown). But literal readings, you see, are convenient when they serve our purposes. That's what led to the defacement of Theoklia, the erasure of Miriam's song, the overlooking of the women in Matthew's genealogy, the association of Mary Magdalene in Luke 8 with the anonymous prostitute in Luke 7. Everybody does it, in other words; biblical scholars call it "proof-texting," but no one listens to Biblical scholars when their personal prejudices and preferences are involved. Or when the institution must be guarded against change.

The scholarship on this subject, as I say, is too strong, too well developed, too well reasoned and argued, to ignore. But still we prefer to ignore it, rather than face it. Why? Because if the kingdom of heaven is that open and boundless, what's the point of it? If we can't exclude someone out, how can we say we have a community at all?

We are creatures of boundaries. We are born, and we die, so we know the limits of life. Life, the sage told the king, is a mystery. It is like a bird that flies into your hall out of the storm, and flies across the room, through the noise and the lights and the gaiety and above the crowd, and then flies out again, through the opposite window, back into the storm. And where it came from, and where it went, we do not know. That is as good an imagining of it as we have, if we imagine immortality as part of the bargain. Where we came from, and where we go, are unknown, ultimately. We can only guess. Or we can imagine it is nothing: we are born; we die. Either way, it is all about the boundaries.

This is a settled principal of sociology: a group without boundaries never becomes a group, or soon stops being one. We need our limits, our edges, our definitions. It is no accident that the idea of "definition" refers not only to the essence of a thing, but also to its limits. Without limits, how can we know essence? After all, as our reasoning assures us, something that can be everything, can also be nothing at all. Ironically, the limits of the baslieia tou theou are the limits of power: the first are last, the last first. The first is last of all, and servant of all; and that is how one becomes first in this kingdom. It is a constant race to the bottom; which is one more reason men are more comfortable leaving it to women. Unless, of course, there is any power to be had; then the men want to take hold.

Which is one more reason there is so much brewing resentment at the elevation of PB-elect Schori. It should be about her positions. But at worst, she's called a "feminist" because she stands in the line of Julian of Norwich and St. Teresa of
Avila. It will be interesting to see if anyone gets around to her position on the Millenium Development Goals, a far more worthy topic of discussion among Christians of goodwill who are interested in being servants, not masters.

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