Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Forward in Faith

Yes, I do know it's the name of a very 'Traditional' and conservative Anglican Group that rejects women in the priesthood - indeed, in any ministry involving the sacraments. I have labelled this post by that title for a different reason, one I hope will become clearer as you read.

In my exploration of my own faith and beliefs I have found many things to challenge me. More than once I have had to reappraise and undertake study or review of some aspect, and more than once have found that what I believed, was in fact erroneous. It has, at times, been a rough ride, and not necessarily only in the journey of discovery in faith. Perhaps this is why I feel drawn to the less rigid and more relaxed theology of the Early Church, and before anyone points it out, yes, they had their fallings out and disagreements as well. The attraction though is that it did encourage each and every member to contribute, to seek understanding and to share that with others.

It did not take me long, once I approached the issue of woman in the priesthood with a more open mind, to discover that there is a wealth of evidence to support the claims that the exclusion of women followed the "official" status of the Church following Constantine's conversion. Suddenly the rich and powerful wanted a piece of it and, naturally, control of it. That mean women had to be relegated to roles acceptable politically. Much is made of Paul's strictures in his letters, yet, if one studies the background to the letters, and the reasons for his responses, one discovers that they were not attempts to ban women from ministry. On the contrary, they were aimed (in particular his stricture regarding women 'speaking' in church) at gossip mongering during worship. One has to remember that the Early Church was, to a large extent, centred on Synagogues and followed Jewish worship practices. Anyone who has attended a Synagogue will know it is not unusual to see quite heated discussions going on between members of the congregation as the Rabbi preaches. Usually it is a discussion centred on some point of religion, but in Paul's day (as now) it could sometimes be just scandal or gossip.

In a recent argument with a Roman Catholic 'traditionalist' and hardline supporter of the Papacy (he doesn't approve of what Francis I is doing), I found myself having to remind him that the Vulgate version of the Bible he relies on as the source of his views, is the product of a Council set up in 1513 to find a single agreed text to be used by everyone in Western Europe. Why was this necessary? The answer was that the copyists over some 1,200 years since Jerome first assembled what became the approved canon, had made mistakes, 'corrections', 'clarifications' and 'improvements' to the texts they copied. It had become a case of there being almost no two copies of the Vulgate Bible that said the same thing. To say that it had been a bone of contention for some years is to understate the case!

In England, the Bishops decided to make a completely new effort to get a single text, resulting in 1511, in the publication of the "Authorised" Version, known everywhere as the King James Bible. They sought out and used the earliest and most authentic copies of original, Greek and Latin texts they could find for their effort, and did a pretty good job of it. The Authorised Version replaced umpteen different versions then in use, including the "Bishops Bible", John Wycliffe's sterling effort and several others. To produce it the scholars had drawn on the Jewish "Babylonian" Canon. This has a slightly different organisation to the "Septuagint" Canon used by the Vulgate, which gives different titles to some books and has some eight more books than the KJV, and the most reliable and original copies of the New Testament available. It must be said that the Vulgate Canon is used very widely almost everywhere outside the "English Speaking World" despite the efforts of the Bible Society and others, but it is probably not that close to Jerome's original text.

The Roman scholars took several years and examined minutely the various texts, comparing these to the oldest versions they could find and came up with the text in use today. It is interesting for the fact that there are some variations in the way things are presented between it and the Authorised Version, many of them actually giving a subtle change to the meaning of some aspects. What both sets of scholars appear to have lacked is any understanding of the Jewish society of the first century which underpinned and shaped the understanding of those first writers and authors. As I have learned in my own seeking and journey, many things we take at 'literal' value do not mean what we think they mean when read by a Jew.

The recent vote by the Church in Wales, to elect and consecrate women into the episcopacy, has brought out all the Anglican bashers from the RCC and from the 'Anglo-Catolic' wing of the Anglican Church. That is a pity, for, though I regard myself as an 'Anglo-Catholic' by default, I do not share their  rejection of the measure. So what if the RCC and the Orthodox Churches do not ordain women as priests and won't consider them as Bishops? One of the beauties of the wider Anglican Church is that its bishops are chosen by the people of a diocese, not selected from a list by the Curia or the Crown Appointments Committee and presented to the 'electors' of a Cathedral Chapter or Diocesan Clergy with the instruction "elect him". In my former Province, a bishop was elected after much prayer for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, discussion and study by a process using an electoral College comprised of three 'Houses', Laity, Clergy and Bishops. Only rarely did the Bishops actually cast a vote, though they often offered guidance to the other two. Only when a candidate got the support of both the lower Houses, would the Bishops affirm that decision. In one such election, the bishop elected was not one of the original candidates, he was a tie-breaker, yet, in the final vote, got almost all the votes in one House and a very substantial majority in the other. The Holy Spirit didn't just speak, it was a shout!

What I have found very sad in reading the various comments posted on blogs and in online articles, is the refusal of many 'traditionalists' to explore beyond what they have 'received' from others of their own mindset. It borders on the approach of the Pharisees and Sadducees toward the teaching of Christ. They allow no possibility that the Holy Spirit may well be at work in this and other changes the Church is making. Yes, I too am saddened at the way some things are 'watered down'. But, if I challenge myself, and really analyse why I feel that way, I find it is generally because I simply want things to be the way they were when I was sixteen and being confirmed 51 years ago. If I am really truthful, I have to confess that what I believed and understood then, is NOT what I understand and believe now. I have grown in both faith and understanding from that point, but many of those I read at present appear to have never left that starting point. That saddens me.

It apparently saddens several senior Roman Catholic Cardinals as well, one of whom is in todays newspapers in Germany saying that Rome must soon allow the marriage of priests, and explore women's ministry. Is he being 'radical' about this? No, as the Vatican confirms, the celibacy 'Rule' is not, as many think, a dogma, it is a 'Discipline' - one many priests find it impossible to keep. Change will come, and where then will those who refuse to accept it find refuge. Married priests is the first small step Rome will take in a much larger debate.

I have no doubt that the Church will continue to change and perhaps to grow again once it learns to adapt, respond and include those who differ from the norm. I am pretty sure that the Church which will eventually bury me will be very different from the one that confirmed me in 1962. Is that a 'bad' thing? I don't think so.


  1. There are none so blind as they who do not wish to see.

    1. Indeed. I have just realised that I was actually confirmed on the 300th anniversary of the adoption of the Book of Common Prayer. The Church it was received by was vastly different to what we now know, and the RCC of that date was even more different from todays - despite the 'belief' of their traditionalists.