Saturday, February 28, 2009

The First Sunday of Lent

FIRST READING (Genesis 9:8-15)
God said to Noah and to his sons with him, "Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth."

And God said, "This is the sign of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh."

SECOND READING (1 Peter 3:18-22)
Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.

Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him.

THE HOLY GOSPEL (Mark 1:12-15)
The Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel."

There is a story about a small boy who had the habit of coming home late from school. One day his parents warned him to be home on time, but he still came back late as usual. So they decided to teach him a lesson. At dinner that night, the boy was served only a slice of bread and a glass of water while his father had a full plate of food before him. The poor boy looked with hungry eyes at his father’s full plate and with pleading eyes at his father . . . To continue reading this reflection click HERE.

O Lord, who for our sake didst fast forty days and forty nights: give us grace to use such abstinence; that, our flesh being subdued to the Spirit, we may ever obey thy godly motions in righteousness, and true holiness, to thy honour and glory: Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Saturday After Ash Wednesday

FIRST READING (Isaiah 58:9-14)
Thus says the Lord: "If you take away from the midst of you the yoke, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. And the Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your desire with good things, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters fail not. And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in.

"If you turn back your foot from the sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day, and call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honourable; if you honour it, not going your own ways, or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken."

GOSPEL (Luke 5:27-32)
Jesus went out, and saw a tax collector, named Levi, sitting at the tax office; and he said to him, "Follow me." And he left everything, and rose and followed him. And Levi made him a great feast in his house; and there was a large company of tax collectors and others sitting at table with them. And the Pharisees and their scribes murmured against his disciples, saying, "Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?" And Jesus answered them, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance."

The Greek word we translate “repentance” means to change your mind, not specifically to feel sorry, but to turn around 180 degrees, to change your priorities, to head back in the other direction. Good advice at the start of Lent. The reading from Isaiah makes clear what that “other direction” is: “. . . give of your own food to the hungry . . .” “. . . satisfy the needs of those in trouble . . .” Not “give bread”, but “give your bread” . . . Click HERE to keep reading the reflection.

Assist us mercifully, O Lord,
in these our supplications:
and grant that,
like as this fast hath been ordained
for the healing of our bodies and our souls,
so we may in all godliness and lowliness observe the same.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who liveth and reigneth with thee,
in the unity of the Holy Ghost,
world without end. Amen.

Friday After Ash Wednesday

FIRST READING (Isaiah 58:1-9a)
"Cry aloud, spare not, lift up your voice like a trumpet; declare to my people their transgression, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet they seek me daily, and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God. `Why have we fasted, and thou seest it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and thou takest no knowledge of it?'

"Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a man to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a rush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord?

"Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, Here I am."

GOSPEL (Matthew 9:14-15)
The disciples of John came to Jesus, saying, "Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?" And Jesus said to them, "Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast."

I remember the year I decided (after a long discernment process) that I was going to “give up” macaroni and cheese for Lent. I was very confident with my choice. I reasoned that giving up my “favourite food in the world” had to be pleasing to God! Shortly after I made this difficult decision, my fifth grade friends and I were standing on the elementary school playground of the Catholic grade school where we attended . . . Click HERE to keep reading the reflection.

We beseech thee, O Lord,
to further with thy gracious favour
the fast, which we have here begun:
that we, who with our bodies therein do thee outward worship,
may inwardly perform the same in singleness of heart.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who liveth and reigneth with thee
in the unity of the Holy Ghost,
one God, world without end. Amen.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Thursday After Ash Wednesday

FIRST READING (Deuteronomy 30:15-20)
Moses spoke to the people, saying, "See, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you this day, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his ordinances, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land which you are entering to take possession of it.

"But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you this day, that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land which you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice, and cleaving to him; for that means life to you and length of days, that you may dwell in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them."

GOSPEL (Luke 9:22-25)
Jesus said to his disciples, "The Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised."

And he said to all, "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?"

“Decisions have consequences.” That’s a bit of wisdom we may have heard somewhere along the line. Moses’ address to the people makes the truth of that statement so clear: Staying with the Lord leads to life; turning hearts to “adore and serve other gods” leads to death.

Jesus’ words echo that sentiment. Click HERE to keep reading the reflection.

Prevent us O Lord, in all our doings with thy most gracious favour, and further us with thy continual help; that in all our works begun, continued, and ended in thee, we may glorify thy holy Name, and finally by thy mercy obtain everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

This is the Anglican translation - from the Book of Common Prayer - of an old prayer from the Gregorian Sacramentary, which is now the Collect for Thursday After Ash Wednesday in the new Roman Missal. Re the translation: Some people complain about retaining "archaisms" ("prevent" = "go before us"), but as Christopher Howse has commented on this particular Collect, "Once the meaning is learnt by children, the archaism is no obstacle. Archaism goes towards dignity, gravity and beauty."

To help you with Lent . . .

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ:

Wouldn't it be great if everybody in the parish Community came to Mass each day during Lent. We would really have a sense that the Lord has called us on pilgrimage together! Unfortunately, that is logistically impossible because of distance, work and school commitments, family diplomacy and a host of other good reasons.

Now, I know that you'll all be keeping Lent individually - and the personal dimension of what we do is acknowledged by Jesus himself in the Gospel for Ash Wednesday ". . . and your Father who sees in secret will reward you." (Matthew 6:18). But to help you feel more part of the Community's keeping of Lent, I am posting on this blog EACH MORNING the Mass readings (RSV translation) and a prayer for the day. Furthermore, there will be a link to a short meditation on the theme of the readings.

So, when you turn your computer on at home, at work, or at school, come here to this blog FIRST - before you get side-tracked! Then, no matter how rushed your schedule might be, you will be able to spend a few precious moments with the Word of God. Doing so will nourish your Lenten journey, and keep you in step with the parish Community, even though you can't be at Mass.

May the Lord bless you and keep you.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The One Who Suffers-With

During this time of death (possibly as many as 300 people), suffering, bereavement, pain and loss in southern Australia, it is unfortunate that well known Pentecostal pastor, Danny Nalliah, told the media that the bush fires are God's judgment on Victorians whose parliament passed anti-life abortion "reforms" last year. Nalliah's words have been carried on the air waves right across the country, and have added immeasurably to the pain being experienced by Australians of all backgrounds.

Don't get me wrong. This is not an anti-Pentecostal rant. Indeed, a growing number of well-known Pentecostal pastors are distancing themselves from Nalliah, as they work alongside other clergy and all people of goodwill to relieve suffering and to support those who have lost everything. For example, Mark Conner, senior pastor of CityLife, Melbourne's largest Pentecostal church wrote on his blog: "Danny is an embarrassment to the Christian church, as he does not speak on behalf of the majority of Christians and churches, let alone God."

Michael Hansen, Director of Faith and Ministry, Lavalla Catholic College, Traralgon, Victoria, wrote this reflection:

Our hearts cry out to God! Not with the arithmetic of blame. Not because we think God sends fires. But because God is our way of speaking of the very depth of our being… and because God is compassionately engaged and knows us. Of course, this is like poetry and far from adequate or accurate. But we want to cry out to God and cry out with God. We want to believe that God is not disinterested. It is a conversation of the soul, our deep inner being. O God, hear our grief! O God, help these people!

What then moves within us and surges for fulfillment is compassion, the very being of God - an image for our co-humanity. Deep love for other people and for our world flows from within and joins us to each other and to God. God is an ocean of goodness, reaching our shore, yet far beyond our horizon and deeper than our profoundest thought. That surge moves us and we have learned to understand sin as resistance to its life. We see the tide of generosity about us and recognise the life of God.

Summoned to our common frailty we respond with human care. When people are reduced to surviving, our common humanity asserts itself.

Moments of vulnerability give us the opportunity to reconnect to what really matters. Ultimately that is about connecting to God. To do so is to sense a surging passion for good and for change, a refusal to ignore the plight of people beyond ourselves, a willingness to be engaged for all humanity.

Despite the events of recent days being beyond our control, we can still give and we can listen and we can imagine and pray as our fellow Victorians engage the horror and grief of losing their own and seeing the destruction of their homes and communities.

O God, we cry! O God, hear our grief! O God, help these people! O God, help us!
O God, help our community! O God, help us care about the world in which we live!

One of the theological blogs I look at from time to time posted this extract just over a week ago. From The End of Time by Joseph Ratzinger (2004), pages 50 - 52, it also inspires us to hang on to hope in tragic circumstances:

The One Who Suffers-With

"There is something of the deist hidden deep down in all of us: We no longer envision God as a subject who is really active in history-perhaps in the subjective, but even then in nothing but the subjective. When this happens, when we finally stop assuming that God really enters into history and-all the laws of nature and everything we know and everything we can do notwithstanding-stop assuming that God is still the subject of history, acting in history; when we transform God into an indeterminate horizon, which somehow solemnly makes up the whole: then we are the only ones left to act. Then the entire burden of good and of evil rests exclusively on us. That is when moralism-the placement of the moral demands on men and women-takes on a form that cannot but overwhelm us, which we ascribe to God and against which we rebel...This is why it seems so important to me to hear once again that God [Himself] addresses us and says: 'Your sins are forgiven.' To hear that there really is something that we call grace. And at this point there are good reasons for us to listen to Luther: Not only are there demands being made on me and my actions, and not only demands on humanity or any subject whatever; but rather, before anything else there is an action on God's part and it can transform me...I am always moved by this wonderful saying of Origen's: God cannot suffer, but God can suffer-with. Yet is it not also a part of the memory of suffering that we recognize the God who suffers-with: a God whom we cannot systematize but who nonetheless is moving us in the depths of our hearts? If it is only unresolved suffering that we perceive, then the only thing left is a cry of anger and despair in one's own existence. The only reason we can expose ourselves to being aware of suffering at all is that, in all suffering, one who suffers-with is present."

Our Lady of Lourdes

I had the great joy of visiting Lourdes in 1989, and then again sixteen months ago. If you would like to read an article I wrote about pilgrimage following my first visit, go HERE.

Anglicans often try to compare Lourdes and Walsingham; but I think that is wrong. Each of our Lady's shrines has its own charism, its own emphasis, and its unique ministry. The one thing I know is that God has graced the shrine at Lourdes in a special way, and, through the intercession of Mary, millions who have prayed in that holy place over the last 151 years have experienced the healing power of her Son and the refreshing of the Holy Spirit ("the rivers of living water"). Hebrews 11:6 says that God rewards those who seek him. To go on prayerful pilgrimage to this place that he has particularly graced (or other places like it) enables us to be open to his love, and as a result we experience a spiritual renewal or receive some other precious gift from him.

If you are ever in France, you MUST visit Lourdes. You can get there on an overnight train from Paris. By European standards accommodation is not expensive. Some is very basic and very cheap. Stay for two or three days and join in the pilgrimage devotions. Read, pray, stroll around. You will be blessed.

Here are some photos I took on my last visit.

On being patronised . . .

Those who have been following the English General Synod - and praying for our brothers and sisters in the Church of England who as a matter of obedience to Scripture and the Catholic Faith cannot accept the innovations of liberal Anglicanism - will draw little comfort from the address of Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.

His address is HERE.

Father Giles Pinnock on his excellent blog, "onetimothyfour", summarises the Archbishop's address, pointing out that patronisation is now the liberal strategy for dealing with orthodox Anglicans. His post is reproduced here because of the relevance of his remarks to all first world contemporary Anglicanism.

. . . the main item of the day [i.e. Tuesday 10th Feb] was the Archbishop of Canterbury's Presidential Address, which can be read here.

It is a speech of two parts.

The first speaks in general terms about how the CofE and the Anglican Communion face their problems on human sexuality - or particular manifestations of it at any rate - and on the ordination of women. The second follows through into a discussion of how these more general themes might be relevant to tomorrow's session on legislation re the appointment of women as bishops.

Part One starts by assessing Lambeth and talking up the indaba process, in which all are allowed a voice but no conclusions are reached, and talks down the more conventional debate format, which Dr Williams describes as not suitable to 'those who were not so fluent in the methods and words of Westernised discussion' (para. 1). I think if I were from the two-thirds world, I would feel patronized.

He then moves to explore how the Anglican Communion is dealing with its principal differences over matters of sex - both as an activity and as a criterion for ordination. What strikes me most about this part of the address is how heavily it rests not on whether these things are fundamentally matters of obedience (of which more later) to God's will but on how the Anglican Communion deals as a human community with its differences over them. To cut a long story short, it seems sociological and anthropological rather than ecclesiological or theological - more about keeping us in human-human relationship as diverse Anglicans than about resolving how we are to be faithful in our relationship with God in the Church. (And no, the two are not the same thing.)

Certain things stand out.

Dr Williams states that especially for Christians facing persecution Communion is not a luxury (para. 2), and yet he leads a CofE and Anglican Communion that tends towards the cavalier in how the sacred cows of western secular liberalism are allowed again and again to damage communion between Anglicans and compromise the credibility on the ground of persecuted Anglicans in countries such as Nigeria.

He persists in the language of maintaining Anglican communion, yet acknowledges that 'not every Primate feels able to communicate at the Lord's Table alongside every other' (para. 5) - begging the question as to what is his definition of communion? Dr Williams uses language that echoes that yesterday of the Cardinal talking about 'imperfect communion' and about 'hope for the full restoration of fellowship at the Eucharist'. The crucial difference being that the Cardinal was talking about Christendom; Dr Williams is talking only about the Anglican Communion, and seems to fall straight into the very trap that he identifies himself a little later as 'one of the perennial temptations of Anglicanism', 'complacent insularity' (para. 9).

But it seems to me that Dr Williams is speaking not as the leader of a church the prime concern of which is to be faithful to God, but of a church-like human community the prime concern of which is to remain in human-human relationship - and not let anyone go however much they want not to be associated with what it is up to. I still don't agree with Damian Thompson that the use of the language of 'ecclesial community' yesterday was an significant as he made out - at least not in what the Cardinal intended to convey. But 'ecclesial community' seems a much more apt description of the body Dr Williams was talking about (and to) today than does either 'church' or 'communion'.

Part Two begins by talking about those who don't accept that women can legitimately be appointed as bishops. Whether those people choose to 'go away' [his quotes] to another Christian communion or remain within the Anglican fold, he is quite sure that they will not actually have gone away because they will still be around as 'fellow-Christians, fellow-missioners and disciples'. One might hope that from this might emerge the realisation that Anglicanism is imposing its women bishops on all Christians, not just it own - and simply out of charity should cease and desist immediately.

But instead he seems to be almost proprietorial - wherever you run from our liberal innovations, you can't hide, you're still part of us, however embarrassing that might be for you - those opposed 'must find ways of living with the results' (para. 10) be it within Anglicanism or beyond - and tough luck if they don't like it.

Williams acknowledges that 'difficult plurality of conviction will not simply be done away with by decree', which 'is not, though, simply a matter of tolerating private views, since it bears on the public life and worship of the church' (para. 10). This is commonsensical; what however is staringly missing here is indicated in the previous paragraph, in which he twice refers to 'doubt' and once 'conscience' about the ordination of women. What has happened to Williams' acknowledgement in his speech to Synod in February 2005 that 'the problem is not one of opinion, it's rather of obedience. It's one of obedience to scripture, or obedience to the consensus of the Church Catholic.'

As Dr Williams draws towards his conclusion, he says that if he hears correctly, 'those opposed to the Code of Practice currently on the table', 'they are asking what more might be offered to secure some kind of pastoral care ... and some measure of organisational (including sacramental) coherence for them'. Here, those opposed don't need to come from the two-thirds world to feel that an attempt has been made to patronize them. The point is not that those opposed are tipping their birettas and tugging their forelocks and 'umbly askin' what crumb might fall from the kind Dr Williams' table - but saying plain and simple that a Code of Practice won't do for many and well-rehearsed reasons.

Indeed, for those who out of obedience to Scripture and Tradition genuinely cannot accept that women can legitimately be ordained, nothing whatsoever that drops by way of 'provision' from the synodical banqueting table can do - the problem is having women bishops at all, because it sets the seal on the CofE not simply as reformed but as protestant.

In his final paragraph, Williams appeals to 'the concern that most of us feel one way or another about the 'face' we present to the wider world', referring specifically to 'the unmistakably gospel-related agenda of human dignity and equality' - one of those things you can't actually disagree with although you know it doesn't carry quite the same meaning for you as it does for the person who said it.

And that leaves hanging in my mind a final question: What about the unmistakably gospel-related agenda of the unity of the Church for which Christ prayed and which Williams' CofE is doing nothing about, and in fact actively harming?

Monday, February 9, 2009

"Religion is evil because it causes wars." (Dawkins)

I'm sure that, like me, you've had coffee with your agnostic or atheist friends when the conversation has come around to what we believe and why . . . and, just when you think you haven't let the side down too much, the slam damn argument is bowled at you . . . "look at all the wars that have been fought over religion."

In fact, atheist writer Richard Dawkins claims that religion is evil because it causes wars by creating a mindset of certainty and irrational "indoctrination."

Jewish teacher Tzvi Freeman has suggested a scientific approach to testing Dawkins' position that religion causes war. Just as we might test hypotheses such as "alcohol causes inebriation" and "sunlight makes things grow."

If we wanted to test the alcohol/inebriation or sun/growth hypotheses scientifically, what would we do? Quite simple: Remove the alcohol from whatever drinks we are serving and see if our clients are still inebriated. Same with the sun/growth theory: Remove the sunlight and see if things still grow.

With the religion/war hypothesis, we don't have to actually make a clinical study - it's already been done for us. In the 20th century, we saw the most disastrous wars of history, both in Europe and in the Far East. Which of these were centred around religious disputes?

As scientists, says Freeman, we are forced to develop an alternative hypothesis: There is another common factor to all wars, much more common than religion - and that is that they are fought by human beings.

Indeed, a compilation of the history of human warfare, Encyclopedia of Wars by Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod documents 1763 wars, of which 123 have been classified to include religious elements. So, what our atheist friends often tell us is "most" really amounts to less than 7% of all wars. It is interesting to note that 66 of these wars (more than 50%) involved Islam, which did not even exist as a religion for the first 3,000 years of recorded human warfare.

Taking a similar line, John P Conway in his article War and Religion: Is Religion to Blame? concludes:

it becomes apparent that those who make the claim "religion has been the cause of more wars than any other factor in history" may speak from ignorance or have ulterior motives for the assertion.

Conway's article is well worth reading.

Particularly thought-provoking is a paper presented at the University of Melbourne in 2006 by William T Cavanaugh in which he also challenges the generalities clung to by atheists and their sympathisers.

(All of which is NOT to say that the Church has never been wrong and that Christians have not inflicted suffering . . . it is just a plea that we allow the facts to inform our debates, and get things in proportion.)

Sunday, February 8, 2009


A number of people have asked me for this famous and prophetic essay, originally published under the title "Notes on the Way," in Time and Tide, Vol. XXIX (August 14, 1948).

So, here it is:

"I should like balls infinitely better," said Caroline Bingley, "if they were carried on in a different manner ... It would surely be much more rational if conversation instead of dancing made the order of the day."

"Much more rational, I dare say," replied her brother, "but it would not be near so much like a Ball." We are told that the lady was silenced: yet it could be maintained that Jane Austen has not allowed Bingley to put forward the full strength of his position. He ought to have replied with a distinguo. In one sense, conversation is more rational, for conversation may exercise the reason alone, dancing does not. But there is nothing irrational in exercising other powers than our reason. On certain occasions and for certain purposes the real irrationality is with those who will not do so. The man who would try to break a horse or write a poem or beget a child by pure syllogizing would be an irrational man; though at the same time syllogizing is in itself a more rational activity than the activities demanded by these achievements. It is rational not to reason, or not to limit oneself to reason, in the wrong place; and the more rational a man is the better he knows this.

These remarks are not intended as a contribution to the criticism of Pride and Prejudice. They came into my head when I heard that the Church of England was being advised to declare women capable of Priests' Orders. I am, indeed, informed that such a proposal is very unlikely to be seriously considered by the authorities. To take such a revolutionary step at the present moment, to cut ourselves off from the Christian past and to widen the divisions between ourselves and other Churches by establishing an order of priestesses in our midst, would be an almost wanton degree of imprudence. And the Church of England herself would be torn in shreds by the operation. My concern with the proposal is of a more theoretical kind. The question involves something even deeper than a revolution in order.

I have every respect for those who wish women to be priestesses. I think they are sincere and pious and sensible people. Indeed, in a way they are too sensible. That is where my dissent from them resembles Bingley's dissent from his sister. I am tempted to say that the proposed arrangement would make us much more rational "but not near so much like a Church".

For at first sight all the rationality (in Caroline Bingley's sense) is on the side of the innovators. We are short of priests. We have discovered in one profession after another that women can do very well all sorts of things which were once supposed to be in the power of men alone. No one among those who dislike the proposal is maintaining that women are less capable than men of piety, zeal, learning and whatever else seems necessary for the pastoral office. What, then, except prejudice begotten by tradition, forbids us to draw on the huge reserves which could pour into the priesthood if women were here, as in so many other professions, put on the same footing as men? And against this flood of common sense, the opposers (many of them women) can produce at first nothing but an inarticulate distaste, a sense of discomfort which they themselves find it hard to analyse.

That this reaction does not spring from any contempt for women is, I think, plain from history. The Middle Ages carried their reverence for one Woman to a point at which the charge could be plausibly made that the Blessed Virgin became in their eyes almost "a fourth Person of the Trinity". But never, so far as I know, in all those ages was anything remotely resembling a sacerdotal office attributed to her. All salvation depends on the decision which she made in the words Ecce ancilla; she is united in nine months' inconceivable intimacy with the eternal Word; she stands at the foot of the cross. But she is absent both from the Last Supper and from the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost. Such is the record of Scripture. Nor can you daff it aside by saying that local and temporary conditions condemned women to silence and private life. There were female preachers. One man had four daughters who all "prophesied", i.e. preached. There were prophetesses even in Old Testament times. Prophetesses, not priestesses.

At this point the common sensible reformer is apt to ask why, if women can preach, they cannot do all the rest of a priest's work. This question deepens the discomfort of my side. We begin to feel that what really divides us from our opponents is a difference between the meaning which they and we give to the word "priest". The more they speak (and speak truly) about the competence of women in administration, their tact and sympathy as advisers, their national talent for "visiting", the more we feel that the central thing is being forgotten. To us a priest is primarily a representative, a double representative, who represents us to God and God to us. Our very eyes teach us this in church. Sometimes the priest turns his back on us and faces the East - he speaks to God for us: sometimes he faces us and speaks to us for God. We have no objection to a woman doing the first: the whole difficulty is about the second. But why? Why should a woman not in this sense represent God? Certainly not because she is necessarily, or even probably, less holy or less charitable or stupider than a man. In that sense she may be as "God-like" as a man; and a given women much more so than a given man. The sense in which she cannot represent God will perhaps be plainer if we look at the thing the other way round.

Suppose the reformer stops saying that a good woman may be like God and begins saying that God is like a good woman. Suppose he says that we might just as well pray to "Our Mother which art in heaven" as to "Our Father". Suppose he suggests that the Incarnation might just as well have taken a female as a male form, and the Second Person of the Trinity be as well called the Daughter as the Son.

Suppose, finally, that the mystical marriage were reversed, that the Church were the Bridegroom and Christ the Bride. All this, as it seems to me, is involved in the claim that a woman can represent God as a priest does.

Now it is surely the case that if all these supposals were ever carried into effect we should be embarked on a different religion. Goddesses have, of course, been worshipped: many religions have had priestesses. But they are religions quite different in character from Christianity. Common sense, disregarding the discomfort, or even the horror, which the idea of turning all our theological language into the feminine gender arouses in most Christians, will ask "Why not? Since God is in fact not a biological being and has no sex, what can it matter whether we say He or She, Father or Mother, Son or Daughter?"

But Christians think that God Himself has taught us how to speak of Him. To say that it does not matter is to say either that all the masculine imagery is not inspired, is merely human in origin, or else that, though inspired, it is quite arbitrary and unessential. And this is surely intolerable: or, if tolerable, it is an argument not in favour of Christian priestesses but against Christianity. It is also surely based on a shallow view of imagery. Without drawing upon religion, we know from our poetical experience that image and apprehension cleave closer together than common sense is here prepared to admit; that a child who has been taught to pray to a Mother in Heaven would have a religious life radically different from that of a Christian child. And as image and apprehension are in an organic unity, so, for a Christian, are human body and human soul.

The innovators are really implying that sex is something superficial, irrelevant to the spiritual life. To say that men and women are equally eligible for a certain profession is to say that for the purposes of that profession their sex is irrelevant. We are, within that context, treating both as neuters.

As the State grows more like a hive or an ant-hill it needs an increasing number of workers who can be treated as neuters. This may be inevitable for our secular life. But in our Christian life we must return to reality. There we are not homogeneous units, but different and complementary organs of a mystical body. Lady Nunburnholme has claimed that the equality of men and women is a Christian principle. I do not remember the text in scripture nor the Fathers, nor Hooker, nor the Prayer Book which asserts it; but that is not here my point. The point is that unless "equal" means "interchangeable", equality makes nothing for the priesthood of women. And the kind of equality which implies that the equals are interchangeable (like counters or identical machines) is, among humans, a legal fiction. It may be a useful legal fiction. But in church we turn our back on fictions. One of the ends for which sex was created was to symbolize to us the hidden things of God. One of the functions of human marriage is to express the nature of the union between Christ and the Church. We have no authority to take the living and semitive figures which God has painted on the canvas of our nature and shift them about as if they were mere geometrical figures.

This is what common sense will call "mystical". Exactly. The Church claims to be the bearer of a revelation. If that claim is false then we want not to make priestesses but to abolish priests. If it is true, then we should expect to find in the Church an element which unbelievers will call irrational and which believers will call supra-rational. There ought to be something in it opaque to our reason though not contrary to it - as the facts of sex and sense on the natural level are opaque. And that is the real issue. The Church of England can remain a church only if she retains this opaque element. If we abandon that, if we retain only what can be justified by standards of prudence and convenience at the bar of enlightened common sense, then we exchange revelation for that old wraith Natural Religion.

It is painful, being a man, to have to assert the privilege, or the burden, which Christianity lays upon my own sex. I am crushingly aware how inadequate most of us are, in our actual and historical individualities, to fill the place prepared for us. But it is an old saying in the army that you salute the uniform not the wearer. Only one wearing the masculine uniform can (provisionally, and till the Parousia) represent the Lord to the Church: for we are all, corporately and individually, feminine to Him. We men may often make very bad priests. That is because we are insufficiently masculine. It is no cure to call in those who are not masculine at all. A given man may make a very bad husband; you cannot mend matters by trying to reverse the roles. He may make a bad male partner in a dance. The cure for that is that men should more diligently attend dancing classes; not that the ballroom should henceforward ignore distinctions of sex and treat all dancers as neuter. That would, of course, be eminently sensible, civilized, and enlightened, but, once more, "not near so much like a Ball".

And this parallel between the Church and the Ball is not so fanciful as some would think. The Church ought to be more like a Ball than it is like a factory or a political party. Or, to speak more strictly, they are at the circumference and the Church at the Centre and the Ball comes in between. The factory and the political party are artificial creations - "a breath can make them as a breath has made". In them we are not dealing with human beings in their concrete entirety only with "hands" or voters. I am not of course using "artificial" in any derogatory sense. Such artifices are necessary: but because they are our artifices we are free to shuffle, scrap and experiment as we please. But the Ball exists to stylize something which is natural and which concerns human beings in their entirety - namely, courtship. We cannot shuffle or tamper so much. With the Church, we are farther in: for there we are dealing with male and female not merely as facts of nature but as the live and awful shadows of realities utterly beyond our control and largely beyond our direct knowledge. Or rather, we are not dealing with them but (as we shall soon learn if we meddle) they are dealing with us.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Time to smile . . .


A little girl was at Mass with her mother when she started feeling ill.

“Mum,” she said, “can we leave now?”

“No” her mother replied.

“Well, I think I’m going to be sick, Mum!”

“Then go out the front door and around to the back of the church and then behind a bush.”

After about 60 seconds the little girl returned to her seat.

“Were you sick?” her mother asked.


“How could you have gone all the way to the back of the church and returned so quickly?”

“I didn’t have to go out of the church, Mum. They have a box next to the front door that says, “For the Sick.”

After the baptism of his baby brother in church, little Johnny sobbed all the way home in the back seat of the car. His father asked him three times what was wrong. Finally, the boy replied, “That priest said he wanted us brought up in a Christian home, and I want to stay with you guys!”

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Tolkein on the Blessed Sacrament

Christmas High Mass at Our Lady of the Atonement, San Antonio, Texas,
an Anglican Use Roman Catholic parish.

"Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament . . . There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth, and more than that: Death, by the divine paradox, that which ends life and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste (foretaste) of which alone can what you seek in earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexity of reality, eternal endurance, which every man's heart desires."

J.R.R. Tolkien (1892 - 1973), writing to his son Michael, 6-8 May 1941.