21 November 2012

‘My dear, we have to take what we can get’

A Russian icon of the Presentation of the Virgin Mary in the Temple

Patrick Comerford

Today [21 November 2012] is the Feast of the Presentation of the Virgin Mary in the Temple. Well it is in many Orthodox and Roman Catholic calendars, although not in the Church of Ireland nor in the Church of England.

In the Orthodox Church, this celebration is known as the Entry of the Most Holy Theotokos into the Temple (Εἴσοδος τῆς Παναγίας Θεοτόκου). In some Orthodox icons, as the child Virgin Mary is presented at the age of three by her parents, Joachim and Anna, to the High Priest in the Temple, she is dressed in episcopal robes. Mary was supposed to have been consecrated to God’s service in the Temple. Although the story is from the apocryphal Gospel according to Saint James, it provides a visible image of the Virgin Mary in preparation, even in childhood, to present God-in-Christ to the world and the world to God-in-Christ.

And so it is appropriate that this ministry should be identified with the ministry of the episcopate.

But sometimes, as a liturgist, it is good to be reminded of the emphases and nuances of other Christian traditions, including those with little apparent liturgical tradition.

I say “apparent” because all Christian traditions develop their own liturgical expectations and traditions, even if they have no liturgical formulae or appear to have little or no sacramental life.

Staying in the Penn Club last night, I was reminded that this is particularly so with the Religious Society of Friends or Quakers. Meetings for Worship have their own liturgical sense of when the silence begins, when it is appropriate for someone to stand up and speak (minister) or read from Scripture, and when a Meeting for Worship should end – usually symbolised in the ritual (although Quakers are loath to use that term) of two elders shaking hands.

Quakers are also reluctant to speak about ministry in formalised terms. But each local congregation or meeting has its elders and overseers. The responsibility of elders is to see that the Meeting for Worship is precisely that, while overseers exercise pastoral care.

But elders and overseers are appointed not by the local congregation or meeting, but by the Quaker equivalent of a diocesan synod, known as a Monthly Meeting, and they exercise their role throughout that monthly meeting.

However, the offices of elder and overseer are open to all members, and women have been active in Quaker ministry, both formally and informally, throughout more than three and a half centuries of Quaker history.

Quaker women must find yesterday’s debate about women bishops in the Church of England baffling, and compared to the Quaker method of making decisions through searching for consensus, last night’s vote in the General Synod seems to amount to the bullying of the majority by a vocal and closed-minded minority.

The Quaker author and playwright Beatrice Saxon Snell (1900-1982) tells an interesting story of how she reacted when it was first suggested that she should become a Quaker elder. She was not born into the Society of Friends, and she was taken aback by the suggestion that she should become an elder.

Her story is recounted in Quaker Faith and Practice (3rd edition, 1995-2004), the book of Christian discipline of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain:

I had a salutary lesson in sober thinking when I was first asked to become an elder. The invitation appalled me; I felt I was not old enough, had not been in the Society [of Friends] long enough; I suspected strongly that my monthly meeting had asked me on the inadequate grounds of vocal ministry; I read up the appropriate passages in Church government and felt still more appalled. Nevertheless I had been in the Society just long enough to know that the group often has a wisdom which can seldom be justified on logical grounds but which is, nevertheless, superior to the wisdom of the individual. I therefore went to consult a much respected elder of my acquaintance. She and her house were late Victorian; she sat on her ugly sofa with the poker up her spine, her feet set neatly together and her hands folded in her lap; and she let me talk myself out. When I had quite finished she inclined herself slightly towards me and said: ‘My dear, we have to take what we can get.’ I have since been convinced that this is a text which ought to be framed and hung up over the bed of every elder in the Society; it ought to be hung over the bed of every Friend who is tempted to refer to the elders as ‘they’.

The Church of England may regret not allowing the most talented, capable and theologically and pastorally sensitive people to become bishops, simply because a small minority thinks that a woman, on the grounds of gender alone, is incapable of presenting God-in-Christ to the world and the world to God-in-Christ.

I owe much of faith formation to my experiences in the Diocese of Lichfield in my late teens and early 20s in the 1970s. I know many good, capable, holy, learned and caring bishops in the Church of England. I am sure they were appointed on these criteria and not because of their gender.

But I also know many good, capable, holy, learned and caring priests in the Church of England who are women and for that reason alone cannot be considered for the ministry of bishops.

We cannot change how we were born in the image and likeness of God. In our gender, colour and so on we are made in the image and likeness of God, and to deny that is to deny that Christ took on our human flesh, pitched his tent among us, and lives with us.

But, in the meantime – or for the next few years anyway – I suppose, the Church of England will just have to bite its lips as it learns to say: “My dear, we have to take what we can get.”

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