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Monday, July 07, 2008

"All the world's a stage . . .

. . . and all this day, we've have front row center to the drama in the Church of England, meeting in Synod, to determine whether or not women can be ordained to the episcopacy."

First of all, I want to be clear that these remarks are my own on my own personal blog. I am not speaking in my official capacity as President of the Episcopal Women’s Caucus.

It’s not that I suspect my sisters and brothers on the board would disagree with me. It’s just that we haven’t had a chance, just yet, to discuss it as a community of leaders. We’ll do that later this evening in our monthly Board Conference Call.

I have been closely following the Church of England Synod debate over the ‘election’ of women to the episcopacy.

They have already agreed with the idea of women bishops.

Now, they are to vote on how to “accommodate” the minority who do not accept the idea or the presence of women in the episcopacy. By the time this is posted, the final vote may have already been taken.

Ruth Gledhill has been ‘live blogging’ here.

Thinking Anglicans is also updating here.

I know. You thought that was a done deal. Yes, they do ‘allow’ women to be ordained to the diaconate. Yes, for the past 15 years women have been ‘allowed’ to be ordained to the priesthood. But, for the past 15 years, women have not been allowed, in the Church of England, to be ‘appointed’ bishops.

Yes, that’s right. One is ‘appointed’ to the episcopacy in England, not elected in a diocese by clergy and laity as is our custom in The Episcopal Church. Which may be part of the problem.

No. Check that. Here’s the problem. It’s as old as the story of the Adam and Eve. It’s the ‘original sin’ of Paradise: sexism. You know: It's all Eve's fault.

It’s no surprise to me that the two issues confronting the church are the ordination of LGBT people and the last crack in the stained glass ceiling for women. Suzanne Pharr wrote about it in 1988 in her book, “Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism.”

Yes, you got that right. 1988. I discovered it shortly after I got home from the last Lambeth Conference in 1998 where eleven bishops who are women were in attendance.

I have a very clear memory of the day that Lambeth Resolution which said that homosexuality was incompatible with scripture. The coalition of conservative American bishops and their Global South partners emerged from the meeting hall shouting, “V-I-C-T-O-R-Y”.

It was like being at a tail-gate party. The testosterone level was that high.

The American progressive bishops emerged looking like Bambi-in-the-headlights. I remember Martin Smith, then head of the Society of St. John the Evangelist (SSJE) who attended there with Bishop Tom Shaw (as both men were celibate monks, Martin joked that he was Tom’s “his most chaste spouse”), said that the images from Lambeth were, for him, like undeveloped film that would need to spend some time being soaked in baptismal water before any clarity emerged.

It’s hasn’t been that long since the entire process of picture-taking has been revolutionized by the technology of computer digitalization, but I think we used to call undeveloped film “negatives.” Right.

It didn’t take long for the negatives to emerge with greater clarity than anyone expected.

The very next day, the good bishops and primates came after women, passing a resolution which stated, “there is and should be no compulsion on any bishop in matters concerning the ordination or licensing” of women.

The resolution, entitled, “Unity of the Anglican Communion” was hammered out in private meetings between some women bishops and traditionalists and passed by 80%.

I know. It broke my heart when it didn’t blow my mind. And, it went downhill from there. I don’t know who wrote the prayer, but I remember praying the part about “help us from oppressing others or from participating in our own oppression.”

Suzanne Pharr defines patriarchy as “an enforced belief in male dominance and control”. She says patriarchy is the ideology and sexism the system that holds it in place.

Pharr further states: “The catechism goes like this:

Q: Who do gender roles serve?
A: Men and the women who seek power from them.

Q: Who suffers from gender roles?
A: Women most completely and men in part.

Q; How are gender roles maintained?
A: By the weapons of sexism: economics, violence and homophobia.”

Most of this catechism was written in the crucible of domestic violence where these three weapons were seen most clearly.

Pharr writes: “The stories of women battered by men, victims of sexism at its worst, show these three forces converging again and again.

"When battered women tell why they stayed with a batterer or why they returned to a batterer, over and over they say it was because they could not support themselves and their children financially, they had no skills for jobs, they could not get housing, transportation, medical care for their children.

And how were they kept controlled? Through violence and threats of violence, both physical and verbal, so that they feared for their lives and the lives of their children and doubted their own abilities and self worth.

And why were they beaten? Because they were not good enough, were not “real women,” were dykes, or because they stood up to him as no “real woman” would. And the male batterer, with social backing, felt justified, often righteous, in his behavior – for his part in keeping women in their place.”

I won’t go into economics and violence here, but I do want to speak to the issue of homophobia, which is most effective because it is always accompanied by the strong arm of heterosexism - the assumption that the world is and must be heterosexual and its display of power and privilege as the norm.

There was a time when the two most condemning accusations made against a woman to dis-empower or silence her were “whore” and “lesbian.”

The sexual revolution may have altered the former, but the later, the word ‘lesbian,’ still strikes fear even in the hearts of women whose sexual orientation is toward another women.

It is still, in many ways, “the love that dares not speak its name.”

To be a lesbian is to be perceived as someone who has stepped out of line. It is to be a woman who has moved out of the social/economic context of dependency on a male, a woman who is woman-identified.

Because a lesbian is a person who is perceived to be able to live without a man for economic, societal, and sexual satisfaction or fulfillment, she is therefore perceived (however illogically) to be against men.

Pharr says that a lesbian “is perceived as someone who has no societal institutions to protect her and is not privileged to the protection of individual males. Many heterosexual women see her as someone who stands in contradiction to the sacrifices they have made to conform to compulsory heterosexuality.

"A lesbian is perceived as a threat to the nuclear family, to male dominance and control, to the very heart of sexism.”

Gay men are also perceived as a threat to male dominance and control, and the homophobia expressed against them has the same roots in sexism as does homophobia against lesbians.

Visible gay men are the objects of extreme hatred and fear by heterosexual men because they are seen first, as Pharr says, as “betrayers, as breaking ranks with their male heterosexual solidarity and must be punished and eliminated. “

There’s also the “ick” factor – a repulsion of the image of anal sex wherein one man is the “passive recipient” – read: woman. When you factor in the Victorian notion of ‘the pleasure principle’ – that women are designed to have sex only to bear children, not enjoy the act of sex – you begin to understand just how “icky” the ick factor is for many men.

I strongly recommend Pharr’s book to you, if you haven’t already read it. It’s an important work and reads well, even ten years later. That probably speaks more to how little progress we’ve made in the last decade than anything else.

Oh yes, we have a woman Presiding Bishop and Primate. Oh yes, we had a strong, viable woman candidate for the Democratic Presidential Nomination. Yes, we’ve come a long way, in many ways.

And, as Flo Kennedy used to say, “If we really had come a long way, nobody would be calling us baby.”

Here’s the thing – the truly amazing thing: These two issues – sexism and homophobia/heterosexism – are being discussed in the church, right out in the open, in front of God and everyone.

Oh, I know. The British Synod thinks it’s talking about ecclesiology and theology. These good Christian folk think they are saving the church or preserving the unity of the church. And, God knows, we do wish to accommodate. Accommodation is a cornerstone of classical Anglicanism.

But, if you listen, just underneath all the God-talk and the invocation of the name of Jesus, you can hear it. Loud and clear. All the way from across the pond. It’s the crucial conversation which May Sarton says you can always hear just under the banter of polite social conversation.

That’s not the sound of London Bridge falling down. It’s not even the sound of the sky falling, Chicken Little. What you hear is the crumbling of the last two cornerstones of patriarchy: sexism and homophobia.

Oh, they have not gone away completely. They surely won’t in my lifetime. Indeed, they are going on in a little Roman Catholic Church in St. Louis, MO where a nun who supports the ordination of women has been effectively excommunicated and a male on the staff as terminated his position so that he may speak truth to power.

We have a long way to go, baby.

But, liberation, true liberation, never comes from the work of a few people at the top. Gandhi did not liberate his people by the strength of his individual will. Neither did Martin Luther King, Jr. further the liberation of his people in isolation.

Liberation comes when large groups of oppressed people come to believe that they deserve liberation and then work in order to achieve it. The Synod of the Church of England will not liberate women that they may pursue the fullness of their vocation in the church of their baptism. Neither will the Church of Rome continue to suppress her people forever.

Women and men who have heard the liberation promised in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and who understand ourselves worthy, through Christ, to stand before God as children of God, will work together to continue to crumble the ideology of patriarchy and the system of sexism.

That’s not the question. The question, as the Archbishop of Canterbury himself preached just yesterday, is “Where would Jesus be? Jesus is going to be . . : with those traditionalists feeling the Church is slipping away from them, . . .. He’ll be with those . . . who feel that things are closing in, that their position is under threat, that their liberties are being taken away by those anxious and eager to enforce new ideologies in the name of Christ. He would be with those who feel that their liberty of questioning is under threat, he would be with the gay clergy, who wonder what their future is in a Church so anxious and tormented about this issue.”

If you are wondering where to find Jesus, just look for him. He’ll be the one, standing near the wall, listening to the sound of the crumbling of oppressive systems.

And, ready to love and care for us all.

Meanwhile, the human drama in the Anglican Communion will continue. In the First Act, the super-duper uber orthodox Anglicans moved from schism to 'realignment.' In the second act, the Church of England tries to figure out how to 'accommodate' those who do not wish the episcopacy of women while preserving the authority of the office.

Pull up a chair. The third act "The Lambeth Conference" is about begin.

Notes in case the above links don't work:

Ruth Gledhill:

Thinking Anglicans:


David@Montreal said...

Thanks for the link to Ms. Gledhill and Thinking Anglicans, but following the motions and counter-motions, the ammendments and subtractions, with votes taken on each one takes more energy than these purity police deserve (and I'm thinking of FranIam's reference of Gene's sermon when I use this term.
And is it only me, or is anyone else bothered by the instult of this 'code of practice' the patriarchy is requiring to accomidate their theological sensibilities. (The Bishop of Oxford actually asked it be framed
with 'elegance') Nothing elegant about segregation or second-class citizenship.

JimB said...

From the late Shel Silverstien:

Hey Nellie, Nellie come to the window.
Hey Nellie, Nellie, lookie what I see.
I see a line of march it's a century wide, made of white folks and black folks walking side by side.
It's still a long hard and damn hard and bitter ride, bit it's 2008.


Ann said...

David@Montreal -- it's not only you. It is just one more concession that demeans the dignity of all.

Jane R said...

Dear Elizabeth,
Thank you so much for recommending Suzanne Pharr's excellent and important book, and for making the connection between homophobia (and heterosexism) and sexism. I was writing a friend privately about the connection between these two realities just a couple of days ago. I think it's vital for people to understand how deeply related they are.

Paul Powers said...

Actually, it's the attempt by some to capitalize on the "ick" factor that really turns me off. I'm thinking in particular of those who went into graphic detail about anal sex in objecting to +Robinson's consecration. Such speculation about what couples may do behind closed doors is unseemly.