Church of England

‘Dear Patrick…’ Words of comfort for clergy who feel forsaken by mutual flourishing

Returning to the Church of England’s gender wars and sexuality skirmishes (which never really went away), the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, who advocates righteous discrimination against traditionalists who discriminate against women, responded with a tweet: “In the essay, poor ‘Patrick’ is in a pickle. Does @His_Grace have any words of comfort for him; some wisdom perhaps, or a solution…?”

Patrick’s pickle was set out thus:

Suppose for a moment Patrick was ordained deacon by one of our female diocesan bishops. Patrick served a curacy in her diocese. After a year she alone ordains him priest. But towards the end of his curacy, he begins to harbour much stronger catholic inklings. Some of his new close friends are members of a group known as ‘The Society’. Now as a new priest-in-charge, he feels alone, and longs for fraternal priestly fellowship.

So Patrick applies to join ‘The Society’. He attends a weekend at Walsingham with members of his congregation and other priests and parishes. But at the final concelebrated Eucharist, in which all priests take part, a friend takes him aside and advises him it would be better if he did not robe, and sat with members of his congregation. Another suggests he robes, but does not say the words or raise his hands at the moment of consecration. Another says it matters not if he robes, nor what he says, as it would be void anyway – so what harm is done?

Poor Patrick.

He has realised that his priestly ministry cannot be received or recognised by anyone in ‘The Society’, as he was ordained by a woman. But can he be ‘re-ordained’ now? What legal and theological provisions can ‘The Society’ make for clergy like him? Legally, he can’t be ordained again. But the official position of ‘The Society’ is that he was never ‘truly’ ordained.

In the event, Patrick decides on none of the options his friends at the Walsingham weekend offer. He goes for a walk, and has a cuppa in a local café. And as he drinks his tea, he has an epiphany. ‘So, this is what “mutual flourishing” looks like,’ he muses to himself. ‘This is what it is like to be a woman priest in the Church of England.’

Such a case would be a farce. But it is plausible. And it exposes, at a stroke, the sheer folly of the Church of England in tolerating this asinine theology of ‘taint-based-ontology’. One based solely on the gender of the minister – a simple case of gender-based discrimination.

It was tempting simply to respond to the Dean’s tweet-bait with a terse antiphon and leave it at that; a temptation which, in the event, proved irresistible, as only Twitter can elicit. It seemed as though the Dean’s scenario concerned petty-fogging legalities of the sort which infuriated the Lord: ‘Woe unto you, lawyers! for ye have taken away the key of knowledge: ye entered not in yourselves, and them that were entering in ye hindered.’

There. The words of Jesus. That ought to do it.

It didn’t.

“This is your answer?” Professor Percy probed.

It wasn’t.

You see, Patrick may be hypothetical, but he’ll soon be human (as Patricia has been for decades), and he eats bread, tastes want and needs friends (as does she). So the scenario set out by Professor Percy merits a more considered response; some words of comfort for those members of the clergy who feel (or are about to feel) betrayed by the Five Guiding Principles and forsaken by mutual flourishing. So, in all seriousness…

Dear Patrick,

Blessings in the name of the Lord.

It was a delight to hear of your arrival at the certain knowledge of true doctrine, and disturbing to learn of how The Society has treated you. It must be deeply hurtful, not to say confusing, to discover that one’s ordination was not a ‘true’ ordination, and that you now find yourself in a kind of holy limbo – perched somewhere between consecration and untouchability, where there is no mystical union and no inner peace.

Firstly, please know that you are not the first: the inclination to harbour stronger catholic inklings has been manifest throughout all regions in all centuries of Church history. It amounts to a renewal of the soul, a moral change or conversion, and never comes without cost, as Saul discovered on the Road to Damascus. No arid lecture by Gamaliel could explain his encounter with the Risen Christ. It was no cerebral commotion or hallucination, but a miracle of grace for the salvation of the Gentiles – a mission for which the man once known as Saul was mocked, reviled, banished, imprisoned and ultimately beheaded. The conversion of conviction has a cost, and it usually comes with chains. For St Paul, the move from vague anthropocentric knowledge about Christ to becoming a zealous preacher of divine love and liberty, not to mention the founder of all ecclesial theology, was a spiritual revolution way beyond the fallout from modern states of equality and inclusion.

That is not to diminish your suffering, but in the Christian life it often helps to set a struggle in the context of the communion of the saints, and St Paul, Constantine the Great and St Augustine all went before you, and each paid a price – as do the saints today in Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Nigeria and India, where decapitations, crucifixions, mass executions and torture are the everyday cost of Christian discipleship.

This is real anti-Christian persecution against all believers, irrespective of their denominational differences. It is scourging, crosses and crowns of thorns. Liberal-democratic discrimination against catholic inklings is a comparative finger prick. Anglican clergy who join the Ordinariate find themselves having to be re-ordained, which is, in fact, a first ordination, since Rome’s view is that they were never ‘truly’ ordained in the first place. But it is bearable. Situated somewhere on the spectrum between Catholic and Reformed, there are shifting apprehensions of whose holy orders are “absolutely null and utterly void”, and you simply find yourself now subject to The Society’s apprehension of apostolicity. But it is a voluntary path of subjection which you yourself chose to walk, and your cross is padded with goose down compared to the bulky splintered beams borne on other bloody shoulders.

To be discriminated against for faithfulness to Scripture is a profound injustice, but the Lord warned us that it would be so; that the world would hate us because of Him. Nor is the Church immune from its own hateful hostilities and mutual loathing: it is made up of sinners, after all. Deeper theology might answer difficult questions, but if our fellow Christians don’t want to hear those answers, their response is invariably to lash out, insult or inflict some sort of humiliation. It is, in short, a form of intra-church oppression and persecution, which is both painful and shameful, for it hinders and harms our witness to the world.

There is perhaps not much comfort to be found when the emotional and spiritual confront the rational and intellectual, but the lonely struggle has value because, as we love another, the end result must be more light and some greater, deeper fellowship with those who hold a different view. Your catholicity and ontology can find no space for women priests; they and their supporters can find no space for your intolerance and inequity. Thoughts and feelings become locked in mutual exclusion, and instead of identifying and empathising with each other’s incarnate difference, we find it easier to isolate, denigrate, mock and hinder. It isn’t clear precisely when the possession and use of penises and vaginas became more important than feeding the poor and preaching the good news of the coming Kingdom, but we are where we are.

It is worth considering (meditating upon, praying about) the fact that your feelings of loneliness, rejection and isolation are mirrored, if not magnified, in the experience of many of your catholic-inclined brothers in the Church of England. Their ‘unacceptable’ views must henceforth be a bar to advancement and greater influence, according to Professor Percy. Their vocation must be trashed in the name of gender equality. Their ‘sin’ has been to put the Laws of God over the Rights of Man; to believe that catholicity and orthodoxy count for more than inclusion and belonging. And for that puritanical heresy they are to be put in the stocks of ecclesial purgatory. Their theological poison cannot be allowed to spread and infect the body further. They are to be sifted by a new Test Act: their faithfulness to biblical truth, historical tradition and orthodox catholicity has become a cross they must carry within the Church – a church into which they were ordained to minister and lead when biblical truth, historical tradition and orthodox catholicity were prerequisites for ordination. Why should they be hung out to dry for their vocational faithfulness when it was the institution which determined change beneath their feet?

We sometimes forget that being a minister in the Church of Jesus Christ is a call to love and serve: too many have come to believe that it is a career to judge and lord it over. And because they wear dog collars or mitres and sound like angels of light, our minds are persuaded to open our hearts to their asperity, for it may be spiritual and prophetic. The Church was never meant to be a ‘safe space‘, and ministry was never meant to be without cost: ‘Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me‘ (Mt 16:24). A church which is safe is a mausoleum, and a ministry which has no cost is a bag of bones.

This year is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Those who led that spiritual enlightenment and renewal, along with many thousands of those who followed them, met the most appalling of ends. How they must have doubted and questioned God’s call upon their lives. How they must have wept and agonised as the flames of hate lapped at their feet. How they must have yearned and pleaded for wonder, love and the promised dews of peace. But Jesus never promised that in this life: to love one’s enemy is not only selfless dedication to the kingdom; it is to live with the constant risk of being killed. And Jesus warned us that those enemies may sometimes be in the Church: ‘They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us‘ (1Jn 2:19).

To be called to the eternal priesthood of believers is the greatest of honours. To be called to be a priest in the provisional Catholic and Reformed Church of England is a good thing, but it is utterly secondary to the enduring incarnational vocation. With the Reformers, remember the revelation of St Paul:

Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ:
By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.
And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience;
And patience, experience; and experience, hope:
And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us (Rom 5:1-5).

God is doing a marvellous work in you, Patrick. He is calling you not simply to preach truth, but making you live what you preach. Talking the faith is always easier than walking it. But arguing over it incessantly is just a satanic sideshow. When we live what we believe, we become light to the world. If the world tries to dim that light, the encroaching darkness might hurt or offend, but it can never finally extinguish. As Latimer said to Ridley when both were set alight outside Balliol College, “Play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.”

However suitable, fit and qualified you may be to fulfil your vocation, you can guarantee that someone somewhere in the Church will deem you to be manifestly unsuitable, unfit and unqualified, if not theologically disqualified by your moral unsuitability and ecclesial unfitness. And everybody now seems to think they’re pope. In an age of unparalleled diabolical persecution – beheadings, crucifixions, mass murder – perhaps we need to learn to stop crying over grazed knees. If that sounds harsh, tough. It is said in love, and love hurts. Remember, Patrick, that however desperate and depressing your ‘pickle’ may be, at least the vinegar mildly preserves your essential identity. So many others are sliced and diced, battered and mushed, stuffed with chemicals and crammed in a can. Please pray for them, Patrick, and may your spirit be illuminated and lifted by empathy and shared suffering.

God bless,