Wednesday, July 09, 2008


As a Worldwide Schism Lurks, the Church of England Endorses Women as Bishops - NYTimes.com
The governing body of the Anglican Church in Britain voted on Monday to approve the appointment of women as bishops, a step that appeared to risk a schism in the church in its historic homeland as the Anglican church worldwide faces one of the most serious threats to its unity in its history, over the ordination of gay clergy members.

Why is this man tearing his hair?

This is the Most Rev. John Sentamu, Archbishop of York and Primate of England, Second Among Equals, exhibiting existential angst about the proposal to ordain women to the episcopate of the CofE. Less reverend (and of course flat-out irreverent) folk will wonder why he and his fellow conservatives are so upset. After all, women are now political leaders, military officers and dentists--whatever is the problem?

Part of it is the failure of the less reverend to recognize that, from the theological point of view, there is a problem--in particular that priesthood is not simply a job, which women or anyone with the appropriate skills and credentials can do, or that conservatives' refusal to recognize women's ordination is more than resistance to admitting women to an Old Boys' Club. The NYTimes doesn't quite get it:

[T]raditionalists unreconciled to the end of the male monopoly within the clergy revived the battle over the issue of approving women as bishops, warning that it could lead to a breakup of the church in Britain.

Some conservatives are offended by the failure of almost everyone but themselves to recognize that secular competence and qualifications are just not what is at issue. The question is whether women can be a vehicle for the supernatural charismata constitutive of priesthood: whether they have the appropriate metaphysical status and can do the spooky stuff.

I used to think that this was the whole of it, but now see that it's only the smallest part because most conservatives in the Church, like their liberal opponents, identify religion with social arrangements and "values," and are not very interested in metaphysics or mysticism at all. For them, women's ordination is a symbol and symptom of a world gone to the dogs: the breakdown of the family, the rejection of objective moral standards, sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, political correctness and social chaos. Personally, I am firmly committed to objective moral standards, detest political correctness and think social chaos would be a bad thing but am otherwise on the side of the dogs. I don't know any beings short of the angels who do better on objective moral standards than retrievers, like my chocolate lab, Ducati: herein is love.

The root problem is that after the Enlightenment the Church lost its nerve. Kant persuaded most educated people, for a time, that metaphysics was not intellectually respectable. What was the Church, the West's chief purveyor of metaphysics, to do? Presumably, get into another line of business--or make a minor sideline, the ethics business, its major enterprise. And that is what happened. By the 18th century the empirical sciences, mathematics and logic had been captured as secular enterprises; the social sciences and much of philosophy would soon follow. Ethics was still up for grabs so the Church made a play to capture it because, unlike metaphysics, in the wake of Kant's First Critique, it was respectable. Like Hope in Pandora's box, it was all that was left.

But not for long, because ethics soon became a secular enterprise and the Church soon enough became embroiled in the same losing battles it had fought over cosmology, astronomy, biology and history.

So now we see the Church digging in its heels to fight the Last Battle--which it will inevitably lose. Conservative clergy represent themselves as champions of objective ethics and decency pump out the doctrine that the only alternative to the code of conduct they promote is no code of conduct at all but self-destructive confusion, chaos and violence leading to social meltdown. On the ground, their followers conceive of religion is little more than an instrument of social control, ironically, very much like my mother who despised religious belief but hand that it was a good thing because it "kept uneducated people in line."

So now we see the likes of Archbishop Sentamu pissing in their purple knickers because they're convinced that the ordination of women symbolizes the rejection of all objective moral standards and means the end of civilization as we know it, while conservative Christians in the US and abroad are convinced that only the Old Time Religion will keep violence and chaos at bay. They are of course dead wrong--and that is an empirical fact. But there's a point to their worry that progressives don't recognize: for the lower classes, their best shot at living decent lives, given the gross defects of our current social arrangement, is to get strong religion or join the military. For them, this is the royal road to social mobility and the Good Life.

As to the Church, it will certainly collapse, though not in my lifetime, because both liberals and conservatives have given up on religion, which is its only legitimate business.


3 comments:

MikeS said...

Time to 'fess up HE, what is your ethical lodestone? All the time you poke sticks into the cesspool of religion, but you never tell us whence you mine your own ethical golddust.

H. E. said...

Nothing to "confess": I'm just a plain old preference utilitarian. This is an "objective" ethic based on a moral principle that is objective insofar as it applies to everyone, everywhere at all times--crudely, "the greatest good for the greatest number" where "good" is understood as preference satisfaction. For more info, check out the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy articles on Consequentialism at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/consequentialism/ and Well-Being at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/well-being/. My ethical views have nothing whatsoever to do with my religious commitments.

I don't see any reason to regard religion as a cesspool. It's a pleasurable activity that enriches life, bound up with art. literature, music, architecture and the stories that are part of our common cultural language. It involves intricate and interesting metaphysics, and it provides the props and techniques for inducing religious experience.

gingerly said...

That was such a sensible article. Thank you.