“…we understand her to be the Word of God…”

A splendid variety of ideas so far – I’d like to pick up and ponder a couple of questions which Hannah provided.  Not to answer them, but simply to develop a couple of themes.  I’ll also be carrying on the Patristic note which April brought into our discussion.

Hannah noted the tradition of referring to the Spirit in feminine language, and speculated upon how using gendered terms for persons of the Trinity might connect with instinctive feelings about power.  If I’m reading her right, she implies that for some people using “she” for the Spirit will might inclusive and reflect the diversity in unity within the Trinity.  And, if I’m still understanding her, she implies that for others it might lead to subordinationist assumptions, given two historical accidents: the less developed theology of the Spirit in many Christian traditions, and the socially-conditioned view of women as inferior or secondary which is such a constant presence in our patriarchal societies.

I think she’s absolutely right in both cases, and I’d like to draw out a point which lies behind her suggestions: the contingency of speech and its dependence upon context and developing traditions.  As Hannah points out, “she” will have vastly different implications for different people, and its meanings will vary across time and cultures as well as across individuals.  Given the amount of time we spend scrutinising the context of past speech and writing, I wonder if it’s worth asking what context we’re imagining we speak in.  Would it be reasonable to speak of God differently in theological speculation than in communal worship?  In Biblical commentary and in personal prayer?  Might it be appropriate to be more kataphatic at some moments and apophatic at others?  There are many forms of speech – description, address, proclamation, performance, citation – which it might be helpful to consider as needing varying words.

It’s also possible to extend Hannah’s remarks by a reference to Origen, whom I was reading recently as part of my not very extensive pottering around the writings of the Fathers.  In De Principiis, Origen goes beyond referring to the third person of the Trinity with female pronouns, and cheerfully uses them of Christ.  the line I quoted for the title of this post comes from Of Christ, in the passage where Origen is concerned to identify the Word of God with divine Wisdom (and to insists on Wisdom’s hypostatic existence on the way.)  In identifying the two, he includes lines such as “we understand her to be the Word of God” and “on this account she is called the Word”.  I wonder how this connects with the issues of speech and context I sketched in the previous paragraph: does it seem controversial to put the pronoun “she” next to the second person of the Trinity?  If so, does that reflect a difference in situation, or a lack of thinking through our theological and Biblical commitments?

And I can’t quote that bit of Origen without remembering the heroine of Catherine Fox’s novel The Benefits of Passion, who finds herself frustrated by the way her tutor adds “or woman, of course, or woman” to the end of sentences to sound scrupulously inclusive, and expects one day to hear him declare “He was Incarnate of the Holy Spirit by the Virgin Mary, and was made man…or woman, of course.  Or woman.”

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Conferences and Catholicity

Many thanks for the welcome everyone has extended!  Hannah raises a really knotty issue, and one which I’m by no means equipped to answer satisfactorily. But a couple of issues spring to mind, which I thought I could use to help me think through the implications: conferences and catholicity.

Whose panels do you speak on? For the last few years, I’ve been hearing the idea that leftish men ought to make it a point of principle that we don’t accept speaking invitations where women wouldn’t be welcome on the platform. If memory serves, I’ve seen Nick Cohen and John Scalzi take this position, amongst others. It has had to be formulated as a principle, not because gender is such an inherent part of discussing science-fiction writing or the history of censorship, but because it’s so easy for men to just remain comfortably in old patterns of male domination.

From experiments on how soon a mixed group is perceived as “mostly women” (way before 50%) to the recent statement read at the Renaissance Society of America, we have plenty of evidence that no-one needs to be prejudiced. We only need to go along with the flow, and men will end up disproportionately represented and powerful under the current system. So appearing at an event where women would explicitly not be able to speak with authority would make me profoundly uncomfortable. It would also, frankly, make me feel slightly that my contribution was being valued more because of my chromosomes than my thoughts. Obviously preaching isn’t quite the same as speaking at a conference or political meeting, but that’s the direction my knee jerks in this case.

Set against that is the awareness that every week I confess my belief in a catholic church. It feels faintly disingenuous to make this profession, and to hum Thou, Who At Thy Eucharist Didst Pray, whilst maintaining that I wouldn’t organise with other Christians. One of the many uncomfortable paradoxes of the Anglo-Catholic tradition is the way our history accidentally produced something like a party within our own national church as a result of our belief in the catholicity of the faith. Another is the way our devotion to the Eucharist brings us closer to our brothers and sisters in Roman Catholicism, whilst it makes us more aware of the official ecclesial divisions between us, because we find ourselves sometimes unable to celebrate the sacraments together. I am certainly happy to worship, study and organize with friends from over the Tiber, so having a reservation about complementarian groups seems inconsistent.

However, it seems less inconsistent when considered in terms of social justice, and this is where I eventually land. The operations of gender and power in our society don’t seem simply something on which I have a certain opinion, and other people have different opinions. They are a system which places me in a position of relative power, and in doing so makes me less able to appreciate the lived reality of others. I do not know what it is like to have a vocation which is denied because of my gender (or indeed because of my sexuality.) There are other people who can tell me what it’s like, but they can only do so if I’m quiet for a while and let them speak. This doesn’t mean that I think men’s ministries or complementarian groups should be banned or disallowed. But it does mean that my decision to participate is made under an awareness that I don’t have all the information necessary.

And to actually answer Hannah’s questions:

Do you allow for liberty of practice for those who are more/less conservative than you are?

Luckily for me (and others!) I’m not in a position to allow or disallow.

Would you participate in an organization that restricted/supported female ordination because you believed something greater was at stake?

It sounds quite weaselly to say “depends what the greater something was”, but without knowing, I would say probably not. I would worry that the principles behind that restriction would have other effects.

What is more important to you personally—differences in application or differences in core beliefs?

Probably the latter, though the further we get away from application, the more core beliefs seem to converge in the far horizon of parenthood and fruit-based pies. We can all agree that men and women are made in the image of God, after all…

Introduction: Jem Bloomfield

I was brought up in an evangelical Anglican family just south of London.  My parents had met at Baptist Sunday School, I went to a rather ultramontane Roman Catholic prep school and we were part of the local Church of England parish.  I left Christianity in my mid-teens, and in fact I was only baptized a couple of years ago.  Coming back to the Church was the result of a long process, which only makes sense in retrospect.  As an undergraduate there were isolated moments when I glimpsed the excitement and depth of Christianity: hearing Nick Shrimpton lecture on the Tractarians, or Peter McCullough preach, or Rowan Williams speak on the poetics of the Book of Job.  But it wasn’t until I was doing postgraduate work that I began to pay more attention.  Preparing a seminar on Genesis for a first-year course I was teaching brought me into contact with Biblical Criticism, when a colleague was kind enough to share her notes and a whole field opened up which I hadn’t known about.

For the next few years I slunk round the cheaper pubs in Exeter during my spare time, with paperback editions from the library on theology, church history and Biblical scholarship.  If asked, I would have explained I was interested in a remarkable historical tradition, though it wasn’t officially my field.  At the same time, I was starting to engage with feminism, and gradually getting a sense of basic injustices in society.  Work took me back to Oxford, and I fell in with some people who had been friends of friends when I was an undergraduate.  They were mostly Christians, and all feminists, and I was interested by their assumption that being either was reasonable and unremarkable.  Not to mention being both.  I started attending a church regularly, though a very different kind of church than I had been used to.  St Mary Magdalen’s in the centre of the city has brought an awful lot of people to God over the centuries, and I became one of them.  Like many before me, I found the Catholic tradition’s intensely spiritual and intellectual faith spoke to something inside me which I had not really known was there.

I was also aware, though, of divisions within the Church.  I was coming to faith around the time of the debates in the Church of England over the consecration of women as bishops, and over the ministry of gay clergy.  As a straight man I was dimly conscious that others were being told they had to make choices – between their love and their faith, between their vocation and their church – that would never be forced upon me.  In my professional life I could see a backlash against women’s rights making itself felt on campus, and in society at large gender and sexuality were the basis for the abuse and degradation of marginalized groups.  I come to these discussions with a lot to learn, and a hope that both experience and scholarship can be shared in ways which will enable us all to take part in the work of reconciling.  My research often involves setting the characteristic languages of different fields in dialogue with each other, and the work of some of my favourite theological thinkers – Rachel Mann and Rowan Williams spring to mind – provides a model for this activity.  That’s one of the reasons why I like the metaphor of the conversation around which this project is structured, and am looking forward to listening to the others around the table.