Change and danger

Once again the Church of England’s General Synod agonises over women bishops.

Clearly we aren’t just debating facts and figures. Strong gut feelings abound on both sides. For some the lack of gender equality is not only an injustice which can be described and debated: it’s one of many symbols of a culture in which women are inferior to men.

Here I focus on the gut feelings on the other side because I am trying to understand them. There is a feeling that the introduction of women bishops is the kind of change that is just not legitimate: episcopacy is one of those things which have been established in the past and which we do not have authority to change.

This attitude has a long history. The anthropologist Mircea Eliade described how archaic societies conceive of history:

The primitive, at bottom, finds meaning and interest in human actions (in farm labour, for instance, or social customs, sexual life, or culture) in so far as they repeat actions revealed by his gods, culture heroes, or ancestors. Anything outside the framework of these meaningful actions, having no superhuman model, has neither name nor value. But all these archetypal actions were revealed then, in illo tempore, during a time outside recorded history, mythical time… Thus, though it may seem paradoxical, what we may call the “history” of primitive societies consists solely of the mythical events which took place in illo tempore and have been unceasingly repeated from that day to this. All that the modern thinks of as truly “historic”, that is, as unique and done once and for all, is held by the primitive to be quite devoid of importance as having no mythico-historic precedent… (Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion, Sheed & Ward, 1958, pp. 396-7).

Eliade’s theories are contested but they have the advantage of explaining archaic beliefs without rubbishing them as mere superstition. To my mind his account explains a lot of Christian theology. The medieval division of history into stages between Creation, Fall, Redemption and the Second Coming has the effect of flattening the present day in exactly the way Eliade describes. The Eucharistic Prayers in Common Worship express it: over and above creation, crucifixion and resurrection, they put into the past significant elements of our relationship with God which to the modern ear would have been better put in the present:

Through him you have freed us from the slavery of sin… you have sent upon us your holy and life-giving Spirit (Prayer A).

he is our great high priest, who has loosed us from our sins (Prayer C).

You fashioned us in your image and placed us in the garden of your delight. Though we chose the path of rebellion you would not abandon your own. Again and again you drew us into your covenant of grace (Prayer F).

When we turned away you did not reject us (Prayer H).

It happens locally. Every priest of a long-established church knows who was the vicar in illo tempore. The reason why the choir processes like this, the reason why we have our distinctive service every year on a particular date, the reason why the flowers have to be where they always are, are to be explained by the vicar of 20, 50 or perhaps even 70 years ago who established his authority and made sure everything was done his way. Thereafter, one successor after another realised that challenging these practices would not be worth the effort.

Secular society has no place for this notion. There was no primeval time, unless it was the split second of the Big Bang. There is no assumption that the past has greater authority than the present. Except among environmentalists there is strong resistance to the precautionary principle that we should avoid changing things we don’t fully understand.

So it is characteristically in matters of religion, when we are dealing with things by definition beyond our understanding, that anxiety arises at the prospect of change. We don’t know what we are meddling with. The office of bishop was created in illo tempore, so we cannot change it. If we do, the holy things may not work.

Of course it would be difficult to defend this position rationally. The office of bishop has been created in history, and has changed often enough. History is not really divided between a primeval age of creation and the present age of unchanging sameness; in reality there is a long process of continuous change. Nevertheless the feeling that we are dealing with matters beyond our understanding is easily evoked by the fact that the matter is religious.

There is a proper place for awe and caution in matters we do not understand: climate change, nuclear power, new drugs. Perhaps if I believed that episcopacy was established by God to be all-male for all time I would add it to the list. However the evidence suggests otherwise. The early Church decided they needed people to oversee local congregations, so they appointed individuals and called them bishops. To follow their example today we would decide what needs doing and find people to do it.

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