Liturgical objections

Some people may not agree with everything in this post. Normally I just post useful resources, but this actually has some questions and possibly contentious things in it. I took the post down yesterday, as it might have been contravening my rule of life.* But I’ve re-written it now, so it’s hopefully nicer, and has benefitted from the many insights that others have shared with me. 

It was a great blessing to be at the consecration of the new bishops of Dorking and Repton. It was the first time I’d been to the consecration of a woman (in this case two). That meant it was also the first time that I’d heard ‘live’ the objector, who has sought to make his views known on each occasion that a woman has been consecrated (he hasn’t always been allowed to do so, mind). You can read the press release issued by WATCH about this issue here. And I recommend that you do before reading further. You can also read Archdruid Eileen’s response here.

I echo everything that the WATCH article says. As an ordained woman, it pains me to have the vocation of my fellow female clergy publicly called into question, and the liturgical and sacramental offering of that vocation disrupted with a ‘No’ that feels like a gut punch.  It could possibly be argued that the objection is a reminder of the reality of the church’s brokenness – something often said about the fact that Anglicans and Catholics are unable to share in communion. It could be interpreted as a reminder that the church is not the kingdom of heaven – things have changed, but they are not yet fully transformed. But this isn’t enough of a reason to keep perpetuating it.

I would be very happy indeed never to hear another objection.  The consecration service for male bishops proceeds perfectly happily without it, as do the ordination services for deacons and priests.  The objector has been heard, the church has made up its mind, and it is time simply to move on and celebrate the vocation of women and men to all expressions of ordained ministry.

But, in becoming part of the liturgy, as the WATCH article says, the objection has caused a curious thing to happen.  This is a summary of the ‘script’ at that point in the service:

The Archbisop asks for the people’s assent
The People assent
The Objector objects
[and, at the most recent service, the Resistor resists the objection]
The Archbishop responds
The Archbishop asks for the people’s assent again
The People respond, more loudly.

Without the objection there would be no response from the Archbishop, and no second affirmation.  And I think I might actually miss those.

First, the response. For a start, ++Justin’s response at Canterbury Cathedral was rooted in and framed by prayer (and I am grateful to my friend and colleague Julie for reminding me of that).  And, from memory the main thrust of it, in addition to prayerfulness, was (a) the story of how the church came to recognise the vocation of women to the episcopate, and (b) the legal provision for the consecration’s validity. These two aspects of the response are both about mandate and authority, but they function differently.  The latter is a statement of what is, factually, the case, while the former is rather more than that: it’s a narrative, a story, if you like, as to how we came to be where we are. It reminded me of those places in the Hebrew Bible in which the People of God are helped to remember how they got to be where they are.  They remember their stories. Because the stories tell them who they are – it’s not just the events themselves that were formative, but the telling and retelling of the story is also formative. Liturgy is a key custodian of the story that gives us our ecclesial identity.

So, a question: once the objector finally stops disrupting consecration services, will there still be a need to tell this story or will we have reached a stage when it is no longer needed, or when it does more harm than good? I’m looking here to my friends and colleagues who are more well versed in liberation theology to help me out here, and I’m grateful to Rosemary, another priest-friend, for reminding me that in liberation theology the story of oppression only works to liberate if it is told by those who are themselves oppressed.   A genuine objection is quite different from a scripted question placed into the liturgy as a deliberate part of the controlling narrative.  Although we may enjoy the response, the objection itself is still an act of oppression, and as such, has no place in the church.  The question remains, though: without the objection, is there still value in retelling the story of how we changed?

Then there is the second affirmation. I have to confess I was looking forward to that bit, and it was every bit as rousing, joyful and sincere as I had hoped. By the time we got to that second affirmation, it felt like something that we are bursting to shout aloud.  Without the objection, could we find a way to make the first and only ‘yes!’ (for all consecration and indeed ordination services) just as affirmative as that second ‘yes’?  Without the objection, would we need to? Many clergy do in fact repeat the congregational question at weddings if the gathered people are not enthusiastic enough with their ‘We will’ – is this something we would want to see at a consecration or ordination service? One would certainly need to find ways of doing it that increased the joy and sense of agency in the response, rather than descending into pantomime – this has been proved possible at weddings, but could it work at a consecration?

My conclusion, if I have one, is that the objection unwitttingly provoked something it never intended. It triggers the retelling of a story of transformation (while reminding us that that process of transformation, while representing the vast majority of the church, is not yet fully embraced by the whole church). And it galvanizes the gathered people into raised voices and heightened passions.  My final question is whether these responses to the objection are in themselves sufficiently powerful and valuable that they might, in some form, have a place in the liturgy even after the objector has stopped turning up (as I hope he will, and soon).

I would be happy never to hear the objection again.  An undisrupted liturgy of consecration (whether that’s because the York Minster police have escorted the objector out before he can say a word, or because he has eventually stopped turning up) is probably the most powerful testimony to a church that has truly transformed, that has grown into its decision and is at ease with its new equality and its mandate to defend that equality.

At the same time I long for a church (and a world, for that matter) in which all our remaining inequalities and injustices are a distant memory, and in which we have both learned to disagree well and have come closer to the diversity-in-unity of the kingdom of heaven. But we are not there yet. We have many remaining inequalities in the church.  If we need to retell the story of women and the episcopacy, it may be as a reminder of the fact that we can change.  Our current experience also provides us with a range of models for the way that we might deal with those who feel threatened by that change, and how our responses to objection may evolve over time.

If – no, let’s say when – the Church of England embraces equal marriage, we may be faced with a similar situation, in which objectors disrupt what should be a joyful and celebratory liturgy.  How will our experience of the consecration of women as bishops inform the way that we handle this pastorally, practically and liturgically?   We may conclude that, there being no legal or theological grounds for such objections, the only response that would have any integrity would be for the churchwardens to escort the objector from the building as soon as he or she spoke up (or as soon as it had been ascertained that they weren’t objecting on genuine legal grounds – the marriage service and the calling of banns allows for this, of course).  Could the service then simply carry on, as if nothing had happened, or would there be an emotional and pastoral need to respond to such objection with a narrative of transformation, with prayer, and/or with the opportunity for congregational affirmation? And would we consider slightly rearranging the order of the elements of the marriage service so that if objections arise the liturgy itself is ‘ready’ for them, and has its own answer?

As ever, I’m left with more questions than answers. I think I can now repost this without transgressing the relevant bit of my rule of life (which, in case you’re interested, is that “nothing I say can cause more hurt than healing”) but if there are things that you feel contravene this principle, please do tell me, and I will totally do something about that.  Even if you disagree, please keep comments constructive and helpful. My blog is generally a happy place! 

The Baptism of Christ (Matthew 3.13-end)

Jesus doesn’t half get a good build-up in Matthew’s gospel.  Matthew 1 gives us Jesus’ family tree – tracing his lineage back to Abraham himself – and goes on to relate the events around his miraculous birth, complete with angelic messengers in dreams. Matthew 2 tells of the visit of the Magi, and the subsequent flight of the holy family to Egypt to avoid the wrath of Herod, and their eventual return  to the normality of Nazareth, where Jesus would spend the remainder of his childhood, about which Matthew’s gospel is silent.  But we have heard enough already, between the genealogy and the birth story, to know that Matthew is introducing Jesus as the real deal, the Messiah, the one that God’s people had been hoping and praying for for centuries.  We are simply left waiting for the rest of the story to unfold.

Chapter 3 jumps ahead somewhat, and the next thing we hear about is not Jesus himself, but his cousin John.  John the baptist’s job – his entire vocation – was to prepare people for Jesus’ arrival, to sow the seeds about baptism, about repentance, about the coming kingdom and about what it really means to belong to the household and family of God.  In the passage immediately before today’s gospel he is heralded by the gospel-writer as the one about whom Isaiah spoke his potent and portentous words, and then immediately sets about underlining his own humility in the light of Jesus, the One who is the come.  

So Jesus makes his first adult appearance in Matthew’s gospel.  It is clear that John is simply the warm-up act, but Jesus’ first action is to submit to John’s baptism – even John finds this hard to understand, and resists the idea at first. But Jesus insists: he wishes to be baptised not because he has sinned, but because it’s the right way to start his ministry.  All that pressure, all that expectation. All that taking on the identity of the Messiah, but knowing that he’s not going to be quite what everyone’s hoping for.  All that promise. All that that work to do. No wonder Jesus needs to be baptised before he starts doing it all.

And he would be glad that he did.  Because when Jesus left the water, he heard the most wonderful words:

“You are my son, my beloved, and with you I am well pleased.”

They’re the words that make audible the gift of the Holy Spirit that he receives at that moment, the words that make the Father’s love for him feel real.  If you’re the Messiah, if you’re confronted by all that pressure, all that expectation, all that promise, all that work to do, what you need most in the whole world is to know that you are loved, not because of what you have achieved, nor even because of what you will go on to achieve, but simply because you exist.

It’s what everyone needs to hear who has a challenge to face, or who approaches a metaphorical mountain to climb, or who simply has a life to live, which is often a challenge enough.  Every child needs to hear those words, again and again, as they grow in body, mind and spirit. And I tell every parent that as they bring their children for baptism: enabling a child to be surrounded by the knowledge that they are loved is the greatest and most essential gift that they can ever receive, and the greatest gift that any parent can give.

And Jesus needed those words, too – just as much as any of us. That’s part and parcel of his taking on our full humanity.

In the strength of those words, he faced temptation in the wilderness, beating the Devil hands down.

In the strength of those words, he emerged from his ordinary family to embrace Isaiah’s prophecy and announce the manifesto for his mission – to bring release to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and proclamation of the year of the Lord’s favour.

In the strength of those words, he went three years of ceaseless ministry, healing, teaching, embracing, arguing, challenging, and bringing life and love to those who needed it most and making some enemies along the way.

In the strength of those words he walked the Way of the Cross, and accepted the suffering that was God’s love for the world, written in blood.

If anyone needed to hear those words, it was Jesus.

You are my son, I love you, and I am pleased with you.

But those words were not just for him. They are for all of us. We are not the Messiah. We do not have to face the Devil in person, we do not have to work miracles, we do not have to bring the dead to life.  But whatever we do face today, this week, over these next months, we need a safe place to stand, something to hang on to that is utterly reliable.  Especially at those times when we are feeling the pressure, when we feel like we have a lot to live up to, when we are having to step up to the mark and ‘be the man’ or ‘be the woman’, when those around us are looking to us to make things right, to fix everything, to live up to all the expectation.

Today, we can put our own name on the front of God’s affirmation.  Because, like Jesus, although we’ve lived half a lifetime or more, but today is the first day of the rest of our life. And we have God’s affirmation, his great words of love and encouragement, not because of what we have done, nor because of what we will do, but as a free gift, because we need it.  And in the strength of that free gift we can face whatever life will bring us.

And more than that, these words and what is behind them are not only for parents to share with their children, they are for all of us to share with one another: what ways today will there be for you to show another human being, another child of God, by your words and actions, that they are beloved and valuable in the sight of God?