The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Friday, November 30, 2012

Counting the Cost

It's an extraordinary thing how easy it is for us human beings to inflict pain and degradation on others in the name of principle. That sounds harsh, but I can't think of a kinder way to phrase it. Let me stipulate that I don't mean that the dominant group necessarily takes pleasure in the infliction of pain on the subjugated, nor even that they act with malign intent.

Think for a minute of what Bernard Shaw said in the Preface to Saint Joan:
Joan was burnt more than five hundred years ago. More than three hundred years later: that is, only about a hundred years before I was born, a woman was burnt on Stephen's Green in my native city of Dublin for coining, which was held to be treason. In my preface to the recent volume on English Prisons under Local Government, by Sidney and Beatrice Webb, I have mentioned that when I was already a grown man I saw Richard Wagner conduct two concerts, and that when Richard Wagner was a young man he saw and avoided a crowd of people hastening to see a soldier broken on the wheel by the more cruel of the two ways of carrying out that hideous method of execution. Also that the penalty of hanging, drawing, and quartering, unmentionable in its details, was abolished so recently that there are men living who have been sentenced to it. We are still flogging criminals, and clamoring for more flogging. Not even the most sensationally frightful of these atrocities inflicted on its victim the misery, degradation, and conscious waste and loss of life suffered in our modern prisons, especially the model ones, without, as far as I can see, rousing any more compunction than the burning of heretics did in the Middle Ages. We have not even the excuse of getting some fun out of our prisons as the Middle Ages did out of their stakes and wheels and gibbets. Joan herself judged this matter when she had to choose between imprisonment and the stake, and chose the stake. And thereby she deprived The Church of the plea that it was guiltless of her death, which was the work of the secular arm. The Church should have confined itself to excommunicating her. There it was within its rights: she had refused to accept its authority or comply with its conditions; and it could say with truth 'You are not one of us: go forth and find the religion that suits you, or found one for yourself.' It had no right to say 'You may return to us now that you have recanted; but you shall stay in a dungeon all the rest of your life.' Unfortunately, The Church did not believe that there was any genuine soul saving religion outside itself; and it was deeply corrupted, as all the Churches were and still are, by primitive Calibanism (in Browning's sense), or the propitiation of a dreaded deity by suffering and sacrifice. Its method was not cruelty for cruelty's sake, but cruelty for the salvation of Joan's soul. Joan, however, believed that the saving of her soul was her own business, and not that of les gens d'├ęglise.
(My emphasis.)

We see some of this in the treatment of gays and lesbians by some--not all--who believe that the Church has an obligation to uphold the traditional proscription of homosexuality; the defense of tradition becomes a license for pecksniffery, and even cruelty. Don't take it from me, take it from Peter Ould, a traditionalist who nonetheless holds his own side to account:
here is huge frustration amongst revisionists that many parts of the conservative elements of the church simply haven’t bothered to engage with listening, even five years after the ACC in Nottingham and ten years after Lambeth 1998. When they hear statements such as "We do not have homosexuality in our country", what they hear is a refusal to even engage with the issue at hand. It is blatantly clear to all those with just a smidgeon of anthropological and sociological understanding that homosexualities exist in every single part of the world. The refusal to admit as much is not to take a clear moral stand on the issue, but rather is a pastoral failure of the highest order, because it is evidence of an unwillingness to engage with people where they are at.

(As an aside, often when I speak on this issue I get people to listen to Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy. If you don’t know the song, click on the link now and spend five minutes listening to Jimmy Sommerville articulate what it is like growing up knowing you are gay, in a society that looks down upon homosexuality. Put aside your moral judgements for a few seconds and just hear what he says and how he says it, the emotion involved in articulating not just the rejection he experiences but also his perceived inability to talk to his nearest and dearest about this most intimate part of his life.)

Listening though is more about just hearing stories. It is also to do with, once having listened, building and affirming relationships. What is so often disappointing in the past few years is the failure of those who have had the opportunity to influence, who have had the public ear, to use that privilege to affirm the humanity and dignity of those they disagree with theologically. We all know the websites that refer to "polysexual sodomites", but it is not just the cruder forms of language in this discourse that are a sign of no real intent to listen and build relationships. Despite the fact that there exist texts like Goddard and Walker’s "True Union in the Body" which attempt to engage with the best arguments in favour of monogamous gay unions, some conservatives insist on producing writing that condemns not the best examples of gay life, but the worse. Do we need chapters of books denigrating the promiscuous lifestyle of some, when our opponents are actually those who believe very strongly in "Permanent, Stable, Faithful"? Do we need to concentrate on the way that some in our western society want a "plasticisation" of sexuality and cross-generational affection, when the leadership of Integrity and the like are joined with us in condemning paedophilic and ebophilic relationships of any form, consensual or otherwise?
Ould here makes a point that I find critical--it is one thing to hold principles, and to believe that the Church is required to hold fast to them. I can respect that position, while arguing the merits of most issues. It is quite another to hold those principles and to be absolutely blind to the human cost inflicted by them. It is especially noxious, in my mind, for an advocate to do so while insisting that someone other than the advocate pays the cost. So, for example, when straight men claim that God's only plan for gay men is lifelong deprivation and loneliness, and do so without any empathy for those who would be so deprived, I feel my flesh creep. (I imagine that if I, a straight man have such a response, my gay brothers must feel it even more viscerally.) I can respect Peter Ould, and do, while disagreeing with him. It is much harder to respect those compeers of his whom he describes, or those Andrew Goddard chides in similar terms.

These thoughts came to me in reading this poignant post by the Rev. Jody Stowell, expressing in a very irenic way, the emotional response of women priests to the debate and vote on women bishops in General Synod:
For those of us who were at Synod, listening to the speeches, we were under no illusion that the discussion was really a time-shift back to 1992. Arguing again the case against women being priests. And the case against women being priests is, in itself, really about the particular humanity of women - is the particular humanity of women sufficient to represent authoritatively the humanity of Christ? If the answer to this is 'no', then the reality is that a woman's humanity is fundamentally different to a man's humanity and when there is a difference like that, then it follows that one type of humanity *must* be the most authentic representation of humanity that there is. In this case the male is the most human human and women are....well not.

So yes, we are upset.

For those of us who are priests, we recognise that our orders have been called into question yet again. Called into question because of a voice which speaks of us as the 'not-quite authentically human' human and expects us to be okay with that. And when that voice speaks with the authority of the institution (regardless of the fact we know that most within the institution did not want this...), it causes a disintegration between the inner and outer person of the woman priest.

Emotionally, I am supposed to show resilience - so as not to disturb the church with my tears, and if I do cry it will be because I am a woman and show me lacking in strength.

Do not underestimate the strength and resilience it took for many women priests to get up on Wednesday morning and do their job, without this dissonance causing a fatal crack in their psyche.
I am not an opponent of the consecration of women as bishops, and I doubt that any will listen to me. But if any do read this, I would urge them, with all my heart, to remember that the cost of principles can be real, and that we have no right to, in asking others to bear the cost of our principles, be indifferent to those costs, or to take them lightly. They are not at all light to those who are made to pay those costs.

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