What's With the Elephant?

David Virtue DVirtue236 at AOL.COM
Sat May 5 02:20:32 EDT 2001

What's With the Elephant?

By Fr. Joseph F. Wilson

There is a vivid image, familiar to most, which seems to describe
precisely a very common experience -- the image of "the elephant in the
living room." It is commonly used to refer to something uncomfortable
which we want to ignore, something obvious, about which we don't want
to talk. But it is there, sitting in a corner of the living room,
looming large in its setting and making us uncomfortable. I think the
image is so familiar because the experience is such a common one.

As a sympathetic observer of Anglican life, I would suggest that, in
some respects, the image fits the subject of the ordination of women
quite well.

This might surprise some; surely women's ordination has been one of the
most hotly controversial topics in Episcopal Church life over the last
thirty years. Who has been ignoring it? But at this point, it seems to
me that something has changed. There are a couple of dioceses in the
Church where dramatic confrontations between a revisionist
establishment and traditionalists have riveted the attention of
observers, and "conservatives" (generally defined as traditional in
Biblical authority and morality, but accepting of women's ordination)
have begun to weigh in on the side of the besieged trads, no doubt from
a genuine sense of fairness, but also because if the establishment gets
its way in these battles, the conservatives will be next.

And in the making of this common cause between traditionalists and
conservatives, the question of Holy Orders can be seen as secondary to
the more urgent questions of Biblical Authority and sexual morality.
After all, there are conservative parishes, soundly witnessing to
Biblical authority and Christian morality, with women clergy
functioning. Let us make common cause together, it is reasoned, and
defend these two areas which need defending; let's put aside for now
our differences on ordination, and address the erosion of Scriptural
and sexual teaching.

It seems to make perfect sense. The problem with it is that it does not
address the Problem. It shelves one symptom of it, and tries to address
two others; but the underlying Problem will persist. The ordination of
women, meanwhile, becomes the elephant in the living room; looming
large, we don't talk about it and pretend that we can all live with it.
Which means that the Problem isn't being addressed at all. Note well --
I am not saying that the ordination of women is the Problem; it is a
symptom. The Problem lies deeper.

Sixty years ago, Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher of Canterbury could express
the self-understanding of the Anglican Communion quite simply and
directly. Anglicanism, he said, neither has nor seeks to have any
unique doctrines of its own, nor does it seek to assert the authority
to teach unique doctrines. Rather, Anglicanism seeks to be the Church
of the Fathers, the Church of the commonly accepted Councils, neither
adding to nor subtracting from the Faith; and she seeks to offer
herself in service to the future undivided Church, as a bridge of
sorts. This is a fairly clear vision of the vocation of a Church.

Sixty years later, much has changed; if Dr Fisher's comments can be
taken at face value as an expression of Anglicanism's self-
understanding, then something fundamental has changed in Anglicanism,
at least in its manifestation in such provinces as England, the United
States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. It is taken for granted in
those provinces that doctrinal legislation will be debated in
provincial legislatures. Doctrinal questions such as the second
marriage of already married persons while their spouses are still alive
and that marriage bond exists, the ordination of women to the
diaconate, priesthood and episcopate, the morality of homosexual
practice, the suspending of the traditional observance of apostolic
succession in order to facilitate union with, or intercommunion with
other bodies -- issues such as these are now commonly expected to be on
the agenda of the provincial or diocesan legislature. Most
astonishingly, motions affirming the Lordship of Christ and His unique
role as Savior are not only debated, but rejected.

This is a profound change from the Church of Geoffrey Fisher, just
sixty years ago. And the effect of this on the spiritual lives of
Church folk must surely be profound. Currently, it doesn't necessarily
matter what the Church teaches on anything, be it homosexuality,
matrimony, fornication, sacraments, whatever -- everyone in the Church
knows that virtually everything is up for grabs, that the next General
Convention or General Synod might by a vote alter this or that
teaching. Truth becomes transient, a casualty of referendum.

Devout, conservative Anglicans stand aghast as the winds of change
buffet and erode Episcopalians' sensibility of the place of Scripture
and genuine Christian morality in the Church's life. And now they are
banding together to do something about it. But they're forgetting the
elephant, aren't they? If they avoid the question of the ordination of
women, they are making their peace with the Problem, and that peace
will only be temporary.  It was once common to refer to my own Church,
the Roman Catholic Church, as the "authoritarian" Church, in contrast
to the greater liberty in the Episcopal Church I don't seem to hear
that as often any more; certainly, it is less defensible today. The
fact is, the General Convention claims to have more authority than the
Pope. As authoritarian as Pope John Paul and Cardinal Ratzinger may
look to the outside world, they've got nothing on General Convention:
the Magisterium of the Catholic Church clearly asserts that there are
limits to its authority, and they include lots of the issues blithely
debated and resolved in General Convention nowadays.

If you are aghast when you hear an Episcopal Bishop assert that the
Church wrote the Bible and has the authority to add to it or take away
from it, or another offer the thought that the Church had indeed set
aside teachings of Jesus when she liberalized her marriage canons, stop
and ask yourself: are these really doctrinal assertions? Or are they
simply assertions of the status quo in the Church today? What exactly,
besides Robert's Rules of Order, ARE the brakes on the authority of
General Convention?

 If you are appalled at the erosion of the authority of Sacred
Scripture, and the destruction of the tradition of Christian moral
teaching, but you have made your peace with the ordination of women,
then why is your position not inconsistent?

Bishop Schofield once said, very tellingly, that we cannot vote the
Kingdom of God into, or out of, existence. The General Convention seems
to disagree. There do not seem to be any limits whatsoever to its
authority to bind or loose. There is no clearer, or more telling
example of this than the matter of the ordination of women.

Simply considered in light of the virtue of prudence, the innovation
was foolhardy. The two decades beginning with 1960 of the last century
were a time of societal upheaval and change at a dizzying pace,
certainly not the time for wise, well-considered advances, as both of
our Churches should now realize. As one looks back, the momentum of the
women's ordination movement is astonishing: women were not seated as
General Convention delegates until 1970, were ordained deacons in 1970,
and women's ordination to the priesthood was sanctioned in 1976. This
was extraordinarily rapid, and imprudent in light of the turmoil of the
time. Irreparable damage was done to ecumenical relations. Who now
recalls that in 1966 Paul VI stood with Archbishop Ramsey of Canterbury
in the sanctuary of St Paul's Outside-the-Walls, and placed his own
episcopal ring on the Archbishop's finger? Ten years later the first
women were ordained in ECUSA; in 1991 England followed suit, and one of
the saddest remarks I have ever heard was made in his retirement by
Archbishop Runcie of Canterbury, who admitted that he had rather missed
the signs that this would be such a problem in his ecumenical relations
with Rome.

But questions of prudence aside, I believe that reverence and
consistency call one to consider the matter of this elephant in the
living room. The Problem is one of Authority. I believe that
conservative Anglicans are quite correct in assailing contemporary
innovations in Biblical and moral teaching: these are apostate. They
quite rightly call the Church to repentance and conversion on these
matters, and a renewal of teaching, preaching and witness.

But conservative Anglicans undercut their own position when they do not
address with the same fidelity and rigor the matter of the ordination
of women. Precisely the same question, "By what authority do you do
these things," should be put regarding this question, as they pose
regarding Scripture and morality. Precisely the same call to repentance
and amendment should be issued regarding this practice. Even if I
believed in the possibility of the ordination of women (which I do
not), I could not affirm that a reverent and serious process of
discernment and study had led to the innovation, nor could I possibly
say that the fruits which have appeared since have been good. I believe
that there is a widespread undermining of the sense of obedience and
discipleship, a common expectation of constant change of doctrine
through legislation so that every teaching is up for grabs, and that a
grave barrier to reunion has been erected.

"By what authority do you do these things?" An uncomfortable question.
What's with the elephant in the living room, anyway?


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