On the morning after the Church of England’s General Synod voted to consecrate women as bishops, the Vatican’s agency for church unity issued a communiqué deploring the action.
Did you just yawn? I suppose it is hard to call this news. The communiqué itself consists mainly of references to earlier pronouncements. Two years ago, for example, Cardinal Walter Kasper warned the assembled (and still safely male) bishops of the C of E that letting women into their number would be “a decision against the common goal we have until now pursued in our dialogue.” Then he reminded them—as if a reminder were needed—that ordaining women to the priesthood had led to an “appreciable cooling-off” between Rome and Canterbury. Women bishops would produce “a serious and long-lasting chill.”
Chill, indeed. Cardinal Kasper’s remarks sound like a tardy scolding from an ex-lover. It’s a little late to be patching up the Anglican/Roman dialogue. Some would say it’s too late for 60s-style ecumenism at all. The old enthusiasms have mostly faded. The dozens of official committees and conferences produced their reports—and filed them. Bold projects for unification were begun, but only a few were completed and often contentiously. Church leadership has mostly turned back to managing internal divisions and proselytizing the competition.
The Vatican communiqué isn’t really an ecumenical document. Its weary sigh over a “further obstacle to reconciliation” is an excuse for addressing the Anglican situation without seeming to be meddling—or to be sinning against Christian unity. The communiqué takes the English bishops’ vote as an occasion for repeating its familiar opposition to the ordination of women as bishops, as priests, as deacons. (For that matter, the Vatican isn’t so happy about altar girls.) Official Catholic opposition to women’s ordination isn’t news either. It’s not meant to be. The message is repeated on every occasion to make it seem unchangeable, eternal. That is in fact the official position, as Cardinal Kasper insisted in his lecture to the Anglican bishops. The Catholic church is convinced that it has “no right” to “revise its current position,” because it claims to discover it in the Christian Bible read under “the whole 2000-year tradition of all the ancient churches.” The news is that there can be no news.
But there is news in the churches—and not only about women bishops. The Vatican communiqué comes on the eve of the the Lambeth Conference, a worldwide gathering of Anglican bishops. Cardinal Kasper has been invited to speak there. He will no doubt repeat the Vatican’s views on ordaining women. Repetition is supposed to show permanence. Staying on message makes rhetorical truth. Still his thoughts may wander—along with those of listeners—to a bishop who will be kept outside the meeting place. I mean the eminently newsworthy Bishop of New Hampshire.
Gene Robinson is not a woman—except perhaps by way of insult. He is an honestly gay man with a long-term partner. The word “honestly” is the key term. There have been plenty of gay bishops, both Anglican and Roman, and not a few of them have had sexual partners (if not always in committed relationships). The difference is that Gene Robinson was elected, ratified, and consecrated after he was “out.” While Cardinal Kasper is once again rehearsing “the Catholic position” inside the Lambeth Conference, Gene Robinson will be talking, preaching, and presiding over liturgies outside. Women bishops? Good Lord, there are admitted homosexuals wearing a bishop’s chimere and rochet—and not in a seminarian’s game of dress-up.
Gene Robinson is no woman, but somehow his case gets mixed up with theirs. He won’t be in the room when Cardinal Kasper speaks, but his case will be the cautionary tale. First you ordain women, then you consecrate them as bishops, and—look!—homosexual clergy want to come out of the closet. The BBC likes to call the current quarrels in worldwide Anglicanism the “gay priests row,” but every article makes clear sooner or later that Bishop Robinson is only the latest in a long line of issues that goes back to women’s ordination. Rachel Zoll, an AP religion reporter, writes that the Anglican communion “has been on the brink of schism since Robinson was consecrated in 2003.” A few paragraphs later, she concedes that his consecration was “the final straw in a long-running debate.” Many of the “conservative” or “evangelical” Anglicans who refuse to be at the communion rail with Gene Robinson are equally upset at the thought of sharing pews with women bishops, especially the current presiding bishop of the US Episcopal Church. As old activists like to say, the fight over Gene Robinson is round two of women’s ordination.
Round two, but who’s in the match? The Vatican’s communiqué may bring a useful message after all—not as breaking news, but as a reminder of how persistently confused the issues get in church matches. Quarrels over homosexuality are never just about homosexuality. Neither are quarrels about women’s leadership. Just when you think you have gotten clear on the rules, the match swivels around to other fears and other contenders. One minute you’re trying to respond to ideological readings of the few New Testament verses that talk about sex or gender, when suddenly you’re punched for disregarding biblical authority or trashing tradition, for succumbing to rampant secularism or scientific atheism, for heating up the feverish itch of hedonism by failing to spank children often enough. There are too many master categories to ‘explain' these matches and very little sense of what actually keeps us in them. Is it our particular investment in the power structures of sex and gender? The need for distraction from more frightening issues—and more urgent ethical demands? The inner logic of modernity? The crises of global capitalism? Original sin? Boredom?
After so many rounds of church history, one thing is clear. Threats to Christian unity don’t start with votes to consecrate women as bishops. They arise much earlier in the thrill of fighting—and afterwards in the grim pleasure of breaking off relations. We’re so over, just as I told you we would be.