Month: January 2015

Tainted Love


I did not imagine that I my first blog post for 2015 would include reference to the 39 Articles. Nor did I ever imagine that I would write a blog that made reference to the 1981 Soft Cell hit “Tainted Love.” (If you don’t know the song, it is delight and I’ll leave Google to lead you to it).

The Anglican Church in England has just ordained a woman bishop. A first for them and this should be a joyful topic for a first blog. The church, which is sometimes described as a mighty tortoise in its progress, has made genuine progress. In the words of the Guardian commentator, Andrew Brown, “The service is a final decisive break with the tradition of an all male priesthood.” I guess one would have to qualify Brown’s statement as speaking for the Church of England, as, in the adapted words of the hymn, “God is still working her purpose out” in some parts and places.

So, Hallelujah! The Right Reverend Libby Lane is now a bishop! Congrats to her and to all who have worked hard and long for the day.

As is often the case at such moments in history, the side players are the most interesting and end up speaking volumes. For instance, within the service one priest yelled an objection at the point in the service when the congregation was invited to do so. The Archbishop of York, all decently and order, read a prepared statement and moved on. This moment has captured much media attention.

The other sideline issue that has grabbed plenty of attention is the upcoming ordination to the episcopate of the Reverend Phillip North as the soon to be Bishop of Burnley.

For those who have been following the story the details of all this are familiar. But for those who haven’t: In a surprise gesture the Archbishop of York and other bishops who have laid hands on Bishop Libby, are not going to lay hands on Father Phillip out of sensitivity to the fact that he is opposed to the ordination of women to the episcopate. The laying on of hands is significant to Anglicans who believe that, even though there have been splits in the church’s life down the centuries there is a single line of “apostolic succession” going back 2,000 years to Jesus’s disciples. ‘Traditionalists’ (I am being polite), who do not recognize female priests or bishops, believe that a male-only line of succession should be maintained.

The greatest present controversy surrounds the Archbishop of York because he, although the Archbishop, will not preside and will ‘stand back’ at the ordination of Father Phillip even though he will be present and it is in his Province. This is unheard of and has led to claims that the concern that the Archbishop is indulging is a belief about ‘tainted hands’ as if the notion at play is some kind ‘girl fever’ that can be caught and spread like an heretical virus. ‘Tainted love, Don’t touch me please…’ The Archbishop has tried to deny any ‘taint’ type theology being at play, but has probably failed in his attempts. It is a case of what we do speaks louder than our words.

The eminent kiwi blogger Bosco Peters has already picked up on a deep concern he has and I want to develop that somewhat. (You should read Bosco’s blog
found here ).

The place to start is with the Twenty-sixth article of the 39 Articles which reads (it is worth quoting if full because the language is so fabulous):
XXVI. Of the Unworthiness of the Ministers, which hinders not the effect of the Sacraments.
Although in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the Ministration of the Word and Sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ’s, and do minister by his commission and authority, we may use their Ministry, both in hearing the Word of God, and in receiving the Sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ’s ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God’s gifts diminished from such as by faith, and rightly, do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ’s institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.
Nevertheless, it appertaineth to the discipline of the Church, that inquiry be made of evil Ministers, and that they be accused by those that have knowledge of their offences; and finally, being found guilty, by just judgment be deposed.

What the twenty-sixth article addresses is the question: how can unworthy humans preside and administer holy things (sacraments) without blemishing them to make them unholy too? The answer is that this holy work is done not by virtue of the minister but “because of Christ’s institution and promise.” Thus, even if we were to concede something as obtuse as the premise that ordaining a woman is a sinful act, an archbishop having presided at such an evil ordination hinders not the effect of a subsequent ordination of a man by the same archbishop.

The deep point here is that sacramental action, ordination being one such kind of act, is the work of “Christ’s promise”, that is, the Holy Spirit. God makes holy, not humans – as if we can make something holy by our magic! It is not the Archbishop’s hands or his perfect virtue that ordains but God who ordains.

I think a failure to understand this deep point leads to some weird idea that a bishop ‘bestows’ gifts at ordination; that power, or grace, or gifts somehow flow out of the goodness of the ordaining one and are bestowed on the next duly chosen one. Thus, you can see that it isn’t so much ‘taint’ or infection that is passed from a sinful bishop to another bishop it is more that the sin somehow blocks the holy pores and power can’t flow through anything but pure hands! You can see, therefore, why the Archbishop of York protests against the idea of taint, because that fails to understand the weird idea that he apparently has operating in his mind – it not that he will “get” something bad, it would be that he would be unable to “give” anything good.

Let me illustrate how deep the idea of ‘bestowal’ is in our church by turning to the liturgy of ordinations: If you look at all the photos of the Archbishop of York at the important moment of the laying on of hands, you will see him with his mitre on. If you were also to look up on the internet “rules about mitres” you would find a variety of sets of rules. All agree (all that I have ever found) that one should not wear the mitre when one is praying (it is the same with other fancy liturgical hats, birettas etc). Indeed, the general rule with hats is “don’t pray with it and don’t play with it.” One doesn’t wear a mitre, for instance, in the Prayers of Intercession or the Eucharistic prayer. However, the rules are not of one mind when it comes to ordaining. Many suggest/ say that one should wear one’s mitre when ordaining. This is a mistake because it fails to convey – albeit to the church in a churchy gesture –  that what is happening is a prayer. The Ordaining Bishop is praying (on behalf of the church gathered) for the Holy Spirit to act and bestow gifts and grace. The ordaining bishop is NOT bestowing gifts from his pure and holy hands! To be absolutely clear about this deep point: bishops should take their hats off and pray, indeed, pray mightily!

So, perhaps the final irony in all this is that the Archbishop of York will be present and, no doubt, praying with the rest of the church at the ordination of Father Phillip to the episcopate. I wonder what Father Phillip thinks about whether God can hear the prayers of sinners?