Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Men Who Rule Us: Collusion of Male Church Leaders in Protecting Male Power and Privilege

Today is Steve’s birthday, and so a day chopped up with preparations for a small party this evening. Fortunately, I had enough steam in me to bake his cake yesterday—a chocolate torte I invented for his 40th birthday, now nearly two decades ago, which has become his customary birthday cake each year. It’s sitting in the middle of the table looking handsome, if I say so myself, with fresh raspberries—a fruit he loves, since he grew up with it—piled in the center where the cake sinks as it cools, topped by a few pecan halves.

Time has been at a premium the last two days, as we traveled back from seeing his family—a difficult trip, because Steve’s father is very seriously ill now. And on our return, I found an elderly family member of mine had died (a first cousin of my mother), so a good bit of yesterday was occupied with visiting relatives, talking over shared memories and old times, making promises to see each other more often than at funerals—promises none of us ever seem to fulfill.

My blog thoughts are scattered today, due to the birthday preparations, the visitation last evening, the figs that seem intent on coming ripe each year at the hottest time of summer, when no one feels energetic about picking them, the glut of wonderful local produce (tomatoes, cantaloupes, crowder peas, okra, cucumbers, peppers, squash, eggplant, pole beans, watermelons, peaches, corn, butterbeans, and on and on) that demands to be bought/picked/cooked/blanched/frozen/turned to soup these days.

As I cooked this morning, sweat pouring down my face in the hot kitchen, I wondered how the women in my family and the women of other families who cooked for my family managed it. It’s intense. All the best produce ripens at once, and at the time of year in which it is least pleasant to be near a stove. No wonder my father’s mother and my mother’s oldest sister, who usually cooked for my maternal grandmother, cooked the entire day’s food early in the day, before it was too hot.

Dinner sat on the stove from breakfast time until dinner was eaten at noon. Then the leftovers of dinner sat again on the stovetop for anyone with appetite enough to eat them lukewarm at suppertime. What didn’t get eaten was very likely to reappear again in a day or so as delicious vegetable soup full of all the fresh vegetables that had been cooked a day or so before.

If the church constituted by each family—the house church—is the body of Christ, every bit as much as is the church in its entirety, then the women who have historically cooked daily meals for their families are every bit as much priests as are those who stand at the altar on Sundays. The claim to fame of ordained priests (in the Catholic church, at least) is that that they and they alone can “confect” the sacrament—can “make” Jesus for the rest of the church, by consecrating the bread and wine of the Eucharist.

I’d like to know what women who have for generations labored so hard to cook meals for their families are doing, if not confecting the body of Christ in their own households? The church stays alive through the daily, unacknowledged, loving but laborious work of millions and millions of female hands, making Christ present at their tables, building the household church, the body of Christ, by transmuting the raw elements of the table into savory meals. In refusing to ordain women to the “official” priesthood, the church turns a blind eye to one of the most elemental realities of the life of the body of Christ: the way in which women function as priests at their own family tables, century after century.

These reflections are obviously pitched against the previous days’ meditations on clericalism. I continue to think, these days, about the issues of power and control that are so neuralgic today for the ordained, predominantly male clergy of the Christian churches—of how power and control seems to trump the other considerations of the gospel that are so much more central, such as doing justice, loving tenderly, and walking humbly with God.

I sometimes think that those reading this blog may wonder at my constant insistence that the emphasis on power and control within the pastoral leaders of one church bleeds over into other Christian churches. I wonder, that is, whether some readers of this blog may think I am reaching, when I attempt to point out parallels and overlaps between the concern of pastoral leaders in one church to maintain their dominance, and the similar concern of pastoral leaders in another church. Are there truly discernible interconnections today between, say, the stolid determination of many United Methodist bishops to hold the line against openly gay clergy, the insistence of many Anglican clerics that the priesthood must be closed to openly gay candidates and the episcopacy locked away from grasping women, and the certainty of the Vatican that ordaining women or affirming openly gay Christians would sever our ties to apostolic tradition?

I’m convinced there are such interconnections. How otherwise to make sense of the fact that Cardinal Ivan Dias, Prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Evangelization, recently felt free to inform his Anglican brethren gathered at the Lambeth Conference, that Anglicans acting independently of the Vatican in ordaining women bishops and gay clergy are suffering from spiritual Alzheimer’s disease? Since Dias rows for another team, one is hard put to understand his willingness to put his oar into Anglican debates, unless there is some strong presumption among the men ruling the churches that they have a shared interest—one transcending denominational boundary lines—in maintaining the order, their order, without which they imagine the churches cannot continue to function.

Orthodox patriarchs have made similar rumblings about the Anglican departure from “the” tradition that dictates all male, all heterosexual (at least, ostensibly heterosexual) clergy for all churches, per omnia saecula saeculorum. This is astonishing in some ways, this confidence of the rulers of one communion that they have an unquestioned right to meddle in the internal affairs of another communion, when it comes to preserving the hegemony of men, straight (-identified) men, in the priesthood.

It’s as if all other issues pale in comparison to this one—issues such as how to understand the Eucharist, the nature of the church, the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity. In the minds of the men who rule the church today, the church stands on one foundation alone: continuation of the domination of clerical life by straight-identified men. Astonishing, given that the gospels show no concern at all for this “doctrine,” and that Jesus never utters a word about the male-female divide on which contemporary Christians are willing to hinge the very future of the church.

Dias belongs to a church that, after all, has chosen to declare Anglican orders invalid, on the basis of assumptions that the Church of England has broken apostolic succession. Given this theological approach to Anglican clerical life—one that invalidates all Anglican ordination from the outset—why would the Vatican even think it necessary to try to involve itself in warning Anglicans that making women bishops and ordaining (openly) gay priests is going to drive a wedge between Rome and Canterbury?

The why is obvious. Nothing counts more, in the minds of the men ruling the churches today, than the unbroken tradition—their tradition—of (ostensibly) heterosexual male rule of the churches. Their rule.

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Before I close this posting, I did want to take quick notice of two news stories that have picked up recently on themes I’ve explored in previous postings. One of these is the story of Cardinal John Henry Newman’s burial with his lifelong friend Ambrose St. John. As I noted several days ago (, it was Newman’s express wish that he be buried in the same grave as that of St. John. When Newman died, his wish was honored.

As my blog posting also noted, when announcements came down recently that Newman was to be disinterred and reburied, I suspected that St. John would not be accompanying him. In other words, I had the sinking certainty when I read the announcement that Newman’s express final wishes would be disregarded when his body was exhumed and reburied.

And so it is coming to pass. Recent reports demonstrate that the push to have Newman parted from St. John in a new burial place is coming from the Vatican itself—the same Vatican that has been slow to consider Newman for canonization precisely because of persistent rumors, from his own lifetime up to the present, that Newman was gay (

And not all Catholics in England are looking favorably on this decision to violate Cardinal Newman’s final wishes. As well they shouldn’t. What is more sacrosanct than the burial wishes people express in their last wills and testaments, or other documents dictating those wishes?

Ironically, the determination to remove Newman from St. John now, as his canonization cause proceeds, only underscores the nature of their relationship—a relationship that, even though there is every reason to believe it was a chaste one, would nonetheless have caused both men to be denied entrance to the seminary today. My own hope is that the opening of Newman’s grave and the violation of his final wishes will have some unforeseen consequences that will ultimately result in a more compassionate approach to gay human beings on the part of Rome.

Since I have blogged repeatedly about the murder of Larry King in Oxnard, California, in February this year, I’d like to note that this week’s Newsweek cover story has to do with Larry King and bullying of gay youth in American schools ( As do many commentators within the LGBT community, I find the Newsweek article deeply flawed. It emphasizes Larry King’s gender-transgressive behavior far more than it does the even more troubling interest of his murderer in Nazi history. It fails to note the ways in which straight-identifying males in our society still far too often have the unquestioned right to bully, and even assault, both females and males they identify as feminine.

It is good that what happened to Larry King continues to receive attention. It is not good that our society still too often gives some males, straight-identified ones, the unquestioned right to bully and do harm to others. And above all, it is not good that our school systems seem incapable of eradicating or preventing such gender-biased violence. We have a long, long way to go. And the men ruling the churches aren’t going to get us there, obviously. They’re spending too much time defending their power and privilege to bother with questions like how to stop schoolchildren from murdering each other.

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