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Things They Don’t Tell You About Christianity

There would be no need for the women’s movement if the church and Bible hadn’t abused them.
— Father Leo Booth

The Bible and the Church have been the greatest stumbling blocks in the way of women’s emancipation.
— Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 19th century U.S. campaigner for women’s rights

In “The Crone: Woman of Age, Wisdom, and Power” by Barbara G. Walker the number of witches slaughtered was estimated by scholars to be 7 to 9 million also. [Historian] Will Durant, in his 12 volume History of Civilization sets the figure also at 7 to 9 million.

Misogyny is fundamental to the basic writings of Christianity. In passage after passage, women are encouraged—no, commanded—to accept an inferior role, and to be ashamed of themselves for the simple fact that they are women.  Misogynistic biblical passages are so common that it’s difficult to know which to cite.

  • From the New Testament we find “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church…” (Ephesians 5:22–23) and “These [redeemed] are they which were not defiled with women; …” (Revelation 14:4);
  • and from the Old Testament we find “How then can man be justified with God? Or how can he be clean that is born of a woman?” (Job 25:4)
  • Other relevant New Testament passages include Colossians 3:18; 1 Peter 3:7; 1 Corinthians 11:3, 11:9, and 14:34; and 1 Timothy 2:11–12 and 5:5–6.
  • Other Old Testament passages include Numbers 5:20–22 and Leviticus 12:2–5 and 15:17–33.

The Church and women: from early Church fathers, Saints, Popes and Reformers to today

  • What is the difference whether it is in a wife or a mother, it is still Eve the temptress that we must beware of in any woman… I fail to see what use woman can be to man, if one excludes the function of bearing children.-– Saint Augustine of Hippo, Church Father, Bishop of Hippo Regius, 354 – 430
  • As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from a defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence.— Thomas Aquinas, Saint, Doctor of the Church, 13th century
  • Although far more women are witches than men… yet men are more often bewitched than women. And the reason for this lies in the fact that God allows the devil more power over the venereal act, by which the original sin is handed down, than over the other human actions.— Henry Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, Inquisitors, 1486
  • Woman is a misbegotten man and has a faulty and defective nature in comparison to his. Therefore she is unsure in herself. What she cannot get, she seeks to obtain through lying and diabolical deceptions. And so, to put it briefly, one must be on one’s guard with every woman, as if she were a poisonous snake and the horned devil. … Thus in evil and perverse doings woman is cleverer, that is, slyer, than man. Her feelings drive woman toward every evil, just as reason impels man toward all good.— St. Albertus Magnus, Dominican theologian and Doctor of the Church, 13th century
  • In pain shall you bring forth children, woman, and you shall turn to your husband and he shall rule over you. And do you not know that you are Eve? God’s sentence hangs still over all your sex and His punishment weighs down upon you. You are the devil’s gateway; you are she who first violated the forbidden tree and broke the law of God. It was you who coaxed your way around him whom the devil had not the force to attack. With what ease you shattered that image of God: Man! Because of the death you merited, even the Son of God had to die… Woman, you are the gate to hell.  –Tertullian, 2nd-3rd Century church father
  • To embrace a woman is to embrace a sack of manure…— Saint Odo of Cluny, 10th Century,  from The Dark Side of Christianity, by Helen Ellerbe
  • Saint John Chrysostom commanded every Christian father to instill into his son “a resolute spirit against womankind … Let him have no converse with any woman save only his mother. Let him see no woman.” — Christianity and Pagan Culture In the Later Roman Empire, by M.L.W. Laistner
  • [Churchfather, venerated as a Saint up to the 17th century] Clement of Alexandria (150?-215?): “Every woman should be filled with shame by the thought that she is a woman.”
  • [Churchfather] Tertullian (160?-220?): “Woman is a temple built over a sewer, the gateway to the devil. Woman, you are the devil’s doorway. You led astray one whom the devil would not dare attack directly. It was your fault that the Son of God had to die; you should always go in mourning and rags.”
  • [Saint] Ambrose (339-97): “Adam was deceived by Eve, not Eve by Adam… it is right that he whom that woman induced to sin should assume the role of guide lest he fall again through feminine instability.”
  • [Saint] Augustine (354-430): “Woman was merely man’s helpmate, a function which pertains to her alone. She is not the image of God but as far as man is concerned, he is by himself the image of God.”
  • Pope Gregory I (540-604): “Woman is slow in understanding and her unstable and naive mind renders her by way of natural weakness to the necessity of a strong hand in her husband. Her ‘use’ is two fold; [carnal] sex and motherhood.”
  • [Saint] Thomas Aquinas (1225-74): “[Woman] was made only to assist with procreation.”
  • [Reformer, founder of Scottish Presbyterianism] John Knox (1513-72): “Woman was made for only one reason, to serve and obey man.”
  • [Reformer, founder of the Methodist movement] John Wesley (1703-91): “Wife: Be content to be insignificant. What loss would it be to God or man had you never been born.”
  • Southern Baptist Convention (2000): “A wife should submit herself to the leadership of her husband. Leadership in the church should always be male.”
  • Local church in Holland (2004): “More and more we see women being placed in the position of Elder or Pastor in churches. Is this a good thing? Well, if your goal is to undermine the authority of the Word of God, it’s a good thing.”
  • Martin Luther (1483-1546), leading Reformer, founder of Lutheran Protestantism: “If [women] become tired or even die, that does not matter. Let them die in childbirth–that is why they are there.”-– Martin Luther– The Dark Side of Christianity by Helen Ellerbe
  • Orthodox Christians held women responsible for all sin. As the Bible’s Apocrypha states, ‘Of woman came the beginning of sin. And thanks to her, we all must die.’
    — The Dark Side of Christianity, by Helen Ellerbe

See more: Martin Luther’s statements on women. For more anti-women sentiments to be found among Churches and Christians today, including the evangelicals:

It is this long tradition of bias against half of the human population that has made the Catholic Encyclopaedia declare:

The female sex is in some respects inferior to the male sex, both as regards body and soul.
… If the two sexes are designed by nature for a homogeneous organic co-operation, then the leading position or a social pre-eminence must necessarily fall to one of them. Man is called by the Creator to this position of leader, as is shown by his entire bodily and intellectual make-up.
— The Catholic Encyclopedia

Of course, the CE is generally good at obfuscating. Without retracting its statements on how woman is ‘inferior in certain respects … both as regards body and soul’ and how man is called by God to the ‘position of leader’, the CE continues that “To deduce from this the inferiority of woman or her degredation to a “second-rate human being” contradicts logic”. They are the ones who are illogical by contradicting themselves; as are those who affirm faith in such nonsense as are to be found in this ‘Encyclopaedia’.

Are women human? – voting and debating needed for Christians to decide the matter

In 584 CE, the Council Of Macon was held at Lyons. 43 Catholic bishops attended as well as 23 male representatives of other bishops. On the question of “Are women human?”, 32 voted Yes, and 31 No (that would make the remaining 5 still undecided).  Apparently, their decision was not final, as the question would be picked up again as late as the Reformation

The Original Sin and clergy against reducing pain during childbirth

In 1591 in Scotland, Euphanie Macalyane used a remedy to reduce delivery pains. For bypassing the Biblical curse of Genesis 3:16 – where God cursed Eve (and thus, women) with pain during childbirth – the devout King James VI had her burnt at the stake. Pious King James is better known for authorising the Bible’s translation into English: the KJV (King James Version).

In 1847, A British [in particular, Scottish] obstetrician, Dr. Simpson, used chloroform as an anesthetic in delivering a baby. A scandal followed, and the holy men of the Church of England prohibited the use of anesthetic in childbirth, citing Genesis 3:16: ‘God said to woman Eve, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy pain in childbearing. In pain thou shalt bring forth children and thy desire shall be to thy husband and he shall rule over thee.'”
— Women Without Superstition, by Annie Laurie Gaylor

Scotland’s Presbyterian Church ensured that their female flock refused the treatment, frustrating Simpson’s work. In an attempt to change the Church’s adamant stance, Simpson offered Genesis 2:21 as supposedly supportive of anaesthetics: “God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam … he took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh”. However, the Church, being more knowledgeable in theological matters, showed that 2:21 had happened before the Fall and thus before the Curse of Eve was pronounced, meaning the curse was still in effect. See the book: Triumph Over Pain by R. Fulop-Miller.

To relieve labor pains, as Scottish clergymen put it, would be ‘vitiating the primal curse of woman…’ The introduction of chloroform to help a woman through the pain of labor brought forth the same opposition. According to a New England minister:

‘Chloroform is a decoy of Satan, apparently offering itself to bless women; but in the end it will harden society and rob God of the deep earnest cries which arise in time of trouble, for help.’

— The Dark Side of Christian History, by Helen Ellerbe

It was only with Queen Victoria’s use of anaesthesia during her delivery that matters changed.

Books

  • Woe to the Women: The Bible Tells Me So by Annie Laurie Gaylor
  • The Born Again Skeptic’s Guide to the Bible by Ruth Hurmence Green

Children

Mental abuse as a form of “spiritual instruction”

…an example of Christianity’s cruel brainwashing of the innocent, consider this quotation from an officially approved, 19th-century Catholic children’s book (Tracts for Spiritual Reading, by Rev. J. Furniss, C.S.S.R.):

Look into this little prison. In the middle of it there is a boy, a young man. He is silent; despair is on him … His eyes are burning like two burning coals. Two long flames come out of his ears. His breathing is difficult. Sometimes he opens his mouth and breath of blazing fire rolls out of it. But listen! There is a sound just like that of a kettle boiling. Is it really a kettle which is boiling? No; then what is it? Hear what it is. The blood is boiling in the scalding veins of that boy. The brain is boiling and bubbling in his head. The marrow is boiling in his bones. Ask him why he is thus tormented. His answer is that when he was alive, his blood boiled to do very wicked things.

There are many similar passages in this book. Commenting on it, William Meagher, Vicar-General of Dublin, states in his Approbation:

“I have carefully read over this Little Volume for Children and have found nothing whatever in it contrary to the doctrines of the Holy Faith; but on the contrary, a great deal to charm, instruct and edify the youthful classes for whose benefit it has been written.”

More from Father Furniss’ writings for children:

A little child is in this red hot oven. Hear how it screams to come out! See how it twists and turns itself about in the fire. It beats it head against the roof of the oven. It stamps its little feet on the floor. You can see on the face of this little child what you see on the faces of all in hell – despair, desperate and horrible.
— Books for Children, by Father Furniss quoted in Atheism The Case Against God, by George Smith

If the book came back in print, many Christian parents will doubtless continue to find it very useful (“charming, instructive and edifying”) and a means to instill the fear of Hell in their children. If this book seems distinctly unpleasant, it is yet better than being forced to read the Bible at a young age, which many parents still inflict on their children.

There’s also Bible-sanctioned abuse, where parents are allowed to chastise their children with a “rod”.  From the Bible (KJV):

  • Proverbs 13:24: “He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.”
  • Proverbs 19:18: “Chasten thy son while there is hope, and let not thy soul spare for his crying.”
  • Proverbs 22:15: “Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him.”
  • Proverbs 23:13: “Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die.”
  • Proverbs 23:14: “Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell.”
  • Proverbs 29:15: “The rod and reproof give wisdom: but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame.”
  • Hebrews 12:6-7: “the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son. Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father?”
Today: pious Christians still beat their kids with the rod

Samuel Butler’s line “spare the rod, and spoil the child” from the 17th century had been taken up with enthusiasm by Christians. Beating children is illegal today in many European countries, yet the chastising of children by beating them still occurs in Christian families in America. This is especially the case with the fundamentalist Christian denominations, who know that the Bible is very clear on how they should correct the ways of their children.

  • About.Com – illustrates how there are advertisements to sell rods to Christian parents and there are devout people buying them. The market’s there.
  • A modern-day Christian site advocating the rod. They cite articles that support their Biblical views, although even if there were no such articles, one can be sure that the Biblical sanction is more than enough for them.
  • Spare the Child by Philip Greven.
    Greven cites many excerpts from present-day American Protestant writers to demonstrate that violence against children is still being promoted by Christian clerics.
  • For Your Own Good by Alice Miller
    In which the author traces the roots of physical violence towards children in the western world to the influence of Christianity.

See also:

The Evolving Destruction of the Female

When the Christian church really went full steam ahead in their destruction of women, the female and the Goddess within women, was during the Great Inquisition:I am quoting now from a classic academic work on the Goddesses by Marija Gimbutas, “The Language of the Goddess“…The author is a Professor of European archaeology at UCLA and the curator of the Old World archaeology at UCLA’s Cultural History Museum: On page 319: quote: “Women were called Disciples of Satan and this period was one of the bloodiest in history. The witch hunt of the 15th to 18th centuries was the most satanic event of European history. The murder of women accused as witches escalated to MORE THAN EIGHT MILLION. The burned or hanged women were mostly country women who learned the lore of the Goddess from their grandmothers.”

Listen to Episcopal Bishop C.L. Meyers: “A priest is a God symbol. God is masculine in both the Old and New Testaments. Christ was a man, masculine. That was a divine choice.” He said this at Grace Cathedral before 700 delegates fighting the ordination of women.Listen to the former Senior Minister of the one of the largest Presbyterian churches in Houston, Texas. the Rev. Dr. Charlie Shedd. He wrote this in a book called “How To Treat A Woman.” “Women are simple souls who like simple things. Our family airedale will come clear across the yard just for one pat on the head. Wives are like that. They will come across the house, across the room, across anything if you will just keep patting them on the head.”

misogyny

lewis and sharon

Knowing a person in life is one thing; coming to know them in death is another.   Three and a half years ago my husband died, and two and a half years before that my mother, who lived with the two of us for nine years.  In those years together we became a close knit family.

After she passed I much avoided facing the pain of my mother ‘s death only then to realize in Lewis’ passing so closely thereafter that my heart strings had been torn from their moorings and I was adrift and very alone.

I had not been acquainted with a deep grief like this ever before and I had much to learn about the process of mourning.  For example,  I have come to learn that our mutual life continues even in death and that the two of us actually continue to exist and evolve together in unanticipated ways.   My knowing of Lewis–my wonder, gratitude and joy in our love for one another–has been kindled over and over again as I recall the many facets of his personality and uniqueness and turn the pages of our life together in my memory.   I cannot help but believe there is some kind of mutuality to this ongoing process.

So, too, the memories of my mother have re-percolated in my mind.   Scenes of my childhood, of our sometimes desperate, but mostly calm and wholesome life return to cheer me.  With her there was sadness at her death, but little sadness at all in any of the memories I share of her.  She was a cheerful and optimistic person, frank and unpretentiously warm, and while she suffered many burdens in her life, she did as much as she could to relieve me of mine.

we

Yesterday morning I dreamed of the both of them.  It was a fragment from a time in our common life about nine years ago.  My mother was living with us and in the dream Lewis and I were going about our usual morning activity, planning and sharing our thoughts to decide how we could best help my mother get through some challenges during some part of an ordinary day.

After waking slowly and centering my thoughts it seemed as if I had just opened a door and stepped into another room and they were still nearby.   Somehow, it is comforting for me to know that these memories will always be this accessible to my heart:  that I can see their faces and hear their voices and enjoy their company yet again.   A painful jolt of grief was also felt when I realized how many years have now passed and gone.   Fresh.  Gone.  All in the twinkle of time’s eye.   Do you not think they may have come for a timely visitation?  Perhaps.  One cannot know for certain.

What is for certain is that the three of us shared a deep and positive human companionship together.  Our children grown, we had time and a desire to care for my mother and she was always wanting to be helpful to us.

And the three of us came to enjoy even more the Christmas season when Lewis’ mother would come from Cincinnati and the four of us could have a family holiday reunion and spend relaxing time with our children and grandchildren.   Peels of laughter and intrigue would be in the air as mother and Agnes shared the daytime and evening hours while Lewis and I were at the office.   They could work on personal projects and liked to share their life stories and when we would arrive we would be met with tidbits of vital information on the day and what they had learned and observed with one another.

So it should not be a surprise that I find myself in a dream with my husband that my mother is with us there.   These are the two people who have been closest to me and who have loved and cared for me most of my life.

Today would have been my husband’s 69th birthday and I honor him today.

Lewis Sharon and Hazel2

Women leaders and the Catholic Church?

By John Wijngaards Published by Catholics for a Changing Church, London, 2007

The Catholic Church has moved on since the day, on 29 July 1904, when Pope Pius X instructed the bishops of Italy not to trust the intelligence or reliability of women.

“In public meetings, never allow women to take the word, however respectable or pious they may seem. If on a specific occasion bishops consider it opportune to permit a meeting for women by themselves, these may not speak except under the presidency and supervision of high ecclesiastical personalities.” (1)

Church authorities have now come to terms with the fact that women are capable of heading academic faculties, running major corporations, ruling their countries as prime ministers or presidents. But such secular competence does not empower women to assume spiritual leadership in the Church.

Pressed on this issue during a meeting with the clergy of Rome, Pope Benedict XVI recently asserted that women contribute to the government of the Church through their manifold services. He mentioned a number of women saints of the past who have made their mark. But these services, though crucial to the Church, are purely of an auxiliary, charismatic nature, he said. The true government of the Church is reserved to men.

“The priestly ministry of the Lord, as we know, is reserved to men, since the priestly ministry is government in the deep sense, which, in short, means it is the Sacrament [of Orders] that governs the Church. This is the crucial point. It is not a particular man who does something, but the priest in him governs, faithful to his mission, in the sense that it is the Sacrament, that is, through the Sacrament it is Christ himself who governs, both through the Eucharist and in the other Sacraments, and thus Christ always presides.”(2)

The implication of this piece of typical ecclesiastical jargon is that women have no authority whatsoever in the government of the Church. Catholic belief holds that Christ entrusted authority over his Church to the apostles and their successors. This authority is threefold: the authority of teaching (imposing doctrine), the authority of consecrating (presiding at the eucharist, performing ordinations, etc.) and the authority of ruling (imposing moral obligations, forgiving sins, taking all major decisions regarding Church discipline). Pope Benedict reiterates that all these forms of authority are imparted only by the sacrament of holy orders, which is reserved to men.(3)

Church Law puts it succinctly: “Only a baptized male validly receives sacred ordination”.(4) And: “Only those who have received sacred orders are capable of the power of governance, which exists in the Church by divine institution. (5) In short: no Church leadership for women! You may rule a country, you’ll never rule a diocese!

Where does this discrimination come from?

Although present-day Church authorities attribute the ban of women from church leadership to Jesus Christ himself as I will report in a later section, historical research makes clear that its origin lies in Roman Law.

The influence of the Roman Empire on the organization of the Catholic Church is undeniable. In fact, the influence has been beneficial in many respects. For the Romans were great administrators. They understood the need of good infra-structures, such as roads, office buildings and a universally accepted currency. Their military and governmental officials were given clearly circumscribed duties and responsibilities. The Romans hated confusion and enforced discipline.

It was a great Roman, Pope Gregory the Great (540-604), who put his stamp on church administration. Gregory belonged to a patrician family and had served as prefect of the city of Rome for a couple of years before entering church service. When he was elected Pope, he immediately began to centralise the entire papal administration. He laid down rules on the liturgy and pastoral ministry. He co-ordinated new missionary efforts, such as the conversion of England. He asserted papal authority in face of Byzantine claims. He left a lasting stamp on the way the official church was run by applying Roman principles and Roman systems of management. He is considered by many historians as the architect of the later medieval papacy.(5)

The Romans were also good lawgivers. The great contribution of Roman legislation was its laying down of simple and clear principles. Roman law was detailed, specific, practical. It lent itself to resolving disputes. It was a form of law developed by people who were able administrators and efficient organizers. In fact, no system of law has been so influential in the world as that which arose in the city of ancient Rome. Its thinking dominated the Roman empire for more than a thousand years, and in the Byzantine empire it remained in use till 1453. It formed the basis for the law codes of most western countries. More important for us: it shaped much of church law in the Catholic church.

But laws often hide structural prejudice, and this is what happened in the case of women. For Roman law was hostile to women. Roman family law was based on the principle that the father of the family (pater familias) had complete authority both over the children and his wife. This was defined as paternal power (patria potestas). The wife depended totally on her husband, being in fact his property. He could do with her as he liked. He could punish her in any way, even kill her, or sell her as a slave — though this last punishment was forbidden after 100 BC. And as far as family property was concerned, the wife herself did not own anything. Everything she or her children inherited belonged to her husband, including also the dowry which she brought with her to her marriage. (7)

The rights of women in general civil Roman law were not much better. Although the woman was considered a Roman citizen, she obtained her position only through her husband. Women could not carry their own name, as little as slaves could. Only men enjoyed this distinct sign of their being a Roman citizen. Moreover, a woman was excluded from all public functions and rights:

“Women are excluded from all civil and public responsibility and therefore can neither be judges nor carry any civil authority, they cannot bring a court case, nor intercede for someone else nor act as mediators”.

Women could not function as witnesses, whether at the drawing up of a last will, or in any other form of law. Like minors, slaves, the dumb and criminals, women could not be trusted. Women were also reckoned to be incapable of representing themselves in law “because of the infirmity of their sex and because of their ignorance about matters pertaining to public life”. (8)

Assimilation into Church discipline

If we understand that this was the condition of women by civil law, a law which everyone greatly respected, we can appreciate how this devaluation of women slipped into church thinking. The inferior status of women was so much taken for granted that it determined the way Latin speaking theologians and church leaders would look on matters relating to women. Just listen to this reasoning by Ambrosiaster (4th cent) which is typical of the time:

“ Women must cover their heads because they are not the image of God . . . How can anyone maintain that woman is the likeness of God when she is demonstrably subject to the dominion of man and has no kind of authority? For she can neither teach nor be a witness in a court nor exercise citizenship nor be a judge — then certainly not exercise leadership!”(9)

Ambrosiaster states that woman “has no kind of authority”. Why not? Because by civil law a woman could not hold any public function or exercise any authority. He goes on to say that she cannot be “a witness in court, or exercise citizenship [ = take part in public meetings] or be a judge”. Why not? Because civil law forbade it. Now notice the argument. Woman does not bear the image of God because she is manifestly subject to man as we can see from civil law! The real argument rests on Roman law which is taken as right and just. And here the true culprit is revealed. The cuckoo raises its ugly head. The position of woman is not really decided by any Christian tradition or inspired text, but by the pagan Roman law which was believed to be normative. (10)

Unfortunately, the thinking of the Latin Fathers of the Church became part of Church Law, the Corpus Iuris Canonici, because the first compiler of that law, the monk Gratian, adopted all their prejudices against women (Bologna ca. 1140):

  • ·“Because of her state of servitude a woman is subject to her husband in everything.”
  • ·“Even if a woman is educated and saintly, she still should not presume to instruct men in a [church] assembly.”
  • ·“Women may not teach or baptise or distribute communion . . . Women may not touch sacred objects . . . Women may not wear or touch sacred vestments . . . Women may not be part of a church choir.”
  • ·“Women cannot be promoted to the priesthood or even the diaconate.”
  • ·“Woman is not called ‘woman’ (Latin mulier) because of the sex of her body but because of the weakness (Latin mollicies) of her mind.” (11)

The Corpus Iuris Canonici remained the Catholic Church’s official lawbook till 1910. But long before then the inferior position of women had also enjoyed the attention of theological speculators.

The era of rationalization

The early Middle Ages saw the start of systematic theology. Thinkers began to demand reasons for everything, including for the exclusion of women from the ministries. Women were obviously substandard, they knew, but were there no exceptions? What about Mary, the mother of Jesus? Or Mary of Magdala, who had preached to the apostles? There is evidence that in the 13th century there was still room for explaining the omission of women from sacred orders as purely a church practice, a custom that could be changed. Bonaventure (1217-1274), for instance, states: “all agree that women ought not to be promoted to Orders; but as to whether they are capable [of Orders], there is doubt.” (12)

Theological ranks, however, soon closed solidly behind the Church’s stand against women. A multiplicity of reasons were generated, including ridiculous ones such as that women talk too much, or that it is not becoming for them to wear the clerical tonsure. The justifications that gained most ground were these:

  • ·Women are not created in the image of God; their purpose is to serve their husbands.
  • ·Women still carry the curse of Eve’s sin.

Jesus Christ did not include a woman among the apostolic twelve.

Paul forbade women to teach in church.

  • ·Women are not perfect human beings and thus cannot represent Christ. (13)

In recent Church documents only the last three justifications have been retained in a slightly modified form. It was Jesus Christ himself, we are told, who excluded women from the ministries for all time to come. That is why the Church has, in fact, never ordained women. Neither does the Church possess the power to change this practice. For Christ was a man, and God wants him to be represented only by men in the leadership of the Church. (14)

This reasoning is so faulty and unsubstantiated that it would be dismissed out of hand by most present-day scholars if it were not presented in serious documents by the highest teaching authority in the Church. The Vatican’s arguments, it seems to me, are as pathetic to any professional theologian as a creationist’s boast that the finding of dinosaur fossils confirms the world was created 6000 years ago.

At the risk of boring my readers to tears, let me sketch the theological jousting with some cartoon-like strokes. The debate can be read in full on the internet. (15)

Nowhere does Jesus Christ explicitly exclude women from leadership in his community. The fact that the first twelve apostles were only men proves nothing. The first twelve were all Jews. Does that mean only Jews can be priests? Yes but, the Vatican retorts, Jesus ordained the apostles at the last supper when he said: “Do this in commemoration of me”, and only men were present. Were they? We know now that women too must have been there for the past supper was a paschal meal. Exodus 19 prescribes that women and children too had to share in a paschal meal. Moreover, whereas previously only men joined the covenant directly through circumcision, entrance into Jesus’ community comes about by baptism which is the same for men and women. Paul states the consequence clearly: “through your common baptism in Christ there is no longer any distinction between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female”. (16)

                       

And what about the claim that the Church never admitted women to holy orders? It simply is not true. For at least nine centuries the Catholic Church, especially in its eastern provinces, routinely ordained women as deacons. This diaconate was imparted through an ordination rite that, in today’s terminology, has to be judged to be fully ‘sacramental’. The bishop imposed hands on each candidate, invoking the Holy Spirit for the specific purpose of assigning the woman to the ministry of the diaconate. The ordination rites for male and female deacons were identical in all essential elements. Both men and women deacons received the diaconate stole. Church legislation regulated the rights and duties of women deacons as much as that of the men. Women therefore did take part in holy orders and, according to the old principle ex facto sequitur posse (‘from it having been done it follows it can be done’), the Church can ordain women because she has done so in the past. (17)

Is there any validity in the rationale of Jesus Christ as a man requiring a male representative? Thomas Aquinas (1224 – 1274), who is quoted by the Vatican as a source for this opinion, believed women were less perfect biologically because only the male seed carried future offspring. Every woman is born incomplete, a ‘monster’, an ‘accident of nature’. Small wonder Thomas taught that only a perfect human being, that is: a male, can represent Christ. (18)

The Vatican, while not sanctioning Aquinas’s biological ignorance, yet holds on to the biological pre-eminence of men by seeing a significant divine symbolism in Christ’s incarnation as a man.

“The fact that Christ is a man and not a woman is neither incidental nor unimportant in relation to the economy of salvation . . . God’s covenant with men (!) is presented in the Old Testament as a nuptial mystery, the definitive reality of which is Christ’s sacrifice on the cross . . . Christ is the bridegroom of the Church, whom he won for himself with his blood, and the salvation brought by him is the new covenant. By using this language, revelation shows why the incarnation took place according to the male gender, and makes it impossible to ignore this historical reality. For this reason, only a man can take the part of Christ, be a sign of his presence, in a word ‘represent’ him (that is, be an effective sign of his presence) in the essential acts of the covenant.” (19)

The reasoning is seriously flawed. Its derivation from prophetic imagery and Ephesians 5,21-33 is arbitrary. It contradicts the traditional doctrine that Christ was incarnated as a human being (not just as a man). “The old principle states: What is not assumed [into Christ’s humanity] is not saved. If maleness is constitutive for the incarnation and redemption, female humanity is not assumed and therefore not saved.” (20)

Also, the symbolism limps. If the Church is the bride and Christ her groom, how can the Vatican exclude women from representing the groom while including both women and men in the bride? And if Christ’s maleness and the maleness of his priests is so crucial in God’s plan of salvation, has the phallus not become the defining symbol of Christ in the eucharist? (21)

The truth of the matter is that few Catholic theologians subscribe to the official rationalizations.

Stand off between the Vatican and Catholic scholarship

As I have stated elsewhere, (22) by all evidence available to me, I estimate that at least three-quarters of Catholic theologians disagree with the official position held out by the Vatican. They do not accept as proven that Jesus Christ himself excluded women from future ministries. They ascribe the woman-hostile church practice of previous centuries to cultural bias. They see no valid reason why the Church could not admit women to all ministries and leadership positions.

I say: ‘by all evidence available to me’, for a blanket of silence has descended on the theological community after Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (1994) which effectively forbade discussion on the question. Theologians serving seminaries and universities under Church control are, after all, required to swear an oath of loyalty that implies agreement with the Vatican. As one theologian put to me: “I have three good reasons to keep my mouth shut. They are called Sharon, Alice and Bob – my children whom I need to feed.”

With Polish rigour and German thoroughness, the whole Church apparatus has been rigged to conform. The Curia began consistently to fill all leadership positions with candidates favourable to its own views. Bishops are only chosen if they have first indicated that they agree with the Vatican. “Bishops are like the flagstones in St. Peter’s”, one Vatican source observed. “If you lay them down properly from the start, you can walk over them for the rest of their lives.” It is not unlike the old Soviet Russia where all top officials had to be screened and appointed by the central Polit Buro.

The CDF (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) follows up on this structural control by censuring anyone who steps out of line. The Vatican criticises bishops in person if they have organizations in their jurisdiction that favour women priests. The Vatican sends letters to bishops ordering them to reprimand and punish church personnel who support women’s ordination, often mentioning dissident persons by name. The party line is clearly spelled out.

“The bishop should prove his pastoral ability and leadership qualities by resolutely refusing any support to those people – whether individuals or groups – who defend the priestly ordination of women, whether they do so in the name of progress, of human rights, compassion or for whatever reason it may be.” (23)

All such repression of open discussion happens in flagrant contradiction to the solemn stipulation of the Second Vatican Council that “all the faithful, both clerical and lay, should be accorded a lawful freedom of inquiry, freedom of thought and freedom of expression”. (24)

As a result of Vatican pressure, most Roman Catholic theologians do not publicly discuss the issue. But I know what they think from private correspondence and from personal contacts. I am a member of the Catholic Theological Association of Great Britain, the Catholic Theological Association of Europe and the Catholic Theological Society of America. The credibility of the magisterium’s banning women from ordination borders on zero. Scholars agree with Elisabeth Johnson, not with Joseph Ratzinger.

It could have been so different . . .

Forty years ago the Catholic Church seemed to steer free from its inborn reactionary and dictatorial tendencies. Between 1959 and 1965 I witnessed a new spring. The Second Vatican Council opened windows in all directions and provided the first chance of real Church reform. I was lucky enough to be in the eternal city during those exciting days. Everything suddenly seemed possible. Even for women! The current joke was: “at the next Council, bishops will be invited to bring their wives, at the one after that to bring their husbands.”

Do not forget that for the first time in the Church’s history women were actually allowed to be present in St. Peter’s Basilica, the Council hall, even though the lucky ones were only a handful with no more than observer status. But Gertrude Heinzelmann and other intrepid women managed to hand in a formal request that women’s ministries should be considered. The issue was on the table, though it did not make it onto the agenda.

Cardinal Ottaviani embodied resistance to change. He was Prefect of the Holy Office and so Cardinal Ratzinger’s worthy forerunner. His official motto read: Semper Idem – ‘Always the Same’. He suffered significant defeats. One liberating document after the other was accepted by the Council fathers. I remember the day when Ottaviani overran the ten-minute time limit put on speakers and Cardinal Alfrink of Utrecht, Council moderator for the day, forced him to stop. The Council fathers applauded. Ottaviani stepped down with a red face. It was the end of Ottaviani’s dominance. Or so it seemed to optimists like me.

In India I witnessed the Church’s genuine efforts at reform. It affected worship, religious life, seminary training, dialogue with other religions and many other key apostolates. The energy created was astounding. Apart from some grumpy old stick-in-the-muds who dug in their heels, bishops, priests, religious sisters and lay leaders eagerly joined in. We felt happy, enthusiastic, exhilarated by the new prospects. It made us overlook the storm clouds that were building up in the Vatican centres of power. In 1975 I suggested to an all-India seminar that the bishops should look into the possibility of admitting women to holy orders.

What had meanwhile taken place in Rome is only now becoming clear. We could have known. We should have noticed the first symptoms.

Cardinal Ottaviani had been restored to considerable influence under Pope Paul VI. When the international committee of experts recommended that contraceptives could legitimately be used by married couples in certain circumstances, Ottaviani and three allies blocked the report. They persuaded a worried Paul VI to reject the committee’s findings and sign the now infamous encyclical Humanae Vitae that bans contraceptives always and everywhere. It goes against nature, we are told. The Church’s stand has had serious consequences for a country like India where poor women often have no way of protecting themselves from violent husbands who stumble into the hut after a binge on local gin, and demand sex.

Adaptation to Indian forms of worship was proceeding well. Ten special indults were granted by the liturgical office in the Vatican during the first years of sincere reform. Then the frost set in. The archconservative Cardinal Knox took over liturgy. He had been appointed away from Sydney because people there could not understand his kind of humour, it was said. Ottaviani did. He and Knox refused approval to a new eucharistic prayer for India that had been prepared by Indian liturgists during years of consultation. Reason: it included Indian theological terms!

I have painted the scene because this was the context in which the question of women’s ministries was raised, and aborted in the womb!

What? Surely no women at the altar!

1971 was a year of promise. Representatives from all over the world gathered at the Bishops’ Synod in Rome. The Canadian Bishops’ Conference – God bless them! – through their spokesman Cardinal Flahiff, formally requested the Church to open the discussion on admitting women to all the ministries. Others concurred. How would the Vatican respond?

The Canadian request was timely from point of view of the Church’s rank-and-file members. That is: the ordinary faithful, carriers of inerrancy according to Vatican II. However, from a Church political point of view, the timing could not have been worse. Conservative forces were reorganising themselves under the leadership – you have guessed it! – of Cardinal Ottaviani. These could not possibly conceive of a change so fundamental as women entering holy orders. Absurd!

But the Vatican authorities went through the motions. A special commission was set up to study the Function of Women in Society and the Church (1973). The Biblical Commission was asked to look at the question from a scriptural angle. It would all work out, they were sure.

Imagine their surprise and panic when support for women as priests welled up spontaneously in many official bodies. The Vatican acted immediately to stamp out such signs of rebellion.

The commission on the Function of Women was directed not to discuss women’s ministries, even though this had been the reason why it was set up. Dissenting voices (1974 – 1975) were suppressed as we know from the records of Rie Vendrik, a Dutch representative. The final report of the commission was never published. (25)

The Pontifical Biblical Commission (1975) came out in favour of the ordination of women. In response, its report was withheld from publication. And, to muzzle the commission for good, it was henceforth made totally subject to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as the Holy Office was now called. The truth only emerged when the commission’s chairman, Fr. Stanley, resigned, and when the report was leaked to the press. (26)

Meanwhile the worldwide Anglican Church had been involved in discussions on ordaining women. In November 1975, a theological working group of the Anglican/Roman Catholic International Consultation met in Assisi to consider women priests. Rome appointed two Catholic specialists: Frs. Eric Doyle OFM and Hervé Legrand OP, to represent the Catholic Church, expecting them to defend the traditional position. They did not. Both expressed support for the ordination of women from a scriptural/theological point of view. Rome promptly refused to acknowledge the Assisi report. Fortunately the Anglicans published it. Rome then put pressure on the Catholic theologians to revise their opinion – which they refused to do. (27)

By this time Ottaviani’s group had thoroughly woken up. They felt they had to nip this in the bud: this dangerous rebellion from grassroots theologians.

In 1975 and 1976 Pope Paul VI repeatedly wrote to Archbishop Donald Coggan, the primate of the Church of England. These letters tried to demolish any illusion that the Catholic Church might one day be willing to ordain women. Also, in 1976, Paul VI firmly ruled out women’s ordination in Inter Insigniores, the first document by a modern pope to raise the question.

The echo we hear right through is Ottaviani’s Semper Idem. Unwittingly he may have played his trump card by appointing Joseph Ratzinger as a permanent member to the CDF. Then John Paul II became Pope, a man of philosophy and ferocious faith who was disgusted at ‘the degenerate West’ with its ‘culture of death’. The restoration of ancient values, including woman’s place as mother of the family, was now going to be promoted with ruthless zeal. Hands off the chalice and push the pram!

Leaders in a dysfunctional Church?

It is blind religious zeal that undoubtedly drives the small group that has seized almost unlimited control of the structures of the Church. Pope Benedict XVI has clearly indicated that fighting ‘relativism’ is his main objective. “Relativism is the central problem for faith today”. (28) Eradicating relativism validates the abuse of papal authority, the silencing of prophecy in the Church, the reduction of bishops to rubber-stamp officials, the repression of academic research and dismantling of free discussion. All to defeat the relativism of a multi-faith society, situational sexual ethics, critical journalism, open TV and radio, scientific bible studies, rights campaigns by celibates, gays and women!

The return to 19th-century piety undoubtedly comforts a small traditional minority and, perhaps, uneducated Catholics in Asia, Africa and Latin America. For the others, the official Church is a source of conflict and unrest. Condemnation of contraceptives that everyone uses. Insistence on unmarried priests in the face of clerical child abuse and dwindling vocations. No human rights in the Church. Censure of freedom of expression and other modern values to which we owe so much. Brutal treatment of individuals while preaching love, blaming Jesus for discrimination against women. Small wonder that the clerical Church we have become has been compared to a dysfunctional family.

“In these families an addictive father sets up a pattern of control and abuse. In order to survive, everyone colludes and tries to placate and appease him by turning inward to protect the family’s reputation. The dominant abuser determines everything that the family will do and think: loyalty to him becomes the test of membership. In this process everyone becomes co-dependent in the addiction, and thus the system continues.” (29)

The papacy has consolidated its power under Pope John Paul II, but its inner credibility has been hollowed out. When Rome’s stranglehold eventually collapses, as I am sure it will one day, reform will focus on restoring proper authority to bishops, theologians and lay people, and reducing the power that the papacy has unlawfully appropriated to itself. (30)

On that day the Catholic Church can also shed its fear of our ‘relativistic’ and secular world. The lasting solution to the present religious crisis lies neither in the outright rejection of the newly discovered values, nor in a compromise that would water down our Christian faith. The answer lies in true integration: in allowing the salvific words and deeds of Jesus Christ to take root once more in the new secular realities and to transform them from within.

It should be recognised that the scientifically-minded, autonomous and fulfilment-seeking culture of our western countries is a distinct new culture, like cultures the Church meets in any other missionary situation. Here, like elsewhere in the world, the Word of God needs to be incarnated, with a preservation of all that is good in our culture. The Second Vatican Council spelled it out.

“The seed which is the Word of God grows out of good soil, watered by the divine dew. From this soil the seed draws nourishing elements which it transforms and assimilates into itself. Finally it bears much fruit . . . From the customs and traditions of their people, from their wisdom and their learning, from their arts and sciences, local churches borrow all those things which can add to the glory of their Creator, manifest the grace of the Saviour or contribute to the right ordering of Christian life.” (31)

The Catholic Church needs to shed unnecessary past accretions, such as the bias against women, and adapt itself to the new world in which we find ourselves, as the Church has done during other crucial periods in its history. Evangelisation means continuous incarnation, in which the Word can only become new flesh by taking that flesh seriously.

Will women be ordained leaders in the Catholic Church?

I look at history. The ruthless migrating nations that ravished the Roman Empire destroyed Christian communities. They also laid the foundation of flourishing Christian medieval societies. I see that atrocious horror, the second world war, paradoxically giving birth to computers, travel by jet, nuclear energy and satelite communication. It also liberated women in many countries and brought the United Nations closer together. I see communism, contrary to everyone’s calculations, crumbling in Eastern Europe even though it seemed secure under a canopy of terror.

Yes, women will become leaders in the Catholic Church: deacons, priests, bishops and popes. Perhaps sooner than we dare expect. Christ’s Spirit has not died. She is very active in the body of the Church. Though she works through human instruments, she will not fail.

John Wijngaards


(1)  P. Gaiotti de Biase, Le origini del movimento cattolico femminile, Brescia 1963, p. 74.

(2) Osservatore Romano  3 March 2006.

(3)  Pope Benedict in an interview on Vatican Radio of 13 August 2006: “The power to take legally binding decisions is limited to those in sacred orders, that is: to men.”

(4)  Canon 1024.

(5) Canon 129, § 1.

(6) F. H. Dudden, Gregory the Great,  his Place in History and in Thought, London 1905; B. Colgrave, The Earliest Life of Gregory the Great by an Anonymous Monk of Whitby, Cambridge 1985; R.A. Markus, Gregory the Great and his World, Cambridge 1998.

(7)  In later time this absolute power of the husband was somewhat diminished leading to what was known as a form of  ‘free marriage’ which husband and wife could agree upon. However, even in this new situation, the husband had the right to make the final decisions in all questions concerning the family: for instance the place of residence which the wife had to share with him, the education of the children, the exclusive rights on her wifely duties, while the husband himself could make love to other women with impunity.

(8) H.Heumann and E.Seckel, Handlexikon zu den Quellen des römischen Rechts, Graz 1958, pp. 246 and 265. L.Wenger, Institutes of the Roman Law of Civil Procedure, Littleton 1940; F.Schulz, Classical Roman Law, London 1951; M.Kaser, Roman Private Law, Oxford 1965.

(9) Ambrosiaster, On 1 Corinthians 14, 34.

(10)  J. Wijngaards, The Ordination of Women in the Catholic Church. Unmasking a Cuckoo’s Egg Tradition, London 2000; New York 2001.

(11)  Corpus Juris Canonici, edited by A.Friedberg, Leipzig 1879-1881; reprint Graz 1955; Ida Raming, Exclusion of Women from the Priesthood, Scarecrow Press 1976, passim.

(12)  Bonaventure, Commentarium in IV Libros Sententiarum Magistri Petri Lombardi, div. xxv, art. ii, qu. 1; published in Opera Omnia, Quaracchi 1882-1902.

(13)  The actual texts of the 26 medieval theologians whose texts have been preserved can be accessed from http://www.womenpriests.org/theology/overv_th.asp.

(14)  Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, Apostolic Letter by Pope John-Paul II on Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone,  22 May 1994; Ad Tuendam Fidem, Motu Proprio by Pope John-Paul II, May 28 1998; Commentary on Ad Tuendam Fidem, by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 29 June 1998.

(15)  Www.womenpriests.org provides more than 500 academic texts supporting arguments for and against.

(16)  Galatians 3,28. John Wijngaards, Did Christ Rule out Women Priests?, London 1977, 1984.

(17) John Wijngaards, No Women in Holy Orders? The Women Deacons in the Early Church, London 2002; Women Deacons in the Early Church. Historical Texts and Contemporary Debates, New York 2006.

(18)  For access to Thomas Aquinas’ texts on this whole question of biology and male representation, see http://www.womenpriests.org/theology/aqui_gen.asp.

(19)  Commentary on Inter Insigniores § 100 – 102. See also Mulieris Dignitatem § 25-26; Christifideles Laici  § 51.

(20) Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, New York 1992, p. 153.

(21)  Hans Urs von Balthasar, who inspired much of the Vatican’s thought in this matter, states so explicitly.  “What else is Christ’s eucharist but, at a higher level, an endless act of fruitful outpouring of his whole flesh, such as a man can only achieve for a moment with a limited organ of his body?”, Elucidations, trans. John Riches, London 1975, p. 150. See also Tina Beattie, God’s Mother, Eve’s Advocate. A Gynocentric Refiguration of Marian Symbolism in Engagement with Luce Irigaray, Bristol 1999, p. 64-65.

(22)  John Wijngaards, ‘Women Bishops? Views in the Roman Catholic Church, official and otherwise’,  in Women and the Episcopate, London 2006, pp. 37-48.

(23)   Letter to Bishops from the CDF, Osservatore Romano 13 September 1983. The injunction is frequently repeated on the occasion of Ad Limina visits of bishops.

(24)   A. FLANNERY, Vatican Council II, New York 1988; Gaudium et Spes, § 62 p. 968.

(25) Dirkje Donders, The Tenacious Voice of Women. Rie Vendrik and the Pontifical Commission On Women in Society and in the Church, Utrecht 2002.

(26)  ‘Biblical Commission Report Can Women Be Priests?’, Origins vol. 6  (1976), 1 July; see also James Corridan (ed.), Sexism and Church Law, New York 1977, pp. 163-172.

(27)  Brenda Abbott, What is the Lasting Significance of Eric Doyle’s Contribution to the Debate on the Ordination of Women in the 1970s?, Canterbury 2003.

(28) Cardinal Ratzinger’s address to doctrinal commissions in Latin America, May 1996; read also his inaugural speech as Pope.

(29)  P. Collins, Papal Power. A Proposal for Change in Catholicism’s Third Millennium, London 1997, p. 103; see N. and T. Ormerod, When Ministers Sin: Sexual Abuse in the Churches, Sydney 1995, p. 80.

(30)  ; P. Chirico, Infallibility: the Crossroads of Doctrine, Wilmington 1983; J. M. R. Tillard, The Bishop of Rome, Wilmington 1983; P. Granfield, The Limits of the Papacy. Authority and Autonomy in the Church, New York 1990; L. M. Bermejo, Infallibility on Trial: Church, Conciliarity and Communion, Westminster 1992; A. W. R. Sipe, Sex, Priests and Power: Anatomy of a Crisis, London 1995; J. Berry and G. Renner, Vows of Silence. The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II, New York 2004.

(31) Ad Gentes, no 22; W.M.Abbott, The Documents of Vatican II, Guild Press, New York 1966, p. 612; see also A.Shorter, Towards a Theology of Inculturation, Chapman, London 1988, esp. pp. 191-205.

Rev. Susan Russell

Episcopal priest and activist from Pasadena, Calif.

And Here’s to You, Bishop Robinson

In November 2003 I flew from L.A. to New Hampshire, where the Episcopal Diocese was preparing to ordain the first openly gay bishop in the history of Christendom. For the record, V. Gene Robinson was not the first gay bishop in the history of the Episcopal Church, much less Christendom, but he was the first one to be honest about it. And so his ordination as the ninth bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire included pomp, circumstance and metal detectors. The assembled crowd included clergy, choirs and CNN.  And as we filed into the arena where the service would be held, we were greeted by ushers, reporters and bomb sniffing dogs.

In 2003 we were a country where marriage equality was still a dream, “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) was in force and the president of the United States was backing a federal marriage amendment that would write discrimination against gay and lesbian Americans into the U.S. Constitution. And we were a church with an organized and mobilized conservative bloc reaching into their deep pockets in an effort to turn the election of the Bishop of New Hampshire into the schism that they hadn’t managed to pull off in the 1970s, when they had tried to split the Episcopal Church over the ordination of women.

What a difference nine years makes.

In November 2012 I flew from L.A. to New Hampshire, where the Episcopal Diocese was preparing to celebrate the retirement of Bishop Gene Robinson after nine years as their bishop. An ice sculpture of the diocesan logo took center stage on the buffet table as ladies in plaid skirts and gentlemen in blue blazers sipped tea and munched on brie. Gene circulated around the room hugging necks, posing for pictures and receiving the thanks of a diocese grateful for nine years of work and witness together.  It was an afternoon event marked by nothing so much as its quintessentially Episcopalian ordinariness — and there was not a metal detector or a reporter in sight.

And in 2012 we are a country where nine states (and the District of Columbia) have civil marriage equality, “don’t ask, don’t tell” was repealed over a year ago and the president of the United States not only has “evolved” to become an outspoken supporter of marriage equality but is leading the charge to send DOMA (the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act”) into the dustbin of history. Meanwhile, the Episcopal Church has come out on the other side of the inclusion wars with a robust commitment to full inclusion for LGBT people that includes a General Convention that voted overwhelmingly to support federal marriage equality and to approve liturgies for the blessing of same-sex relationships.

Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said that “the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice,” but he didn’t say it bends easily or quickly, nor did he say there wouldn’t be some cracks along the way. Maybe that’s why one of my favorite songs is Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem,” a song that includes this wisdom: “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.”

What the Diocese of New Hampshire did on June 7, 2003, when they elected V. Gene Robinson as their ninth bishop — and what the Episcopal Church did on Nov. 2, 2012, in consecrating him — was create a crack in systemic homophobia that let the light in: the light of equality, justice and compassion that shone far beyond our little corner of Christianity in some powerful and prophetic ways.

Ordination of Hirschfeld as Bishop Coadjutor in New Hampshire

In his letter to Bishop Robinson on the occasion of his retirement, President Obama wrote:

As you reflect on your many accomplishments, I hope you take tremendous pride in all you have done to fight AIDS, poverty and intolerance around the world. Your efforts remind us that we all have the power to create a better world when we do God’s work here on earth and your legacy will inspire generations to come.

I not only know that will be true, but I know that it is already true in the legacy that Bishop Robinson leaves as he concludes his tenure as the Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire. Ever an advocate for the most marginalized, Bishop Robinson has asked that donations in his name be made to support a chaplaincy program for the New Hampshire Prison for Women, which he describes in this moving video clip:

The Bible tells us in Matthew 25 that Jesus is a whole lot more interested in how we treat “the least of these” than he is in our theologies or our liturgies, our doctrines or our dogmas. And so the legacy that Bishop Robinson leaves as he concludes his ministry as Bishop of New Hampshire is so much greater than just being the first openly gay bishop in the history of Christendom. It is a legacy of using the platform of privilege he has been given to continue to make a difference — to continue to get the light through the cracks — for absolutely anyone who has been told that they are outside the light of God’s love.

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I know this now. Every man gives his life for what he believes. Every woman gives her life for what she believes. Sometimes people believe in little or nothing yet they give their lives to that little or nothing. One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. And then it is gone. But to sacrifice what you are and live without belief, that's more terrible than dying.--

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Beannacht

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

John O'Donohue, Echoes of Memory