A Sad Divide

A Sad Divide

Published: Apr 7, 2011 by Maria Gwyn McDowell

I just returned from an interesting lecture, provocatively entitled “Was FDR the Antichrist? The Birth of Fundamentalist Anti-liberalism in a Global Age.”  Dr. Matt Sutton presented a fascinating portrait of American Christian conservatism and its growing anti-state sentiments.  The crux of his argument was that the dual contexts of a growing global move towards totalitarian governments (think Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini) and an apocalyptical theological orientation (specifically, pre-millenialism) coalesce in an anti-state ideology which saw FDR and the birth of the American liberal state as a precursor to the rule of the antichrist.  According to Sutton, the primary criteria (as he will argue in a forthcoming book) of Christian fundamentalism is a preoccupation with the Apocalypse.

I was intrigued by the (too) briefly mentioned “signs of the times” for conservatives that this world was approaching its end: the growing social role of women and racial minorities, the hot button social issues of the day (remember, woman’s suffrage was in its infancy, women were just moving into the workplace, and the civil rights movement was only just beginning to foment among black artists).  During the Q&A, I asked Sutton to elaborate on his thesis that fundamentalism is characterized by apocalyptic concerns in light of the growing perception that the Christian liberal/conservative split is the result of divisive social issues.  He noted, I think very astutely, that an apocalyptic tendency requires a theological belief that this world is disintegrating, and that its moral and social values are signs of inevitable human failure leading to the coming of the Antichrist.

So my question: Why is it that the greater participation of women (and racial minorities) is seen by some as an affirmation of the end of faith?  A sign of life to me is a sign of death to them.  How can this be?

My question is all the more painful to me given a speech to which I was recently pointed, Metropolitan Hilarion’s address to the Nicean Club Dinner at Lambath Palace.  Hilarion opens by reminding his Anglican audience of their shared Nicean faith, of the unique ecumenical openness reflected in a history of shared conversation.  The Anglican-Orthodox dialogue, once so fruitful, is now threatened, and “is doomed to closure if the unrestrained liberalization of Christian values continues in many communities of the Anglican world.”  Here it is, the liberal/conservative split.  And the first salvo fired at this up-until-then productive dialogue?  The ordination of women to the priesthood and their subsequent inclusion into the episcopacy.  Hilarion states “I can say with certainty that the introduction of the female episcopate excludes even a theoretical possibility for the Orthodox to recognize the apostolic continuity of the Anglican hierarchy.”

Really?  Why is that?  Take for instance, the very group Hilarion was addressing, the Nicean Club.  I assume that its members espouse the Nicene faith as an essential marker of “apostolic continuity.”  This is, after all, the origins of “apostolic succession,” that is, the ordination of men (yes, men) who held to apostolic teaching which the Church has summarized in this rather famous statement of faith.  Yet this statement says nothing, absolutely nothing, about men and women, the priesthood, or even the episcopacy.  Rather, it clarifies the bounds of faith to which all the men and women of the church commit themselves, regardless of their role in the church.

Hilarion of course continues with what is becoming the typical train of thought: women priests lead to women bishops leads to gay bishops and lesbian heads-of-church.  Putting aside this debate (sorry, for another day, year, or decade), the initial break starts when women are welcomed into ministerial service.  For Hilarion, this indicates a loss of salt and light, and these churches can only “be thrown out and trampled by men (Mt. 5:13).”  

Again I ask, how can this be?  How can what I see as a beautiful sign of the work of God in the Church, a vision I share with others such as Élisabeth Behr-Sigel and Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, be viewed as bland darkness by people who share my faith?  For me, the growing recognition of the capabilities of women to uniquely serve as leaders and teachers in the Church enriches my faith in a God who created women fully in the divine image.  A church which fails to recognize the full presence of God in and through the work of women is a church that fails to see God in them.  It seems to me an astonishing lack of faith, not a sign of faith.

Again, how can this be?  How is this man speaking as my brother in Christ?

It simply makes me sad.