Monday 2 August 2010

DIY Catholicism. San Diego

Probably only a few Catholics would recognize the Mary Magdalene Apostle Faith Community as truly “Catholic” (they most certainly are not “Roman” Catholic). Any remaining family likeness to the Roman church will be diminished even further now, after the congregation ordained a female priest Saturday.  Now read that again – the congregation ordained her. Unlike the Roman Catholic womenpriests movement, which has at least credible claims to valid apostolic succession for their bishops, which makes the ordination of their priests “valid, but not licit”, this group did not bother with  even a pretence of a bishop.

They are not simply in “dissent” from Vatican teaching, they are in open defiance. A pastor very explicitly  reminded the congregation of the Vatican’s recent dire warning on women’s ordination. I liked the response:
 Associate Pastor the Rev. Rod Stephens opened the evening with a warning: Any woman attempting to be ordained, or anyone who ordains a woman is automatically excommunicated. “Right on!” one woman cried out.
Of course, those inside the mainstream Catholic Church, and especially those in or allied with the episcopal hegemony, will simply ignore this, or dismiss it as yet another manifestation of the lunatic fringe. After all, the only valid ordinations are those authorised by the approved bishops of the Catholic Church, those in the unbroken line of apostolic succession originating with St Peter, right?

Not so fast. The “unbroken” apostolic succession is a complete myth, and whatever else one might say about this faith community, they have history on their side.

Historians (as distinct from theologians) have shown that the earliest records for the existence of bishops in the Christian church date from the second century AD – and even at this date, there does not appear to have been a bishop in Rome.

History also shows that the earliest Christian communities did not have full-time, professional clergy as we know them today. Instead, they were led by part-time volunteers, chosen by the community from among themselves. Bishops, too, were chosen by communities to serve a wider area. As the informal, volunteer ministry slowly transformed into a full time ministry as “priests”, they were still chosen from within the community – but it became the practice to have the selection and appointment formalized in a rite of ordination by the local bishop – who thereby acquired a de facto right of veto over community selections. In time, this right of veto was further transformed into an inherent monopoly of the power of selection, in one of the earliest demonstrations of how the current extraordinary level of centralized power in the church has nothing to do with Scripture or sound Christian theology, and a great deal to do with a two thousand year power grab.

With great serendipity, this report from San Diego came in the same week that Irish theologian wrote about how the Vatican’s handling of women’s ordination similarly ignored serious study of Scripture, in the interests (presumably) of simply maintaining their own patriarchal power. She points to a 1976 document on the subject as the key turning point in modern discussions, and the start of the current hard-line on even discussing the subject:  
Before the Vatican issued the document, it had asked the pontifical biblical commission to explore the biblical reasons for excluding women. Seventeen out of 17 members concluded that they could fine none. To their great credit, several members resigned in protest at the use the Vatican had made of their work.
-MARY CONDREN, in Irish Times
(On Mary Condren's analysis of the Vatican and women's ordination, also see Bill Lindsay's commentary here at Open Tabernacle)

In an exact parallel to the position concerning homosexual relationships, it is not only scripture that contradicts the Vatican stance against women’s ordination: the evidence of history, and the expanding practice in other Christian denominations with their own teams of theologians, are also against it.
Leading up to the 12th century, women served as deacons and priests and were chosen by their local church communities, said Gary Macy, a theology professor at Santa Clara University. Female priests and deacons heard confessions, preached and did the liturgy, Macy said.
Personally, while I am fascinated by the increasing number of Catholic congregations and individuals asserting their independence from Rome, and call myself “Catholic”,  not “Roman” Catholic, I do not necessarily endorse the principle of splintering as a general rule. (It might, however, be an appropriate response in some specific local circumstances). To my mind, there are great dangers in fission: where will it stop? The whole point of “Catholic” is that it is universal and inclusive (or should be). But still.
The Vatican would do well to consider that if they persist in their misguided attempts to simply impose their will in the Church by the exercise of naked power, ignoring the evidence of their own best scripture scholars and the conclusions of reputable theologians from outside their own ranks – then the Church as a whole will simply ignore them, exactly as they already do on contraception. (“Humanae Vitae” is another infamous church document that  simply ignores the conclusions of the church’s own experts, who investigated and reported on the evidence. When has the Vatican ever allowed facts to interfere in its own decisions?).
Some people are starting to call for a second Reformation. I am starting to wonder if there is any need – it may have already begun.  

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