That most underrated American James Durante once complained he was so hard pressed that if anything happened to him he wouldn’t be able to worry about it for two weeks. If you, too, dear reader, are currently booked up solid with worries, be warned: this is a somber column. If you don’t like the idea, skip all but the final few lines.
First, some forthright remarks about the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity were uttered by Bishop Patrick Rodger of Manchester. As one would expect from the fifty-seven-year-old Scot who so nearly became WCC general secretary in 1966, the bishop said it would be better not to pray for unity at all unless we think we have some part to play in bringing about the answer to prayer.
In another area, however, the bishop has shown himself opposed to courageous activity. Last fall he censured one of his clergy for allowing an American woman priest, the Reverend Alison Palmer, to celebrate communion in a parish church. Last month the same vicar again broke the rules by making his deaconess wife a concelebrant at communion.
Deaconess Phoebe Willetts has now told why, in an article carried by the church newsletter. She revealed that she is dying of cancer, and she spoke of her attempt during the past decade to discover what it meant to be a woman parish priest (though she cannot be so ordained). She had realized that “women must wake up and stretch themselves to discover their identity in Christ, and stop being what men expect them to be.”
Women, she continued, must learn to love men enough to stand up to them and challenge their way of running the church and the world. The feminine side of human nature was the missing element in the Church (of England), and that was why it was “so hopelessly defective.” No man, declared Deaconess Willetts, could take from her the belief that Jesus Christ had ordained her to be a priest: “a male dominated Church cannot be the people of God, for an apartheid religious institution is disobedient to the will of God and is not the Church for which Christ died.” She concluded her article: “So goodbye, dear brothers and sisters. I bequeath to you my vision of a new Church that you must bring to birth for me.”
Bishop Rodger is quoted as saying that “no Christian … would wish to make harsh judgments” on what was probably “Mrs. Willetts’s farewell service,” but he adds: “Mr. and Mrs. Willetts are well aware that their action was unlawful, and that it is bound to cause distress and perplexity to a good many of their fellow-Anglicans.”
Soon afterwards Cardinal Hume of Westminster, addressing the Church of England general synod, courteously but firmly indicated that if Anglicans did ordain women it would do nothing to help toward unity with Rome, Orthodoxy, or Old Catholics. Like Bishop Rodger, the cardinal regards a divided Christendom as a scandal that diminished the credibility of Christ’s message to the world. He did list four areas in which the Church’s voice ought to be heard: human dignity, race relations, pornography, and disarmament.
Another Roman Catholic leader, Archbishop Thomas Fee, primate of All Ireland, found himself in trouble for urging Britain’s withdrawal from Northern Ireland. Said an editorial in the (Anglican) Church of Ireland’s official publication: “Many Protestant clergy and people who have worked for Christian unity in the most unfavourable of circumstances in Northern Ireland are today disheartened, sickened, saddened and appalled at the Roman Catholic Primate’s ill-considered intervention.” By doing this, according to the editorial, he had played into the hands of Ian Paisley. Dr. Fee, it should be explained, had made no secret of his Republican sympathies since his appointment last year.
His intervention proved also to be illtimed, for subsequently a Protestant father and his ten-year-old daughter were killed, and his young son seriously injured, by an IRA car bomb. Archbishop Fee was among those voicing public condemnation. Generally the dreadful carnage continues in that unquiet province. Only a few days ago a Protestant driver and seven Catholic pupils escaped when another bomb, attached to their bus, fell off and exploded harmlessly in the road.
An insidious and growing influence on the English scene was spotlighted when twenty members of the anti-immigration National Front tried to disrupt an ecumenical meeting in a multi-racial area. They shouted abuse at the speaker, a local vicar, read political slogans during a period of private prayer, and even made a mock prayer of their own. “No one who was present,” said the vicar, Dr. David Bronnert, a well known evangelical, “could fail to see the evils of racial hatred in contrast with the gospel of God’s love for people of all races.”
In Scotland there are gloomy notes too (I’m getting them all out of my system at once). It is disclosed that over one-third of Kirk members do not bother to take communion at least once a year, that only 13,000 new members join each year while some 20,000 lapse and another 20,000 die, and that membership for the first time has slumped below the million mark. The average offering per member is less than fifty cents a week.
The Church of Scotland general assembly this year will be discussing a proposed union with the country’s 10,000 Methodists. This has brought an unexpectedly bitter attack from the London-based Methodist Recorder, which not so long ago was strongly encouraging the (abortive) Methodist union with the Church of England. Sample sentence: “Methodism has more to do in Scotland than lose itself in the stultifying, sixteenth-century, presbyterian, Calvinistic Church of Scotland.” That editor evidently does not know modern Scotland very well!
The merger is opposed within the Kirk too, where a strongly Presbyterian group says that it would “destroy the Church of Scotland as we know it and as our forefathers fashioned it with such energy and at such cost.” Glasgow minister Johnston McKay, who edits his presbytery’s monthly newspaper and believes that union should begin locally, puts it graphically to the outrage of the establishment: “This is one man’s voice hopefully starting a concerted shout in the direction of the supporters of organic unity: get lost.”
There we are—a fair selection of current religious thinking in our islands, and a fair reflection of human inanity. It depressed me when I read it over; then it sent me to check on something William Temple had said about the sovereignty of God. Here it is: “While we deliberate, He reigns; when we decide wisely, He reigns; when we decide foolishly, He reigns; when we serve Him self-assertively, He reigns; when we rebel and seek to withhold our service, He reigns—the Alpha and the Omega which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.”
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