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December 2002

 

To blaspheme is to mock God, and "God is not mocked."

BLASPHEMY IN BRISTOL

CHRISTOPHER WARREN

On Tuesday 1st October 2002 the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul in Clifton, Bristol, played host to a magnificent demonstration of how far our bishops and priests are prepared to travel in the name of ecumenism, political correctness and (witting or unwitting) pro-feminist cant. His Excellency Bishop Declan Lang - scarcely one year in office - threw open the doors of his episcopal seat to a glitzy array of women vicars, women ministers, women spirit-dancers; women, in short, from every walk of "religious life" (although very few nuns - none recognisably so). The peak of this pan-feminist parade was the presence, and sermonising from the cathedral pulpit, of the female "bishop" of Hanover, Dr Margot Kaessman. It had to be seen to be believed.

Sexagenarian rebels dressed up
To begin, however, at the beginning. The invitation from the Lord Mayor of Bristol to "Celebrate!" the ministry of women in the world and the church (a significant order of words, perhaps) specified that those attending were to be in their seats by 7.15pm. Interested in how the event was to be set up, your intrepid reporter arrived at 6.45pm, and took up station near the back but with a good view down the side aisle of proceedings in the sanctuary. Clifton Cathedral's vast, bare concrete interior relieved only by those infamous Stations of the Cross around the back - was bathed in a warm, Mother Earth light, intended no doubt to make the space feel more womb-like than it already was.

Some sixty or seventy people were already there when I arrived - including a small posse of ladies by the main entrance, with banners demanding the end of celibacy in the priesthood, the end of male hegemony of the priesthood, and probably the end of the priesthood period, if I had asked. Inside, a large number of official-looking women wandered freely around the sanctuary - the Blessed Sacrament chapel had been roped off and plunged in darkness, in case you were wondering - inspecting the large slab-like altar, covered with a cloth and equipped with seven or so candles, of which more later, and the pulpit, which had been decked out for the occasion in what I took to be Joseph's Amazing TechnicolorTM Dreamcoat, so vivid was the rainbow display of scarves swathed around the lectern. The proportion of women to men was 9:1 against, whilst the average age of those present must have been somewhere in the 60-65 bracket. Children of the revolution, I mused.

By 7pm, there were about 150 people inside the cathedral. I took time to look at the curious patchwork quilt hanging above the lectern: set against a purple background, it was made up of one hundred squares depicting tapestry rainbows, trees, moons, animals and plants - and, just for balance, one Cross, figureless and lost in its surroundings. Various dignitaries started arriving, bedecked in gold chains and medals, anxious to show Establishment backing for the spectacle... I counted up the number of women I could espy in fancy dress, sporting Roman collars: by 7.10pm there were some sixty or seventy. It struck me as odd that, just as the old priests decided to cast off the collar as a symbol, in their eyes, of oppression and division, so the new priestesses have picked them up, anxious to ape their male counterparts as closely as possible, without noticing that few of the men wear them any more.

Heinz 57 in an 'Assisi arc'
The service started in best ecumenical fashion with an entry of representatives from some of the Heinz 57 varieties of "churches" in the diocese - the URC minister, the Methodist minister, the Baptist minister, the Lutheran bishop (all women), the Anglican bishop of Bristol - and finally our own Bishop Lang in violet choir dress. They took their seat in an "Assisi arc" on the sanctuary, no distinction between the true episcopal successor of the apostles and the schismatic and heretical ministers of the other "churches." Bishop Lang opened the proceedings with a speech of welcome, expressing the now obligatory desire to "be united with out Fellow Christians," and acknowledging the indispensable contribution of women in the Church. This he backed up with a quotation from the Holy Father's Mulieris Dignitatem [On the Dignity of Women] of 1988, mentioning "the personal dignity of women"[#5]. Not once, however, did the bishop draw attention to the supernatural dignity of The Woman, Our Blessed Lady.

After a hymn which encouraged us to sing "...justice, once so long denied,/restore to all their dignity and pride," of which Fay Weldon would have been proud, the Anglican Bishop Barry Rogerson rose to conduct a prayer of thanksgiving. He at least mentioned Our Lady as Mary, Disciple and Mother. He went on, however, to add words of praise about women as leader in Church (not the Church).

He was followed by a large Afro-Caribbean gospel choir, backed by a small R&B band on one side, who had the audience - not a congregation, surely! - swaying by Verse 2 and clapping by Verse 3. It was as if they couldn't wait to let themselves go. But I did notice, among some of those around me, a certain air of resignation. Was it true Charismatic fervour whipping up all these people? Or a certain fear of standing out? In the words of Cardinal Ottaviani, said of the bishops at Vatican II, "They are afraid of looking old." The majority of the audience were still, by and large, well past forty and many of them past sixty.

After the all-singing, swaying, clapping experience had died away, a liturgical dance entitled "Spirit Weaving" was performed by three ladies billed as the Christian Dancers of Bristol who, clad in black and wearing bright red, gold and silvers sashes, wafted around the sanctuary, waving red, gold and silver flags in very meaningful directions, all to the backing of a solo female singer, plaintively warbling away. The effect all this might have had on me was marred by the thought that they resembled nothing so much as a Pan's People reunion group who had decided that, due to considerations of age and dignity, a little light banner-swishing was all they could manage. Of course, the effect of the dance was alien to true Catholicism - but then so was the effect of the whole. If this was "Spirit Weaving," I should not have been in the least surprised to have found the Spirit had woven itself into a large, untidy antimacassar as a result.

Testimonial tears
Next came the testimonies. An exceptionally exotic looking black lady stood up to praise women's individuality and independent equality. A female Canon of Bristol Cathedral spoke on women's life in ministry, pastoral work in the co-op queue, the ever-ringing phone, "and all," she said, to a bout of laughter from the knowing audience, "without the help of a vicar's wife!" Catholic pastors managed perfectly well for two thousand years, I thought ruefully. She spoke of the joy of being "paid to pray," of "only working on a Sunday," and then, rather ominously, she mentioned "the pain of betrayal from unexpected sources." A collective hum of mutual empathy ran through the audience. Another lady took her place to praise the work of the anonymous village busybody, who arranges flowers, takes collections, and "oils the wheels of ministry" by passing information on to those who need it. Another lady, a Crown Prosecutor, spoke of the difficulties she felt in judging others. A charity worker lauded the work of female charity workers across the country before comparing herself to Winnie the Pooh being "a bear of very little brain." A female officer, from Queen Mary's Nursing Corps, then spoke of her work in Sierra Leone, being a mother separated from her child, a woman in a military man's world. The last speaker told a story about her leading an all-female ex-tempore Bible service in a Philippine fishing village. It ended with them all in tears, which she said was the best example of "a woman sharing her thoughts." Hmm.

Each of these speakers, as they left the sanctuary, lit a candle on the main altar. A brief flash of recognition hit home as it struck me that Novus Ordo candles are no easier to light than Traditional ones... All this was followed immediately by a disembodied woman' s voice reading a heavily altered Magnificat, which started "The birthing of the ordinary revolution," and ended "the handmaid of the Lord, in her own shaft of light stands tall and empowered [my emphasis], breaking each day in community the 25p sliced bread of life." This appeared to be likening the Most Sacred Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord in the Holy Eucharist to the morning crust at breakfast.

Blathering "bishopess"
Next, a tall lady dressed all in red and wearing a gold chain - I gather she was a council official, but the effect was that of Cardinal Roger Mahoney - read from Mark 16: 1-8 [NIV], the discovery of the empty tomb by Mary Magdalene, Mary and Salome. Dr. Kaessman, the female Lutheran "bishop," now took the pulpit to deliver her sermon on this text. She was dressed in a tailored black cassock, with white bands in the old Protestant style. She elaborated, in her sermon, on the words "go and tell his disciples and Peter" (v.7), which she explained was a mandate for women to preach (and even expostulated that, as women had been issued with this command before men, women had the prior claim on the pulpit). She spoke of how the three Holy Women together symbolised women's solidarity, of how it was symbolic that it was women, as Christ's most loyal followers, who had come to anoint His Body, of the symbolism of the empty tomb as the emptiness in many women's lives. (I was reminded of the old story of a schoolboy who, when questioned why Our Lord first appeared after His Resurrection to women, made answer that "Our Lord knew the fastest way to spread gossip.")

The Lutheran Church, we were reminded, now has four women bishops, and one quarter of its ministers are women, That this should be announced before the Catholic bishop with an air of pride shows how little the meaning of true ecumenism is understood. Pope Paul VI did indeed warn Archbishop Coggan of Canterbury in the 1970s that if the Anglican Church ever ordained priestesses, it would render all possibility of reunion effectively null and void. Yet here, in Bristol, in 1994, the Church of England took that step. It was Bishop Barry Rogerson, now sitting here, gleefully, in this Catholic Cathedral, who eight years ago laid hands on thirty-two women in the Anglican Cathedral, barely one mile away. And it was Bishop Lang who decided to resurrect it all here in Clifton this night.

Political intent
The location of this service here in the Catholic Cathedral, rather than the more appropriate Anglican Cathedral, was not without political import, however. One hundred yards up the road from Clifton Cathedral is the Anglo-Catholic Church of All Saints, which has for the last eight years been so steadfast in its belief in the male-only priesthood, and therefore such a thorn in the flesh of the pro-feminist Bishop Rogerson, that it refuses to allow him to confirm there, and will have nothing to do with the new wave of priestesses. This service, therefore, had a double intention: a poke in the eye for the steadfast Anglo-Catholics, and a slap in the face for the intransigent Roman Catholics. (No mention was made, either, of Pope John Paul II's Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which made clear that ordination was reserved to men alone.)

The intercessions which followed Bishop Kaessman's sermon were the usual mixture of warmed over socialist, feminist and liberal catchwords, covering every eventuality except that of increasing vocations to the priesthood among men. The whole "Celebrate!" event came to a climactic end when a last hymn was sung entitled "All the trees of the field shall clap their hands," which, besides being literally dubious, sounded like a show-stopper song from a modern musical and aroused much audience participation in the form of clapping, swaying, etc. Twelve women with a multitude of coloured flags took up position in a large semi-circle behind the sanctuary and waved them around to the music; a group of school girls performed various running-jumping-standing-still exercises in front of the altar, and the whole thing came to a big finish just as the assembled dignitaries processed out. It was all very odd.

Bishop Lang's abomination
Later on, as I recovered my sense of faith and piety over a stiff whisky, I was puzzled by several things, not least the blindness of the Catholic Bishop. Bishop Lang has only been in office, just over a year, so he may be forgiven a certain greenness yet, but before his consecration he was a diocesan administrator, so he must have known what message was being sent out to those such as the nearby Anglo-Catholics: don't bother fulfilling your faith, saving your soul and coming to us to become true Catholics, as we're just as bad as the lot you're trying to escape from! In terms of publicity, just about everyone benefited (benefited, that is, in each others eyes: Novus Ordo-ism is a creed common to nearly all churches today). Bishop Lang looked ecumenical, Bishop Rogerson looked vindicated, Bishop Kaessman looked in control, and everyone else looked as if this was what they had all been waiting for so many years.

It was a simultaneously dispiriting and puzzling experience: on the one hand, yes, it was an abomination for a Catholic cathedral and a Catholic bishop to permit such a wilful demonstration in favour of something Rome has specifically outlawed - it would be equivalent to Westminster Cathedral holding a Mass of Thanksgiving for the work of the Marie Stopes Foundation. Yet I was intrigued to realise that the majority of people attending were all of a common type: well-dressed, well-spoken, well-educated, and old enough to have been in the first wave of Vatican II revolutionaries. These were the young Catholics of the 1950s and 1960s who were the willing and unwilling accomplices of the Teilhard de Chardins, Bugninis and Kungs in their efforts to destroy all notions of the One, Holy, Roman, Catholic and Apostolic Church. They are, in a sense, even more to blame than later generations will be for the destruction of the Church: they had the benefit of true Catholic upbringings, and they turned their backs on it in pursuit of false prophets.

But at least they have memories of how things were once, and should be still. I spoke with one old lady outside afterwards, before I plunged into the rain. "Rather different from the days of Pius XII and the Old Pro." (The old Catholic Pro-Cathedral of the Apostles which now lies, abandoned and decaying, a few hundred yards away). "Yes," she said, "but that was the old days. Now we're all so much more empowered." That word again. Well, I suppose possessing a gun empowers one to shoot oneself.

May Our Blessed Lady, Mother of God and supreme model of womanhood, instil in the hearts of men and women everywhere a truer appreciation of the unique role Our heavenly Father intends for us, and may Our Lord grant us many holy priests to do His work and carry His message far and wide, and many religious vocations to assist them. Amen.

The author is a student at Bristol University