Phyllis Chesler Interviews Carol Gould

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This Anglican Schism is Medieval
Last uploaded : Thursday 17th Jul 2008 at 00:24
Contributed by : Carol Gould



First, let us get something clear: it is stated in Leviticus that sodomy is an abomination.

Second, let us have clarity on the subject of women in the clergy: it just ain’t right and proper in the traditional Muslim, Jewish or Christian faiths.

Now, let us come into the twenty-first century and more specifically into America, where -- despite bleatings by liberals that the U S of A is the cesspit of Evangelism, misogyny, racism, reactionary homophobia and Intelligent Design -- women bishops and gay clergy proliferate like daisies in Potter’s Field. Then take the issues presently rocking the worldwide Anglican Communion and look at the evolution of change in Judaism. The societal context in which Gene Robinson was elevated to Bishop has to be understood in order to comprehend the present rift. Both the Jewish and Christian traditions in North America have galvanised each other into making enormous strides in gender inclusiveness and sexuality, notwithstanding the absurd belief in this country that all of America’s religious climate is reactionary. Who exactly are the reactionaries in the present crisis? Doh?

I grew up in a Jewish environment but have spent most of my life studying the Christian faith and cherishing my many non-Jewish friends, not to mention the Anglican I married. I trust this will dispel any accusations of chutzpah when I pontificate on the subject of the current schism, the one with a capital S.

Let’s start with poor Archbishop Rowan, who gets a pretty raw deal from everyone and who does not escape my wrath in my upcoming book, ‘Don’t Tread on Me.’ I was cross with him for joining the ‘let’s bash the Yanks’ crowd last December in ‘Emel’ magazine, accusing Americans of being possessed by feelings of ‘chosenness,’ amongst other misdemeanours. I was infuriated. But now I am apoplectic. It is utterly disgraceful that the Archbishop of Canterbury has not welcomed Bishop Gene Robinson to the Lambeth Conference. It is tragic to see a great movement being riven in two when the Anglican Church is in crisis from something I consider infinitely more worrying than gay Bishops: the absence of worshippers on Sundays in our green and pleasant land. The Archbishop of Canterbury is pulled in every direction, most particularly by the homophobic African Church, when in fact that community ought to be addressing the proliferation of AIDS by heterosexual men, an affliction that is decimating a continent. Is this of less urgency than the elevation of Gene Robinson and consecration of Elizabeth Schori as head of the Episcopal Church?

Conversely the Jewish community thrives despite its own internecine squabbles, its Progressive wing having embraced gender-inclusive language and even literature by non-Jews in its prayer books. Progressive Jews make up 85% of the American community and their synagogues, community centres and charitable institutions flourish from the mighty metropolises to the villages of the prairie, unlike our decaying Anglican churches.

Thousands of Progressive straight and gay male and female rabbis pepper the landscape across North America. Twenty years ago an openly gay Reconstructionist senior rabbi officiated at my mother’s funeral.

Let us look at the Jewish context. The first woman to be ordained a rabbi was Regina Jonas. It is thought she had an unofficial ordination in the 1930s but it is evident that in 1942 her ceremony was performed by Rabbi Dr Leo Baeck in Theresienstadt concentration camp before she was deported to Auschwitz. She had sustained the remnants of the soon-to-be annihilated and rabbi-less community of Oranienburgerstrasse synagogue in Berlin for many years until the very last Jews were exterminated. Strictly speaking -- and I fully understand that is what this monumental rift is all about -- orthodox Judaism does not countenance the ordination of women nor does it accept homosexuality. Leviticus puts it in a nutshell. Anne Widdicombe made sure we remembered that when she went to Rome.

But which Jewish denomination is the most powerful and numerous in the world? It is the Progressive movement in the USA and Canada. In North America there are gay, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and female rabbis, many of whom could be classed as Biblical scholars. Since Sally Preisand became the first woman to be ordained since Regina Jonas, scores of women have entered the rabbinate. The Reform movement in the United States has overtaken the Conservative movement in power and influence. Indeed even here in predominantly Orthodox Britain, Baroness Rabbi Julia Neuberger sits in the House of Lords breathing the same air as those Anglican Bishops. Great Britain broke ground with women rabbis leading congregations, as did Jackie Tabick upon the passing of Rabbi Hugo Gryn and as do Eli Sarah, Sheila Shulman, Janet Burden and Alexandra Wright.

So, the Jews have what I like to call a Bishop-level woman in Baroness Neuberger, and so will Anglicans. It is long overdue and screams are being heard but this passion is misplaced: instead of sending death threats to Gene Robinson when he visits these shores and despairing of Elizabeth Schori‘s elevation, grown-up British Anglicans should be sending our knife-wielding children to church. In the 1970s and 80s the African American churches made a concerted effort to bring inner city youth into church activities and this transformed their lives. Here, the church should be doing the same and not tearing itself apart over a turbulent priest from New Hampshire.

Go any Sunday to a church in the United States and you will find packed pews. In Britain empty churches are rotting and many of those in use have a woeful attendance. In my sophisticated section of Washington DC, known for its large gay community, a dynamic and inspiring Rector, Susan Blue, leads a vibrant congregation, St Margaret’s Connecticut Avenue. Herself a grandmother, she serves every sector of society. Her church’s homeless shelter, ‘Charlie’s Place,’ is there with a hot breakfast from the crack of dawn for anyone hungry and of no fixed address.

On any given Sunday Washington families and a huge gay community fill pews alongside one another. Sometimes a guest Bishop addresses the congregation, and that Bishop is often female. These are not Evangelicals but artists and actors and historians and architects who voted for Al Gore and John Kerry but all of whom sing to the Glory of God. My fellow Philadelphian, the delightfully witty Bishop Barbara Harris of Washington DC is a brilliant orator and an inspiring leader of the African-American community. Bishop Gene Robinson is, well … let us come to him in a moment. If British Anglicans are going to expend energy on something, what about getting the populace back into the pews instead of railing against a homosexual Bishop?

Christians will shout that a journalist raised in a Jewish environment could not possibly understand this complex rift, so here is my response: on the issue of female Bishops it is clear to me that in the earliest days of the church in Paul’s ministry women were not subjugated: Lydia converted everyone in her Philippi bungalow. Brave and gallant Phoebe was called a ‘diakanos’ -- interpreted as ‘deacon’ and gave succour to Paul. Yes, to a committed and traditional Anglican and, for that matter, Roman Catholic, God the Father cannot be an ordained woman because Corinthians 11, for example, makes it clear that Christ and God are the icons a man will worship, and women are not in the equation unless they are worshipping their husbands. Though the concept of Transubstantiation -- the transformation of the Host to Christ’s body and the wine to his blood -- is indeed a troublesome concept to even the most conservative of Christians, millions will say without equivocation that a woman should not administer the Eucharist. Yes, in Judaism a rabbi is not considered the embodiment of God and it will upset many that I am trying to equate the women Bishops and Gene Robinson issues with the ordination and elevation of female and gay rabbis, some of whom rank as gaonim ( great Biblical scholars.) But Judaism has adapted to a changing world and so should the Anglican Church.

The Synod has accepted that there will be women Bishops but the consternation in the social discourse this past few days has been nothing short of medieval. Thousands defecting to Rome! Do me a favour.

Without question the Jewish community has itself been riven by crises. Jews of all denominations were incandescent with rage over the absence of Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks from the funeral of Rabbi Hugo Gryn, followed by his denunciation of Gryn, an Auschwitz survivor, as a ‘destroyer of the faith’ in a letter to Dayan Chanoch Padwa. An issue that exercised the strictest adherents to the faith was the ‘Louis Jacobs Affair:’ this great Anglo-Jewish scholar of the 1960s questioned the divine derivation of Scripture, resulted in a rift and the formation of a breakaway tradition, the Masorti. Some say Rabbi Jacobs was not anointed Chief Rabbi because of his beliefs. But the community thrives and near the end of his life he was named ‘The Greatest Anglo-Jew of all time’ by readers of the Jewish Chronicle, the newspaper that had made such a fuss over his unorthodox views forty years before. (Somehow I cannot envisage Gene Robinson being named Christian of the Year anytime soon.)

Then comes the issue of gay Bishops. Here in the United Kingdom the celebrated rabbi, Lionel Blue, is comfortable with his sexual identity and has been much loved by thousands of listeners on BBC Radio. The Jews -- albeit liberal -- are light years ahead of the Christians in accepting all manner of clergy. We could learn a lot from liberal Jews here and in the USA, who have accepted learned gay rabbis like Mark Solomon and the aforementioned Elizabeth Tikveh Sarah, who are 'out' whilst leading congregations.

Yes, I appreciate that the Incarnation is the central issue of ordination of women. I appreciate that decent Christians -- and Jews -- across the globe wish to adhere to the commandments of Leviticus. I appreciate that to many people of faith, including a woman who railed at me at a recent local committee meeting about ‘you Americans ruining the Church,’ the ordination of gay Bishop Gene Robinson and the elevation of Bishop Elizabeth Schori as head of the Episcopal Church were the collective last straw. The reality is that the world is trying to move in less reactionary directions; this is evident with the huge popularity of Barack Obama in an America that a generation ago was aiming fire hoses at black citizens.

For thirty-three years I have been given the low-down from British colleagues and acquaintances about the thoroughly reactionary nature of America, and yet the one place that has long-ago established the advancement of women and homosexuals in the Christian Church and in the Jewish community is the good old USA. In fact, those ‘folks’ who love to tell me that Bush Junior has established a police state might like to reflect on the fact that he has never done anything to stop Gene Robinson from becoming a Bishop and being joined in a church ceremony with his male partner, nor has the so-called reactionary President intervened to reverse the ordination at nearby Washington National Cathedral of the aforementioned Bishop Elizabeth Schori as head of the enormous Episcopal Communion.

Might this schism even be a manifestation of inverted anti-Americanism? Had Bush and the religious right stopped Gene Robinson from being ordained, let alone be elevated to Bishop, and had American Episcopalians stopped Elizabeth Schori from being made head of the church might the liberals in London have invited them to preach here and invited them onto ‘Newsnight?’ Had Schori and Robinson been oppressed from all directions to the point of leaving America, would there not have been invitations to the Hay Festival where Bush-haters would have blamed him on their exclusion?

In actual fact the progress made by Schori and Robinson and by the large Progressive Jewish movement in the United States and its smaller cousins in Britain are a tribute to the true liberalism at the core of the human spirit. It is a spirit that in America rose up and saw Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon routed without a bloody revolution, and that sees a black man heading for the White House. Rowan Williams, I know you are a liberal to the core of your being: show a bit of chutzpah and welcome Gene Robinson. He is your brother in Christ and deserves the dignity his brothers and sisters in America have afforded him through days of light and through his present days of darkness.

Carol Gould’s new book, ‘Don’t Tread on Me -- anti-Americanism Abroad’ is to be published in the UK and USA in October and her novel about women pilots, ‘Spitfire Girls’ is to be re-released in 2009 to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the declaration of war.

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