Sunday, 5 August 2012

Sacramental Assurance and Risk Taking

One of the recurring themes of the opposition to women's ordination is the element of doubt versus assurance. The arguments vary, but a common theme is that it is unclear whether women should (or can) really be ordained, and so it is unclear whether, when an ordained woman is functioning as a priest or bishop, anything is actually happening. So the elements at Holy Communion might not really become Christ's body and blood if the service is presided over by a woman. A priest might not be really ordained if the ordination is done by a woman. God has promised the church that he will work through the sacraments, and our confidence in our salvation is rooted in that promise. So why mess about with it? The point is not that women definitely can't be ordained, but that it is uncertain. And why would we introduce an unnecessary element of uncertainty?  

Proponents of women's ordination, myself included, have usually responded to this sort of argument by simply ridiculing the idea that women can't be ordained. My own response has been mainly along the lines that I don't think there is a fundamental distinction between men and women in relation to God, and so a false category distinction is being imposed (male and female he created them, Galatians,etc: see previous blog posts!).

But the more I think about it, the more I wonder whether an equally fundamental issue is with the very concept of assurance itself.

A second recurring theme I've been hearing recently is one of risk taking, 'ministerial entrepreneurship' in one inelegant phrase. The parish profile for my new job asked, among other things, for 'a prayerful risk taker'. My unscientific sampling of various job adverts and parish profiles suggests that this sort of language is becoming much more common in the church.  Certainly in Durham diocese, one of the things that is impressing us and exciting us about our new bishop is his risk taking vision. He impresses on us that failure is OK, because the only real failure is not to try at all. It is better than to try and fail, and try again, than to simply stagnate. The parable of the talents comes to mind (though I would have loved Jesus to have included an example of someone who invested 7 talents but lost them all due to changed market conditions, or bad weather...).

This strikes a chord with me. My father was a maths teacher, and one of the things I remember very strongly from my childhood was him impressing on me that mistakes were good. Making mistakes is how mathematicians learn. The better a mathematician you are, the more mistakes you will make, because the more things you will try - and that's how you will make new discoveries. Every mistake is a learning opportunity. The same is true of safety in industry; not that accidents or near-misses are good, but that they are opportunities to learn and make things safer.

But if risk taking is good - if risk taking is Godly, as the parable would seem to imply - then is sacramental assurance something to be desired and supported? How Godly is a desire for certainty?

Synod papers discussing the women bishops legislation repeatedly use the phrase 'necessary but not sufficient'. We are told that for some, the maleness of their priest or bishop is  necessary but not sufficient - to really feel safe, they might need a man who has been ordained by a man, or even by a man who has never participated in or supported women's ordination. This is to give 'sacramental assurance' - the feeling of certainty that the sacraments they are getting are real sacraments. Women's ordination, because it introduces an element of uncertainty, is seen as something that it is valid to want to avoid, since certainty is a good thing.

But I wonder if in fact we should embrace women's ordination precisely because it might involve an additional element of uncertainty?

This would give us the opportunity to demonstrate that we trust in God, and in his promises, without feeling that their efficacy depends on us getting it right.

The closest parallel I can think of historically is with infant baptism. In the Reformation period the practice of baptising babies was hotly contested by some radical reformers. This was because the biblical evidence for the practice is limited at best, and because it was felt that baptising babies risked endorsing the Roman Catholic economy of salvation, in which church ceremonies were necessary for salvation, not merely personal faith.

However, the mainstream reformers consistently resisted this argument. For Luther, Calvin and others, infant baptism was crucial. This was partly because it fitted into their city-state view of Christendom, that the membership of the church was the same as the membership of the community. But it was also - and this is particularly clear in Luther - because baptising babies symbolised very clearly that faith itself was a gift of God, entirely undeserved, not something we work to achieve.

The sacraments are not a magical incantation that need to be done by the right person in the right way to 'work'. Instead, they are God's free gift to humanity, and always depend on God's grace. It is indeed reassuring to think that God has promised to work through them; but that reassurance shouldn't tempt us into thinking that the church and church tradition has tamed and controlled Gods grace and power, and now has a monopoly on it. One recent letter to the Times used the image of electricity to describe the charism of ordination, and claimed that inserting a woman into the chain was like inserting an insulator into an electric circuit; the electricity simply couldn't flow through her. How sad, and how dangerously limiting, to think of God's saving grace as being constrained to only flow in certain pre-approved channels! If ordaining women challenges such a heresy, then all the more reason to do it.

No, we might not be sure it will 'work'. That's faith for you.

1 comment:

  1. "Sacramental assurance" was also the argument I was taught in seminary. However, there are many counter-examples of "sacramental dis-assurance". For example, at one point, in England, the triple immersion/infusion of Baptism was replaced by single infusion. Therefore, those who still keep that argument of "sacramental assurance" would first doubt of their own baptism first.