Thursday, February 21, 2013
Like the Wildeness of the sea, by Maggi Dawn – book review
Like the Wildeness of the Sea, by Maggi Dawn, Dean at Yale University, is a sobering reflection on gender and the church, more specifically, on being a female leader in the Church of England.
It is divided into three sections. First, it surveys developments in the Church of England in relation to the ordination of women. It seems logically inconsistent that a church can appoint a person to lead as a priest, yet make ineligible to lead as a bishop. In seeking to find a way beyond the current impasse, Maggi points out that within the polity of the Church of England is “the process of reception” in which, when unity cannot be found, a decision can be made, as a nonbinding experiment, as a way of testing the consequences.
She draws in the narrative of Gamaliel in Acts (although it also sounds like the Ignatian discernment process applied corporately, in which a group makes a decision and explores it prayerfully before actioning). At this point I would have liked more of a history of times in the Church of England when this has been applied and the consequences. I would have liked some reflection on the guiding principles with regard to application. Is it applied in any situation of disagreement, or only in unique circumstances? To put the question hermeneutically, is the approach of Gamaliel in Acts descriptive or prescriptive?
Second, she outlines a theology of waiting, as a spiritual discipline embedded in the life and liturgy of the church. She argues persuasively that waiting includes times when God waits for us to act. She mounts a cultural critique of English ‘niceness’ and the damage done when truth and justice are smothered in platitudes. In other words, at times waiting is the most sinful response to a situation of injustice.
Third, it tells a story, of being a woman in ministry. It is a story Maggi Dawn is eminently suited to write, being one of the first woman priests to train in the Church of England. It is harrowing to read, a story of a church that has found ways to behave badly, in deeply sexist patterns, and the damage this has, and is, causing. It made me ashamed to be a male and should mean some corporate Anglican work at Colleges and denominationally on safe workplace environments. One result is the loss of enormously gifted people from the church and the reduction of the full flourishing, both of individuals and churches. The body of Christ is being harmed.
It is wonderfully written, concise and cohesive. It moves smoothly between theology, literature, spirituality and experience. The title is a case in point, elegantly referencing the books key interpretive metaphor, the struggles in the Church of England, place in Maggi’s sense of call and her current location. It is very classy writing.
In one sense the audience is very limited – English Anglicans. Yet in the particularity of the narrative is an example and a warning that makes it worthwhile reading for anyone. A warning of the damage that happens when a part of the body is not honoured. This could be an angry book and that would be reasonable. Yet there is compassion for those who have caused damage, a passion for a broadly diverse church, a theological depth and rigour and a clear prophetic call to action. (Surely qualities needed for a bishop in the Church of England today). Hence it also becomes an example of how to write, how to speak for justice and write for truth. In that regard, I will be adding it to student reading lists in the area of ministry and giving it to male ministers.
Finally, it is an intriguing example of swift and contemporary theological reflection, with the book published some three months after the 2012 synod decision. Fast work, quality work, Maggi and Dalton, Longman, Todd.