Friday, 3 December 2010

Supper with von Balthasar

Bishop James Bell (the Bishop of Knaresborough) delivered a most thought-provoking Advent lecture entitled 'Church, Ministry and Gender' on St Andrew's day. One of his themes was that the church should be corporately (not individualistically) figured (shaped, imprinted) by Christ and that ministry is essentially about building up the church so that 'the Christ-form is more fully planted in the ecclesial body'. Humility, service, and a diverse church that is, among other things, 'multi gendered', and using the gifts of all its members are the keys to this. Well, 'Amen' to that!

published, Blackwell 1997 - a useful reference tome!

Much of what Bishop James said about the sacramentality of the church was based on the writings of Hans Urs von Balthasar, so this sent me to re-acquaint myself with this unusual (for his context and time) catholic theologian. He was not an academic but a devout churchman and priest (he died a few days before he was to be made cardinal in 1988). He was influenced by friends in the literary world and especially by his friendship with Adrienne von Speyr, a doctor and mystic. Together, they set up a religious order. The sources on which he drew for inspiration were very wide. On the one hand, he was immersed in the Johannine and Ignatian traditions (he was a Jesuit for a while). On the other, a questioning of Thomas Aquinas' doctrine of grace and nature led him to a friendship with Karl Barth and serious engagement with Barth's work on analogy and revelation. His own theology was wide ranging but, despite sounding radical and open to  the new, there is a curiously conservative streak to it. To take one example which relates  to gender, in his work on the incarnation, he speaks of the analogy between the Divine emptying out of self and the receptivity of Mary in ways that suggest the Creator-creature relationship is replicated in the male-female relationship. (Not a million miles from Barth's 'man is to woman as A is to B..') It is not therefore surprising to find that he pronounced against the ordination of women, just as he, more famously, pronounced against Rahner's notion of 'anonymous Christians' and some of Kung and Schillebeekx' more progressive ideas.

Bishop James, in his lecture, talked about the ordination of women as being an example of what St Vicent of Lorins called 'development of faith, not alteration.' He cited 1 Peter 2 where there is no gender differentiation in the 'royal priesthood' and spoke of the deep significance of women in Jesus' ministry, suggesting a gender diversity at the heart of Christ-shaped community. It seems to me that, however much we protest that the diversity of human nature is taken up and shaped into a new kind of community in Christ, women are always going to be viewed as theologically problematical unless we move away from understandings of the Creator God that allow 'God' to be accessed primarily or exclusively through male metaphor and analogy. Bishop James addressed this briefly at the end of his lecture by quoting Genesis 1.27 'so God created humankind in His image...male and female He created them'.  The work of uncovering the riches of female as well as male imagery for God, the Creator, sits alongside anything we can say about Christ and therefore about the church because, unless we see that Christ was revealing the glory of a multi-gendered (to use Bishop James' phrase) God, we will always see Christ-shaped inclusion of women as somehow being a culturally-relative concession to women - and that is where we get into discussions of 'rights'. I agree with Bishop James in thinking that gender debates are not about rights but about a true understanding of sacramentality. 'Rights' necessarily come in where a skewed understanding of the sacramentality of life-in-the-image-of-God allows some persons to be badly treated or harmed. It is theologies that fail to see the appropriateness of female as well as male imagery for God that are responsible for many of the ways in which women have been or are harmed. 

Thank you to Bishop James for a most interesting, stimulating and challenging lecture - there aren't many people who could get me reading von Balthasar over my supper!  Please can we have more lectures like this - and more debate?   

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