Amazing Grace: Sarah Coakley on women priests and same sex marriage.

The New Asceticism: Sexuality, Gender and the Quest for God

Sarah Coakley, Bloomsbury, 2015


This is a remarkable and important book.

Despite its importance and significance to the lives and well-being of many people it is hard not to feel profoundly wearied, even bored, by the endless Anglican debates about same-sex relationships. Sarah Coakley’s book is a welcome relief from the endless merry-go-round of discussions – or perhaps a seesaw is a better analogy, using Coakley’s identification of the binary divide between Biblicism and Liberalism.

The community of priests I belong to (SMMS) is committed to reflecting deeply on the meaning of the ordination of women, stating in our Manual that we,

 “… will be at the forefront of those seeking to understand what it means to ordain men and women to all orders of ministry; we will particularly celebrate women saints and integrate the writings of women and men into our experience and understanding of priesthood.”

Chapter 2 of this book “The Woman at the Altar: Cosmological Disturbance or Gender Subversion?” is one of the best pieces of writing on this subject that I have read and like most of the rest of the book every page makes me want to engage in conversation with the author and to refer to Coakley’s sources.

With Coakley I am a huge fan of Hans Urs von Balthasar, and regard him as the greatest twentieth-century theologian. Therefore, his implacable opposition to the ordination of women is a painful challenge. Coakley faces this head on and sees in his interest in gender the seed of the opposite view to the one he takes. For Coakley, the dual (rather than one side of a binary) role of Christ is vital here in understanding the importance of the nuptial model of Christ and the Church. Rather like our understanding of Christ as Priest and Victim, Coakley draws attention to the role the priest plays as both Christ and Church.

“… not a form of ‘androgyny’ that … flattens ‘difference’ … in the course of the liturgy the priest moves implicitly through these different roles, strategicially summoning the stereotypical gender associations of each … destabilising the attempt to be ‘held’ in one or the other.”

I am reminded here of two personal experiences that have profoundly impacted, although in ways not easy to articulate, my own understanding of gender and priestly ministry. One, many years ago, was hearing Jane Hedges (now Dean of Norwich) preach (as a deacon, before the ordination of women as priests) at Midnight Mass one Christmas in Southampton, on childbirth, having given birth herself that year. The other was to concelebrate Mass with a married couple, both ordained, one heavily pregnant at the time. Even the subtle positioning of myself at the altar during the Eucharistic Prayer, seeking to mirror my fellow concelebrant, who stood further back from the altar because she was ‘big with child’, became an act laden with meaning. To concelebrate with a pregnant priest is never without significance to me but to concelebrate with priests married to each other, one of whom was pregnant, highlighted the nuptial meaning of priesthood (derived from baptism) in a way that was in some way important. A moment that makes the image of Our Lady, so roundly and wonderfully female, in the Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral (pictured above), one of particular importance to me.

A powerful statement by Coakley encapsulates the profoundly personal and deeply significant nature of public ministry:

“It was only in learning to celebrate the eucharist myself, in immersing myself in something of the history of Eucharistic enactment, and in so doing finding that I had to make a host of apparently minor choices nonetheless encoded with immense theological significance, that I began fully to appreciate the gender and erotic latency of the Eucharistic act.”

Interestingly, as Coakley points out, for Balthasar the priesthood is supremely Marian. I am fascinated by Coakley’s enthusiasm for eastward celebration of the Eucharist:

“When the priest has her back to the people, it is symbolically clear that she is adopting the position of ‘offering’ on behalf of the laity: she is facing Godwards, representing the laos. In the terms of the old ‘natural signs’ … the priest is symbolically ‘feminine’ in this posture … But, when she turns around … she has moved to the other side of the divine.”

There is, as Coakley points out less of a tendency to ‘role-play’ the Eucharist when celebrated facing East than when facing the people. In such an understanding the manual acts can be a hindrance, encouraging  a play-acting approach that diminishes the strength of the sign rather than enhancing it. It is a little like those who demand that only red wine be used in the chalice as if pictorializing the Eucharist made Christ real; demolishing the argument about woman as pictorially unlike Christ. Sadly, there is not time here to discuss the passages regarding the censing of the altar (p.79) but they are well worth reading and an encouragement to all priests to reflect on the deep meaning of all our actions in the sanctuary. “Everything conveys meaning” was a sentiment I expressed often as a Headteacher.

I have only met Sarah Coakley once, I think, but I do have a slight personal connection with the book. While licensed as assistant Priest at All Saints, Blackheath, one of my joys was celebrating the 8am Mass on Sunday morning. It was a challenging congregation to preach to regularly, containing intellects many times greater than mine and combining with them a fascinating, international, array of characters who were  staying at nearby hotels or literally passing across the heath. Among them, faithfully, Sunday by Sunday were Sarah’s parents to whom this book is dedicated. I still have a stunning compilation CD of jazz made for me by her father. Like the ancient of days it was always a joy to witness their deep love and compassion for one another. It is fitting that the dedication is to them in this book which is as much about lifelong faithfulness as images of priesthood.

Coakley carefully repositions the discussion of same sex relationships in a wider discussion of sexuality pointing out that our culture is facing a crisis not of homosexuality but of heterosexuality, or rather sexuality in general. For Coakley ‘desire’ and asceticism, as the right ordering of desire, is the key to moving forward beyond the current binary arguments. She draws heavily on Gregory of Nyssa and also references Freud and Foucault.

I found the use of desire as the controlling theme here extremely useful. I have often spoken of the existential crisis faced by many teenagers, but the human need to know who we are is complemented by needing to know what we desire; what we want or want to be. One of the powerful things I have seen when taking groups of young people to Taizé is the work that the brothers do in bible studies, often around desire. Of course, the commitment of the brothers to life-long celibacy is itself a powerful counter-cultural sign.

I am interested in Coakley’s frequent use of the word intensity/intensifies. One significant text from Brother Alois, Prior of Taizé, puts it like this:

‘Living intensely. God wants nothing else for us all. Jesus clearly says in the Gospel: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full”.’

The celibacy of the community at Taizé does not, of course, in any way stop the community living intensely. Quite rightly, Coakley identifies the crisis of priestly celibacy and the sex-abuse scandals as part of what needs to be addressed in our sexuality crisis. In many ways going beyond the liberal rights agenda she dares more than most writers on this subject. I am surprised however that she chooses the word celibacy for what many in the tradition would more clearly label chastity, the chastity that is as much at the heart of a good marriage as a vowed celibate life. But that is a minor point of vocabulary.

As is well known the bishops of the Church of England are in the (three year) process of compiling a teaching document on sexuality and relationships. I sincerely hope they read this book. One of the most important things about Coakley’s work is that, like all good teachers, she has been a good learner first and has listened attentively to LGBT people. The bishops’ teaching will only be heard if they can demonstrate that they have engaged in the deep listening needed. Unlike many people I am dismayed not by the length of time allowed for the compilation of the teaching document but by its shortness, the bishops need a substantial change of heart if they are to move forward together and three years is a short time for that.

As I write, preparations are being made in Liverpool for the annual Pride event. It will be a joyous celebration. I have long thought that it is Liberation Theology in the works of theologians such as Boff and Guttierez, that provides the best theological model for understanding LGBT liberation. When I pray the historical psalms I do so recognising that LGBT people have literally been through plague, and escaped enemies, to achieve the joy of Pride events.  I would want to stand Coakley’s ascetic model alongside that model as an enriching theological narrative that liberates us from, as Coakley wants, Biblicism and Liberalism. The point is that Coakley too gets the innate joyfulness and miraculous liberation that God has worked in the lives of people in same sex relationships. I love her reference to Isaiah:

“Not enough attention is drawn to the completely novel phenomenon of our generation – a ‘new thing’ in the best Isaianic sense. That some gay and lesbian couples now wish to enter into public, and publicly accountable, lifelong vows of fidelity is, I submit, the true moral achievement of this painful, cultural and ecclesiastical transition. Such ‘witness’ is indeed a demanding ascetic undertaking … resistant to the widespread collapse of bonds of faithfulness in society at large.”

Coakley’s previous book God, Sexuality and the Self, is brilliantly complex, a complexity that has put many people off. The New Asceticism is a much more straightforward read. I recommend it without reservation. Coakley gets that the Anglican Communion has been asking itself the wrong questions about same sex relationships.

“The witness of gay couples, choosing to make public vows (and thus cutting not once, but twice against cultural expectation), demands of us all a deeper reconsideration of the meaning, and costliness, of such vows in a world of rampant promiscuous desires, the oppression of the poor, and the profligate destruction of natural resources.”

When I marry couples I give them a crucifix. A reminder that marriage is a sacrifice/sacrament, a means to holiness, a costly channelling of desire. Same sex couples know better than most the cost of marriage, but also that the promised land is worth the desert.

“ ….they cried to the LORD in their need,

and he rescued them from their distress.

He led them out of darkness and the shadow of death,

and broke their chains to pieces.”

                                                                                                                  Psalm 107:13-14

Amazing grace indeed.

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