Jessicah Bratt’s recent blog post engendered a fair amount of gratitude and conversation from our regular readers. She graciously raised pointed questions about the RCA’s current voting on whether or not to remove conscience clauses from the Book of Common Order. Among other things, these clauses allow men who object to women’s ordination to recuse themselves from participating in those ordinations. Jessicah noted a common refrain in discussions about removing these clauses: “Will there be a place for me in the RCA if we remove the conscience clauses?” Asked in many variations by those who disagree with women’s ordination, this question reveals a much deeper cluster of problems—the insidiousness of uniformity, the categorical confusion of uniformity and unity, the danger that accrues from failure to acknowledge and understand power dynamics, and the overreliance on polity to create just, caring communities of faith. These are the same problems that underlie other denominations’ debates about whether or not to permit the ordination and marriage of persons in same-sex relationships. (So, if you’re tempted to judge the RCA for being so behind the times with this vote, be careful, because most of our denominations demonstrate some version of these dynamics.)
1. Uniformity is comfortable. Sociologists describe at length the power of affinity groups—groups of likeminded people—in creating and sustaining a sense of belonging among people. There’s an ease to sameness. They also describe the deleterious effects on society when this “bonding social capital” becomes so prevalent that there is minimal “bridging social capital”—belonging to and with those who are different from us. In brief, bonding social capital without bridging social capitals lead to the creation of “in groups” and “out groups,” insular thinking, and impeded learning and growth. Furthermore, it can contribute to violence.
2. Uniformity is not unity. Christian unity comes from our communal participation in Christ. United to Christ, we are united to one another. We exist in one body (though we more often contradict that reality than live into it). As a body, we exist in differentiated unity. This is the basic pattern of our union and communion with one another. Members of Christ’s body are inseparable yet distinguishable intellectually, emotionally, ethnically, etc. The church fulfills its common mission in the world, in part, because of the Spirit’s work in and through this differentiation. True collaboration requires differentiation, and transformation often emerges in the context of significant disagreement.
3. Anytime a family, group, congregation, or other system adopts policies about its overall character and functioning, there is the risk that those who differ or disagree may be excluded, marginalized, or even banned from the communion. Human history (and certainly Christian history) is replete with examples of this. When we acknowledge this reality, however, we also need to recognize the complexity of power dynamics involved in the debates and voting about ordination in denominations. Power is related to the amount of resources one person or group has in relation to another person or group in a given context. We have power or are vulnerable in relationship to one another in light of our resources in a given situation. Sources of power include gender, sexual orientation, racial-ethnic background, age, religion, life experience, role, and a variety of economic, physical, and intellectual resources. Clearly those who have been denied ordination or whose ordination has been opposed on the basis of their gender or sexual orientation are those who likely have less power in church and society overall.
4. The conscience clauses that were intended to protect women seeking ordination as well as those opposing women’s ordination didn’t stop people from spurning the spirit of the law, so to speak. Those with less power have suffered the greatest. The same is true for those who have been kept from ordination in other denominations. Changes in polity do not ensure just, caring, communities of faith marked by integrity. Polity may set certain boundaries, but true change takes years of self-differentiated, cooperative leadership from those with the most power alongside those who have been marginalized. It takes intentionality over the long haul—rather than an assumption that the past presence of or future removal of conscience clauses will “solve the problem.” While such transformation ultimately depends upon the work of God’s Spirit, we have a role to play and work to do in response to God’s ministry among us.