The Wooden Leg

There is a film from 1935 about the infamous mutiny on the Bounty of 1789, the earliest which depicts Captain Bligh as a sadist who loved whipping and keel-hauling his crew. Historical evidence now tends to set William Bligh (1754 – 1817) in a more sympathetic light as a master seaman and is a little more critical of Fletcher Christian (1764 – 1793) and the mutineers who settled on the Island of Pitcairn. In the earliest film, there is the delightful but pathetic image of the alcoholic and crippled ship’s surgeon who had a different story for each person he conversed with about how he lost his leg. The character, at least the one in the film, is a fabulator, a chameleon, a false construction of a hollow personality.

Research on pathological lying has been around for a long time. The word mythomania is more commonly used in its French version, but it exists in English. Modern psychiatry doesn’t seem to isolate it as a distinct condition but rather characterises it as a symptom of conditions like borderline personality disorder. We are targeting the person who constantly tells lies, not always with a clear objective in view. Lying is often a part of the manipulative personality, which is close to those with BPD and NPD. It is not usually an isolated symptom but a part of a wider pattern of behaviours.

Sometimes, pathological liars can believe their lies and construct a delusional world. They lose control of their lies and awareness of their effect or lack of credibility to others. They become addicted to the false construction of their minds and it sometimes ends up in criminal behaviour like fraud. As many priests are caught with their fingers in the till as with their trousers down in the wrong place! For further study of this question, I recommend:

You can also do a Google search to find other articles and book references.

Why have I brought up this subject? I have already discussed various characters in the ecclesiastical underworld. The worst I encountered was Gérard Roux who constantly lied about who ordained him, who consecrated him, and has been in trouble with the law several times for fraud and abus de faiblesse (using his fabulated ecclesiastical status to get lonely elderly people to give him their savings). I have never known cruder and more transparent false documents! I have known more harmless cases who simply constructed grandiose self-styled titles and expensive garb. I last wrote about this subject in Purple Fever. The real issue is the pathological personality. With the amusing image of the drunken ship’s surgeon on the Bounty, I have come up with the neologism of the Wooden Leg.

I have already commented on James Atkinson-Wake. No one minds his being an independent priest or bishop running a chapel for a few alienated Anglicans or Roman Catholics. What is objectionable is his lying about being a legitimate member of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. He is a chameleon who even changes his name between David Bell and James Atkinson-Wake. Two priests, probably sharing the same pathology, left our diocese in the ACC to join the chameleon: Philip James French and Michael Clothier. The former is now a bishop “gloriously reigning”. I will not go into all the gruesome details related to me by my Bishop!

The ghost of Archbishop Hepworth again emerges in Peter Slipper- Bishop of Australia? The history of Peter Slipper is particularly sordid. To what extent Archbishop Hepworth was in good faith when he ordained Slipper is anyone’s guess, but the ordination was done in secret. The whole history of Archbishop Hepworth’s dealing with the Ordinariate question has revealed his own pathological lying probably due to some personality issue. Slipper is now a bishop, styled Bishop of Australia. It would appear that he is pontificating over a community formerly belonging to the Church of the Torres Strait (CTS), a member body of the Traditional Anglican Communion. He appears to be connected with the  Igreja Católica Apostólica Brasileira (ICAB) founded by Bishop Carlos Duarte-Costa and led for many years by Bishop Castillo-Mendez.

These issues, like the re-surfacing of the paedophile priest scandal in the Roman Catholic Church, are so many indicators of that curse of personality disorders, a true mark of Original Sin and man’s propensity to actual sin. These disorders come in forms of a spectrum, just like autism on the opposite side of the human condition. Other conditions like depression and bi-polar disorder range from the highly-functioning to those who have to be institutionalised in a psychiatric hospital. The problem with the Church is its dependence on sinful human nature. We don’t all suffer from the same condition, and “normality” seems to be a very narrow category on the knife edge between the scales of acidity and alkalinity on the pH spectrum in chemistry. Identifying and choosing perfectly “neurotypical” men for the priesthood seems to be an illusion – and even those of the knife edge of “normality” can also be tempted to sin.

I have been reading Shawn Tribe’s reaction on Facebook to Fr Jay Scott Newman’s article The End of the Imperial Episcopate.

Fr. Jay Scott Newman’s (JSN) ideas here about vestural reforms strike me as highly odd, highly problematic, and I couldn’t disagree with them more. That said, I am not surprised to see this sort of thing coming up. I’ve been told by some priests that some others have attempted, in the light of the current situation, to try to argue that traditional vestments and ceremonial should all be abandoned as “effete” as well (ignoring the fact that they have been for the most part abandoned to this point, and are only now slowly seeing a revival).

Back to the article in question, a few excerpts:

JSN: “We should encourage bishops to abandon colored sashes, buttons, piping, and capes and stick to simple black. ”

His rationale? :

JSN: “Exalted titles and elaborate uniforms… tend to distance bishops from their priests and people, and also subtly nudge them toward self-important and self-referential ways of thinking and acting. As the recent catastrophic scandals demonstrate, too many bishops have proven unable to act as pastors and evangelists and have instead behaved as managers and bureaucrats. ”

To call this attempted linkage a ‘stretch’ seems overly generous.

Incidentally, what is “elaborate” and “exalted” exactly? Who defines that and from what perspective or principles? This is a priest’s perspective but a layman might well argue that clerical dress at all is the very same and that the title “Father” (which JSN proposes bishops should be referred to) is itself too “exalted.” The reality is, however the Church is a hierarchy; it has an order, and the titles and uniforms — as in all levels and facets of society (sic) — reflect that order and hierarchy; they speak to the offices. This is very much embedded into our human nature — and it is something most naturally appreciate and are drawn to, even need, unless they are pulled away from it by some ideology.

As for episcopal dress today, JSN speaks as though prelates today dress for the most part like they did a century ago. Never mind the curious reference to capes (a virtually extinct animal on a prelate), the reality is that the bishops have already effectively abandoned their traditional dress for over half a century now. Bishops today are virtually indistinguishable from a priest or a deacon (far less so than the Eastern Church in fact, which JSN vaunts as an exemplar) seen usually in the same black clerical suit as priests or deacons with only the hint of a silver chain showing — and the cross hidden inside a shirt pocket. It’s how most of them show up at the parishes, their own cathedrals, diocesan events, etc. It’s rare to see them otherwise, so this is a pretty weak premise for that reason alone; their cassock likely gets pulled out of the episcopal closet as often a pair of blue jeans do — and possibly less.

What’s more, it hardly seems to follow that the way to make bishops act more like bishops and less like managers and bureaucrats is by stripping them of those very things which should remind them of their pastoral duties and office. We have seen the adverse effects of the loss of clerical and religious identity that have come with the loss of clerical and religious dress at those levels, so why in the world should one think it is going to work out just fine at the episcopal level is beyond me — especially when, as I say above, it’s what is already being de facto done. Clearly it’s not a solution; internal conversion and reform is (and arguably also the episcopal selection process itself).

JSN continues:

“…what has that spectacle [the church’s extra-liturgical ceremonial] wrought among the men themselves? How does that pageantry serve the gospel now, if it ever did? For the purification of the priesthood and the authentic reform of the Church, everything that is of Imperium rather than Evangelium needs to go.”

If you think you’ve heard this sort of thinking before it’s because you have; it was the very same set of principles that were used against the liturgical tradition of the Church, seen as corrupted by the Carolinigan court. (And, for the record, it would make very little sense to apply this sort of principle only to the one aspect of the Church’s life and not the other — ie. the sacred liturgy. Of course, that was already done in both theory and practice by the progressives and it’s not clear to anyone that the results have been exactly fruitful and without trouble.)

The liturgical and ceremonial life of the Church, while different and on different levels it needs to be said, are indeed interconnected, similar to how orthopraxis and orthodoxy are. When you start trying to cut the strings that intertwine them, the ball has a way of unravelling on you. Moreover, aside from being reminders, these things also have a teaching component for they speak to the dignity and duties of that office, just as the cassock and black worn by a priest does of the priesthood itself, or the habit of the monk. Here again, selectively picking out just the prelates but exempting the rest in this regard makes little sense from any perspective.

JSN: “The titles Your Eminence, Your Excellency, My Lord, Your Grace, or Monsignor do not come from the gospel,… They are echoes of the Imperial Court, now the Papal Court, and they obscure the scriptural and familial nature of the episcopate—both from the bishop himself and from those he serves. … his priests and people should greet him as Father.”

The main thing alarming in this suggestion, like the one before it, is the rationale behind it. — and lest it be forgotten, the term “Father” itself for a cleric is itself not “from the gospel” in the way JSN is applying it here. (Neither is it against it of course.) So here again, it makes very little sense to apply this to prelates but not further down the chain — but JSN does so.

Newman’s arguments against the ‘Imperium’ simply don’t follow and what’s more they are extraordinarily problematic in principle. While I appreciate and agree with his point that bishops need to act like bishops rather than managers, his attempt to tie this to the (all but now absent) ceremonial life of the Church is ludicrous. Bishops have lost their identity in great part, just as many clerics have, and it’s in the tradition (both interior and exterior) that they can be helped to find it again — not by dispensing of it. It seems like JSN himself hasn’t followed his own arguments through to their logical conclusions either — and where we end up is a very messy and all too familiar place. Either that or his arguments on this specific front are a case one who simply has a pre-existing axe to grind and he is trying to find ways to grind it.

Shawn Tribe has a point in the opposition between ceremonial and the ministry of the Gospel, which was central to the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Do we want a new Reformation? Perhaps with Islamic Jihadist puritans doing the statue and altar smashing? I tend to advocate a simplification of clerical dress after my time at Gricigliano: plain black cassocks or tunics with some specific Christian symbol like a cross. I have lived in a country (France) where clerics started wearing civil dress from the 1960’s with a small cross on the lapel, usually looking like executive staff from some large company. In my present state of life, I spend most of my life in casual dress because any external manifestation of my priesthood would lack credibility and would attract ridicule. Perhaps that might change in the future, but the hard lesson would have been learned.

I am very touched by two stories I heard at seminary. One was the fable by Aesop, An ass carrying an image. The French version by La Fontaine calls the fable L’Âne portant des reliques, a donkey carrying relics.

Un Baudet, chargé de Reliques,
S’imagina qu’on l’adorait.
Dans ce penser il se carrait,
Recevant comme siens l’Encens et les Cantiques.
Quelqu’un vit l’erreur, et lui dit :
Maître Baudet, ôtez-vous de l’esprit
Une vanité si folle.
Ce n’est pas vous, c’est l’Idole
À qui cet honneur se rend,
Et que la gloire en est due.
D’un Magistrat ignorant
C’est la Robe qu’on salue.

When people made reverences towards the donkey, the animal thought the honours were being made to him rather than the holy relics and images he was carrying. This message comes home to seminarians who love to wear buckled shoes and fringed cinctures from Gamarelli’s. The vestments a priest wears at Mass confer no honour on the man who is ordained a priest, but hide the person behind the sacerdotal character, the sacramental mystery of the Incarnation continuing throughout history from Pentecost to the Parousia.

The other story used to give seminarians a sense of perspective and sobriety is the Curé d’Ars dressed in a scruffy old cassock, but who wore the best vestments in church. So it was also with the slum priests in London in the 1860’s. That seems to be the priority and yardstick – distinguishing the man from the precious gift he bears. Abolishing the precious gift would be to cut off our own noses to spite our faces.

One thing that attracted me back to the ACC was the notion that the lesson was learned by our bishops and that what is in the jar is what it says on the label. We are not without sin, and have no stones to cast, but I am grateful to know that we are vigilant to keep the “bullshit factor” out and devote ourselves prayerfully to truth and the quest for humility. The real solution to this crisis is each of us seeking holiness through humility, prayer, service to others, self-denial and utter devotion to truth. It begins with each of us.

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3 Responses to The Wooden Leg

  1. jimofolym says:

    One might comment, from the Eastern perspective, that in the tiny Orthodox Church in America, a bishop is ‘elevated’ to Archbishop after five years in office, according to their holy synod. Seems a stretch, given that they don’t have to raise more missions and parishes in that time frame. Ugh! and I’m a member and knew my bishop when he was just a choir director….

  2. Stephen K says:

    I think you make some good points, but i think Father Newman does too.

    • This is why I quoted Fr Newman’s article and the criticism of it by Shawn Tribe (founder of the New Liturgical Movement). We are faced with a spectrum between the Institute of Christ the King (from the point of view of dress and liturgical splendour) and the threat of dismissal seminarians would face for possessing a Latin breviary or a cassock. Some will advocate the role model of American Episcopalian liberalism as others would want their priests in gung-ho roles of exaggerated masculinity. We might find there is no solution with institutional Christianity – but outside Christianity, we might have to look hard for the ideal of the intrinsic value of the human person.

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