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On the body and the cloth

September 27, 2012

Dr. Richter. She was more decently habited in the bikini.

IN LATE APRIL, the New York Times published an op-ed by an Episcopal priest, the Revd Dr. Amy Richter.

Without boring our readers with the extraneous details, we will summarize the main points of her article as follows:
▪ Richter is a female priest
▪ Many members of her former parish, in Wisconsin, were uncomfortable with female clergy
▪ During her time at that parish, Richter entered a “physique competition” at the Wisconsin State Fair, in which she would be required to pose onstage in a bikini, and for which she had spent a year training
▪ Richter did not tell her parishioners that she had entered the competition

Her piece implies that opposition to female priests by retrogressive members of her former parish drove her to keep silent about the competition, and that her silence was a tremendous and unfair imposition. She suggests that she ought to have been able to freely share this part of her life without receiving any opprobrium from anyone. Although she writes that “On the day of the competition, when I put on the bikini, I felt almost giddy. The stealthy nature of my mission — to win the title of Ms. State Fair, with few people knowing I even entered — added to my excitement,” she nevertheless condemns members of the Church for what she assumes will be their censure, writing:

But somehow, despite our belief that both sexes can serve the church, it seems there’s still something unnerving about a priest who is a woman. It has to do with having a woman’s body.

This statement should give us pause. Why? Because, although she would have us believe otherwise, Amy Richter’s gender is absolutely irrelevant to the matter at hand (i.e. the physique competition).

With the above, Dr. Richter executes one of the classic informal fallacies: Cum hoc ergo propter hoc. In English: With it, therefore because of it. Her tacit argument—apparently seductive to the New York Times—is that a priest with a male body would not have felt a need to keep quiet. A male priest could have had his entire parish at the competition, cheering, while she, a woman, had to keep the whole thing a dirty, dirty secret.

This is an extraordinary leap, though obviously convenient for Dr. Richter.

Whatever dismay her actions might have engendered within the parish doesn’t have chiefly to do with her having a woman’s body. It has to do with the use of that body, and in this moment, her use of that body is inappropriate to her position as a parish priest. While disapproval may have been exacerbated by sexism among her parishioners, at root, hers is a problem of appropriateness, not of gender.

If the [male] rector of this blogger’s parish church were to don a Speedo, rub himself down in baby oil, and submit himself for judgment in a “physique competition,” it would surely raise more than a few eyebrows. The same if a [male] partner in this blogger’s law firm, or a [male] faculty member in any of his old schools were to do the same.

The issue at hand is a complicated matter of public display, as well as of American attitudes toward the body. It is surely confounded by charged and inconsistent views on women’s bodies. But it is not an issue particular to the Church, nor to Dr. Richter and her physique competition. It has to do with the propriety of a person in a position of public authority and responsibility stripping down for display before a crowd.

Ask yourself this: would it be disconcerting to see your mother (or father) in a physique competition? Of course it would. Then why should it not be disconcerting to find someone whom you call “mother” (or “father”) doing the same?

We do not doubt that the Times published Dr. Richter’s essay because the paper’s editorial staff loves a good story about Establishment institutions behaving badly, and because stories about individual perseverance over discrimination and antipathy make for great soft news. There is, however, a second element to the essay, past the maligning of her former congregation, which concerns us very deeply.

IN HER closing, Dr. Richter writes that she told inquirers that she won the competition (and its three-foot tall trophy) “for being herself.” This is a seductive argument, but it is not really true, is it? She won it for training, for her dedication and discipline. While her commitment may have followed from her character, there are surely many activities where Dr. Richter’s intent is not—as it was in the competition—backed up by sweat and hard work. In these areas, do we say that she fails “for being herself?” Of course not, no more so than we would say that a student fails a test for being stupid. The inverse is an equal error. Our mothers told us that actions speak louder than words; they do, and it is on actions that we are judged. “He never seemed like the kind of person who would do something like that,” say the neighbors of the felon. But once he does, we must judge him based on his actions as an adult, not what a nice boy we always thought he was.

Dr. Richter, having identified herself as a clergywoman in her byline and her essay, writes not as a private citizen but as a member (a leader!) of the Church, and what she has written represents both the Church and the Christian faith abysmally. That she has done this on the op-ed page of the New York Times ought to be a cause for some censure. What a missed opportunity to champion the Church and to speak well of the faith! Instead, she has given the reading public no more than another chapter in the gospel of the self, and shame be on her for it.

Dr. Richter writes of her self-actualization, but self-actualization is utterly un-Christian. We are actualized in Christ, in whom alone we are most fully alive. Dr. Richter, writing as a priest of the Church, gives voice to a way of thinking that is exactly contrary to what we learn from Scripture, from basic theology, and from the Book of Common Prayer.1

The Christian life is not about “being yourself,” and is it not about affirming everyone’s weirdnesses and peccadilloes. That we are brothers and sisters in Christ often gets forgotten amidst all the language of affirmation. We are baptized, as the Prayer Book used to tell us, and made “regenerate, and grafted into the body of Christ’s Church.” The Christian life is one of self-denial, of turning away from sin (i.e. self-absorption): we are called to repentance, to the turning away from self and toward Christ.

The “for being herself” argument must be addressed here because of its insidious role in the life of the Church. The issues concerning Communion without Baptism, on which our fellow-blogger Jared Cramer has written with eloquence and passion, fundamentally boil down to whether we must DO anything to enter into the life of the Church, or whether we get to suck down some wine just for showing up. Must we submit ourselves to Christ in Baptism, dying with him that we may be made alive, or do we just get a handout for having been born, without regard to our behaviour, without regard to our striving after Christ-likeness?

No.

Dr. Richter, we find, is looking for love in all the wrong places. We wonder whether she has found it in the adulation of the crowd, or in the approval of the Wisconsin State Fair judges, or in the welcome of her congregation in Maryland. Has she found it on the op-ed page of the New York Times? Somehow, we doubt it. It’s a pity that she had to search so widely, for what she needed was right under her nose the whole time.

More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.2

1. See, for example, the second collect at Morning Prayer: “O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom.”
2. Romans 5:3-5

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