Church Burning

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It got to the point where the town decided they’d just have to burn it down.  There didn’t seem to be any other way to it, though this realization came after many hours of discussion and sometimes heated argument.  The church-elder meeting that Wednesday evening ended with the menfolk agreeing with the Methodist preacher at last; the Baptist church down by the eastern outskirts (which had up until recently been a gathering place for sings and barbecues and kickball games) had become tainted with the Wormwood, and no amount of prayer or inaction would cleanse it.  To the Methodists this was no great loss; they bore no ill will towards the Baptists, naturally, but by this sign it became clear to all concerned which establishment was blessed by God, and which was not.  The Baptists refuted this, and their pastor had indeed given a powerful sermon on how the Wormwood was a test, not a punishment, but the Methodists and their fair-weather allies the Pentecostals were rightly afraid, and whatever the cause or reason for the tainting, all agreed that something must be done lest it spread and perhaps breed more hideous things to crawl under and about other houses and barns.  The Baptists had argued for clemency, continued prayers and blessings, and there were whispers in the back of the room about sending for an Exterminator, but this was struck down as soon as it was offered.  The people of Malone were proud if they were anything, and even the Baptists agreed that this was an internal affair, and of no concern to Dothan city-folk or any of their ilk. With options failing superstition and rumor ruled the meeting, for there were only two certainties: one, the Baptist church had Wormwood growing, and two, the taint came from the east, from whence all unnatural things come.  By raised hands and solemn nods even the Baptists agreed, some with tears streaming down their faces, to gather together and burn their former house of worship to the ground.

Counting only willing and able-bodied men, the town of Malone contained fifty-eight firebugs that evening.  With the rest stowed safely away in the sanctum sanctorum of the Methodist Church, the Methodist men as well as the Baptists and the Pentecostals joined together at the Volunteer Fire Department to plan the method of attack.  They ranged in age from sixteen to seventy-one.  A precious few had shotguns or pistols, the rest were armed with farming implements such as pitchforks and machetes.  Some had torches made of “fat-lightern,” but these remained unlit, and appeared as huge, knotted clubs in the dark.  One boy had a slingshot which he fingered nervously, sliding a stone into its leather cradle, taking aim, and then bringing it down again only to repeat the process.  There were dogs too, mutts mostly, and there were some that could be recognized by a nearsighted judge as some large working breed or other.  The clamor of dogs and men would have been deafening had the occasion been to fire steaks and shuck oysters, and there would have been wives and babies crawling all over, playing games and laughing and such, but the womenfolk were crowded in Methodist pews, clutching their babies and praying hard. Even the dogs seemed to know the severity of the situation, so they laid their ears back and were silent. Just as their masters were silent.

The preachers talked together briefly, in whispers, and it was decided that they would wait for dawn to start the burning.  Rumor told that only a fool would hunt the creatures of the Wormwood at night, and for once the messenger had spoken true.  The men huddled together and didn’t sleep, nor did they talk to each other; instead spending the five hours between midnight and dawn in prayer, clutching to the iron of their guns, and moving their lips to the Apostle’s Creed or to the Lord’s Prayer, those staples of poor and frightened men called upon to do bloody but necessary work.  The dogs were turned out of doors to range as they would.  Dogs could be counted on to smell evil and report it. And the men were confident enough in their dogs to know that each of them would die before allowing the Wormwood into the town proper, and none would be quiet about it. Thus Malone kept watch, waiting and listening, and only the smallest of the children slept at all.

Dawn broke with pink and orange and no sign of Jesus, just as it had for countless days before.  Gabriel had held off blowing his trumpet for another day, and so the men rose of one accord and prepared themselves.  The firehouse, situated in the center of town between the general store and the Pentecostal church, was a good quarter of a mile away from the Baptist Church, and was the last building passed if a traveler was moving east towards Mount Olive, but the first encountered if coming from the other way out of the Wormwood.  Mount Olive, as far as any of them knew, was still a grouping of a dozen or so houses and farms exclusively for colored and Freewill Baptist, whom had lived in quiet harmony with the people of Malone for time immemorial.  However, that information was almost two weeks old, having been conveyed by a peddler of some repute for whom Mount Olive was the last stop on a route that extended back far to the west.  He had come through town speaking only of having done decent business with the coloreds and told no other news.  It was thought that with the way things had progressed the peddler would be turning around in Malone the next time, for no wagons had come from Mount Olive since, and it was on the following Sabbath that the taint was discovered at the Baptist Church.  The fate of Mount Olive was clucked about, but only briefly, for the taint was a more pressing concern now that it had spread even into Malone itself.

The preachers led the way each with an open Bible in one hand held out in front, like a salute or a warding, and a jug of precious kerosene in the other.  The Methodist minister began quoting the Twenty-Third Psalm and his two companions picked up the cadence, each in the powerful, sonorous voices that had made them so impressive in the pulpit.  The men clustered behind them not in military formation, but in a sort of ordered disarray. They walked in scattered groups of two or three, fathers with sons, neighbors with neighbors, and yet all remained in step, either consciously or unconsciously, mimicking exactly the determined strides of their leaders.  The dogs formed a sort of half-circle around the men and faced straight ahead forsaking the horseplay and barking of any other less important day.  When the Psalm ended it started again among the preachers, and then someone in the back started singing an old hymn with a strange-sounding but appropriate name.  The Psalm mingled with the strains of “The Battle-Hymn of the Republic,” and those men who had torches lit them.

The main street of Malone was dirt mostly, though it had been paved at one time in its history, and time had reduced the asphalt to large rocky patches irregularly spaced and forever pushed together by grass and clay.  West of Malone the road still carried some of the dignity of its former life. It was still called Highway 2, an ancient name less important-sounding than perhaps it should have been.  But Malone was almost as far east as anyone dared to go and Dothan felt further upkeep to be wasteful of precious funds so the Malonians had made do with what they had and spread clay everywhere to even things out.  On this day, however, even the road itself had a sort of prideful bearing because an army was marching down it.  With red dust swirling in their wake and hymn and Psalm projecting in front the villagers did seem more like an avenging army than a mob. They had a purpose, a cause, and their cause was righteous.  They could see the First Baptist Church of Malone not long after they began, a yellow-brick, squat building with a wooden roof and a decently tall steeple, white, topped by a cross.  There used to be two pecan trees between the army and its destination–tall ancient trees that had once spread out over the roof of the church and, when green, almost completely obscured it from view.  They were gone, or at least transformed, for one had lost all its leaves and was black and oozing from the highest branch to the lowest root.  The other was much worse for the wear. Somehow it had been sheared off at a point about as high as a man and its great forty-foot bulk had crashed into the road, leafless and ashen.  The men said nothing about these portents. They did not whisper about what could have killed two huge trees, broken off one, and blighted the grass in a great circle with the church at its center.  They all knew what had done it, and it wasn’t anything natural or cleansing like fire.  It was the taint of Wormwood which no green thing could survive for long.

The men did not break stride, did not falter, until the preachers themselves stopped at the edge of the blighted grass.  Psalm and hymn ceased. The Methodist preacher, as the leader, turned his back to the church and faced his men.  The other two preachers kept their eyes and Bibles focused on the church from which a phosphorescent glow emanated and a sound like a hundred rattlesnakes struck up.

“Let us pray,” intoned the Methodist preacher, his voice carrying over the rattlesnake-sound.  For the first time ever, no one bowed their heads or closed their eyes, instead staring straight ahead at the church, casting their prayers against it.

“Lord God in heaven, we are gathered here in Your name, to raise our hands–”

One of the blue stained-glass windows blew out with a crash, the rattling increased, and something that looked a lot like a gigantic octopus tentacle shot out and wrapped itself around the trunk of the still-upright pecan tree.  The Methodist men and Baptists prayed silently, eyes open, while the Pentecostals prayed aloud, joining their voices with that of the preacher, as is their custom.

“–against Satan and his evil seed, the Wormwood.  Dear Lord, we ask for Your protection, and if it be Your will for us to prevail today, we ask for Your strength, in this our hour of need–”

The main church doors were facing the street, and they exploded outward, clattering across the road.  Another huge tentacle, mottled gray with suction cups spaced irregularly around it, followed one of the doors and picked it up.  It then reared high in the air like the neck of a dinosaur and flung the door towards the preachers.  No one so much as flinched as it fell harmlessly short, the prayers continued even over the rattling.

“For it is written that You will never leave us, or forsake us.  Lord Jesus, march before us today, give us Your holy blessing, so that we might be victorious!  In Jesus’ holy name we pray–”

Amen!” yelled the throng together, so that it sounded more like a battle cry than the ending of a prayer.  Then, with undaunted purpose, the preachers stepped into the blighted grass-circle, and the men spread out around it.  Those with shotguns and rifles took aim and at a shouted command shot at the tentacle of their choice.  The standing tree collapsed as the tentacle retreated while the rattling intensified until it was a hissing whine.

“Prepare, foul demons, for the wrath of God!” shouted the Pentecostal minister, striding towards the church, lighting the rag stuffed in the mouth of his jug. A third tentacle shot out through the shingles, and then a fourth, but the Pentecostal’s aim was true, his jug shattered on the roof.  As the kerosene blazed up the middle window collapsed in on itself and a flood of jet-black things scurried out.  Whether they were mostly beetle, spider, or hyena is up to dispute. They were huge, awful conglomerations of legs and teeth and hair, the size of dogs with hard carapaces and clicking, slathering mouthparts.  They moved like cockroaches, streaming away from the fire and towards the circle of men.

The dogs intercepted as best they could spurred on by that fierce loyalty to master and home that only dogs know, but the resulting battle was like a naked man fighting a lawnmower.  Half of a large brown retriever-mix hit the Baptist minister in the knee as he was in the process of lighting his kerosene.  He fell sprawling and in a trice the beetle-things were on him, half a dozen of them clicking and slashing.  The feast would have lasted longer, but the jug of kerosene ignited and flamed the lot.  The beetle-things did not burn like normal creatures; something in their foul nature caused them to be more flammable then perhaps the kerosene itself.  As the men with torches charged in the remains of the Baptist minister burned brightly with six or seven hollowed out and crispy exoskeletons burning with him.

This event proved, in less than a second, yet another storybook rumor about the vile things of Wormwood–that fire is the cleanser of God among them.  The torches were as useful as the shotguns against the beetle-things, merely a touch and a dodge was enough to dispatch them.  Some of the men were too slow to dodge and they paid dearly for it. For the rest it was a turkey-shoot since a sharp-eyed farmer with buckshot is more than a match for anything under the sun.  Some of the things were blown into unrecognizable bits of shell and ichor, others burned as quickly as a gasoline-soaked cotton ball.  Soon the dogs and men presided over a burning field of thing-corpses, and, though the men and dogs who lost their lives lost them in gruesome ways, thankfully there were not many dead.  The men advanced on the church with renewed vigor like soldiers who had breached a barricade.  The Methodist preacher lit his jug and threw it, with the blessing of God it seemed, for the jug disappeared into the window from whence came the black things.  It exploded soon after, shaking the foundations.  The rattling became a squeal, and the tentacles spasmed briefly and stopped.

The men with axes and shovels attacked the dying tentacles, chopping and hacking; it wasn’t long before the tentacles caught fire as well and were consumed.  Then there was nothing left to do but watch the church burn.

A Review of “Women in the Church? A Historical Survey”

A Review of “Women in the Church? A Historical Survey”

Magistra 21.2 (Winter 2015): 51-80


In her article, Women in the Church? A Historical Survey, Magdalena Kubow begins her conclusion with “the argument that women have historically participated in sacramental orders does not wish to eliminate the apostolic tradition; however, it does not regard the exclusivity of males to the apostolic tradition as a timeless truth. It sees it as purposeful exclusion, acceptable in the past but no longer acceptable in the present” (76). This is a succinct, yet pithy summary of her work. Her premise is that women were, along with men, founders and leaders of the early Christian Church, and the focus of her survey is to demonstrate how this process of exclusion developed over time, slowly eroding away the female role until all traces of it disappeared by the Middle Ages. Unlike other writers on this topic, Kubow does not spend much time looking at what Scriptures say about it but concentrates on examining the historiography of more current Church documents and teachings. The primary underlying factors to which she attributes this erosion include the shift of church ministry from the private to the public sphere, the development of market economy, and the influence of Roman law on the formation and establishment of Church law. All told, this is a good overview of a variety of influences that led to the demise of female leadership roles over the first few centuries of early Christianity. And it is the perfect resource for an audience who knows enough theology, history, philosophy and cultural development to understand the implications of what she covers in it.

While I found the majority of Kubow’s composition interesting, creative and well-founded, her opening six pages were not as strong as they could have been. First, she offers an opinion that misconstrues a foundational Church document. Then she presents several of the Church’s current arguments against women’s ordination to the priesthood, to which she simply counters with historical evidence that women had once participated in the diaconate. And, to support a later argument, she includes a citation that misrepresents the theology behind a major liturgical element of the Catholic mass.

To my first point, that she misconstrues a foundational Church document, Kubow offers an opinion taken from someone else’s work in such a way that it is clear she shares it. She references Pacem in Terris, Pope John XXIII’s papal encyclical of April 1963, which she notes was interpreted as “opening just a crack the door to the priesthood for women” (51) based on his conclusion that man and woman have a right to “follow a vocation to the priesthood or the religious life” (51). In my opinion, either Kubow or Margaret Sittler Ermarth, whom Kubow cites, or both, are stretching to construe that the Pope’s comment refers woman-to-priesthood in this statement. Although Pope John XXIII often wrote about the Church looking to the future, and the Church is always referred to in the feminine, the correlations in his statement are meant to be read as man-to-priesthood and woman-to-religious life.

To my second point, that Kubow offers evidence that women were ordained to the diaconate in the early Church to counter the current arguments against women being ordained to the priesthood today, she is not comparing the same role. There is a major difference between being an ordained priest and being an ordained deacon in the Catholic Church, and while that has not always been so, it has been for most of the Church’s history. A priest holds the second highest position in Holy Orders, with the bishop taking first place. He assists the bishop, serves as a mediator between God and the human person, and confers all sacraments except for Holy Orders (only the bishop can do this) – which includes celebrating Mass and the Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Baptism and Holy Matrimony. The deacon holds the third position in Holy Orders, serves to assist the priest but reports directly to the bishop. Seminarians become transitional deacons on their way to priestly ordination, and as of Vatican II, laymen selected by the diocese can become permanent deacons. Their primary responsibilities include proclaiming the Gospel, preaching homilies at Mass, ministering the Eucharist, and serving the parish. They can baptize, as well as marry and perform funeral rites that do not include a celebration of the Eucharist. Consecrating the Eucharist is the realm of priests and bishops alone, and it is this action that renders the Mass Heaven on Earth.

As I continued to read, it occurred to me that Kubow may have been trying to make the point that evidence exists of women being ordained as deacons, or more accurately deaconesses, during the time before the structural hierarchy of the Church was established, when the only role of formal ministry that existed was that of the diaconate. And as the hierarchy strengthened, the role of deaconess met its demise. I chose to give her the benefit of the doubt, although I hesitated when I read the next few pages, as she cites dates that do not directly support the points she is trying to make. This tends to cause a bit of confusion and leads the reader to wonder which side of the debate she is advocating. This sense of uncertainty is disorienting and detrimental to the trust that should exist between reader and writer.

Kubow states in her opening paragraph that “the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith justifies their position by arguing that women have never been ordained into sacramental orders and that this has been the unbroken historical practice for the last two thousand years” (51). And she counters, but not for several pages, that “the constant tradition of which the Congregation speaks did not originate two thousand years ago, but was born in the twelfth century when the exclusion of women from the diaconate was formally established in canon law” (53). While her citations are factual, they are confusing as any student of Church structure knows the hierarchy was in place well before the twelfth century. And it is this hierarchy that eliminated the role of deaconess earlier than the twelfth century.

To my last point, that Kubow includes citations that misrepresent the theology behind a major liturgical element of the Catholic mass, she writes that women are not able to invoke the Holy Spirit for the celebration of the Eucharist in the Catholic Church. She also states that the Church teaches that women are “incapable” of doing so as if to suggest that we lack the actual capability. She rightly clarifies that it is the Holy Spirit “who alone transforms the bread and wine into the Eucharist” (54). But then she quotes Fr. Bernard Haring as questioning, when speaking about invoking the Holy Spirit, “‘how are women inferior to men?’ Saying ‘this is my body’ has nothing to do with the priest’s own masculinity as he is not speaking in his own name; therefore women ‘can cultivate Eucharistic memory as well as a man’” (54). What Kubow has done in this one paragraph is cobble together a series of thoughts that do not belong together, and I will attempt to untwist them.

To her statement about the Church teaching that women are incapable of calling on the Holy Spirit, incapable is not the correct word. The Church teaches that this is not a question of capability but a question of role, which is evident in Kubow’s correct statement that transubstantiation – the change of the substance or essence of the bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Christ – is the doing of the Holy Spirit. Then there are Fr. Haring’s quotes which look as if they are mixed in with Kubow’s own thoughts, and that makes me question whether she is trying to tie together bits and pieces of what he has said to support her point. The Church does not teach that women are inferior to men. While society may have been responsible at one time for that interpretation, bolstered by the misinformed teachings of a few church leaders, the idea of male-female complementarity – God’s deliberate design of male and female, which together comprise the covenant of redemption – is evident from the Book of Genesis to the Book of Revelation. The inclusion of Haring’s rhetorical question is as baffling as it is and distracting.

When a priest recites “this is my body” during the Eucharistic liturgy, he is quoting the

words of Christ to his apostles during the Last Supper. Throughout the whole act of consecration, the priest is serving in persona Christi, in the person of Christ, and because Jesus was a man when he was on earth and charged his apostles, who were all men, with the power to sanctify, we believe the role of in persona Christi is inherently male. There is a reason God created men and women differently, but as that topic exceeds the bounds of this paper, allow me to simply say that as we are different, so are our gifts. To wrap up the dissection of the preceding paragraph and answer the last sentence, yes, women have the capability to cultivate Eucharistic memory, but it is simply not their role. The theology is deep and wide beyond this statement; suffice it to say those who protest to the contrary are not giving that theology the authority and detailed study it deserves. It is inaccurate to say what the priest is doing during the liturgy is merely reminding us of the Last Supper, when, in fact, what he is doing is calling on the Holy Spirit to bring us into the sacrifice of Christ.

Why did I keep reading after plowing through Kubow’s first six pages, which were wobbly at best? Because right in the middle of all of this, she made a statement that is at the heart of this and many other issues in Christianity: “Only since Pope Pius XII’s encyclical letter, Divino afflante spiritu, issued in 1943, have Catholic biblical scholars been liberated to use the tools of historical criticism to assess the biblical foundations of church teachings. This suggests that the question of the ordination of woman has been considered in its modern formulation for no longer than 63 years” (54). Bingo! So, while I would approach any commentary she presented on theology or liturgy with skepticism, I felt her command of history might prove to be stronger.

Kubow’s historiography focuses on two historical assertions of the Roman Catholic Church, also known as the Western Church: that a female diaconate did not exist, or, if it did, it was not authentically sacramental. To address the first, she reviews the destruction of the wealth of ancient libraries over the centuries, which is enough to make any historian cry. And she points out that much of what has been used as source material for the Roman Catholic Church’s contention is what it decided to adopt when the Catholic Church split in 1054 A.D. The richness, the details, and most of the writings of the Early Church Fathers come from the Eastern Church, which is a subtle but important detail when one examines the history of the relationship of the two churches over the last millennium. At this point, Kubow gets into some of the New Testament evidence in support of the female diaconate, and also cites a bit of what the Early Church Fathers wrote in support of it. Then she reaches 325 A.D., when Christianity was established as the religion of state under Constantinople. At this point, “the Church began attracting members of municipal ruling elites who were professionally trained for public life and experienced in public politics… the new leaders of the church were not as comfortable with women’s leadership in the churches. By shifting church practice and ministry obligations from a largely private sphere into the public sphere, which was largely patriarchal in belief, practice, and law, the role of women was drastically reduced” (60). This is a rather unique thread.

Kubow then follows a path I have seen elsewhere, which nonetheless intrigues me and is bound to provide rich detail on closer examination. “Roman law in effect during the time of Jesus shaped much of Church law in the Catholic Church… As the Church became publicly institutionalized, it adopted Roman law as its own and in spite of a slight relaxation in laws (in later years)… the overall inferior status of women remained in place” (61). She makes a pivotal observation that “during the Middle Ages priesthood was redefined as a role of privilege, power and authority, not a life commitment to ministry and service” (77). And as we enter the medieval era, when religion was the underpinning of daily life, we see the “changing social status of labour and a shift from a generally private to public economic market” (64), which impacted both the role of women in society and the practices of the Church.

The change in the market economy and its impact is an interesting dynamic to ponder. She writes that “the primary purpose of mentioning these complex changes in labor, production and gender dynamics occurring in the secular sphere… is to provide a general understanding of the framework in which misogyny has been built into the very foundation of the symbol systems of Western civilization, that the subordination of women comes to be seen as natural, hence it becomes invisible” (65). And Kubow ties up this section with “It was medieval thinkers who constructed the theological framework that underpins the structures of ministry and hierarchy that society continues to uphold. They moulded the sacrificial focus of the priesthood, the feudal power structures of the Church, the exclusion of women from all authority based on Roman law which they had made the basis of Church law” (67).

The rest of Kubow’s survey consists of familiar ground, covering some of the ancient texts and a bit more of the primary evidence. Within the Apostolic Constitutions, circa 380 A.D., we see that “the female ordination rite, when juxtaposed on the male ordination rite, is essentially identical. This aspect is crucial when addressing the question whether in fact the female diaconate was fully sacramental rather than a service which was merely blessed” (70). Thus, Kubow observes, “it is evident that the exclusion of women from sacramental orders is based on patriarchal tradition, which was strengthen by Roman law, rather than a clear and convincing argument based on historical tradition, Scripture, or theology” (72). She goes on to write about St. Olympias, St. Hildegard of Bingen, and St. Catherine of Sienna, women she sees as having been particularly influential within the Church during their time (400A.D., 1098 A.D. and 1347 A.D., respectively). While none were deaconesses, the latter two are Doctors of the Church, a rare and distinguished title conferred to saints recognized by the Catholic Church as having particular importance, typically in their contribution to theology and doctrine. There are thirty-six Doctors of the Church, only four of whom are women (the others are St. Teresa of Avila and St. Thérèse of Lisieux, both Carmelite mystics – the former from the sixteenth century and the latter from the nineteenth century).

Kubow offers that “patriarchal religion supports and perpetuates patriarchy” (79). She concludes that “without the wisdom and collaboration of women in leadership roles, the church, a sign and instrument of unity with God and among all people, is diminished” (80). This echoes my sentiments exactly when I have written in earlier pieces that without the inclusion of women in significant, material leadership roles within the Roman Catholic Church, something will always be lacking.

In this article, Magdalena Kubow reiterated threads I am familiar with and introduced new ones. As this article is meant to serve as an overview, there is plenty of detail to uncover in the course of digging deeper. My only surprise in Kubow’s work was the absence of any commentary on the impact of ancient Greek philosophy on Roman law and society, as well as on the thinking of the Early Church Fathers. Regardless, Kubow introduces her readers to a handful of wonderful sources and authors, as well as presents several areas to consider when examining why women are not ordained in the Roman Catholic Church today.