Splitting: a psychological reflection

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This is a guest piece, from Joanna Collicutt, who is based in Oxford, but offered this for our reflections here in Sheffield.

The Bishop-designate of Sheffield is a prominent member of Forward in Faith and the council of Bishops that leads The Society—under the Patronage of Saint Wilfrid and Saint Hilda. In their official publications these organisations do not adopt an attitude of hatred towards female priests nor do they view them as unclean; they simply deny the possibility of their existence.

The issue is one of patrilineage. There must be an unbroken chain of males going back to the first (male) apostles for an ordination to be valid and for ‘sacramental assurance’ to be secure.* On this view female priests, bishops, and those ordained by them do not represent tainted or weak links in the apostolic chain; they break the chain because they do not represent a link at all.

The question then arises of how people holding this view could and should relate to female priests, bishops, and those ordained by them. There seem to be three possibilities. The first is simply to avoid any contact other than the most superficial social encounters.

The second is to approach them rather as one might a person with a serious mental health condition – someone whom you want to respect but whose fundamental reality you don’t share and are not prepared to enter. This involves a kind of disingenuous diplomacy, avoiding the points of conflict and trying to restrict the scope of the relationship to uncontroversial areas of commonality. It has the advantage of keeping a kind of peace, but there is a troubling feeling of dishonesty about it, as if those involved have their fingers crossed throughout.

The third way is through an unconscious process of ‘psychic splitting’. This is a defence mechanism first identified by Sigmund Freud that comes into play in a situation where an individual or organisation is faced with two contradictory ideas (for example that female priests cannot exist and that women are ordained as priests). The ideas cannot be reconciled so they become split off from each other in rigidly separated mental compartments. Here, instead of lying to other people the psyche lies to itself so that it can behave in self-contradictory ways without the unbearable feelings of conflict that would normally arise in such circumstances.

Melanie Klein described the way this splitting is often projected on to others so that, for example, only their ‘acceptable’ aspects are recognised while their ‘unacceptable’ aspects are repressed. This sheds light on the splitting off of ‘women’s leadership’ from their priestly identity in the language of some recent official pronouncements. The process of repression is also evident in calls for ‘graciousness’ and ‘restraint’. This is clearly the language of godly virtue, but it can also readily be turned to keeping a lid on dissent.

Splitting is not inherently bad, but it is only a holding strategy: it can never be a path to psychic or organisational integrity, and at its most dysfunctional it leads to madness (the ‘schizo’ in schizophrenia refers to this sort of splitting).

While there is no doubt some conscious disingenuous diplomacy going on in the Church of England, I am more inclined to believe that something at once more innocent and more serious is afoot. Sadly, the position enshrined in the Five Guiding Principles, whose consequences are beginning to be worked out in Sheffield, suggests to me that the Church is both undergoing and promoting an unconscious process of splitting, believing it possible to serve two masters as long as they never get to meet each other. Ironically, through a fear of organisational disintegration it is endangering both its corporate integrity and the psychic integrity of some of its individual members in a way that is literally unwholesome.

Revd Canon Dr Joanna Collicutt
An academic psychologist of religion,
undertaking postgraduate studies,
at King’s College London.


* The late Nancy Jay explored the close interrelationship between patrilineage and cultic sacrifice in her anthropological writings, applying this in a most enlightening way to Eucharistic practice in the US Episcopal Church.. (Jay, N. 1992. Throughout your generations forever: sacrifice, religion, and paternity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press)