The preceding chapters have made passing reference to the prominent place of women in Christian history. We have noted their presence in the earliest Christian communities, in movements of mystical and monastic piety, in the upheavals of Reformation, in modern missionary work. In the contemporary West women outnumber men by a ratio of three to two in most churches, and though there is little research on this topic, the ratio may be similar in the southern hemisphere.
Our final task in exploring Christian success and failure is to investigate the religion's appeal to the different sexes. The most pressing task is to explain why women appear to be more numerous and more active in the churches whenever and wherever we have hard evidence about such matters. Were we looking at something like goddess spirituality, where women are directly empowered through the invocation of a female divine, the issue would not be so puzzling. But Christianity has traditionally excluded women from positions of power, and often places more emphasis on the connections between divinity and masculinity than divinity and femininity. So in fact we must deal with two questions: not only 'why so many women?', but also 'why not more men'?
Nowhere in the Bible is it clearly and unambiguously stated that women and men are of equal dignity and worth, that women should never be treated as men's inferiors, that the domination of one sex by the other is a sin, or that the divine takes female form. The closest the New Testament comes to any such statements is in Galatians, where Paul writes, 'There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus'. In I Corinthians, however, Paul explains that women should be veiled in church to signal their subordination to men because 'the head of every man is Christ, and the head of a woman is her husband', and that 'women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says.'
Paul's statements exemplify a pattern in Christianity of all varieties. | On the one hand, egalitarian statements are backed up in practice S by equal access for both sexes to the church's key rituals and i sacraments, scriptures, and the promise of salvation. But on the |' other hand the egalitarian emphasis is contradicted by a symbolic framework that elevates the male over the female, and by organizational arrangements that make masculine domination a reality in church life. Theological statements on the position of women from down the centuries testify not only to the assumption that it is men who have the authority to define women, but to the precautions that have been taken to ensure that women do not claim too much real equality with men - in this life at least.
Though the Christian God is sometimes said to be sexless or 'above gender', both the language and the images used to depict Him are overwhelmingly masculine. As we have seen in Chapter 2, He is often depicted by way of the symbols of the highest masculine authority: throne, crown, sceptre, robes, beard. 'He' is Father and Son, King, Judge, Lord, and Master. A hierarchical relation between the sexes is built into the hierarchical scheme that lies at the heart of
Extracts from theological reflection on the position of women
Woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.
The rule remains with the husband, and the wife is compelled to obey him by God's command. He rules the home and the state, wages wars, and defends his possessions . .. The woman, on the other hand, is like a nail driven into the wall. She sits at home .. . She does not go beyond her most personal duties.
Properly speaking, the business of woman, her task and function, is to actualize the fellowship in which man can only precede her, stimulating, leading, inspiring.
(Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics)
The present reflections, now at an end, have sought to recognize, within the 'gift of God', what he, as Creator and Redeemer, entrusts to women, to every woman. In the Spirit of Christ, in fact, women can discover the entire meaning of their femininity and thus be disposed to making a 'sincere gift of self' to others, thereby finding themselves.
(Pope John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem)
a Christianity of higher power. If the Christian God were truly sexless or above gender, it would be permissible to conceive 'Her' in female as well as in male terms. In actual fact, however, the whole logic of Christianity renders such representation difficult and unusual. Julian of Norwich is famous for speaking of Jesus as 'our mother', and for stressing his nurturing characteristics, but this is part and parcel of her highly unusual theological stance which claims that in God 'there is no wrath at all'. Recent attempts to introduce feminine pronouns and imagery into liturgical worship have been confined to Liberal or Mystical forms of Christianity, and have proved highly controversial.
A masculine bias is also evident in Christian understandings and representations of 'man' (humanity). One of the most influential images in the Christian repertoire is that of God creating human beings, when Adam is created first and Eve is taken from his side > (following the account in Genesis 2; see Figs 23 and 24). An obvious | implication is that whereas man is made directly in God's image, S woman is a secondary and dependent creation - and that the image i of God shines more brightly in the former than the latter. This |'
interpretation is reinforced by the observation that Eve succumbed to sin before Adam. Many drew the natural conclusion that if woman is to be saved she must discipline her body and her bodily appetites more harshly than a man, since it is these appetites that brought about the Fall of the human race, and her sex that separates her from the sacred. The importance of virtues like humility, obedience, and chastity tend to be emphasized for Christian women more than Christian men. The ultimate aim may be the destruction of the female body, so that a sexless but 'manly' spirit may float free. In early Christianity women who attained the same spiritual heights as men (through martyrdom, for example), were frequently spoken of as 'female men of God' who had 'became male'. The imagery of 'putting on Christ', 'becoming part of the body of Christ', and becoming 'sons by adoption' reinforced the idea that salvation for women consisted in subduing or destroying their sex in order to replace it with something of higher value. For men, by contrast,
23 and 24. Creation of Adam and Eve by Michelangelo (Sistine Chapel, 1508-12). The dignity of Adam's creation, in which God brings forth a being made in His image, stands in contrast to the creation of Eve, who steps out of Adam's side stooping and cowed, facing a God very different from herself.
salvation consisted in perfecting the divine nature in whose image S
they are created from the outset. i i o
The idea of a natural connection between masculinity and divinity is reinforced by the institution of male priesthood - and vice versa. As we saw in Chapter 3, Church Christianity located the sacred in material sacraments, but insisted that only men could consecrate, handle, and distribute them. This extraordinary privilege was justified in terms of analogy between God the Father and the priestly 'father', a man's greater ability to represent Jesus Christ, and apostolic succession from a male saviour through an exclusively male line.
The image of God as Father played a particularly important role in shaping Christian life and society. We have noted how, rather than speak of their dominating power, Christian leaders often preferred to represent themselves as exercising paternal care over their 'children': the priestly 'father' over his parish, the 'abbot' (abba = father) over his monastery, the pope (papa = father) over
The female man of God
Even in them that are women in body, the manliness of their souls hides the sex of their flesh.
Although she was an insignificant, weak and despised woman, yet she was clothed with the great and invincible athlete Christ. (2nd-century account of the martydrom of Blandina)
(Response of a 17th-century woman Quaker when rebuked by men for preaching)
the church and society. Such language not only excludes women from the exercise of such roles, but appropriates to men the roles of care and compassion in their 'highest' manifestation. When new and potentially lucrative economic roles opened up to women in the late medieval period, the Protestant Reformers made full use of the rhetoric of fatherhood to exclude them not only from ecclesiastical office but from paid employment and civil power, and to confine them to the home. They taught that just as the heavenly Father ruled over His people, so the earthly father had a duty of care and command over wife, children, servants, and other members of the household. If household members disobey they must be punished by fathers for their own good - by force if necessary.
All of which makes it easy to explain the attraction of Christianity to men simply in terms of male self-interest. Christianity benefits men by setting male self-identity on the strongest possible foundation: the image of man is reflected back from God himself. Men also benefit from the way in which the Christian symbolic framework helps the male sex secure a dominant place in society as a whole. It does this not only by legitimating masculine domination, but by de-legitimating female resistance. In addition, Christianity exercises a direct appeal by offering men attractive roles within church life. By limiting these roles to the few - the ordained clergy -Christianity ensured that they would be more prestigious and well rewarded. In recent times the standing of the clergy has fallen in the West, chiefly because there are now so many other lucrative openings available to members of affluent societies. But in previous centuries power and status were reserved for the very few - those whose birth or military prowess enabled them to maintain ownership of scarce resources, chiefly land. In this context church and monastery offered the only routes by which talented men without property could better themselves in social, cultural, and material terms. The rewards for those who reached the top -whether as abbot or bishop - could be immense. >
If men really have so much to gain from Christianity, however, why S have they not been more active and numerous in the religion? An i obvious answer is that Christianity can support masculine |'
domination without requiring that all men be regular or active "
churchgoers. Indeed, it is more important that women attend church and absorb the Christian message than men do. An additional answer is that the men who are most active in the church are often those who have some office and status there (whether as church warden, altar boy, priest, theologian or bishop). Since Christianity cannot offer rewarding roles to all men, many see no obvious reason to get involved. Sitting passively in the pew and being preached to does not necessarily appeal to those who are used to more active and vocal roles in society, especially when the message being preached has to do with the importance of humility, weakness, submission, and self-sacrificial love.
It is likely, then, that men find some aspects of Christianity difficult, unappealing, or restrictive. Even though the religion confers obvious benefits on the male sex, it exacts a price. Though
Christianity endorses male power, it cautions that it must be exercised in a 'fatherly' way by serving God and others rather than the self (the pope, for example, describes himself as a 'servant of the servants of God'). Similarly, although male sexuality is rendered more visible and less problematic in the Christian scheme of things than female sexuality, it is hardly embraced with wholehearted enthusiasm. It too has to be exercised in a restrained fashion and in fulfilment of God's purposes rather than for pleasure and self-fulfilment. Thus none of the markers of machismo - sexual, material, physical, and political dominance - are given unequivocal support in the Christian tradition, whilst the 'womanly' virtues of love, gentleness, obedience, and self-sacrifice receive more explicit endorsement. This, combined with the fact that there are so many women in the churches, may render Christianity just a little too feminine for some men to tolerate; the costs may be found to outweigh the benefits.
c f The attraction for women
If Christianity seeks in some ways to 'unman' males, by the same token it has much to offer women. Women benefit in two ways: first, by the restraint that appeal to Christian values may place on the unbridled exercise of male power; and second, by the recognition and affirmation of the value of typically feminine roles, virtues, and dispositions.
Even though the New Testament contains no unambiguous endorsement of female equality, and certainly offers no support to female dominance, there are hints and glimmers of a 'kingdom' in which things could be different. Jesus not only ministers amongst and with women, he teaches that humility, poverty of spirit, and sincere devotion are more important than worldly power or priestly status. He speaks of a love whose exercise knows no limits or distinctions, a love which, as Paul puts it, 'is patient and kind ... not jealous or boastful . . . not arrogant or rude . . . does not insist on its own way . . . '. Such a message could inspire and empower those whose daily work and care were often ascribed little economic or cultural, let alone spiritual, value.
Christianity could also offer women congenial social space. In theory at least, the church community is bound only by ties of love -love for one another and for the God whose Son gives His life for His church. The resonance with the ethos of the family is striking, and it is no coincidence that the image of the family should be so central to ecclesiastical self-understanding (the church as the 'family of God'). Though this image could be used to reinforce the rule of fathers, it could also have profound significance for those whose daily lives were taken up with the unrewarded tasks of loving, caring, and sacrificing for others. Women with children have much to gain from an institution like the church that supports the family, exalts the domestic role, offers support and companionship in the task of rearing and educating children, and, once children > have left home, can find other caring roles for women to perform. In | any case, women seem more inclined than men to join a community S for the good of community and relationship alone, irrespective of i any other roles or privileges that membership might bring. 5'
What is more, for much of Christian history the church has been the only public space that women have been allowed to occupy besides the home - certainly the only one that wives and daughters might be allowed to attend independent of husbands and fathers. The later medieval period saw a flourishing of female piety, still evident in the rich flowering of feminized art and sculpture that occurred at that time, in which images of female saints abound. Despite Protestantism's hostility to such images, some post-Reformation churches offered women new opportunities for education, literacy, and even public ministry. In the 19th century, missionary work and charitable activities offered women an outlet for energies and ambitions that would otherwise have been frustrated. Though the avowed aim of (for example) female-led temperance movements might be to curb the consumption of alcohol, the deeper concern was often to bridle men and machismo - male spending, male sexuality, and male violence. Even though it could not be made explicit, such organizations sometimes harboured elements of a feminist agenda. Churchmen might have become worried about such activities, but it was hard to control women who claimed to be carrying out the injunctions of Christ. Though the scriptures had more often been used to justify male control of women, it was possible for the tables to be turned.
But even if Christianity can attract women by affirming feminine virtue and providing congenial social space and tools of resistance to masculine domination, does not its close association of masculinity and divinity have the opposite effect? Not necessarily. In fact, women may be more attracted to the worship of a male God and saviour than men, and the reason is not hard to see. If society encourages women to love, serve, obey, and even worship men, then it is not difficult to transfer such attitudes to a male God - or for > devotion to a male God to reinforce such behaviours. Indeed, in so .§ far as society reinforces heterosexuality, it is much more natural for J a woman to offer intense, emotional devotion to a male deity than for a man to do the same. Whilst men may have no difficulty in bowing down before the power, majesty, and fatherly authority of God, they are less likely than women to 'give their hearts to Jesus' or enter into an intense, emotional relationship with him. We noted the development of romantic, erotic forms of mystical piety in earlier chapters. 'Brides of Christ' would surrender to Christ the heavenly bridegroom and feel themselves melting into him. Such imagery is not confined to the past. In many Biblical and Charismatic Christian circles today women still engage in romance with Christ, and still affirm - to quote one Evangelical 'bride' - that 'Jesus alone understands me, forgives me and loves me'.
Such erotic piety may have different social and personal implications. It may reinforce patriarchal norms and encourage women to accept forms of male domination to which they would not otherwise be willing to submit. It may offer women a means of coping with such domination, but prevent them from questioning
25. Vision ofthe Sacred Heart of Jesus by Antonio Ciseri (Church of Sacro Cuore, Florence, 1880). Mary Margaret Alacoque (1647-90), depicted here, was the first to receive a vision of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. By the 19th century, statues and pictures of the Sacred Heart could be found in many Roman Catholic churches, homes, and schools. They have been particularly important in female devotion.
the social order of which it is a part. Or it may equip them with an effective means of resisting male domination and constructing different social arrangements. In Catholicism, for example, 'brides of Christ' could - and still can - escape earthly marriage altogether by entering a convent where they gather with like-minded women and may attain considerable independence from men.
In the context of patriarchal societies, Christianity may therefore appeal to women because of its masculine bias, rather than in spite of it. Christianity may have much to offer women who wish to turn their backs on power and embrace the virtues of love, humility, powerlessness, and self-sacrifice. But it also has a considerable amount to offer those who want some share in such power. For if power is concentrated in a male God and His church, there is much more to be gained by joining it than by rejecting it. Not only could Christian women claim the protection of the Almighty Father God, > they could also enter into a relationship with Him that was every bit as close and intense as that enjoyed by a man. By such means a J handful of women in Christian history have claimed the right to do theology, to speak for themselves, even to command kings and popes; in the societies in which they lived it is hard to imagine any other route by which they could have done so.
Christianity can no longer take male domination for granted, for the societies in which it is situated have been changing - particularly in the West. Of the several unprecedented changes that took place in advanced industrial societies in the last quarter of the 20th century, the move towards gender equality has been one of the most significant. Whilst genuine equality remains an elusive ideal, as an ideal at least it is now widely accepted. A recent survey of cultural values worldwide indicates that such acceptance is now the single most important cultural item separating affluent Western societies from less economically developed countries in the rest of the world. The difference can be traced back not only to cultural and educational differences, but to the much greater scarcity of resources outside the West. Where money and jobs are in short supply, men have always been more likely to try to preserve a monopoly than when they have nothing to lose by allowing women (relatively) free access to the labour market.
Of the many threats that Christianity has to face in modern times, gender equality is one of the most serious, though perhaps the most underestimated by the churches. The more radical feminists had Christianity in their sights from the start. When Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) set out to liberate women from their traditional shackles, for example, one of her first projects was a Woman's Bible in which the passages used by men to keep women in subjection were highlighted and critiqued. Although some early campaigners for female emancipation belonged to the churches, and though some church-related movements helped nurture >
women's entrance onto the public stage, the campaigners who |
embraced the feminist cause most wholeheartedly nearly always S made a break from Church and Biblical Christianity (Mystical i
Christianity sometimes proved more compatible with feminism). 5'
The rift between Christianity and feminism was exacerbated not so much by the churches' opposition to the cause, but by their general indifference. Even churches that supported the emancipation of slaves, the amelioration of the condition of the industrial working class, and the civil rights movement of the 1960s often failed to give similar support to the cause of women's liberation. So far as their own institutional life was concerned, a few of the more liberal Biblical and Mystical churches supported women's ministry as early as the late 19th century, but Church Christianity and conservative Biblical Christianity opposed the ordination of women with vigour. The Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches still refuse even to discuss the possibility of women's ordination.
An obvious consequence of the churches' continuing failure to support gender equality - in practice if not in theory - is the
Feminist Theology developed in the 1970s, hand in hand with Second Wave Feminism. It represents an attempt to write theology on the basis of women's experience, and in so doing to reform the Christian tradition from within.
The earliest major voice in Feminist Theology also turned out to be one of the most critical. When she wrote The Church and the Second Sex in 1968, Mary Daly believed that the church and theology could be reclaimed and reformed by feminists. By the time she published Beyond God the Father in 1973, she had come to the conclusion that Christianity was irredeemably patriarchal. In her later works she developed a 'Post-Christian' position which encouraged women to abandon the 'phallocentric' world of Christianity and develop their own authentic forms of spirituality in isolation from men. As she says in Pure Lust (1984): 'We do not wish to be redeemed by a god, to be adopted as sons, or to have the spirit of a god's son artificially injected into our hearts, crying ''father''.'
A second major contributor to Feminist Theology, Rosemary Radford Ruether, has also written about the importance of women retreating into 'womanchurch' and creating their own rituals, prayers, and theologies. But Ruether has never abandoned her ultimate aim, which is to reform Christianity by calling it back to what she views as the prophetic, egalitarian mission and message of Jesus. In Sexism and God-Talk (1983) she argues that:
Wl l ua' o alienation of women and men sympathetic to the ideal. This is not to say that huge numbers of women leave the churches in a conscious act of protest, but that one of the reasons that each successive generation since the 1960s has been less likely to attend than the one before may be that many women and men are no longer in sympathy with the churches' implicit or explicit messages about gender roles. Women who refuse to submit to male authority may struggle with a religion that has male clergy, a male God, and a male saviour; and women who want a career on equal terms with men may be alienated by churches that privilege women's domestic roles. They may abandon Christianity altogether, try to reform it, or find themselves attracted to the new holistic forms of spirituality that tend to be run by women for women and which offer direct benefit in terms of personal empowerment.
The uniqueness of feminist theology lies not in its use of the criterion of experience but rather in its use of women's experience, which has been almost entirely shut out of theological reflection in the past. The use of women's experience in feminist theology, therefore, explodes as a critical force, exposing classical theology ... as based on male experience rather than on universal human experience.
Here and in later works Ruether argues that the integration of women's experience into Christianity will result in a rather different religion in which 'God/ess' will be more feminized and more immanent, in which self-affirmation and development will be emphasized as much as sinfulness, and in which egocentric dreams of post-mortem existence will be abandoned in favour of a celebration of life in its wholeness here and now.
But this cannot be the whole story, for despite women's defection from the churches (the single most important direct cause of congregational decline), they continue to attend in larger numbers than men. For some, it would seem, the traditional attractions of Christianity remain, not least its ability to affirm women's domestic roles and offer support to family life. Large numbers of women continue to enjoy the satisfactions of an intense relationship with Jesus Christ. Others, particularly in some of the more liberal and mystical forms of Christianity, are experimenting with new forms of spirituality that require less by way of female submission. Some women have been admitted to positions of authority in the church, and a handful have even become bishops.
In the southern hemisphere the story is different again, for here the number of women in the churches is growing rather than > declining, and women play a significant rule in Christianity's recent growth. Although a traditional message about male J headship is more common than in the West, masculine authority is tempered in Charismatic Christianity by the presence of the Holy Spirit. Not only can the Spirit be represented in feminine terms as gentle, flowing, loving, and nurturing, it also offers direct empowerment to all who admit it into their lives, irrespective of their sex. Far from remaining external, commanding, and forbidding, God as Spirit enters into the most intimate relationship with the believer, empowering from within. Rather than imposing its will from above, the Spirit works through individual lives, bodies, and personalities, conferring authority as it does so. Lest the empowered overreach themselves, however, the Spirit is checked by the Word. That which is contrary to scripture - and thus to male headship - may be condemned as the work of evil spirits rather than the Spirit of God. Given lack of support for gender equality in many of the poorer countries of the world, this message supports a wider social consensus.
The success of Christianity across the centuries may lie, in part, in the delicate balance it has managed to maintain between male and female interests. While supporting the former, it has also made significant concessions to the latter. While affirming masculine domination, it has tempered and qualified it by emphasizing the importance of the gentler, more loving, more feminine virtues.
While presenting a rhetoric of egalitarianism, it has ensured that male privilege has been firmly embedded in its own life. In this way it has been able to uphold patriarchal arrangements, whilst subjecting them to critique and control. Equally, it has managed to affirm women and appeal to them, without encouraging them to rebel against their masters. By appealing to greater numbers of women than to men, but in retaining and supporting male control, it may have achieved the best possible outcome in the maleis dominated societies of which it has been an integral part. g o 3 a
The shift towards gender equality in modern Western societies r
poses a serious threat to traditional Christian imagery, teaching, j?
and organization. For men, Christianity's role in reinforcing ?
masculine domination becomes less relevant, whilst for women its usefulness as a way of gaining access to male power and subverting it from within becomes less important. As women as well as men come to place greater authority on the value of their own unique subjective-lives, they become more resistant to the ready-made roles into which the church would have them fit - however highly exalted. Outside the West, however, where full gender equality wins far less support, Christianity's delicate balancing act continues to prove effective. One might say that Christianity is most successful as a 'woman's religion' when it finds itself in a 'man's world' - a world it helps to reinforce, whilst ameliorating its excesses.
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