Sunday 8 December 2013

Woodhead on Feminism and Christianity

Linda Woodhead's interview with Vicky Beeching on Beeching's blog Faith in Feminism  here this week has reminded me of Mary Grey's book Redeeming the Dream, published, I think, in 1989 here in which she puts forward and explores a model of Christian redemption which takes into account the inadequacy of categories within the tradition to interpret women's experience. Grey rejects traditional definitions of what it is to be a woman from within the Christian tradition as being unhealthy for women, encouraging them to lose a self they have never known. Reading this attempt at a radical theology of redemption and atonement left me, I recall, with a lingering and uncomfortable question. 'Is what Grey is trying to do possible or is it the case that Christianity is irredeemably patriarchal?' In one sense, of course, the answer is 'no' because the essence of Christian belief is that nothing is beyond redemption; everything, everyone can be transformed by encounter with Christ and through life in the Spirit. But it's a scary question for both feminists and Christians because, if the answer were 'yes', it would lead, inevitably to the parting of the ways. Feminists could not regard themselves as being on a Christian quest and the church would ultimately have nothing to say to them. It's the question some women who have spent a large part of their lives in the church hardly dare ask.

I discovered my own response to this disturbing question by spending a lot of time digging around in the Christian tradition, especially the early part of it, for snippets of evidence that the mainstream story (what Schussler Fiorenza would call History) was not the whole story and that there are in fact ways of telling a different story by piecing together what has been overlooked and edited out (Herstory). You then have to learn to live in the interstitial space between the two worlds, hearing one thing from most of the church and experiencing another kind of life alongside it - often more by imagination and desire than in reality. A prime example of this kind of tension would be the juxtaposition of the mainstream story in which we all collude about family life being God-given and of first importance with the other story in the gospels - 'Jesus, blessed are the breasts that gave you suck!' 'No. Rather, blessed is she who does the will of God.' Jesus wasn't always big on conventional family ties, it seems, and this is strange in one brought up within Judaism. Yet people seldom ask the meaning of this. One of Grey's key points is that, for women to thrive, there must be Christ centred freedom to stand apart from traditional understandings of womanhood as laid out by the church fathers, several of whom, by the way, described women as the gateway to the devil and in various similarly scathing terms that have redounded down the centuries influencing everything from theology to popular culture.

So I was interested to read Woodhead's interview in which, if I understand her correctly, she gets quite near to saying that, while there is always hope, there are not many signs that the churches are being effective in doing anything to redeem Christianity for women at the moment. Vicky Beeching asks her if there is hope for a feminist friendly future and she responds that to achieve this would take a 'genuine revolution' led by church leaders who have the ability and desire (and I would add understanding) to undertake some major re-thinking. I agree with her analysis completely. Having recently moved, after 25 years, from full time church ministry into a ministry largely focused in the secular world I have realised forcibly that the space young women inhabit makes it almost impossible for them to take seriously many of the things the churches appear to be saying about women, power and authority, sexuality and family life. There just is no longer any point of natural engagement. Or at least most of the points of natural engagement are obscured by attitudes that reflect neither the truth about the range of possibilities contained within the Christian tradition nor the way life is experienced today by women. Some of these attitudes are seen as frankly oppressive, degrading and abusive. 

I found Woodhead's distinction between patriarchy, sexism and misogyny, on the one hand, and paternalism, on the other, very illuminating indeed. I have often asked myself why it is that negative attitudes to women seem so especially intransigent. Why is it that in societies that have gone a long way to rooting out racial hatred there so often still lingers oppression for women of all races? Woodhead's category of paternalism is very helpful here. It helps you to see how it's possible to get to a place where blatant patriarchy and misogyny are rejected by most people but for there still to be that lurking, hidden paternalism - an unstated belief that women need guidance from those who represent the status quo (ie. unconscientized men and women) in order to get to where they should be. The churches are full of this kind of thinking based on the perception that church order requires obedience to a higher authority which has already defined all the categories in terms of maleness as the norm. There is a consequent infantilizing of anyone or any group that dares to see things another way followed swiftly by a tendency to control or exclude. A striking example of this is to be found in the Act of Synod in the Church of England. A whole generation of bishops have required women priests to work with cheerful good grace under legislation that allows for bad behaviour towards them 'for the good of the whole church'. This is serious stuff. Women have been spat at, shouted at, called names, had libellous things written about them, been excluded from applying for jobs, been required to participate in debates about whether they had any place as priests and have had their ministries curtailed and constrained. Nowhere in secular British society is it possible for one group to require this of another under the protection of the law. Yet most of the bishops would not in any sense support arguments for strict patriarchy or hold overtly misogynistic attitudes.

On the whole, I think Woodhead is very accurate in her analysis - there is hope but there needs to be a lot more evidence of new kinds of thinking and behaviour before we can say that there has been progress. I'm now going to make myself very unpopular by saying that I think that the women of the church need to wake up (a good Advent discipline) and take responsibility. How have we allowed the churches to lag so far behind the rest of society in terms of working to change structural gender oppression? We need to see major change and, to date, we have not taken an effective part in ensuring it happens. How do we do this? We should be tireless in searching out our 'herstory' in the biblical, liturgical and doctrinal traditions of the churches; we should be fully aware of it, conversant with it, publishing it and using it. We should be refusing to participate in structures and ways of behaving that are damaging to women and we should be far more vocal about what is really going on. We should be listening to women in secular spheres who have worked out how to name gender oppression and abusive patterns of behaviour and we should be learning from them. We should be engaging with women outside the churches in other faiths and none to shape society in ways that allow women to thrive. Judith Plaskow, in her book Sex, Sin and Grace here uses the theologies of Niebuhr and Tillich to come up with a theory that I think has the ring of truth. She says that the besetting sin of maleness (and we are all a mixture of maleness and femaleness) is hubris - the tendency to put oneself in the place of God and assume therefore that your view of the world is the true one. The besetting sin of femaleness is failure to take responsibility for oneself. As people overcome these tendencies they become grace-filled and therefore true gift to one another. On the showing of the Anglican church I think the women of the church need to take Plaskow's words to heart. As one of my young colleagues said to me with incredulity the other day, 'And you just put up with that? Where's your self respect and, actually, where's your respect for other women?' She is undoubtedly a daughter of the Syrophoenician woman!

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