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Stebbing, Great Dunmow, Essex, United Kingdom
The occasional blog of an Anglican priest in rural Essex

Friday, 7 November 2008

Together we are beautiful

Hi Jody,
Lots to think about there. There was a Fulcrum thread a while back on which "feminisation of the church" came up, but I’m still not sure exactly what people mean by it.
I have to say, (though I'm still struggling through "Why men hate going to church" its like wading through molasses – would say treacle but its American!) that I mostly think about the church, rather than clergy, when on the subject of men and women. Since the first women priests in the C of E in 94 we can say obviously that there has been a feminisation of the clergy, if we mean an increase in the number of women, but I agree that this has not yet ironed out the institutional maleness of the Church (which we strangely and rather patronisingly refer to as “her” sometimes – “Mother church” etc.)

I agree too that men outside the church (especially those of my generation and younger) don’t have a problem with women in church or women clergy – that’s not keeping them away; in fact it might even be a reason to go along. So the relationship between men in or nearly in the pew and women (clergy) is not in my experience the problem.

Where it hits the fan for the blokes I worship with and go to the pub with is the old “Jesus is my boyfriend” style worship songs, the worst offender recently being “Here I am, A laid down lover...” and as for “Kiss it better father make the hurting stop”, particularly on a kids praise album, that’s just getting way out of your average bloke’s comfort zone when it comes to expressions of public emotion.

When was the last time you saw a man who did not have his own school age children in church and who was not the vicar, joining in enthusiastically with an action song? So they might want to be there with the women and kids, but some of the stuff they are expected to sing and say and do is very cringe making. This in itself though may not be enough justification for the numerous men’s ministries that we see around.

I think “segregated” is a bit of a strong word; after all, men can now join the Mothers’ Union (and girls can join the cubs). There are some churches where stuff like Bible study and prayer is all done in single sex groups; that’s just getting silly and over-protective, especially with students! I can see that I’m arguing myself into a bit of a corner; we try to be an all-age church here, so maybe we should also be trying harder to include men and women in everything instead of just doing things like prayer breakfasts and outreach events separately. If the church developed more of a culture of doing things for all ages and both genders all the time, one might argue that inclusion is easier to achieve, in a diverse congregation.

On the other hand, if I run a curry night for couples I know from school, they all have to get sitters; if I invite the blokes out, then my wife invites the women a different night, that’s a little easier. That’s a practical thing rather than a theological one, I will admit. Perhaps another issue is that men’s outreach groups tend to have as their aim the conversion of the men into church going Christians, instead of just letting them be themselves and find a place to belong in a group – even if that group never actually gets into the church and only ever meets in the pub. If we held forums for discussion of issues that engage men, like war or the economy or Dawkins etc, leaving space for a range of opinion and not aiming for an altar call, the men might be keener to stick around. They might even think the church is actually worth being part of, and so would be helped on the way of self-discovery.

Reality is after all relational - as Christians we understand the world, ourselves and each other in the light of Christ; humanuity was created for relationship with God and with each other. Thjat's who we are, so yes, isolation can restrict our identity.

This is all great in theory but I still feel there is value in groupings or even organisations that are single sex – religious communities are at their best in that pattern, and very few of them never actually allow members of the opposite sex to visit, worship eat and live with them.

Perhaps is we can reflect on Obama’s win; it was 45 years from MLK’s speech to a black president. Change we need, yes, but it takes time (“Like a mighty tortoise move the church of God” etc). I just watched Ratatouille with my daughter. There’s a great line when the rat hero is battling with his father who wants him to be a rat, and his own desires to be a chef; he says “Change IS nature”

Throughout the years since ‘63 there have been special campaigning or interest groups for black people, which will I’m sure, continue. When I was a student the Union had a black rights officer, but no one (to the left of Genghis Khan) asked for a white rights officer.

In the Evangelical world you will be aware that there is a support group for women evangelical clergy (and ordinands) AWESOME. There are no cries for a similar body for the men (unless that’s what Reform is and I’ve been missing the point all these years (joking!)).

What I’m saying is, in purely human terms, to precipitate change I think you need special interest/campaign/support groups to empower/encourage/inform the people who seek the change. Of course God is involved in it too; he does the changing, essentially.

As we’ve seen, the church has a problem in keeping men interested in Christianity, so on this model I feel we are justified in having special interest groups for men, or special outreach strategies for men. Not because they are oppressed, far from it, but because they are a minority in the pews. As you so rightly say, the church is meant to reflect the whole image of God, and “male and female he created them”, not just men or just women, but both together as equals.

Just as black rights campaigners have been (for the most part in the mainstream) careful not to say life is just about black people (isn’t that why Obama left his old church) and just as most feminists (again, in the “mainstream”) don’t claim that life is just about women, Christian ministry to and outreach among men must not be exclusive or misogynistic, for the reasons you have outlined - because dodgy theology, even underlying sound ideas, will always be dodgy theology, which on a practical level will never keep the blokes on board.

I think this is why the macho male bonding type rallies don’t work, because the church as a whole isn’t like that, and shouldn’t be, so those drawn in through that kind of approach will end up disappointed and leave – or go back to the terraces.

I first went to church because of a woman; in that church there were women up the front leading and preaching; it was quite a few years before I actually realised (coming as I did from a totally secular childhood) that there were no women priests. When I read the Bible I saw it was full of dynamic and holy women – who were visited by Angels and told the will of God, or who first witnessed the resurrection and first told others about it.

Only now some 22 years later am I beginning to see that the elephant in the room is sometimes a man

Who isn’t there.

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