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A Christian perspective Gender

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When I studied theology at university I had the pleasure of being taught by the theologian Dr Daphne Hampson. Daphne enjoyed some celebrity as a post-Christian feminist theologian in those days. Now, you might be thinking that the phrase ‘post-Christian feminist' is a bit of a mouthful - and it is. (The ‘post' word means she's no longer a Christian, but that religion still means something to her; or, in other words, you can't understand Daphne without understanding Christianity first. Think of it as you would your own childhood - you can't get away from it and it's important to you in many ways, but overall it's a time of your life you've outgrown.) Daphne's theology - her thoughts or talk about God - was actually quite straightforward.

 

It's a man thing!

Men created Christianity, Daphne argued, to grow, flourish and feel OK about life. But when women came to adopt Christianity they crashed. They weren't left feeling OK, in fact they were often left feeling pretty bad about themselves. So Christianity will never fit the shape of women, Daphne insisted. The hat doesn't fit and women should stop wearing it. If you want to follow God do it by yourself or in informal groups - but not in churches full of crosses which display a man's half-naked body. Daphne, many years before I knew her, had been a faithful and committed member of the Church of England. She had wanted to become a priest, but couldn't. The Church didn't allow it back then. And so her doubts grew and her thinking started to evolve until she reached such a state of clarity about her post-Christian position that to remain in the Church would have been hypocritical. Religion, after all, should be something we do for good reasons and with seriousness of mind. In summary, what took Daphne out of the Church of England was her opposition to its irredeemably sexist and patriarchal words, images and scriptures. The word patriarchy is perhaps the most important word in any debate about gender and religion. It means the ‘rule of the father' (men).

 

But is Daphne right? Are all the millions of women who call themselves Christian deluded and under the thumb of men and ‘their' religion? I pondered these questions long and hard when Daphne lectured me ten years ago and I continue to ponder them today. I haven't yet come to any simple conclusions; I see both sides of the argument. Gender and religion is a very complex subject.

 

Male bias in the church

This favouritism or bias towards men - the point of patriarchy - within the Christian church is obvious, even at a quick glance. For instance throughout the Bible, God is routinely called ‘Father' never directly ‘Mother'; women rarely get a major role in the biblical record, and when they do they're either temptresses (Eve and Jezebel) or devoted mothers (Sarah and Mary). Or consider the fact that, according to the Gospels, Jesus decided not to choose any women to be part of his chosen inner circle of disciples. To this biblical blacklist we could add much from later history. The theologian Tertullian (160 - 225 AD) once wrote that women, because of what Eve did, are the ‘gateway of the devil'.

 

Thankfully, even in a collection of writings written completely by men there are hints here and there that God's message of love is meant for all - regardless of gender, status or race - that all are equal before God. Indeed, this universal gospel of love and inclusion is a key reason Christianity was so successful during its initial phrase of growth in the first two centuries AD. The earliest Christians, unlike the more sophisticated and class-conscious Romans, didn't respect hierarchies much. Both the rich man and poor man mattered; neither was more loved by God. I hope this was what St. Paul had in mind when he included in his letter to the Christians in Galatia: ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.' (Galatians: 3:28)

 

And in society

Our society remains - inside and outside the Church - patriarchal. Most of the governments of the world, most of its religions and power structures have men up at the front, talking the talk and walking the walk. In the Church of England the story for women has improved a great deal - they can now become priests - but for me there remains a long way to go. Since women were admitted to the priesthood in 1994 we still await legislation that would allow them to become bishops. Along with the Church's implicit racism - it's still predominantly a white community - and its homophobia, it can hardly hold itself up as a morally credible institution that people would find themselves drawn to and desire to join. In the wise words of the inner-city priest and teacher Kenneth Leech: ‘The question of the place of women and of women's experience in the Christian tradition and community may well be the issue which determines the future of the movement as a viable community of human fulfilment.' (Kenneth Leech, The Eye of the Storm: Spiritual Resources for the Pursuit of Justice, p. 230)

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