<Previous Edition | Volume 23 Number 3 2006

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'The whole generation is womanised, the masculine tone is passing out of the world.' 1

Earlier this summer I attended a number of ordinations in cathedrals in the north of England. I was struck by the gender balance of the candidates to be ordained deacon or priest. From my (admittedly small) sample many more women were being ordained than were men. I compared my experiences with those of my colleagues, who had attended ordinations in other cathedrals. In some cases the gender balance had been close to fifty-fifty, which is what one would expect given the gender balance of those in training, but our experience in the north was that in many cases the number of women was significantly more than the number of men. This might be expected in places where the ordinations included significant numbers of OLM and NSM candidates, where women are commonly in the majority. However, in a number of cases the women stipendiary candidates greatly outnumbered the men, and in at least one case there was no male candidate for stidpendiary ministry at all. Together we were concerned about the long-term implications of this for stipendiary ministry in the Church. There are predictions that the number of male candidates will decline as a proportion of the total number. What will this mean for the appearance, shape and content of ordained ministry? What will the effect be on the Church of England, especially in the north where most of the ordinations we had attended had taken place? Comparing our experiences and reflecting upon them led to a discussion about the 'feminisation of the church'. This is now a commonly heard phrase, but what does it mean and should we be concerned?


Feminisation of the Church

The expression 'Feminisation of the Church' is used to refer to a number of issues for the Church of England. Firstly it can refer to attendance numbers, that more women attend church than men. Some congregations, particularly elderly ones, contain predominantly more female members. This is not a new phenomenon, nor is it related to any one denomination, or to churches in Western Europe and America. However, concern over the gender balance in church attendance has waxed and waned through the past three hundred years, so it is interesting that it is reappearing as a significant issue again today. One aspect of the numbers issue that is changing is that in the past women have always been in the majority as attenders, but in the Church of England much of the significant lay leadership and all of the ordained leadership was male. Today in a parish church, not only could the majority of worshippers be women, but also the ordained minister, the churchwardens and most of the PCC. There is thus a very real concern that in its visual appearance, and maybe in other ways as well, the Church of England could become a Christian version of the Women's Institute.


Why men dont go to church

This leads on to the second issue, what is church like when women set the agenda for the appearance and content of buildings and worship, and equally significantly the priorities for ministry and mission? In appearance a church can become domesticated, leading to complaints about an aesthetic heavily influenced by altar flowers and felt banners. A concern for the care of children, particularly babies and toddlers, leads to the marking out of space for toys and other children's activities. The theological emphasis on family, through hymns, liturgy and activity, can seem to some men to suggest that religion and church going are domestic activities. For men not drawn to the domestic sphere this is problematic. If the tone of the whole is empathetic, or requires emotional intelligence for participation, then this too can be off-putting for some men. Church will be for them too touchy-feely. A vocal exponent of this view is David Murrow 2. For him the message of Jesus Christ to 'follow me' has been corrupted to 'have a relationship with me', which he sees as a recasting of Jesus' message in feminine terms. For Murrow, and he is a regular church goer, church can present as being for women and un-masculine men. Masculine men, in his view, want church to contain risk, challenge and daring, something he sees as present in Judaism and Islam. Now there is much to disagree with here, but Murrow's views ring true for many men. If the Church of England is going to fully engage with 'fresh expressions' and the risk and challenge implicit in daring to do a new thing, or even a renewed thing, there is a question for us about the kind of leadership needed for this, and whether those that are presently ordained (men or women) can do it. Where a church is pastoral, even domestic, it can tend towards maintenance mode, where traditional 'female' attributes are valued there might be high emotional intelligence, but not much that is assertive, expansive or strategic. I myself have wondered why it is that Anglican bishops and other (male) senior clergy are so keen on leadership courses at this time. Is this a reaction against a 'feminised' church? Is this the 'masculinity' of the Church asserting itself in a politically correct form? We need to remember that whatever we think of it, the present Church has emerged under male leadership.


The un-masculine man

Which brings us to the third issue - masculinity. Gender issues can be seen as being played out on a bi-polar scale, with 'masculine' at one end and 'feminine' at the other. In this scheme we may wonder where on this straight line the Church should position itself to appeal to both women and men today. However, it may be more complex than this. It might be that the issue is not feminisation, but anxiety about becoming or appearing un-masculine. This then leads to gender negotiations being much more complicated, and to situations where in an effort to assert 'true-masculinity' men might seem to be resisting 'feminisation', the effect and influence of women, but this might not be the case at all. Being un-masculine and being feminised are not the same thing, although there may be some overlap. Contemporary gender studies can help us here, as the focus moves way from the feminist agenda related to the spirituality of women to understandings of how masculinity has been constructed at different times through the history of Christianity. What we find are a number of occasions where there has been great concern among Christians to define true masculinity, and that these discourses affect not only men's relationships with women in the Church, but also with un-masculine men. In addition they affect the development of Christian thought concerning the person and death of the man Jesus, together with the mission and ministry that are implicit in discipleship.


Crucifixion and the construction of masculinity

For example, we can look at the ideology of masculinity in Classical and Late Antiquity, the first contexts in which the Gospel was preached. The apex of the social and cosmic hierarchy was masculine, and masculinity itself was not a given but had to be assumed and worked on. True manliness was defined by action, hardness, strength, and control over body, family and slaves. Sexually, a true man would penetrate rather than be penetrated. The true man par excellance was the emperor, depicted in art in his military role in control over both army and empire. He was the vir from whom all virtue ( virtus , etymologically 'manliness') was named. It is in this value system that we consider the impact of crucifixion, the Roman method of execution designed to un-man the rebel and upstart. Hung naked, without control over the body, the crucified man (and it was only ever men) was presented as diminished and effeminate. The preaching of 'Jesus Christ and him crucified' (1 Cor 2:2) is at once a challenge to both the cult of the emperor, who was understood to be a god, and to the masculine ideology upon which it was constructed. Paul preaches a Christ penetrated, violated, not in control of his own body on the cross. In his preaching Paul offers the possibility of another reality where in weakness and foolishness God is revealed. There is much to suggest that the Early Church struggled with this challenge to the ideology of masculinity, for example in the letters of Paul to the Corinthians and later in the depicting of the crucified Jesus in Christian art. The first image of the crucified Jesus is graffiti, where a denigrator of Christianity depicts a crucified donkey. The first image of Jesus crucified by a Christian artist may be fourth or fifth century, by which time the empire itself was ambivalent about the earlier construction of masculinity around power, control and the army, and crucifixion was loosing some of its cultural meaning. The first images of Jesus in Christian art show his image to be modelled on that of the emperor, or of Roman gods, whose cults Christianity challenged and then replaced. In these depictions Jesus is not weak or effeminate, but manly.


Coffee-house virtue

Leaping centuries, the same kind of debate on the construction of masculinity was significant through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in this country, and also in North America. At the beginning of the eighteenth century there emerged for the first time in this country groups of men who were considered to be effeminate, named in the nineteenth century homosexuals. 3 This dividing off of effeminate men was a small part of the debate defining sex, trade and politics that took place as the British Empire emerged as a world power. The very nature, the soul if you like, of the country was being defined. Boundaries which had not existed before, or had been fluid in the previous century, were discussed. This was an important time for the defining of evangelicalism, but also an important time in gender relations. One matter that was debated in coffee houses, drawing rooms of bluestockings, and in literature was the 'feminisation' of Britain, although this phrase was not used at this time. 4 Put simply the question was, would the emerging Britain be best served if 'feminine' virtues were valued by society as a whole? There was of course debate over whether women were indeed ever virtuous, but also of concern was another matter: if women were taken as role-models by men, would men then present as effeminate? Among the second generation of the bluestockings were nine women who were considered to epitomise the virtues. In effect women, alone without accompanying men, were exemplifying virtues for the whole of society. One woman was considered by some to epitomise all nine virtues, and so was nicknamed 'Nine'. This woman was the evangelical writer and philanthropist Hannah More, offered by Christian men as a role model for the nation. 5 For a short period the feminisation of the public and political sphere was considered a possibility. However, with the construction of a modern assertive masculinity, both effeminate and female were placed into the private realm. This too was the realm of religion, and so the beginning of feminisation of religion as we know it in the modern period.


The 'soft' Jesus and 'muscular Christianity'

American women in the early nineteenth century took their roles as guardians of domestic piety very seriously. In a culture that was expanding and uncertain, Protestant women understood their role and were the major contributors in resources and personal energy in the formation of a number of significant trans-denominational voluntary organisations (including The American Bible Society, 1816). As the century progressed the common image of Jesus had been reshaped to fit the contemporary ideal of the feminine. (God the Father carried the ideal of the masculine.) In novels, and later in artistic depictions, Jesus carried the virtues of the mother: pious and pure, loving and merciful, meek and humble. 6 Lives of Jesus were written to support mothers in the telling of the Christian story to their children. They were domestic in focus, and feminised in their content, at best Jesus was androgynous. By the end of the century the phrase 'crisis in masculinity' was used for the first time, not just concerned with the Church but North America in general, and a character in The Bostonians speaks for his generation when he says 'the whole generation is womanised, the masculine tone is passing out of the world'. 7 American Christian men formed their own organisations, concerned with showing Jesus to be a 'manly man', attractive to the 'real men' of America. This kind of organisation has had its renaissance in the late twentieth century with a variety of evangelical men's groups encouraging men to go wild, or get in touch with their inner back-woodsman. At its centre this approach asks questions about the Trinity, Christological approaches to Jesus, and often seeks to define gender on a bi-polar scale which ignores effeminacy.


In summary

So, I am suggesting that the current 'feminisation of the Church' issue is about more than numbers, or about making churches more comfortable places for men to be. If our times are changing, then so have times before, and the debate about the construction of gender, very importantly masculinity, will be around for some time. In iconic or representational terms we will wonder whether women can represent godly virtue to church and nation, whether a Church mostly attended by women can be effective in mission to men, and whether the Church can offer a construct of masculinity to the nation that is both true to the gospel and attractive.


In this issue

The theme for this issue is Christianity in the North East. In the first article Liz Hoare sets the seen for us. Liz has been reflecting for some time on what it means to live and minister in the north-east (the Anglican dioceses of Newcastle, Durham, Ripon and Leeds and York), and from a wealth of anecdotes and experiences she offers a personal reflection on the challenges and special opportunities this part of England offers. In our part of the country 'Celtic Christianity' is something of a cottage industry, so we include two articles on the Celtic Church. In the first Nigel Scotland finds inspiration in the stories of charismatic Christianity of these early believers. The second article by Gavin Wakefield is concerned with critical engagement with both the early historical texts describing what is called today the Celtic Church and their use in churches today. The final article in the series Roots in the Past offers an overview of the life and contribution of Thomas Cranmer, This was first given as a lecture at St. Andrew's Cathedral, Sydney, Australia, as part of the Cranmer Day program jointly sponsored by the Prayer Book Society of New South Wales and Moore Theological College to mark the 450 th Anniversary of the archbishop's martyrdom.


And finally, don't forget we have a website that welcomes visitors and comment.


Anne Dyer


1 H James, The Bostonians, ch 35

2 D Murrow, Why men hate going to church, Nelson Publishers, United States 2006.

3 R Trumbach, Sex and the Gender Revolution: Homosexuality and the Third Gender in Enlightenment London, University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1998.

4 E J Clery, The Feminisation Debate in Eighteenth-Century England , Palgrave Macmillan, Hampshire 2004.

5 A Stott, Hannah More, The First Victorian , Oxford University Press 2003.

6 S Prothero, American Jesus , Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York 2003, p 59.

7 Prothero, p 91