The church and gender disparity

The church and gender disparity

Its not exactly news to say the Church of England (CofE), overall, is still in decline in the UK. The question of where this decline is coming from however is something normally associated with age. Its really obvious in many churches, even independent churches, that the older generations are generally the more faithful in their observance compared to a group like Millenials. However this is compounded in the CofE with the exception of newer church plants in the mould of Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) which disproportionately attract young people. The divide which is still more broadly consistent however is that of gender.

In the UK women are 50% more likely to attend church than men. At times this figure can grow to as much as 66%. Even out of all those who attend in the CofE only 16% are ‘convinced’ their belief in God is true, drastically lagging behind the conviction of 71% of self-identifying Evangelicals and 88% of British Muslims. This is interesting in that globally the places in the world which are typically associated with Islam show much higher rates of male over female participation despite women overall globally being more active in a faith. We can assume therefore that Muslim men in the UK are far more likely to be active in their observance than their Christian counterparts. The only other male dominated group like this in our society are Atheists.

If men disappeared from church life altogether, aside from the issues regarding the priesthood the church would still be able to function. However if women disappeared from the church it wouldn’t be able to practically function from the moment such a vanishing were to take place. Yet the real significance of gender disparity in a church is that it correlates with its decline over time. As a result the lack of gender disparity is a good indicator of the long term health of both a local church and a faith overall. For many Christians therefore, this should be a cause for concern. In the words of one writer..

Women may be the backbone of a congregation, but the presence of a significant number of men is often a clear indicator of spiritual health.

George Gallup Jr., “Why Are Women More Religious?” 17 December 2002, Gallup Tuesday Briefing, Religion and Values

Even in many of the newer HTB plants around London whilst they manage to attract young people the gender divide is still present. The style of Christianity is described by New Frontiers minister Andrew Wilson  as “middle-class, charismatic, non-confessional, low church, generic evangelicalism” which statistically and anecdotally, in my own experience, still appeals to more women than men. Realistically however its all but confirmed that if the CofE is to endure in any fashion its likely it will look like HTB due to its success in both ‘revitalising’ existing churches and the success of courses like Alpha. Despite this it still divides the population at large by both economic class and gender. It also arguably contributes  towards a culture of decreasing doctrinal clarity as Andrew Wilson expounds..

Perhaps it’s the breadth of Alpha’s appeal, perhaps it’s the elevation of Justin Welby, perhaps it’s the genial personalities and inspirational styles of the key leaders (Nicky Gumbel’s tweets resemble, and even quote, Joyce Meyer an awful lot of the time), or perhaps it’s something else entirely – but it seems to me that externally, HTB has avoided taking a “position” on a number of controversial contemporary issues (much more so than the centre of American evangelicalism in the last generation, Billy Graham, and in this one, Rick Warren), and that their doctrinal boundaries internally are much less defined than most local churches’ (they have numerous staff members and even worship leaders, let alone church members, who do not agree with each other on all sorts of doctrinal issues, including some that Christians in previous generations have died over, and allow huge theological diversity to be represented by speakers in their church, conferences and Focus weekends). How many people who run Alpha or the Marriage Course, I wonder, know what view (if any) HTB have of penal substitution, or hell, or predestination, or gay marriage, or any number of other contentious issues in the contemporary church?

Andrew Wilson, The New Centre of British Evangelicalism

All of which casts questions for over the long term health of HTB churches. This is something I struggled with, and I know many other guys who are still in places touched by HTB do too. The lack of clarity on doctrinal issues is difficult, as is trying to engage constructively with the unspoken assumptions and theology evident in the style and structure of HTB gatherings. What you believe pertaining to something like ‘penal substitution’ isn’t the issue so much as the fact that your onboard with their style of service and its contents. There are guys for who this is fine, but there are plenty of guys who also just go through the motions. They don’t bother to sing the songs, don’t come forward for prayer and just leave church altogether to their wives and girlfriends only turning up occasionally or at social events (if that). Many still believe its just that church, aside from the relationships, is something to otherwise be winced through and often isn’t compelling or relatable to many of them. Let alone anyone they’d consider sharing their faith with.

The exception to this within Christianity seems to come from two places..

These observations say nothing to the the accuracy of the belief found in those places. Yet at its most basic quantifiable level, ideas about inherent gender traits aside, this numerical disparity in gender is something that needs addressing if the church is to see growth in any sort of healthy, widespread way. Europe several times has been rebaptised by the works of the monastics, of men (and women) who were willing to sacrifice way more than many of us do today. Today believers struggle at times to pray consistently, read scripture and to make it to worship once on a Sunday. I don’t think its even that the church has become ‘feminised’ because many of the expressions of Christianity seemingly popular with men (I’ve broadly outlined two forms in the points above) seem just as popular with women. We shouldn’t be looking for masculine christianity necessarily, but one that can achieve equal gender parity, because that isn’t happening currently and we need to move beyond seeing this as a binary his and hers issue of gender stereotypes. Particular when one gender comes across as alienated from the church to a greater degree than another, the honest answer is that currently both genders are experiencing alienation given attendance numbers. The well known quote ‘Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets’ seems appropriate here. The system isn’t functioning as intended but it is functioning per design.

Its something of a conundrum that Christianity today is at times accused of being patriarchal. Men dominate the leadership yes but women make up the bulk of its members and many men are distancing themselves from it. How we respond to reaching better gender parity depends on our outlook on subjects like gender. In talking to others about the issue of gender disparity one of the more common glib responses I saw was “Jesus either appeals to some people or doesn’t” and that most discussions on the subject can be attributed to sloppy gender dualism. The implicit implication here however is that more men than women are less willing to humble themselves in obedience to God and the church which is reflected in their lower attendance. Arguably this itself actually reinforces a measure of gender dualism whilst attempting to skirt an issue which is consistently played out around the world. Ultimately if we believe gender determines behaviour, we will approach this differently to believing that gender is a purely sociological construct. Yet I think pragmatically we must concede that there is perhaps a measure of both taking place. We see this concession in the business world with their unashamedly, albeit generally successful, gendered product marketing. On this note, as I’ve written previously, the impact of the free market on the church today has changed how we perceive church, and if the majority of church attendees are female it stands to reason that the church is viewed in terms more acceptable to women than men as a result of the material marketed to us within it, if that is the audience being drawn.

We live in a post-industrial service based society where many men struggle academically, financially and emotionally being far more likely to die of suicide today than any other means. The advent of innovations like widespread and affordable contraception also mean people are having families later, or not at all. We wish to live life on our terms, even if such actions prove self-destructive at an individual and societal level. Any solution to addressing gender disparity is rightly condemning the trajectory of the society around us which perpetrates the struggles both genders experience today. Many of us have little prospect of stable careers, homes and family life. They’ll be no singular solution which will address gender disparity in church, but its about time we recognise that such a thing exists and needs to be addressed.

A Swiss study conducted in 1994 concluded overwhelming that one of the greatest contributing factors to children inheriting the faith of their parents is the role of faith in the life of the father. This is actually compounded further when the father attends church regularly and the mother does not where 44% of all such children went on to become regular church goers themselves. When the opposite is considered, the mother was devout but the father not, only 2% would go on to be regular church goers. Whatever you think of the study this suggests a clear link setting up fathers as lead role models to their children, particular in the area of belief. Also on this theme researchers Paul Hill, David Anderson, and Roland Martinson in their book ‘Coming of Age: Exploring the Spirituality and Identity of Younger Men‘ also highlighted that many men listed their parents, male mentors and friends as the key relationships which helped them grow in their faith. I’m sure the equivalent is applicable for women too but if this is true, perhaps it follows that these things are missing from many churches today particularly for men if they’re the ones missing. We can’t do much about biological parents, but we can provide spiritual fathers, mentors and friendship.

On a personal note the idea of gender disparity is something I’ve been noticing for awhile. It’s not palatable in society to be a Christian, that’s one thing, but there’s been a number of times where I’m sat in the pub with male friends, both believing and otherwise, who confess they either don’t understand it or see the point in it. Yet deep down I understand it and see the point in it. Despite this to be honest my internal and private religious life and how I imagine it should be expressed differs quite significantly from my public religious life. That’s partly the reason for this blog. The disconnect is that I want to share my private religious life with others but the only thing ‘present’ is the public side which at times feels the ‘least bad’ option of whats going on in public that I can join in with. By public I mean church, public prayer, worship etc. the only point where my public and private meet fully are in the blood and wine of communion. In private I want to spend more time talking (or thinking) through ideas, I pray in a very different way privately (I struggle with long open prayers, lose focus and find reading written liturgical prayers easier), my areas of interest in the faith differ sometimes wildly from what I might see on a Sunday or in a study group and am perhaps more political, practical or socially minded. I also would give way more of my week to sharing, working out and discussing my faith with others in a more down to earth environment given the opportunity. I feel the lack of role models and mentors in the church and I wish there were more out there available. I know I’m not the only one who thinks like this thanks to the internet, but the internet isn’t the public sphere, not really.

Trying to address gender disparity doesn’t mean we need to buy into a specific cultural ideas of what a man is. The men who saved Christian Europe in the past were monks, men who don’t exactly fit our classical stereotypes of masculinity. Yet the absence of many men raises challenging questions we need to address. This is a sensitive subject for a lot of people, for a lot of reasons, so we need to be gracious in how we go about this but the status quo isn’t working. Something needs to change.

Men, women and ministry

Men, women and ministry

I was reading this post advocating egalitarianism earlier today and thinking over the implications of it. For myself I was raised loosely egalitarian and in an existential sense do not see any cause for women to not operate in many of the same categories men do. I am happy to work under and submit to female line managers and to listen to, work with and cooperate with female colleagues. It is not an issue to me. Yes their are differences between the sexes, at times significant ones. Yet despite this I felt the author’s associations between complementarianism and acts of domestic abuse as not in any way helpful to the discussion. Many complementarians I know are women who haven’t been treated in the way the author describes. One might even suggest it is possible to reform the behaviour of the men in question without dispensing with the core theology.

However, I do feel that this issue of the sexes in ministry is a much greater flashpoint issue in the Protestant world than in other traditions of Christianity. Is this possibly down to..

  • How the vocation of ministry is perceived?
  • A view of the sacraments and their handling?
  • The lack of female role-models in the church?
  • Sexism

What follows is in no way systematic but merely my own thoughts on the subject.

What is the role of the priest/minister

This differs from church to church but the responsibilities of priest/minister I believe can be boiled down to the follow categories..

  • Preaching and teaching from scripture
  • Serving those in need
  • Working towards the growth of the church
  • To safeguard the teachings of the church
  • Leading gatherings
  • Administering Sacraments
  • General administration

These points most people of all church backgrounds could agree with. We might differ on the definition of some of these terms but I think we can agree in a general sense with this list. The other immediate thing that stands out to me is that there are several areas of this which aren’t limited to ministers. Everyone can do the following in some capacity..

  • General administration
  • Serving those in need
  • Working towards the growth of the church
  • To safeguard the teachings of the church
  • Leading gatherings
  • Administering Sacraments
  • Preaching and teaching from scripture

I think we can agree that it is everyone’s responsibilities to safeguard the teachings of the church, to engage in mission and to be involved in acts of service. Administration is in a somewhat different category in that not everyone is gifted in this area and is something of a specialised skill (I do not think I would be a good administrator for example) but no criteria exists  in scripture for administration other than that one be gifted in it.

The ones I left out of the abovementioned list are the leading of gatherings, the administering of sacraments and the preaching and teaching from scripture. However even in this capacity I believe this list can be cut down further. Namely in suggesting that preaching and teaching from scripture is reliant namely on faithful exposition rather than the identity of the expositor. More so that teaching can occur in nearly any context and so really the question really focuses on how preaching differs in any sense from conventional teaching. In this I would venture that their is space for women to speak to the body. Particularly in the Orthodox and Catholic churches I do not think their is quite the same concerns about women speaking or teaching men as their is in Protestantism.

hilda-of-whitby
St Hilda, Christian saint and the founding abbess of the monastery at Whitby (not a priest)

In Protestantism its more common to see an attitude of ‘women to women’ and ‘men to men (and women)’ when it comes to teaching whereas even in the history of the British Church we see the precedent of women like St Hilda of Whitby who was an abbess over both male and female monastics and was consulted by kings for her wisdom in all matters. Other notable examples might be St Nina/Nino of Georgia who preached, healed and was responsible for the baptism of the nobility of the country (although I don’t think she actually carried it out baptisms herself and that was left to a priest). I think the understanding of Protestant objections is generally rooted in literalist readings of passages like 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 but I think it is worth noting that the ‘Catholic’ historical attitude is that women can preach, teach and even lead men to some degree if gifted as such when not concerning the sacrements. So to my limited understanding I think the real distinctives is that of the priesthood. A women can be a minister and for many Protestants that is all that is worthy of consideration. However in a sacramental context, whilst all Christians hold to sacraments (although they differ in number and prominence across churches) the question of women in the priesthood largely depends on the definition of the priest. This too is why I left out the area of leadership because leadership of a church gathering (depending on the church) can be largely liturgical or sacramental in nature. Despite the fact that we have no shortage of iconic and successful female Christian monarchs in Orthodoxy, Catholicism and Protestantism.

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St Nino, Equal to the Apostles and Enlightener of Georgia (not a priest)

Sunday gatherings and the sacraments

So ultimately I feel having looked at the options there are two distinctives to formal ministry / priesthood.

  • General administration
  • Serving those in need
  • Working towards the growth of the church
  • To safeguard the teachings of the church
  • Leading gatherings
  • Administering Sacraments
  • Preaching and teaching from scripture

When I refer to the sacraments in this context I will for the sake of convenience be referring to what I consider the universal sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist. Looking around for a summary on the matter from a more sacramental outlook I came across something written by Fr. Alexander Schmemann.

This priesthood is Christ’s, not ours. None of us, man or woman, has any “right” to it; it is emphatically not one of human vocations, analogous, even if superior, to all others. The priest in the Church is not “another” priest, and the sacrifice he offers is not “another” sacrifice. It is forever and only Christ’s priesthood and Christ’s sacrifice — for, in the words of our Prayers of Offertory, it is “Thou who offerest and Thou who art offered, it is Thou who receivest and Thou who distributest….” And thus the “institutional” priest in the Church has no “ontology” of his own. It exists only to make Christ himself present, to make this unique Priesthood and this unique Sacrifice the source of the Church’s life and the “acquisition” by men of the Holy Spirit. And if the bearer, the icon and the fulfiller of that unique priesthood, is man and not woman, it is because Christ is man and not woman…

I think it would be worth noting also that it is only a small proportion of the male population of the church that will eventually find themselves in the priesthood with this theology. Also the only reason leadership of a service may, in some cases, be exclusively a male thing is the prominence of sacraments in a service within that church. Gatherings in which the sacraments aren’t as prominent shouldn’t disqualify women from ministering in a facilitatory capacity regarding the service or even preaching.

However I think the question of why this has become so prominent is perhaps indicative of a broader shift in how people, I think in all denominations  are beginning to increasingly see the faith.

Priesthood and pietism

pietist-conventicle
Pietism placed an emphasis on a personal (and perhaps less a public/corporate?) relationship with Christ

Pietism as a term may be unfamiliar to many Christians today but its goal of placing the individual’s commitment to the Christian life as preeminent is recognisable in modern Evangelical preaching and teaching. The relationship between modern Evangelicalism and the 17th century Lutheran Pietism movement is massively understated. I think no one can really object to its aims as I’ve briefly mentioned them but I think one of its changes is shifting the individual’s concept of faith from being a member of the body to that of an individual before God. What matters for the Pietist is your personal relationship to God and less that of theology, doctrine or the general shared sense of responsibility for one another. John Wesley was a notable Anglican influenced by Pietism.
The influence of Pietism today can be found both in the secular world and even other Christian churches. Its emphasis on the conviction, emotion and passion of the individual corresponds with our modern desire driven materialism and the consumptive ambience we find ourselves living in. We go to both shops and churches to get something whether it is the latest smartphone or spiritual message/revelation of the season. They are both arguably subject to seasonal fashions. This way of thinking and living is as natural as breathing to so many of us in the West now.

Where this Pietistic way of thinking comes into things like women in the priesthood is the idea of seeing priests as ‘professionals’ and in our desire to better serve the church feel becoming a priest is the natural way to go. Now this isn’t me asserting I believe it’s the only reason, I do think complementarian theology does have a lot to answer for and egalitarians are right to want people to be treated on their merits as people. However we have forsaken the corporate ministry (or priesthood rather) of the body in our individualistic age literally leaving it in the hands of a few ‘professionals’. Often at the expense of sound theology and depending on a church’s view of sacraments with drastic theological implications.

To summarise the above, your church’s view of the sacraments should be the thing that decides the ways in which the church attributes the roles of various people in church. In the case of most Protestants with a ‘low’ view of sacraments I don’t see an argument against Women leaders in the church. However I do not feel you can hold to a view of the sacraments as a means to dispense grace and simultaneously accept women into the liturgical/sacramental role of priest. That is if you hold to the classically understood view of the priest representing Christ in relation to the Church. You can have women preaching, teaching and ministering but if the priest is an icon of Christ in the liturgy then to have a female priest you devolve your understanding of Christ as the bridegroom and the Church the bride to something  merely metaphorical or a memorial. If you do then consistency suggests your view of sacraments is likely to be metaphorical too. If it is metaphorical and you hold to the liturgical office of priests then you’re holding to the appropriation of a largely abstract metaphor and arguably empty office for anyone is able to distribute communion with this theology. Again if it isn’t metaphorical and you hold to the liturgical office of priests then you’re potentially endangering the efficacy of the sacraments with a female priest.

christa
Emmanuel?

If you are part of a (Protestant) church that doesn’t hold to the office of liturgical priests in relation to the sacraments then their is no reason to withhold individuals from ministry at the expense of gifting that God has bestowed on them. Principally however, the Church in question would have to settle on its understanding of the sacraments before it could move forward in one direction or another without compromise. Something I think the Church of England, like many things, is in a real mess over and either has gone too far or not far enough depending on your theology. I believe it also has implications for your understanding of marriage (a Sacrament in Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Classical Anglicanism), the issue of Transgenderism and how you address God (He / She / Whatever). If you get metaphorical in some senses you can get metaphorical in others. Yet if you theologically ascribe to communion as a memorial then this isn’t a conclusion that immediately follows I think its the sacramental outlook this hinges on.

I’m not sure what side I come down on (I think I see three options but only two are possible options for me given my understanding of scripture), but this is how I understand it currently and it feels complicated as it touches on more than what we might initially think. What I believe will probably come down to how I eventually understand the sacraments. What I do see however is that Protestants seem to be generally in the habit of making a much bigger deal of the differences of the sexes than our Catholic and Orthodox siblings do despite their sacramental outlook and consistency on the continuation of a male priesthood.