Talk given to Leeds Inclusive Christian society on 29th of March 2021
Over the last twelve months, I have become more and more aware of the enormous privilege with which I live as an educated, white, Western man who is also ordained in a mainline Protestant church. So, when I am asked to talk about women and gender in the church, I do so with a certain sense of trepidation. I should say or add at that point that I am also an openly identified gay man who, because of my sexual orientation, has experienced discrimination, prejudice and even hatred from within and beyond the Christian church.
I have entitled what I say: Women acting like men and men acting like women. I want to offer a reflection on gender and the church through two lenses: women and leadership and gay men and sex.
But first a little something about Methodism …
I have working as a minister (presbyter) in various Methodist churches across England over the last 25 years. Here are a few statistics about where the British Methodist Church is today. The Methodist Church in Britain has roughly 4000 churches across the three nations of Great Britain plus the Isle of Man, in the Channel Islands, Gibraltar Malta and Rome. Of those 4000 worshipping communities about three-quarters of them have fewer than 50 members. Two-thirds of our membership are over 65 and probably about three-quarters, or more, are women.
I offer those stats not to depress you but because I think it is highly relevant to how leadership is understood and practiced in the Methodist Church today. Because of their age, the majority of Methodists, of all gender identities, have experienced a paradigm shift in the way that women are viewed and treated in society and the roles they are allowed or expected to play.
Let me give you an example: I work at Southlands College which is part of the University of Roehampton in SW London. Southlands was established 150 years ago by the Wesleyan Methodist Church to train women to be teachers in Methodist schools at the time. It was one of the first Higher Education institutions in the UK that admitted women, and yet, until relatively recently, despite studying exactly the same course as male students, but only the men received a degree. Why? Because the college authorities at the time thought that giving a degree to a woman would be a waste of time because soon she would be leaving the profession in order to become a full-time parent.
You’ll be pleased to know that Southlands and the University of Roehampton addressed that act of injustice by hosting a special graduation ceremony where all living alumnae were invited back to receive the degrees they have earned, some of them over 100 years old.
For so many well-educated Methodist women, they lived with that injustice as a ‘normal’ part of their experience. They were part of a church where, although the majority of the members were women, the positions of leadership, lay and ordained, would almost exclusively have been held by men. Yet many women sitting in our pews today have had experience of women’s leadership. During the war their mothers – and some of them - had worked on the factory floor, or in the fields, and even in pulpits where ordained men had gone off to be chaplains at the front. Women had been allowed to occupy leadership positions on an interim basis, until the men returned from the front. And when that happened, sure enough, most women left their posts and returned to the home.
Even as the number of men in Church dwindled, this was not reflected in the number of men in leadership positions. The old photographs in church vestries show our churches as large groups of women being led by very small groups of men. Eventually a crisis ensued, and the supply of men began to run out. But like during the war, instead of a complete theological rethink about the nature of Christian leadership and vocation, the Church once again made exceptions and loopholes that allowed women to occupy leadership positions on an interim basis.
I want to suggest that that idea of ‘filling in for a man’ has become part of the mindset of women in church leadership positions. It has deeply affected the way that leadership is understood and embodied. The men had taken on those roles with a sense of vocation perhaps, and certainly with authority and status. However, when women were asked to ‘fill in’ it came with no great sense of occasion but quite the opposite. They were considered no better than ‘understudies’ and the position carried with it no sense of authority or status. The women were led to believe that they were simply doing this role because it had to be done, not because they were the right person to do it. It has emptied lay leadership roles of much of their authority and there is much less of a sense of vocational fulfilment in taking on such roles. They have shifted from ministry to duty.
Meanwhile, although the number of men in the church continues to diminish, they/we still disproportionately occupy senior roles in lay and ordained leadership, particularly those roles which are deemed to carry vocational esteem: property stewards, treasurers, lay leaders at Circuit and District levels, representatives to the Methodist Conference, Local Preachers.
Alongside that, although the number of women in ordained ministry has grown exponentially since the first women in the modern era were ordained in 1974, still only less than one third of the District Chairs are women. Many younger women in ministry still face enormous sexism, including and especially from lay women, at least in part because they are occupying leadership roles on more than an interim basis.
Women acting like men …
Now the second lens: men acting like women. I have spent a good deal of the last ten years and more talking to all kinds of Methodist churches and groups about sexuality and marriage. Sometimes, it has felt like I have been teaching GCSE Biology, because of the sheer lack of up-to-date scientific knowledge. The questions tend to be a little more nuanced these days, but there is still far too many that assume heteronormativity. More often than not, the pattern of the evening goes like this: I am introduced and make a presentation, the floor is then opened to Q&A and, for the first half hour, only men make comments or ask questions. Despite being a minority in the audience, men usually dominate the conversation until I point out that no women have spoken up to that point.
Here’s why I think that is: because, at the heart of homophobia is a deep fear that some men wish to act like women. Because the act of penetration in straight sex is perceived as dominance and power, there is a particular hatred of men who desire to be penetrated. There is usually an assumption that all sex between two consenting adults must have a dominant and submissive partner and so, one of the men in a gay relationship must be submissive or ‘femme’.
This is also why rape has always been a weapon of war. We have become all too aware of its use against women and children in war in recent decades, but the Roman Empire’s soldiers regularly used to rape male soldiers they had defeated as an act of humiliation and dominance. In fact, David Tombs and other theologians have shown that rape was also a regular feature of the treatment meted out to the victims of crucifixion, again for the same reasons. There is, therefore, every reason to believe that Jesus was the victim of rape as part of his torture (see When Did we See You Naked?: Jesus as a Victim of Sexual Abuse)
It is one thing to be raped, another altogether to voluntary submit to penetrative sex in the minds of these men. For them it is an attack on the very nature of masculinity itself and so must be resisted, with violence if necessary. It is also interesting that the most anger and vitriol comes from men aged between 50 and 70, a group come of age or just being born around 1967, when homosexuality was partially decriminalised in England and Wales. This was an Act of Parliament that challenged the idea of masculinity and threw many into a confusion and fear that persists to this day.
Men acting like women ….
How did we end up here? It has everything to do with our old friend, patriarchy. At its simplest, patriarchy practices divide and rule. It creates an, often arbitrary, division within a population and then privileges one over the other: male over female, straight over queer, white over black, coloniser over colonised. Those who do not fit into the binary are dealt with ruthlessly, being made to take sides on pain of exclusion or death. But its real cleverness rests in its ability to disguise itself as ‘culture’ or, worse, the ‘simply the way things are’.
Too often, rather than resist this structural sin, the Church has given it a theological rationale and promulgated ‘empire theology’. John Wesley’s great friend and preacher, George Whitefield, not only owned slaves, but wrote a Biblical defence of slavery. The British Empire was founded on the principle that white British people had been especially blessed with intellect, civility, faith and power and had been given a divine mission to bring these blessings to the blighted masses. And, at home, the deep inequalities of Victorian society were seen as God’s will:
The rich man in his castle, The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high and lowly, And ordered their estate.
Thank God that, alongside those who uphold and propagate empire theology, there have always been prophets, people of all faiths and none, willing to disrupt the norm and speak gospel truth openly and fearlessly. They refuse to collude with structures of power and control founded on empire theology. They understand that the gospel’s power rests in its transformative truth: that God’s kin-dom is not a reform package to ease the pain of the oppressed, but a revolutionary movement intent on sweeping the old order away.
The text I have come to see as a declaration of war on patriarchy and empire is Galatians 3:28:
28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
In Paul’s vision for the Church, all the divisions and power inequalities are simply swept away. He exposes the false binaries of patriarchal society and empire theology as sins that Jesus dismantles. As a foretaste of the Kin-dom of God, the Church is called to be a living witness against patriarchy and empire and all the structures of injustice it maintains.
‘I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.’ MLK
This is why I remain hopeful; despite all the setbacks we face. The gospel truth is a force for liberation and can break the bonds of patriarchy and empire theology. I finish with two pieces of advice, one from anthropologist, Margaret Mead, and the other, some fashion advice from Constance Markievicz, the first woman elected to the British House of Commons in 1918:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”