Men hate going to church, according to an increasingly powerful narrative in Anglo-American culture. The building is decorated in pastel shades, the songs are pitched too high and the sermons go on about Christianity as a mushy romance with Jesus. That’s the stronger form of the complaint – heard from US authors like David Murrow and pastors like Mark Driscoll (who once said that growing up as a young man he didn’t want anything to do with the church because the men in charge wore dresses and never had sex). A milder concern, though still recognisably in the same vein, can be heard in disquiet over the alleged “male deficit” in church, such as this article from the Evangelical Alliance. Men are apparently leaving the church in droves, or so the framing goes, and it is because the church is failing to address men or their masculinity.
As Krish Kandiah points out in that piece, however, there are some problems with this narrative. Even admitting that men are leaving churches (which is far from clear from the figures), this all happened when men were leading churches in theory and in practice. If the church is failing men, then men are doing that failing, not women. In fact this reads to me like a very familiar phenomenon: the male backlash. As Susan Faludi memorably outlined in her 1990s feminist classic Backlash, the gains of second-wave feminism were followed by a period of counter-reaction in which there was talk of pendulums swinging too far, men being emasculated and women having lost their connection to who they really were.
Women were perceived as having “taken over” men’s roles and institutions, and they needed to be put back in their place, whether by overt displays of male power or by concerned articles in magazines asking if they felt guilty enough about their children when they were at work. Faludi’s account strikes a powerful chord with anyone who has been aware of the rise of “lad culture” in British universities, as I have written before. The flow of jokes about women getting “back in the kitchen”, the objectification of female students and the sexualised abuse which many have been subjected to points strongly to a counter-reaction to a perceived female takeover of higher education. Whilst newspapers (and some feminists) write about the decline of men, the crisis in masculinity and the rising power of women at the expense of their male peers, female students are used to re-establish men’s sense of dominance in institutions they have long been used to considering entirely their own.
I worry that this dynamic can be seen playing itself out in parts of Anglo-American Christianity. The often-cited “feminisation” of the church is used as a means to smuggle in assumptions about women’s proper roles and the potential for a female takeover. A takeover which has signally failed to happen. Today is the twentieth anniversary of the ordination of women in the Church of England, and the celebrations in London sound like they’ve been pretty jubilant affairs, but as a number of people (such as Miranda Threlfall-Holmes of the organisation WATCH) have pointed out, women’s equal place in the church is far from assured. The defeat of the motion on women bishops is not an isolated event, but directs attention to a widespread pattern of undervaluing women’s ministry, and regarding women’s equality as matter for debate.
For all the talk of men being neglected, how many people attend a church where every single person officiating is a woman? When they go for months without a man appearing in front of the congregation in a leadership role? Where theological discussion is assumed to be the province of the older female members of the church? I cannot imagine that is an experience which many men undergo, yet it is a constant reality for many women. I am lucky enough to attend a church which is serious about tackling gender issues in the church, and it was a little amusing this morning to arrive and find a young woman (soon to begin her training for the priesthood) instructing two other women in their roles in the Mass, whilst men bustled around them arranging the flowers and rehearsing the music. But it shouldn’t be amusing, it should be totally unremarkable. Every time I am delighted to see a female priest in the sanctuary is a momentary betrayal of her right to be there without anyone mentally remarking upon it, either in joy or disappointment. There is a real danger that addressing the “male deficit” by developing specially male-centred ministries which seek to develop male leaders will bolster the false perception that women have somehow taken over the church. Women are not the “unmarked category” in the Christianity I see in Britain, they are not the default setting which determines the church’s priorities and protocols.
The notion of “feminisation” in western Christianity is a real one, but has been largely misunderstood in public discussions. Originating in the work of the historian Barbara Welter, it reappears in the analyses of scholars such as Hugh McLeod, as a way of approaching the shifts in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Christianity towards emphasizing personal morality, meekness, tenderness and other qualities coded as “feminine”. Historically it seems to have been part of the privatisation of religion which was seek after the Industrial Revolution and the Protestant Reformation, accompanied by the delineation of the “private sphere” as belonging to women and characterised by passive moral influence, as distinct from the active public force proper to men. “Feminisation” in Christianity appears to be part of the building of restrictive gender roles for women, but also a route by which they could express moral concerns and spiritual convictions within a society which denied them political or economic power. It is part of the history of women’s marginalization by the church and their oppression in society. To co-opt it and suggest that historians have identified a female conquest of Christianity (in works such as The Church Impotent) is either staggeringly incoherent or nastily disingenuous.
Women have not taken over the church. They are not yet equal with men in Anglo-American Christianity as a whole. Every day they are bringing their theological acumen, their spiritual talents and their musical skills to contribute to the shared life of the church, and it is worryingly misguided to blame women for the toxic ways patriarchal masculinity affects men’s sense of themselves. A church which respects and honours women’s abilities, and which gives them true opportunities for leadership, will have much more to offer men than one which allows them to indulge their resentment and assert their machismo in ways which “women just don’t understand”. Andrei Rublev and Michaelangelo Buonaroti painted those pastel shades on the walls. Charles Wesley and Graham Kendrick wrote those melody lines. We must not blame women; we must look to them to take their true place in the church.