Last weekend the group Christian Vision For Men held a camp, called The Gathering, in a field near Swindon. More than two thousand men came to worship and talk about God, under the umbrella of a group which has described a need for Christianity to pay more attention to men. I’ve been somewhat wary of Christian Vision For Men in the past, as I am of any group which uses the rhetoric of “feminisation” about religion and society, but I’ve read their articles and one of their books, and I can see that they’re attempting to reach groups of men who wouldn’t feel comfortable in a church. Browsing through the Twitter feed of The Gathering, I was depressed to find the kind of boring machismo which too often accompanies Christian groups specifically set up for men. Once again it seems that a ministry deliberately directed to men lapsed too easily into cheap machismo and the tired, toxic stereotypes of masculinity. (These aren’t the tweets of random members of the congregations, but tweets which the main account either sent or RTd.)
One of the standing jokes of the weekend seems to have been that no fruit was allowed on the camp ; apparently this was a “rule” established by Carl Beech. Plenty of light-hearted tweets about asking for forgiveness for backsliding and eating fruit, Beech “shaming” men who had been seen with fruit, and so on. I’ve heard of 2real men” not eating quiche, but apparently masculinity can be threatened by naturally occurring items now too.
It seems particularly odd to pick on fruit as an “unmanly” food since one of the major threats to men is the macho culture around health and lifestyle. Men’s sense that it is “wimpish” to eat well, to pay attention to their bodies, to visit the doctor when something is wrong with them, to admit to illness, have a real cost in terms of life expectancy. Macho culture shortens men’s lives, and the disparity between men and women’s life expectancy is frequently brought up by those who are convinced that society has become “feminised”. If it had been, men might not be suffering such rates of heart disease and they might be diagnosing damaging illnesses much earlier, when the prospect of treatment was better. I would expect groups promoting positive masculinity to want to challenge the stubborn and harmful stereotypes around health.
Apparently the term “darling” is as unacceptable as fruit in the man-world of Christian Vision For Men. One tweeter (retweeted by the main account) expressed his concern at hearing someone say “morning, darling” during breakfast, suggesting jokily that someone must have been confused or that maybe he should be worried. Admittedly “darling” isn’t a particularly common epithet between British men, unless they’re being camp. And camp definitely isn’t a feature of British men’s relationships with each other. Unless you count rugby teams, private schools, public schools, rock bands, pubs, theatres, clubs, offices and other spaces where men interact. Camp is such a regular part of British men’s interactions that I’ve known visitors from other countries be slightly confused by it. But it doesn’t exist in the masculinity which The Gathering is promoting.
Because “darling” is also used between men who are married to each other, or in other romantic relationships. It seems a little tedious to have to point out, but lots of men are gay and express their love for each other in both sexual and romantic terms. With a couple of thousand men on a campsite, I’d rather assume there were a hefty number of gay men amongst the CVM crowd. And, to state the really obvious, gay men are men. Straight men often find this difficult to accept, smirkingly suggesting that having intimate relationships with other men makes you somehow womanly, or at least less of a real man. It’s one of those assumptions which is so deeply ingrained for some men that articulating it would seem stupid.
But any model of what it means to be a Christian man needs to account for men whose closest and most intimate relationships are with other men. Men who fancy other men, who date them, and settle down with them, and raise children with them. This can be very threatening to some straight men. They find love threatening. To borrow Mark Hewerdine’s idea, many straight men’s identity is deeply challenged by men who are sexually and emotionally intimate with each other. If that’s the case for Christian Vision For Men, then they’d better say so. If gay Christian men can’t be proper men, that needs to be stated upfront.
Women, of course, were absolutely beyond the pale at The Gathering. Men’s groups are necessary to talk about men-specific issues, and open up to other men. (Though not open up too far; see previous paragraph.) Except somehow, women can never quite be kept out of men-only events. They don’t infiltrate the site, in some latter-day Aristophanic horde of unconvincing beards. But somehow they creep into the conversation. When men are most busy being manly men, most concerned with the not-womanness of their lives and their relationships, then somehow women are often closest. Take this video, which was used by one speaker, and which found an enthusiastic audience, according to the event Twitter feed.
So once again, being a man turns out not to be so much about positive, authentic values. It’s about not being one of those whiny, irrational women we all know. With depressing predictability, this speaker chose to connect with an entirely male audience by talking about how women are quite stupid and annoying. It worked, too, according to the twitter feed. It seems that even when a whole campsite of Christian men are focusing on the positive, authentic value of being a man, the quickest shortcut to fellow-feeling is resenting women. I’ve been assured time and time again that groups like Christian Vision For Men are all about reaching men outside the Church with a saving message about God. That they’re not sexist, or macho, or resentful about women. That they’re trying to break down stereotypes about masculinity and encourage men to open up in love and acceptance of each other as they hear the Gospel.
It would be terrific if that were the case. I am not for a moment suggesting that men do not need Christianity, that religion (as Celsus sneered) of women, children and slaves. I believe Christianity contains a powerful message of liberation and equality, which can transform lives and show us the image of God in each other. But I struggle to see that message in the sexism and the sneering in the twitter feed of The Gathering. And it frustrates me because this is what people think Christians are. They think we’re homophobic, and reactionary, and self-righteous. We make headlines because we ban women from speaking at our meetings, or because we suggest gay people are vaguely defective. My friends and my students are put off the faith because it is so often keen to ally itself with the powerful in our society, and too easily warped into the worship of power itself. There is no reason why speaking to men about Christianity need involve sexism or homophobia.