The Gender of Religious Devotion

I am personally always very sceptical of debates that serve to highlight the differences between male and female within Christianity, particularly within Catholicism itself, which seem to centre on a presumed patriarchal hierarchy. Very often we see the rampant feminist, determined to expose the perceived misogyny within the Catholic Church and on the other hand, defenders of the patrimony of the Catholic faith, ignoring the very irony implicit in the use of that word, equally determined to hammer home the reasons as to why women may not be admitted to the priesthood.

I don’t intend to summarise the magisterium on this issue, having covered it in a previous post, but the one thing that strikes me in the various arguments surrounding gender equality in the Catholic Church, is that very often, the blindingly obvious is missed.

Right at the very beginning, we see that, contrary to the assertions of many throughout the ages, there is no hierarchy between our first parents:

Genesis 1:27: “And God created man to his own image: to the image of God he created him: male and female he created them.”

This fundamental equality is reiterated by St Paul:

Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek: there is neither bond nor free: there is neither male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Admitting and embracing equality should not entail eradicating of the heterogeneity of mankind.  What St Paul is emphasizing, is that within the body of Christ, we all have different roles to play, we will all be judged on our individual Christian merits, Christ is not interested in our gender, our race, our class, but on our souls themselves. Not one of us is more important than the other. He highlights our differences, not dismisses them, in order to distinguish those differences, but to say that ultimately, our differences are inconsequential, its is our life in Christ that unites us, it is Christ who renders all differences, unimportant. True equality embraces diversity; not by pretending it doesn’t exist, not by turning us into homogenous entities, but by accepting and respecting differences.

This week I have been focusing on the gender differences apparent in the religious poetry of two seventeenth century poets, namely Amelia Lanyer and John Donne. Although much of what I read disturbed me, in that I found the sexual resonances shocking, as was the poets’ intent, what fascinated me, was how both poets used their gender, as a tool to religious devotion, neither of them denying the traits or sociological positions of their sex, but in fact using them constructively as both a tool to devotion and also to challenge the conventions of what was a patriarchal society. Lanyer accents and eroticises the feminine attributes of Christ, whereas Donne focuses upon the erotic unconventionality of the gender-specific positions that conventional devotion demanded that men assume. Though metaphors for God had invariably been masculine throughout the Judeo-Christian tradition, Catholic devotional writers had recourse to Mary and a host of female saints as objects of veneration.  The God of the Protestant Reformation had however, become increasingly masculinized as a consequence to the theological emphasis on the absoluteness of divine power, as espoused by James I. This meant that a female worshipper made religious devotion a concentrated version of her everyday encounter with patriarchal authority, dangerously migrating the languages of erotic love and social submission from the social to the devotional realm, whereas a male worshipper was forced either to assume a feminine persona or engage in a discourse of same-sex desire. What both writers did was from differently gendered subject positions, to articulate desires, which crossed the perceptions and conventions of the society that they inhabited, both turning traditional gender roles upon their head. Lanyer wishing to liberate heterosexual desire from masculine oppression by turning them to God and Donne heightening the violence that invades heterosexual eroticism in a patriarchal culture, as a measure of the absolute submission God demands from him. Donne invites punishment and ravishment, whilst Lanyer’s God, welcomes redemptive suffering at the hands of his creatures.

Neither poets sought simply to fight against the limitations of their gender, but to use it, as an aid to devotion.

So, what relevance does this have, beyond the merely academic? What it signalled to me, upon reflecting this week, is that as St Paul points out, we should not deny the gender differences that exist between us, however use both our gifts and the limitations of our gender, race, class to maximum effect, acknowledging both our similarities, in the case of the Christian, of longing to enter into a deep and everlasting relationship with Christ, and of the different ways in which the service of Christ might be realised.

The extracts from Archbishop Vincent Nichols’ interview with the FT, published earlier today, were particularly salient given what I had been thinking about during the week.

In the Old Testament, the shedding of blood was for a man to perform. It was not for the woman, who gave life.

And then you have this iconography of Jesus Christ who stands in this spousal relationship bringing his people as [the] bride, to the Father.

This is not as eye-wateringly sexist as some commentators would have you believe. It highlights the differences and the similarities between the sexes in the giving of life. A man may shed blood, may lay down his life in order to save another, whereas a woman will do exactly the same thing in order to bring a new life into the world. One is not rendered more significant than the other. Women are not called to physically lay down their lives, although the act of childbirth may entail this, in the same way as men. This is not saying women are not worthy, but that their role is of a life-bringing nature, and this ability to give life, to nurture and protect their young, is too precious to waste or sully. It could even be argued that the male is the un -empowered impotent one, his role is to shed blood, either to dirty his hands with the blood of another, or to spill his own. Christ is the bridegroom, we are all the bride, male and female alike, but the way that we come to Christ will invariably differ as we ourselves differ.

One of my struggles has been with the physical pain of pregnancy and childbirth and entertaining the thought of enduring another pregnancy in the near future. Uniting my suffering to that of Christ, finding that suffering can indeed be a blessing, the Christian paradox of joy from pain has proved an enormous spiritual comfort over these past few weeks, although it has been the source of disbelief and shock to many. The thought of redemptive suffering has been described as a “sick and twisted” notion, a concept beyond the comprehension of most “rational” people.

Far from being repressed by a patriarchal Church, again a common misconception is that the Catholic Church is the institution of the Vatican, as opposed to being composed of all the peoples of Christ, laity and clergy alike, in my role of woman, I actually feel incredibly empowered by my own fecundity and the physical and emotional difficulties it comprises, giving me an opportunity to express and unite my suffering in a way not available to men. Though not my favourite communion hymn, I found this week, that the following words took on a new and poignant resonance.

This is my body broken for you

Bringing you wholeness, making you free

Take it and eat it and when you do

Do it in love for me.

Not only may this be applied in the explicit sense of the Eucharist, but also in my role as woman, literally giving her body in love for her unborn child. In my more dramatic moments I have indeed complained, “I feel broken”. Though not likening myself in any heretical fashion to Christ, I can use Him as an example, and like him bringing in a new body, a new world order by his bodily sacrifice, I too can experience the agony and ecstasy of bringing a new life into the world. Whether or not I would be able to display the same courage and acceptance should I be required to give up my life remains to be seen. Nonetheless, the notion of personal sacrifice, of literally giving of myself to another, is a source of enormous strength.

Finally, last week, Robin was invited to talk to the congregation of St Anne’s in Banstead about his journey. Our story seems rather unremarkable in the great scheme of things, but Fr Miceal pointed out a fact that we had previously been impervious to. All of the great protagonists in the journey, all of the influences were women; the narrative was dominated by the various women in his life, both physically and spiritually. Without us, it would not have happened. The alleged misogyny of the Catholic faith turned on its head, the so-called repressed gender, being the protagonist of eternal and everlasting change, calling a soul to spiritual fulfilment.

4 thoughts on “The Gender of Religious Devotion

  1. If the Catholic church is composed of all the people of Christ, why is it the only denomination within the Christian faith which actively excludes people from participating in the eucharist, based solely on whether they are catholic or not?

    Also, whilst I’m sure this train of thought has brought much peace to you recently, where does it leave women who cannot “bring life” into the world? Do they have no place?

    1. This a question often posed by non-Catholics. As you will undoubtedly be aware, Catholics have a very distinct understanding of what the Eucharist means, in that we we believe that Christ is truly present in the bread and wine, soul, body and divinity. The majority of non-Catholics, do not believe this, the believe the Eucharist to be symbolic of the Lord’s presence. In order to receive the Eucharist Catholics must have undertaken preparation and instruction to understand the full meaning of the Eucharist and also be in a state of grace. Furthermore whenever Catholics partake of communion they are entering into communion with the rest of the Church, they are professing their faith, accepting that they accept the teachings of the Catholic Church.

      The reality is that Catholics greatly grieve the loss of communion with our separated brethren and long for the day we we can all gather together to partake of One Bread as One Body in Christ. Taking part in the Eucharist is one of the highest signs of Christian unity. But by the very definition of unity, all must be in agreement in one heart and mind. When we say ‘Amen’ at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass, we acknowledge our belief in his presence of him on the altar. It would be wrong and a lie to receive the Eucharist if we believed it was just a symbol.

      By the Church refusing the Eucharist to those who are not one with us (in unity of belief) they are not being exclusive. Instead, they are being compassionate and protecting people from the harm engendered by not discerning of the Lord’s body correctly (1 Cor 11: 29-30).

      I am not quite sure why anyone would want to receive Catholic communion if they had no intention of becoming a Catholic, unless of course, they felt that they were not being fed in their own church and had recognised the truth of the Eucharistic miracle.

      If your argument is that Communion is about coming together as a community, we are all God’s children and should all be able to receive Communion wherever we choose, then I would ask you whether or not you would participate in communion at any religious service regardless of that particular church’s teachings? Would you, for example, partake with Jehovah’s Witness’ when they celebrate it once a year? (How would you know that you were one of the 144,000 elect who alone can take it?). If the answer is yes, then how do you think it is God’s will for you to do so. What do you think you would be receiving? A symbol? As discussed above that would be a lie. If you think to receive is some kind of community response, then there are other ways of being part of a Christian community. Every faith group has a point of difference between its own beliefs and those of another, and expects its congregation to believe the same thing.

      In short in order to partake in Catholic Communion, one has to believe in the real Eucharistic presence and in the teachings of the Catholic Church. One distinct difference between attending a Catholic Mass and a communion service in an Anglican Church, is that in the latter, the Churchwardens marshal the members of the congregation up to the communion rail. In the Catholic Church this is left as a personal decision, it is up for the individual member of the congregation to decide whether or not they may participate, according to their own individual conscience.

      When it comes to issue of women who cannot bring life into the world, it seems that you are focussing upon the particularity of individuals. The point I raised was about the universal traits in common with the female gender, i.e. that women as a whole are able to bring forth and nurture life. This does not mean that women who physically cannot bring life into the world have no place, in the same way this does not mean that men who do not have a vocation to the priesthood have no place. We all have our place, clergy and laity alike in the body of Christ, however diverse our strengths and weaknesses.

  2. OOps! Only just found this reply!

    Jehovah’s Witnesses are not generally recognised as part of mainstream Christianity – therefore I wouldn’t partake in their service. I’m talking about recognised denominations of the Christian faith. I’ve taken communion in Anglian Churches (Wales and England) Church of Scotland, Wee Free, United Reform. I make no distinction when it comes to worshipping God – a church is a church. But the Catholic church is the only denomination which has actively barred me from participating in the fellowship of communion. Not through a lack of belief in Jesus, or the symbols of the bread and the wine, but because of the “technicality” of transubstantiation. The invitation is there from other churches that all those who believe in the Lord can take part, regardless of where they come from or what church they belong to.

    I understand the technicalities. I just can’t fathom the discordance it creates. I supposed I don’t see it as being “Catholic” eucharist and different to anywhere else. It comes from the same teachings, and it’s through the same God. Anything else is just splitting hairs, to my mind. I was baptised in the Church of Scotland, have never been confirmed, and yet there was no question of my not participating fully in Anglican worship and communion. Catholics are not a different “faith group” to the rest of Christianity. They just choose to interpret things differently. It’s something that’s always rankled with me – I feel the exclusion by other Christians is a way of telling me I’m not good enough. I don’t deserve Christ, unless it’s the Catholic Christ. To my mind, a church is a church is a church. I wouldn’t expect to turn anyone away from my church’s altar during communion, so I take it quite personally when the same thing happens to me.

    Incidentally, the marshalling in the Anglican church is not as standard. I’ve been part of very small congregations where it’s not been necessary. And I’ve always been grateful for it when visiting larger churches, where it’s actually extending an invitation to participate. And in my own home church, we celebrate four times a year – where the sacraments are served to the congregation in their seats. There is no bar. It takes all sorts, but the intent behind each service is the same. To do this in His name, as we were instructed by Him.

    1. The thing is though, as I explained previously, it’s not simply technicalities. I am sorry that you feel excluded from Communion and I shared your pain to a certain extent when my husband was not a Catholic. I am sorry if you have not been treated sensitively by any priests. Another analogy would be a bit like asking atheists to be godparents, to stand up in Church and make a specific set of promises regarding how they intended to support the child in their Christian formation, it would be asking them to lie. Which is effectively what Catholics would be asking non-Catholics to do by including them in the Eucharist.

      I was thinking about this the other day when I was writing a specific Christmas reflection. I chanced upon the teaching document of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales about sharing the Eucharist and it brought this to mind. I’ve posted the link for you, in case you want to read further.

      St Paul compares Christ’s believers, the Church, to the body. Where there is pain, we are reminded of a wound and certainly in the case of the believers in Christ there is a wound or division. The pain of this wound may ultimately lead us to seek healing and reconciliation.

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