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.