On being a woman in the church
A Church of Scotland minister, writer and poet reflects on the significance of women’s ordination and the impact of patriarchy.
Today, Scottish women live in a society where equal opportunities, at least in principle, are an accepted part of working life, where good practice requires looking critically at unexamined assumptions, and where changing patterns of family life have led to much greater role diversity among men and women. That is not to say either full equality or full inclusion has been achieved. It is one thing to change legislation, another to change institutional cultures, as women have discovered in every walk of life, not just the church. When it is not being intentional about changing the settings, the church’s default position is still male-dominated and designed. But in the part of the church which I belong to, the Church of Scotland, in which I was ordained as a minister of Word and Sacrament in 1977, there are now no roles or offices closed to women and several women have held the highest representative office, as Moderator of the General Assembly.
The place and experience of women in the church goes far beyond the question of ordination. Nevertheless, this has been an important change. The ordination of women has never been about breaking through the ‘stained-glass ceiling’. It has mattered because who the minister is speaks to the church. There are messages of value encoded in where we attribute spiritual leadership. The ordination of woman has been a significant affirmation of the value and experience of women in the life of the church.
It has mattered because who the minister is speaks to women. No woman can speak for all women. Their ministries are as diverse and distinctive as their male colleagues, and gifts fairly evenly distributed regardless of gender. But their ordination has helped to redress the long failure to offer women, including those who have served the church devotedly in entirely traditional ways, the respect, dignity and equality of persons equally created in the image of God.
And it speaks to those outside about the church today. Times have changed since the Church of Scotland was a major power in the land and assumed it could speak to and for Scotland. But perhaps that is no bad thing, this shifting of authority to areas where women offer so much; in sensitive pastoral care, worship leadership, intellectual rigour, organisational competence, community development, imaginative spirituality and the ability to lead, nurture and encourage congregations, often in the most difficult places. These things more truthfully reflect the reality of Church of Scotland life today and model its greatest strengths.
So I celebrate the lifting up of all the gifts of the people of God. Women have not accepted that what we bring to the churches is unworthy of the churches’ time and energy; we have acted like we belong because we do belong. This, I think, is good news!
On the other hand….I have been a faithful church attender since the age of five. For the best part of half a century, I have rarely missed Sunday worship, primarily in the Church of Scotland, but often, because of the ecumenical nature of my work, in other traditions also. Additionally, I have lived in intentional Christian communities with the practice of daily worship for about twenty years. I reckon I have attended well over ten thousand church services in my lifetime. In that time, probably less than a hundred of these (1%), have not informed me, either covertly or overtly, sometimes subtly but more often with all the finesse of a sledgehammer, that God is male!
The masculinity of God is not something that most of us think of very much, if at all. We simply take it for granted, because it is what we have always known and is almost universally practiced in the religions of the Book (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). God is always male. It is the default setting. To get a sense of how deep-rooted and all-pervading this actually is, and the impact it has on the way we understand God, the world and ourselves, is almost impossible. Perhaps the nearest we can come to this is to try to imagine what it might be like if God had been always ‘She’, day after day, year after year, century after century, in every place where God is referenced, in every scripture, every text, every hymn, every act of worship, every denomination, every work of theology. Imagine how that might change your experience and view of the world, and of God – if you are a man, if you are a woman….
Does this matter, this masculinity of God? My struggle is not a rejection of fatherhood, either that of God or of my own very dear father, but with the patriarchal systems that the fatherhood of God is used to authorize and reinforce. Patriarchy is associated with a set of ideas, a ‘patriarchal ideology’ that acts to explain and justify this dominance and attributes it to inherent natural differences between men and women. This ideology assumes that male norms operate throughout all social institutions and become the standard to which all persons adhere. Males become the unit of analysis, the point of reference, the norm. Women have been, and continue too often still to be constructed
- after men (so they are named and viewed from a central male perspective)
- from men (so they have been denied the right truly to define their own identity)
- for men (so their value is assessed according to how well they fulfil their serving roles)
Is the choice for women still the pleasant submission of Eden, or the penal subjection of the Fall? Many Christians would still answer ‘yes’. Is God always masculine because our scriptures and our faith stories emerged from the wholly patriarchal cultures of the Ancient Near East? Are the great majority of societies and cultures in the world today patriarchal because God is always masculine? These are still important questions.
I believe that we who belong to a religion with deeply patriarchal roots have a great responsibility for watchfulness and rigorous self-critique in our own societies and structures. We have become painfully aware of the extent of abuse of the most vulnerable (an estimated10% of children in developed nations). We know about the violence against women that is effectively a pandemic, about sexual abuse and violence, including incest and mass rape in war, about the forced marriages, honour killings and human trafficking which require patriarchal systems for their authorisation. We are aware of the injustices that have been inflicted on women, on the poor, on the outsider, on those who do not conform. In the church, we are aware of the infantilising dependency relationships that create emotionally and spiritually stunted laity and clergy alike. Patriarchal structures do not encourage maturity.
That we have often enjoyed the security of a benevolent paternalism does not provide sufficient response. That we ourselves have not done these things does not exempt us from the responsibility of being part of social or religious cultures that allow them to happen. That not all women are or feel oppressed by patriarchal systems and many, perhaps the majority of men do not use the power of patriarchy to oppress women (and their children and vulnerable or lower-status men) should not blind us to the authorization which that power gives them to do so.
Is this a long way from the masculinity of God? I don’t think it is. It may not seem so either to the million women who have left the churches in Britain in the last twenty years. Research has concluded that young women in particular were put off because they linked the Church to traditional values and gender roles.
But today, they, as women, expect to be respected and taken seriously. Younger women especially find it increasingly difficult to take an institution seriously which does not return the compliment, and vote with their feet accordingly. I have a passionate Reformed conviction of the priesthood of all believers, and long for the day when ‘all’ actually means all. So from my perspective, some good news but still many mountains to climb!
Rev Kathy Galloway is currently Head of Christian Aid Scotland and was the first women to lead the Iona Community.