Church steepleRev. John Richardson is an Anglican priest who has spent most of his pastorate ministering in a village by the name of Ugley. (John tells me the town is home to The Ugley Women’s Institute. Really.)

John is daily steeped in the feminine teapot of modern Anglicanism. After he read my book he felt inspired to write a guest column for the Church for Men newsletter and Web site. I’ve reprinted it here. Enjoy:

When I arrived in 2000, the congregation was warm, faithful — and elderly. Obviously something would have to be done, and soon, if there was to be a worshipping community in ten years’ time. By the grace of God, and with a few changes, we managed to draw in some new faces, particularly families with children, so that despite the losses through deaths, our numbers went up. But here was the problem: although the mums and kids were attending regularly, the dads were not. I’d had contact with the dads. In one case the dad had been the reason why his family started coming to church. But we were not keeping the dads, hence David’s book.

What I got from it, however, was more than an insight on my problem. Rather, it was one of those ‘Oh my goodness!’ experiences, like noticing your fly has been open all the time you’ve been giving a public speech. As I read, I realized that the problem is not just with our congregation — it is with our entire denomination, and indeed with our culture.

Of course, when we seek to understand and apply what David is saying, we must constantly remind ourselves of his warning: the problem is not that women and children are included, it is that men are excluded. We don’t want a macho church, we want one that recognizes that God is imaged by male and female. But having said that, clearly something is very wrong in the Church of England.

As I read David’s book, I could see that my Church has long since been ‘emasculated’. The current trend towards ‘inclusive’ language is not, as I once thought, the beginnings of a process, but the finishing touches. The real damage was done decades — perhaps even centuries — ago. But it was done so subtly, and has been going on for so long, that nobody notices.

Oddly enough, though, I’d had an inkling of it back in the 1980s at a conference for our diocesan clergy. As I was looking round for familiar faces in the hall where we were registering, it struck me that something was wrong, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. Then I realized two things: first, almost everyone was wearing the same expression — a mildly compassionate ‘Tell me about your problem’ face. Secondly, apart from the Anglo-Catholic ‘men in black’, the rest were almost all wearing the same sweater. Honestly. It was a period when horizontal stripes in Autumn colours were popular in a certain major department store, and half the clergy in that hall seemed to have gone for it!

What I realize now, of course, is that this similarity of expression and dress reflected a similarity of character traits. The Church of England consciously selects a certain kind of person for the work of ministry. But within this tendency, there are two options. The majority are the ‘reliable’ type — those who will fit in and not rock the boat. They will be the sympathetic ones in sweaters, and today will include as many women as men.

But the Church of England also likes to encourage a few ‘exotics’. So if you are black, working class or a woman who is younger and attractive, you can be a bit ‘unsophisticated’ in your beliefs, or ‘edgy’ in your personality — but only because your very exoticism means you are not a threat to the institutional norms.

Take the Archbishop of York, for example. He is outspoken and lively. He has a knack for attracting and using publicity. He can speak about Jesus without embarrassment and mission without mincing his words. But then he is black African. By contrast, the ‘average white bishop’ is a clone. They mostly look the same (sympathetic, serious), they sound the same (middle class), they think the same (open-minded, inclusive). And, almost to man, they give no clear lead to the Church, either nationally or in their own dioceses.

Indeed, many years ago I learned that the question you could never ask of any diocesan initiative was, ‘What is our goal?’ It was simply too specific and too divisive. To ask what we might be trying to achieve would be to admit that in some situations we might not be achieving it. And that might end in tears. Instead, the Church prefers an ethos of ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’.

Or take the proliferation of ‘advisors’ in the Church of England and the way they operate. Typically, Church of England advisors never actually advise, in the sense of telling people how to do things. They listen and they facilitate. Once again, much of the problem is that there is no agreement about what the Church is trying to achieve. So there are no ‘wrong answers’, only ‘valid experiences’, and the proper response to what someone shares is to thank them for sharing it, not to subject it to analysis or criticism.

Of course, one might think that, for all these faults, the Church of England would at least be a nice place to work. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. The Church is not only deeply divided, but unable to resolve its divisions. And this, again, is related to its emasculation which avoids open disagreement. Face to face across the table, all is sweetness and smiles. But below the table — or in the pages of Church publications and on the internet — shins are being hacked to pieces by kicks, and pens are laced with poison.

I have had dialogues with those who would claim to be Liberal, yet who have descended into ‘hissing fits’ when pushed. Check out the ‘Thinking Anglicans’ website for illiberalism from Liberals or the ‘Fulcrum’ website for the same from some Evangelicals — mostly directed, in the latter case, at other Evangelicals. In the Church of England, we don’t slug it out, but we spit, scratch, bite and pull hair with the best of them!

Not surprisingly, within this culture there is an aversion to masculinity itself. To describe something as ‘male dominated’ or ‘patriarchal’ is to damn it. A recent official report, for example, commented baldly that,

Although strong patriarchal tendencies have persisted in Christianity, the example of Christ carries the seeds of their displacement by a more symmetrical and respectful model of male-female relations. (Responding to Domestic Abuse: guidelines for those with pastoral responsibilities, Church House Publishing, 2006, p 29 )

The same report went so far as to blame biblical language and imagery for abuse by men within marriage:

Domestic abuse is fundamentally an abuse of power, and many conceptions of God derived from the Bible and the Christian tradition have portrayed divine power in unhealthy and potentially oppressive ways. There are particular problems in the attribution of violent actions and attitudes to God, chiefly but not solely in the Old Testament, which require careful interpretation with reference to the historical and theological context.

Even short of this, the divine-human relationship may be conceived in terms of domination and submission at the expense of grace, mercy and patient love. When used as a model for human relationships, this emphasizes authority and obedience at the expense of mutuality. In combination with uncritical use of masculine imagery to characterize God, it can validate overbearing and ultimately violent patterns of behaviour in intimate relationships. (pp 27-28)

In fairness, some of the above did raise eyebrows even within the Church of England. But there are those who would accept and applaud it. Amongst the self-styled ‘Open’ Evangelicals, for example, there is not only a support for women’s ordination to the priesthood (and hence to the pastorate of congregations) but a sometimes-vehement hostility to churches which teach male headship in marriage.

Even our own congregation is not immune to these influences. In the foreword to our usual hymnbook is this explanatory note:

We were … concerned that the book should use positive and appropriate images, and decided that militarism and triumphalism were, therefore, not appropriate. We recognise that military imagery is used in the Bible, but history, including current events, shows only too clearly the misuse to which those images are open. (Hymns Old and New: New Anglican Edition, Kevin Mayhew Ltd, 1996)

Of course, the non-churchgoing man would not be aware of the changes to traditional hymns. Nor would using the original words make him more inclined to feel at ease when singing them. I realize that we will not bring in my missing men with variations on ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’. These changes are simply warning signs — symptoms of a greater malaise.

The process of emasculation affects our wider society just as much as the Church. Obsessive ‘Health and Safety’ regimes designed to eliminate all life’s risks are one example. Another is the way that men are regularly portrayed as buffoons in advertising, whilst women are paragons of competence. One American website quotes a 2001 survey conducted by the Advertising Standards Association in Great Britain, which found that 2/3 of respondents thought that women featured in advertisements were “intelligent, assertive, and caring,” while the men were “pathetic and silly.” The number of respondents who thought men were depicted as “intelligent” was a paltry 14%.

In the face of this emasculation, is it surprising that the ‘problem of suffering’ is seen as a key obstacle to faith? Suffering is, of course, something which none of us welcome. Nor, more importantly, would we wish it on anyone else. Yet without suffering, what room is there for virtues such as bravery or fortitude? The unbeliever says that suffering disproves the Christian view of a loving and merciful God, and the emasculated Church concurs. Faced with just this challenge in a radio interview, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, could only reply in the vaguest of terms:

My faith tells me, and it’s very hard to believe in these circumstances, but it tells me and I trust this – that the world, yes, is such that suffering arises in these unspeakable ways. It also tells me that what God can do with those circumstances and those persons [who suffer] is not exhausted by the world – there’s more.

The answer the Bible gives is strikingly different:

… we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope … (Romans 5:3-4)

Much as we all seek to avoid it, the suffering-free life is the Diet-Coke of character-building, free of courage to the same extent that it is free of care.

Yet perhaps this antipathy towards masculinity is not as new as we might think. Sociologist Callum Brown presents this intriguing thesis about British Christianity:

From 1800 to 1950 … it was a husband’s susceptibility to masculine temptations that was perceived as a threat to piety and household, and the wife established a family’s respectability by curbing him. Exemplars of piety changed sex, from being overwhelmingly male to being overwhelmingly female, and the route to family harmony no longer lay in the taming of the Elizabethan shrew but in the bridling of the Victorian rake, drunkard, gambler and abuser. (The Death of Christian Britain, Routledge, 2001, p 88)

Brown’s book has a remarkable resonance with David Murrow’s work and suggests that the modern problem has deep roots. In fact, I suspect it goes back to Genesis 3:16 — a passage which tells us a lot about the war between the sexes. But if it is true that our struggles in this regard are an inevitable result of the Fall, we may take some heart. We need not be so surprised to find we are challenged at this level, nor need we expect to get everything right. It is enough that we acknowledge the problem and address it to the best of our ability. God will do whatever else is possible with what we bring to him.

Revd John Richardson

15 November 2006