Dealing with dilemmas feminism in a patriarchal church 2012
Dealing with Dilemmas
Being a male ‘feminist’ in a ‘patriarchal’ faith community
Fr Timothy Curtis
A personal perspective- not speaking on behalf of the University of Northampton or the
What am I going to say about
sexism and gender?
What am I going to say about
Write a few notes about your
expectations of this session.
Who am I?
Who are you?
What is God?
Culture Body Biology
OK, Christianity is sexist, right?
• I’m a male, that’s limiting
• I’m Christian, and that’s a
faith full of male priests
• I believe in a male God, or
• I certainly live in a feminist
• Am I even sure of that?
• “Do not be conformed to this world, but
continually be transformed by the renewing of
your minds.” Romans 12:2
• I (as a Christian) stand as a challenge to the
norms of ‘the world’
• I (as a Christian) stand not to ‘be natural’ but to
be called to ‘be perfect’, knowing that I also fail
• Raise up the ‘image and likeness of God’ in us
This is a complex area- I’m just looking at the principles
The Christian ethical
“no imperfect or maimed child
should be brought up”
Who said this? (A, Politics, Book VII: ch.16)
100 aborted babies in sewers
discovered by archaeologists while excavating a
Roman bathhouse in Ashkelon, 1990
Gender imbalance in the Roman Empire
• 131 males to 100 females in the city of Rome
• 140 males to 100 females in Italy, Asia Minor and North
• ‘By prohibiting all forms of infanticide and abortion,
Christians removed major causes of the gender
imbalance that existed among pagans’ (Rodney Stark)
The status of women in the
• Many girls were married at puberty and often before
• Girls received little or no education
• A woman was the legal property of some man at all
stages of her life
• Men could divorce a woman simply by ordering her out
of the house
Low sexual mores were reinforced by a male
culture that held marriage in low esteem
• Men often resorted to prostitutes
• Female prostitutes were common
• There were many male prostitutes, as
bisexuality and homosexuality were
Revolutionary impact of the
• It raised the status of women
• It gave value to human life
• It bestowed on marriage qualities of friendship and
• It condemned promiscuity in men and women equally
• It stressed the mutual obligations of husbands and wives
• It transformed marriage into a love relationship
But now……with the help of sociology
• The accusation of misogyny comes from,
above all, Western feminists referring to
the Latin traditions from Augustine to
Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure
• Sociologists looking from outside (Weber,
• Focussed on visible power and authority
An old, old question
• Genesis 1:27-28 and Galatians
3:27-28 are found at the heart of the
Fathers’ anthropological meditation:
– "The woman possesses, just as the
man, the privilege of having been
created in the image of God. Both their
natures are equally honourable,"
• Basil the Great’s (4th century) reply to
a woman whose own doubts led her
to question him on this topic.
• So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
• And God blessed them. And God said to
them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the
earth and subdue it and have dominion
over the fish of the sea and over the birds
of the heavens and over every living thing
that moves on the earth.”
• For all of you who were baptized into
Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is
neither slave nor free man, there is neither
male nor female; for you are all one in
• Does that mean we ignore ‘female’ in
preference for a male ‘normality’?
• Gregory of Nazianzus
(also 4th Century) proclaims,
• "The same creator for man and for
woman, for both the same clay, the same
image, the same death, the same
• Being- essentialist biological difference
• Becoming- orientation, experience of maleness
So, why can’t women be priests?
• This concept of ‘priest’ is a very narrow concept of the
Christian life and ministry
• It assumes that the only valid form of ministry (cf life) is
• A priest exists only to administer some sacraments i.e.
sacerdote- to offer the gifts
• All Christians participate in all sacraments (more than 7)
• Pastoral care is different from sacerdotal function
• The priest models (ikon), in place of Jesus, the
relationship between God and Jesus, a male relationship
• The model of the relationship between Mary and Jesus
(mother/woman and son/deity) has a different character
I am not relying on these for my argument:
• Jesus chose only male disciples
• That God had to become a man to
operate in patriarchal Jerusalem society
• That the bible does not exclude women
from ordained ministry
• Jesus was male, therefore priests have to
be male- why not also Jewish?
• It's because ancient people were dumb,
we're wiser now.
Society at the time was not misogynist
• It is unhistorical and simply false to say that in Jesus' day
priestesses would have been unacceptable to people at
• Jesus never hesitated to violate cultural taboos (John
• He spoke to women in public (John 4:4-42; 8:3-11).
• The first witnesses of his Resurrection were women
• Furthermore, the lands around the Mediterranean
teemed with religions with priestesses.
– The famed Vestal Virgins of Rome were priestesses.
– There was a priestess functioning at Delphi.
– The Sybil was a priestess and the many temple prostitutes were
• Existence of priestesses in nearby religions was not
St Paul understood…
• There have always been queens and
princesses, and now there are female
prime ministers and presidents.
• In terms of human functions, a woman can
no more be a priest than a man can be a
mother (biological function).
• So the ‘priest’ pertains to the essential biology……..his
‘being’ not his ‘becoming’…???
Bad St Paul, the misogynist
• Women be submissive and silent in church (1 Timothy
2:11-15 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35).
• Yet Paul honours many women in active ministry, like
the deaconess Phoebe (Romans 16:1).
• And he hails Euodia, Synteche (1 Corinthians 4:2-3) and
Prisca (Romans 16:3) as synergoi (fellow-workers) in the
• Vocal prophetesses are found everywhere in the Bible,
from Moses' sister Miriam (Exodus 15:20) to the four
daughters of St. Philip (Acts 21:9).
• The prophetess Anna spoke out in the temple, telling
everyone about the child Christ (Luke 2:36-38).
• cf Silence = hesychia
It’s a question of scale…
• We have some semantic confusion here, because many
things people think are restricted to clergy are done by
• We have women saints who were missionary
evangelists, church-planters, teachers, healers,
preachers, apologists, spiritual mothers, counselors,
miracle-workers, martyrs, iconographers,
hymnographers, and theologians.
• Holy women do virtually everything men do, except
stand at the altar (and men are excluded from adult
female baptism preparation- deaconesses).
• That leaves the rest of the world—which is where most
of God's work gets done.
St. Theodora the Empress
• Actress, sex worker and
• Joannes Laurentius Lydus,
remarked that she was
"superior in intelligence to any
• Justinian clearly recognized
this as well, allowing her to
share his throne and take
active part in decision making.
• exercised authority over both
men and women,
• brought a triumphant end to
the destruction of icons.
• St. Nina, a 14-year-old
the entire nation of
• St. Mary Magdalene,
St. Helen, and others
are called "Equal to
• A common title in the
never used in the
• St. Catherine and St.
Perpetua were brilliant
• put to the sword. "But
Perpetua, that she might
have some taste of pain,
was pierced between the
bones and shrieked out;
and when the
wandered still (for he was
a novice), herself set it
upon her own neck.
But on the other hand.........
• The Fathers of the Church’s egalitarianism
is “situated in the ..completeness of the
end of time, when genital sexuality will be
transcended”. Women in the Orthodox Church Elisabeth Behr-Sigel
• Monasticism anticipates this
completeness: transcending genital
• Even married life is expected to ultimately
transcend genital sexuality
Fr Alexander Schmemann
• “This priesthood is Christ's, not ours. None
of us, man or woman, has any "right" to it;
it is emphatically not one of human
vocations, analogous, even if superior, to
all others.” Rev. Dr. Schmemann
• "Here I had to exert all my efforts in trying to explain how our
Russian "feminism" became religious and why it is that only in the
Church can today's Russian woman find freedom and consolation;
only there does she receive strength for life and spiritual struggle.
Even now it is the Church alone which takes on problems unique to
• “We saw that social changes would not liberate either men or
women unless they were connected with the main thing, with the
spiritual revolution which was taking place in every soul and
throughout society. We said that women could only be free in the
• doctoral student of philosophy at the University of
Leningrad, exiled to Vienna 1980
Implications for social work
• Do we follow our own interpretation of a
faith community’s beliefs? (i.e. our beliefs
are superior & universal)
• Or do we follow their own account of those
beliefs, because all beliefs are equal?
• Is sexism an intrinsic part of the belief of
Christianity, or are Christians, in practice,
about as sexist as everyone else?
• How do you balance belief and practice?
Other ‘faith’ perspectives
• Exorcisms, possession and witchcraft
• Race and sectarianism (race majority
churches, Protestant/Catholic in Belfast)
• Marriage and same sex civil unions and
• Discuss other ‘boundaries’