The Way We Live Now

How low can a status Faull?

It will surprise no one, I think, that as a result of the piece I wrote in New Directions in October (Faulling Status, p9) I received more than the usual quota of letters from irate sisters. Imagine, then, my delight on reading reports of the recent survey undertaken by the indefatigable Dr Leslie Francis, which further extends Professor Goldberg’s interesting thesis.

The Goldberg thesis, you will remember, is that men are hormonally driven to strive more assiduously for high status roles than women; and that when, for whatever reason, female dominance is established in a profession or job, men categorize that job as ‘low status’ and cease to strive to enter it. It now appears that there is more to it than that.

The generalities, of course, stand. The refinement comes in the particularities. Just as there are some women who are taller than most men, so there are some men who are as indifferent to status and achievement as many women. They, according to Professor Francis, become clergymen of the Church of England. The CofE is being feminized, not only by its women priests but, increasingly, by their male colleagues.

One can see the logic of it all. The twentieth century saw an unprecedented feminization of Christianity. I do not mean in church attendance figures, which (see the work of Leon Podles) have always, in all the mainstream churches, been predominantly female; but in language and ethos. Male concepts of fight, struggle and affirmation have been replaced by female categories of care and nurture. Bishop-in-Waiting Faull made this her strong suit in the article I cited.

It is not long, less than a hundred years (see The Return to Camelot, Mark Girouard), since the ideal of the Christian knight and of chivalry, with all that it was thought to entail, dominated the thinking of Western Christians. Consider the imagery of countless stained glass windows memorializing the First World War. Now we apologize for the Crusades (dare anyone even mention them in the current climate?) and excise Onward Christian soldiers and Fight the good fight from our already expurgated hymnals.

But you excise what Mary Douglas called ‘Natural Symbols’ at your peril. A rational morality does not deny biology; it harnesses it. Which is what the Doctrine of the Incarnation is all about; and why the feminization of Christianity, which Francis so neatly delineates, is a blind alley.

The question which ought to have dominated the debate on women’s ordination, but did not, was the simple question: Why was the incarnation male?

It will not do to assert, as Michael Adie did on November 11, 1992, that it had to be one thing or the other, and that it did not much matter which it was. (‘The Maleness of Jesus’, as the cant phrase has it, ’is not soteriologically significant.’) Sex is ‘soteriologically significant’, as any Freud will tell you. Mysterious in every society and unspoken about in some, sexuality is the root of our social conduct and the well-spring of poetry and the arts. It is what we are saved in and not what we are saved from.

Sex is the great divide of humanity, as its root (cf section, secateurs, etc) indicates. With rare exceptions, which prove the rule, people are one thing or the other. And it matters to them, from cradle to grave, which they are. The idea that someone can arbitrarily, and of themselves, decide whether to be Dido or Aeneas, Tristan or Isolde, Romeo or Juliet is gloriously absurd. (Barry Rogerson please note!) God did not make us thus, and so could not become one of us on those absurd principles.

The Incarnation was his kenotic act. It was continued in and crowned by the self-sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. They make one action. By them the Ultimate Human Patriarch, the Son of the Father, set a pattern of kenotic Patriarchy which he intended his Church to continue. He appointed twelve other Patriarchs – the Apostles – as the foundations of his Church. But he expected the same kenosis of them, too. Just as he had emptied himself to take the form of a slave, washing their feet on the last night of his life, so he expected them to wash one another’s feet. ‘The first shall be last and the last first,’ he said repeatedly; and he meant it.

The woman who anointed his feet and washed them with her tears (of course, a cognate act, that is John’s point) was doing ‘women’s work’ – she was anointing him for his burial. It was a legitimate, symbolic and essential act. But John points the contrast between that beautiful, female act and what Jesus does. ‘You call me master and Lord, and rightly; so I am. If I then, the Lord and Master, have washed your feet you should wash one another’s feet.’ The point is simple. You cannot give away an authority you do not have. It is the Son of David (and, alas, not the Daughter) who, by washing feet (the figurative image) and dying on a cross (the ultimate reality), redeems mankind and sets the pattern for a new era.

I have often fantasized that the logic of the Incarnation would require, in a matriarchal society, that the Incarnation should be female. Only in that way could the necessary kenotic kerygma be expressed in such a culture. But biology belies theory. There never has been a matriarchal society: matriarchal societies are as much a figment of the feminist imagination as the early Christian women priests who haunt the dreams, and (sadly) the Oxford lectures, of Dr Jane Shaw. At that point feminist theory, like Dr Johnson refuting Bishop Berkeley, must stub its toe against actuality.

The kenotic Patriarchy of the Incarnation (and of the priesthood which expresses it in present time) is God’s way of dealing with male oppression and violence. It redefines heroism as service, and so socializes the dominance tendency of belligerent males (see Ephesians 5, etc, etc.). It affirms that to be a hero you have to be prepared to suffer and to serve (When a knight won his spurs in the stories of old…). The alienation of boys in our educational system and from the Church, is an index of our failure to proclaim that saving Gospel for them The right-on sisters, having neither the wisdom nor the patience of God, offer no more effective response to failure than rage.

The tragedy, Leslie Francis is saying, is that the Church of England has all but given up on this heroic kenosis. The CofE is well on the way to becoming something entirely different: a community of the mutually therapeutic. That will not do.

Fr Austin Farrer, you will remember, was ascending an escalator on the Metropolitan Line in the 1960s, when his eye alighted on an advertisement. It read: ‘For ladies, for comfort, for uplift, for support’. Could this, Dr Farrer asked himself, be an advertisement for the Established Church?

The answer must now most surely be in the affirmative.

Geoffrey Kirk is the Vicar of St Stephen’s, Lewisham in the Diocese of Southwark.

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