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Women and the Church from What's Right with Feminism by Elaine Storkey

Women and the Church

What's Right with Feminism
by Elaine Storkey, SPCK, 1985, chapter 6, pp.46-55.

Elaine Storkey is a lecturer, writer and broadcaster

Republished on our website with the necessary permissions.

Most feminists do not mount any detailed criticism of sexual inequality within the Church. For them the Church itself signifies oppression. The Church is beyond redemption. It is that institution which has in the past contributed most soundly to subduing women, and has provided a divine justification for doing so: ‘Male religious authority reinforces male secular authority, and gives it a mystical unquestionable basis.’(1) Yet now the Church is archaic, out of touch and largely irrelevant. In 600 pages of The Female World Jessie Bernard commits less than two pages to ‘Religion and the Church’.(2) Women who still see some meaning and significance in Christian commitment and church worship are on the whole to be pitied. For whilst they willingly accept the whole male-centred ideology, the deification of manhood along with the crippling moral taboos it places on women, then their liberation is still a long way off. In the end, the Church is there only to reinforce the male power syndrome.

The image of God as a man is very deeply entrenched, even in people who have rejected the idea of God: the God we no longer believe in is still envisaged as male. It’s hardly surprising, and very convenient for a world ruled by men to see its creator as a man. Where power is equated with masculinity, the most powerful figure must be masculine.(3)

For those feminists who do need involvement in religious worship there is a female avenue open; the growing goddess and priestess cults. The Madrian movement is one such example, incorporating rituals and moon festivals and sacrificial rites (which it is gleefully announced were ‘roundly condemned by Jeremiah in the name of his male god in the Old Testament’ [Jeremiah 34.15-30].(4)

The aim of this chapter is not to argue against this analysis of Christianity, not to defend the Church, nor to investigate the many worrying aspects of the goddess cults. The final part of the book will be offering an alternative rendering of the impact which Christianity has made on the lives and insights of women. But here we are forced to ask the question: does the Church have a case to answer? Is the Church, along with work, education and family life, guilty of repressing women, guilty of denying them true expression of that personhood? To examine this we turn not to the dismissive comments of the majority of feminists but to heartfelt arguments of that much smaller group of women, the feminists within the Church.

Male bias in our churches?

The consensus appears to be that as it is presented and practised in our churches the gospel is not Good News for women. After 2000 years the Church remains an institution structured by men for men. Whilst proclaiming eternal freedom in Christ it endorses temporal bondage for women. Whilst preaching that in Christ there is no male or female it practises the subordination of women to the overruling and authority of men. Whilst maintaining that we are all part of the body of Christ it acts as though the male parts are far more important than the female parts. Women, it is argued, are stifled in the majority of churches. Talented women who love the Lord and want to serve him find the outlets for such service very circumscribed. Women with pastoral, administrative or teaching gifts find in many churches that they must sit back frustrated whilst some man performs very inadequately a task that they would do so much better. For although a number of denominations in the United States in particular do recognize the varieties of ministry for women, on the whole most churches on either side of the ocean see women as playing only a ‘supportive’, if any, role in their congregations. Men preach, women listen. Men pray, women say ‘Amen’. Men form the clergy, the diaconate or the oversight, women abide by their leadership. Men study theology, women sew for the bazaar. Men make decisions, women make the tea. Women’s role, even within the Church, is primarily that of wife and mother, and many church people feel very uneasy when a woman moves out of that role into another. Working wives who are very involved in their jobs and not able to take part in the women’s groups, in the cleaning rota or the domestic back-up of a church are frequently shown disapproval or hostility. They are seen as somehow more worldly than their domestic counterparts, even though they might be struggling harder to relate and integrate their Christian faith with their work lives than many mums at home. Similarly, with the swing away from celibacy as the super-spiritual norm, single women often find churches unsympathetic and alienating, with their contemporary focus on the family and their adulation of motherhood. If to be a really successful Christian, woman is to be a wife and mother, then surely they have failed on all accounts?

The Church then wants women in their ‘normal’, ‘proper’ role. It is happiest with women who are supportive and domestic, women who are uncritical and non-threatening, docile, feminine, good followers, hospitable and passive. Most churches are embarrassed with women who feel called to leadership, women who are perceptive and analytical, women who are learned in Scripture and have developed biblical insights. The best they can do for them is to recognize that if they were men there would be much they could tackle in the Church, but as they are women then they simply constitute a problem. Perhaps the answer might be to get them interested in missionary work. There are, after all, plenty of opportunities for women in Christian service and evangelism if they don’t mind going overseas.

Attitudes to women

It is the incongruity of the Church’s position on women which offends many feminists. In fact for all its attempted theological justification the way many churches treat women has more to do with contemporary secular culture than biblical teaching. Participation in the life of the Church is often split along the same gender lines as we find in the area of work in general. Women do menial, ‘low status’ tasks, women spend their time with toddlers and children. Lip service is frequently made to the enormous contribution which women make in these areas, but most people recognize that the contribution made by the minister, the deacons, the church treasurer is altogether of a different value. Churches and denominations of course do differ. In some, women will be found at many different levels of church life, in others, women will be doing the cleaning, catering, sewing, ironing, and creche and Sunday school duties only. I have been to at least one rigidly segregated church where the men have been at earnest prayer in the main hall, whilst the women bustled around outside, talking in hushed whispers about inconsequentials, and organizing the tea and cakes which followed. It is not surprising in those cases that women not well socialized into this tradition feel confused and rebellious.

In most churches the attitude to women is much more subtly communicated. Mildly sexist jokes from the pulpit are not only tedious but harmful as they continue to foster inaccurate stereotypes which prevent true growth in the body. ‘Put down’ comments, aimed often at keeping women in their place, are not uncommon if women speak out of turn. Nor is the patronizing and sometimes paternalist attitude of many clergymen to a predominantly female congregation. It effectively distances him from real communication and from showing his own vulnerability. The labelling and categorizing of some women- ‘a busybody’, ‘miserable looking’, ‘a dogooder’, ‘a neurotic woman’, ‘always calling round under some pretext’-is again not only discourteous but betrays a lack of love and a hollowness in the Church which often contribute to the very symptoms complained of. Many women come away from church, and even from small group meetings and Bible studies, feeling that they have been preached at, talked at, lectured to and put in place, but have not been encountered as real persons, with real human needs and a longing for deep communication. Women students whose feminist friends have begun to wrestle with the gospel of Christ often ask me: ‘Where can we take them, where the sexist attitudes they hate will not be evident?’ The question is a real one indeed.

Sexist language

The development of language is an absorbing topic for language is not ‘neutral’, words and phrases all have meaning within a framework of communication which reflects the values and commitments of that society or group. The language of the seventeenth century, rich in Christian symbolism, heavy in its consciousness of sin, deeply reflects a world view where God’s righteousness was feared, and his grace and mercy loved. The language of the late twentieth century is a language of apostasy: of intense humanist selfpreoccupation, of denial of God and blasphemy. The feminist argument then, that our language also often reflects the low position which women are given in our culture, can be easily understood. The replacement of chairman, draughtsman, spokesman, Mrs, with more linguistically relevant terms irritated many, but have quickly become commonly adapted into the language of many groups. Unfortunately in our churches language betraying a male orientation is still very evident. The conceptualization of God as male is done through language. God, as we well know from Scripture, is neither male nor female and there are many biblical references which liken him to a mother as well as to a father. Yet it is true that the Church frequently attributes maleness to God instead of recognizing that both maleness and femaleness are derivatively God’s image. Worship too is often drenched in male language. Many hymns address the congregation as ‘brothers’ or ‘men’: ‘O brothers lift your voices triumphant songs to raise’, ‘Join hands then brothers of the faith’, ‘Name him, brothers, name him’, ‘We are the children of thy love, the brothers of thy well-beloved son’, ‘Onward therefore pilgrim brothers’, ‘O brother man’. Many Christian women are happily prepared to sing ‘Rise up, O men of God’, or ‘Good Christian men rejoice’ but must feel pretty silly when it comes to ‘Our wives, and children we commend to thee’. In a similar way we sing about the ‘Faith of our fathers living still’ and remember that ‘In thee our fathers trusted and were saved’ and ‘for the might of throe arm we bless thee, our God, our fathers’ God’.

The militaristic aspect of many of our hymns is also disconcerting. True, the Christian life is pictured often as a warfare, but this feature almost more than any other seems to have excited the minds of many nineteenth-century hymnwriters. The picture we have is of blood-red banners, fighting soldiers, brandished steel, the fierce battle, defeats of the enemy, and victors’ crowns. For most women, this image of the Christian life bears little resemblance to their own, or to anything they have experienced or can identify with.

Exclusion, not just from leadership but from expression in worship itself, leaves many women today asking deep questions about the relevance of the Christian faith to themselves. Some churches are slow to produce answers. One important, and incidentally very loving, group of churches, the Brethren, imply by their very name that there are no women in their assemblies. Indeed, some of the assemblies worship that way also.

Inconsistencies in practice

In defence of the traditional attitude of the Church to women’s place within it, it must be said that it is not an attempt merely to propagate male supremacy. People of integrity who have struggled with Scripture and who want to obey the Lord of Scripture have in the end come to the conclusion that this same Scripture teaches the subordination of women to men. The Catholic Church’s teaching finds its justification in tradition as much as in the Word of revelation, but its conclusions are not too dissimilar. The argument goes that if the Word (or the Church) comes to this conclusion we have no choice but to obey it. We are under authority. The idea of authority is unpopular in contemporary society; nevertheless Christians at least, and Christian women in particular, must take that stand on the authority of the Word of God and put it into practice.

This argument is of course very compelling. No Christian woman wants to be guilty of flouting divine commands. No truly Christian woman wants to live a life denying the authority of Christ, however hard it may be to accept that authority. Yet this bland assertion of scriptural teaching and the exhortation to obedience hides the fact that hermeneutical principles are involved in understanding Scripture, and that two people who both fully accept the Word of God as authoritative might nevertheless come up with different conclusions about individual doctrines or practices. We have accepted this for many years in the Evangelical community with regard to baptism: whether it is reserved for believers or available to infants. In this case we recognize that there are good biblical arguments on either side, and rather than pursue them at every turn we concentrate on the enormous number of beliefs which unite us: on the Triune God, on salvation through Christ, on the virgin birth, on the miracles, the resurrection, the second coming, on the atonement and justification by faith, on the need for repentance and the unmerited grace of God. In a similar way, we are constantly making allowances and adjustments for fellow and sister believers who see in Scripture something which we have not (yet) seen. Only the arrogant maintain that they have all the truth of Scripture enshrined within their confession. Most recognize that whilst this is what we believe, this is where we stand, you might yet have insights from the Word which we can learn from. Obedience involves humility.

In another sense, we are all making some adjustments and reinterpretations to the teachings of the Word of God in applying them to our contemporary culture. We do not consider the prohibition about eating strangled meat (Acts 13.20, 29) to be relevant to us today. It is true also that only a few congregations meet for worship in the way clearly laid down in 1 Corinthians 14.26-36. Many of our denominations would find it difficult indeed to cope with people standing up and prophesying, especially when someone is already on his feet in the pulpit. Throw in three people who speak in a tongue, and those interpreting and we have a situation which would strike terror into the hearts of many clergymen! The approach so often taken is to say this was specific to the first century Church, and not for us today. At the same time many church groups nevertheless abstract verse 36 out of the passage, and insist that women should still remain silent! In fact in this passage Paul is almost certainly aiming to prohibit disruptive noise from the women, who might otherwise break into the worship asking questions. If they have anything to ask they should raise it with their husbands at home. If it were to have the stronger meaning, then Paul’s earlier reflections about women praying or prophesying with their heads covered would not make sense. Rather than be concerned with what they wore, he would simply insist that they did not pray or prophesy at all. Some churches in fact ‘improve’ on Paul here: insisting both that women keep silence, and keep their heads covered! But again, the majority of churches now recognize that the wearing of veils or head coverings was pertinent to that situation and not to today.

Incongruities of this nature multiply in our churches. It is not at all unusual for churches to conclude that whilst a woman may never teach the Word of God to adult congregations (basing this on 1 Timothy) they may nevertheless teach children in Sunday school. A quick reflection will soon recognize that if a woman is unfit to impart truth to those of maturity, reflection and wisdom, it would hardly be wise to allow her free access to the immature, trusting and formative minds of children. Similarly, the disparity between women’s ministry at home, and missionary work overseas could well be construed to be making a racist comment. Some denominations are more incongruous than others. In England a woman may teach, preach and train men for the Anglican ‘priesthood’ at theological college, but may not become a ‘priest’ herself. Only by a very tortuous process can the ‘authority’ over the future leaders of the Church whilst in training be less ‘authoritative’ than the ‘authority’ of a minister in his parish! The administration of the sacraments is another altogether odd phenomenon, where women ordained as deaconesses traditionally administer the wine, but rarely the bread. Is the blood of Christ of less value than the body? What extra ‘spiritual’ powers are necessary to administer one rather than the other? In many churches of course, women administer neither, even though nothing at all is mentioned in Scripture prohibiting this.

The only point I am trying to make here is that once we move away from the central doctrinal themes of our faith there is a great deal of debate about the contemporary relevance of other teachings of the New Testament. The Church’s task all the time is to separate that which holds for all time from that relative to one culture or period. It is the muddled and compromising way in which the Church does this with relation to women which frustrates many Christian feminists, and leaves the Church often unable to account for the stand it takes.

The ordination of women

It has often been supposed that a discussion of women and the Church is, in the end, about the ordination of women. I hope I have shown that the issues are more complex than that. In fact far from being the central pivot of the debate about women, the ordination of women is predominantly a problem for those only with a high view of the sacraments and ordination itself. Those who see ordination as bestowing a special spiritual status on its recipients, who see ‘priesthood’ not as something which belongs to all believers but to a special few; they are the ones for whom the question of women in the whole process rages most fiercely. For if women are to be forever excluded from this group of the spiritual elite then they are indeed to be relegated to a permanently lower Christian status than men. They will be the ones denied the ‘vocation’ of priest; unable to preside over the sacrament; unable to administer the host. They will never be numbered amongst those empowered to mediate between Christ and his people.

This view of the priesthood is of course closest to the Catholic and Anglo-Catholic position. For women with a different concept of the ministry of the Church the issues are also different. For them it is not so much being ‘set apart’ for the holy calling as being enabled to speak the word of God, without let or hindrance, to their generation. It is the recognition of the Church that God can use women too in the proclamation of his gospel and the furtherance of his kingdom. It is a plea for the recognition that they too have the skills and talents to minister to the people, serve the Church, and pastor and nurture the faith of others.

A third view of ministry is often evident. Many women see their calling as sharing ministry with others in the Church. This view is furthest away from the hierarchical concept of the Church, with the popes or archbishops at the top and the laity at the bottom, and closest to one which sees every member of the Church as equally effective in the service of Christ and in the life of the Church, but where some occupy specific ‘offices’ in the Church for certain periods. Here, the ambition of women in this area is simply to be recognized as possible office-holders alongside men, in a ministry in which all can share and use for the upbuilding of the whole body. This view of ‘leadership’, although most often found in the more gender-rigid of our churches, is in fact closest to that developed in the women’s movement itself.

One area of women’s ministry which seems to some to be the worst of both worlds is that of the Anglican deaconess. Ordained along with the men she has trained with she nevertheless does not go on to the ‘final ordination’ a year later as they do. Moreover, her job in the Church is often misunderstood and full of ambiguities: she is seen as an ecclesiastical social worker, a lay reader, a visitor for the sick, an honorary clergy wife, or as a kind of nun. Even if they value her ministry, everyone in the parish knows that the ‘real’ clergy are men.

There are therefore many questions prior to the ordination of women. What does ordination mean? In what sense do ‘spiritual authority’ and church office coincide? To what extent is the sharing pattern of ‘equals’ in Christ closer to the New Testament Church than the hierarchy we observe today? It could be that in a curious kind of way the feminist arguments outside the Church might be pointing at something we need to know.


1. Wendy Collins, Ellen Friedman and Agnes Pivot, The Directory of Social Change (Wildwood House 1978), p. 13.

2. Jessie Bernard, The Female World. New York, Free Press, 1981.

3. The Directory of Social Change, p. 13.

4. ibid., p. 14.

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