Holy men behaving badly

July 5, 1996

Christ's maleness, and the patriarchy that followed, were historically contingent, argues Anthony Fletcher

Religion and gender have always been fundamentally intertwined. Christianity is part of a system of western thought that is itself deeply gendered. The ideas and ideals of Christianity have thus been conceived within a patriarchal system and at the same time offer a potential challenge to it. Jesus Christ came into Hebrew society as a male; he might have come, had that been a different kind of society, as a female. Christ's maleness, in other words, can be seen as both historically contingent and overwhelmingly significant.

The subordination of women became the basic premise of social relationships in western society, with scripture as the source of a multitude of texts that could be harnessed by clerical authors. The subordination was achieved through the system we know as patriarchy: the norm of heterosexual marriage was its basis and there followed from this the authority and control of men as husbands, fathers and masters over all members of the household. At the same time, gender throughout late antiquity and the middle ages rested on a reading of the body in humoral terms that gave men superiority as being predominantly hot and dry while women were cool and moist. Much followed from this. Whereas men had the capacity for reason, women's emotional nature made them unable to exercise control over their voracious and insatiable sexuality. The imperatives of female chastity before marriage and total loyalty within it followed, as did the double sexual standard that allowed men greater freedom to roam. Hence the notion of woman as the "weaker vessel". The phrase originated with William Tyndale's translation of the New Testament and became common currency during the Reformation.

Men's power in history has resided in their construction of theology and philosophy, law and custom in their own terms. Yet they have had to revise and adapt patriarchy continually to accord with the advance of science and changing philosophical conditions. There have been times when the male clergy, patriarchy's most determined protagonists, have been nervous and redoubled efforts to inculcate their message. This was certainly so during the first century of English Protestantism when clergy emphasised that obedience of wives, servants and children in the home was crucial. Household order was seen as the foundation of effective government. "A family," insisted puritan advice book writer William Gouge, "is a little commonwealth I a school wherein the first principles and grounds of government and subjection are learned."

During the 17th and 18th centuries men sought to transform patriarchy by replacing its ancient scriptural basis, which was now threatened by the collapse of the old way of seeing the world. In the place of hierarchy and degree they began to erect the new secular ideology of gender that has survived to the present day. This rested on the construction of masculinity and femininity in a manner intended to ensure its internalisation in the growing child. The Anglican clergy found no problem about lifting much from Christian tradition and integrating it with the new cosmology emerging from the scientific revolution. In fact, the church now claimed a paramount role in bolstering a coherent vision of an ordered social world. What is striking here is the clergy's confidence. In 1800 Somerset parson William Holland recorded a visit to his living at Monkton Farley: "every one grinned and seemed pleased to see us and the poor seemed very respectful". The hegemony of squire and parson was the very essence of the system of gender relations underlying the social stability of Hanoverian and Victorian England.

The relationship between religion and gender in women's lives is a more intractable subject since few sources afford an insight into women's subjectivity. Historians studying female visionaries have argued plausibly that the language they use about their experiences of union with God is incompatible with their having adopted the construction of themselves that men sought to impose.

What is certain is that the medieval notion of hierarchical gender gave women a certain spiritual advantage. Because they were weak and emotional they were more naturally pious than men: they could be as empty vessels that God chose to fill with his influence or prophecies. During the political upheavals of the English civil war female visionaries were given rapt attention. It is evident from a genre of female meditative verse and prose around then that many women found comfort and assurance from their times of private meditation and prayer.

In some cases the relationship with a heavenly spouse brought mystical experiences. Anne Bathurst, for example, hints at an erotic transference when she records Christ seeming "to kiss me with the kisses of his mouth".

The Victorian construction of gender, with its heavy emphasis on female domestic responsibility, created a different kind of atmosphere. Women became the centrepiece of men's comfort and emotional support and this included a specific spiritual role. When Lord Bloomfield's daughter, Charlotte, lay dying, aged 13 in 1828, her sister Georgiana's memoir of her last days emphasises the roles of her mother, sisters and nurse in saying prayers with her several times a day whereas her father was only an occasional visitor. This was perhaps the apogee of domestic English patriarchy.

In this context, the ordination of women in the English Anglican church in 1994 was an event of great significance in overturning the Judaeo-Christian patriarchal tradition, for it gave official denial to the view of women as, though somehow more pious, in fact less complete expressions of human nature than men. This event affirmed that women share equally in the image of God. It points us towards thinking about an original order of nature that was egalitarian and in which patriarchy might be named as a distortion of nature.

Anthony Fletcher is professor of history at the University of Essex.

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