Friday, April 18, 2008

Theology and Gendered Ministry: A Critique of (Some) Contemporary Men's Ministries

Previously in this series;
Preface to Theology and Gendered Ministry
Framing Gender Differences
Understanding the Gendered Jesus - Part 1; Graham Ward's Cities of God
Understanding the Gendered Jesus - Part 2; Graham Ward's Christ and Culture

Given the preceding discussion on gender (see above links) it is important to ask the question of what is implicitly involved in men’s ministry, particularly in North America. The general history of gender in the modern West appears to be the movement of women from an inferior form of male to a distinct and ‘opposite’ sex (though still inferior). Then came a growing movement among women attempting to establish themselves as fully equal humans able to participate in all of life to the extant that particular individuals are able. This led to a crisis within masculinity as men were forced to redefine their own identities or to reject emerging feminist identities. It is important to ask why this led to a crisis among men.[1] I would suggest that the crisis among men relates directly to power dynamics inherent within any social system. Whether within a family or in a society an internal shift always creates pushes and pulls within the whole system. The reactions to change often expose those who are poorly self-differentiated, those whose own life was dependent on the stability or subordination of another.[2] In social terms this can be set more clearly in terms of power and law. In The History of Sexuality Foucault explores the “‘analytics’ of power: that is, . . . the specific domain formed by power relations.”[3] Dealing particularly with sexuality Foucault states that power is always established in relation sex in a negative expression, one of “rejection, exclusion, refusal, blockage, concealment or mask.”[4] This leads to his next statement which is that “sex is placed by power into a binary system: licit and illicit, permitted and forbidden.”[5] Which is further developed into a “cycle of prohibition” and “the logic censorship” which relegate aspects of sex into non-existence. Once caught into this framework the cycle is self-perpetuating and self-justifying. “One must not talk about what is forbidden until it is annulled in reality; what is inexistent has no right to show itself, even in the order of speech where its inexistence is declared; and that which one must keep silent about is banished from reality as the thing that is tabooed above all else.”[6] The stability of the dominant system depends on the ‘inexistence’ of that which is under its power.

It is important to remember that the first statement on the domain of power and sex is its negative relationship. It is confusing that such extreme outcry has emerged from particular men and men’s group as to the apparent ‘feminization’ of the church. Though the vast majority of church leadership is male and church attendance is divided roughly 60 percent female and 40 percent male writers such as Leon Podles mourn the loss of the masculine church which he says men lost already in medieval period.[7] Were the ratio of leaders reversed feminists would be celebrating in the streets. I do not discount that as an institution the church is far more open to feminine expressions in comparison to other social institutions in the West. What I am interested in is the type of response this can engender in men. In family systems a well-differentiated individual is able to accept, even welcome growth and increased independence of an individual within the family. This is not the type of response typically encountered by men writing on this issue. Rather, what is being revealed is the power-relations that had been implicit in the church structure prior to these shifts. Podles assumes that the church and God were once explicitly masculine. Historically women in the church, as in biology, were relegated under the larger masculine hierarchy (Podles argues that masculinity itself, ‘that which separates,’ is analogous to holiness). This relationship follows the structure of power relations that Foucault describes. As women became ‘existent’ and emerged from outside the power structure the structure appeared to be destabilized but had no ‘positive’ response. On this subject Ward writes that “the reality of women calls into question the governing male ontology, the hierarchal ontology, which supports . . . exploitation.”[8] The only response was a renewed attempt to relegate women back into constraint and render them ‘annulled in reality.’ This type of response only seems to confirm that much of the church had functioned under an unequal power structure that did allow the creative tension of sexual difference as Ward outlined above. In Podles’ ecclesial construct feminization is a threat as opposed to a complementary or even necessary expression of the church. Podles writes that “Christianity is [now] a religion of and for women.”[9] And if this is wrong, as it is in his account, then the response is to restructure a church that is of and for men as opposed to a church that embraces male and female as divine expressions of being human. This is a negative power relationship. The only ‘positive’ content that tends to emerge from specific male ministries is the need for men to gather and express themselves in complete exclusion to women. What is ironic is that even this expression requires women otherwise there would be no framework for ‘separating,’ which is key in Podles understanding of masculinity (and even more ironically, key for Ward’s notion of sexual difference and ‘space’).

Understanding the contemporary context of men and the church aids pastoral care givers in their ability to discern the larger web of issues that may be implicitly or explicitly informing a particular situation. The questions that need to be asked include the following. To what extant should particular ‘male’ expressions be endorsed and what expressions need to be brought into greater relationship with feminine difference and space? What are issues for men as men and what are issues for men as humans in a particular social position? It is only after understanding the theology of gender relations that these can questions can be answered appropriately as a pastor.

[1] It should that other factors, such as economics, can also be attributed to the shift in masculinities in the West. See R. W. Connell, “The History of Masculinity,” in The Masculinity Studies Reader.

[2] With reference to family systems see Edwin H. Friedman, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue (New York: The Guilford Press, 1985).

[3] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1978), 82.

[4] Ibid., 83.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 84.

[7] Originally published Leon Podles, “Missing Fathers of the Church: The Feminization of the Church and the Need for Christian Fatherhood,” Touchstone 14.1 (Jan/Feb 2001). Retrieved April 2, 2008 from This article updates and applies is early work The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity (Dallas, TX: Spence Publishing Company, 1999).

[8] Ward, Christ and Culture, 138.

[9] Podles, “Missing Fathers.”

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