On Sunday I called my Dad to say Happy Fathers’ Day. I’d posted a card too, one of those Purple Ronnie ones with a silly poem on the front about how he pays for everything. But of course it was all a bit of a ritual and my bashful message inside didn’t come close to articulating how fortunate I feel to have such a supportive male figure in my life, especially as I’d just read a new report by The Centre for Social Justice saying that a million children in the UK are now growing up without a father.
The research contains some devastating data about the number of children who have no male role models, pointing to areas of the UK which have become ‘men deserts’. These findings inevitably prompt a response from Christians, but the problem is that the established church is suffering from exactly the same problem. I explored this phenomenon in a recent article for the Telegraph which argues that, despite accusations that the decline in male church attendance is due to rising numbers of women in its public roles, the discrepancy between the sexes isn’t a new issue: men have always been in short supply at church. One of the key reasons is the fact that women have always been expected to participate in Christian spiritual practice and this has always left men feeling disenfranchised.
Now of course it cannot be claimed that women have been equally included and educated throughout history; the church has been responsible for horrendous oppression of women and minority groups over the centuries. However, the basic involvement of women on the Sabbath, worshipping and being taught along with men, has mostly been upheld since Jesus welcomed both the sexes as disciples and the Apostle Paul gave instructions to the early church (essentially mixed communities of believers meeting in homes) for when a women ‘prays or prophesies’ (1 Corinthians 11:4) and the way in which she should ‘learn in quietness’ (1 Timothy 2:11) – two of the most controversial passages about women in Scripture which get interpreted in wildly different ways depending on which side of the debate you’re on, but suffice to say that they provide evidence of the active participation of women in spiritual practice.
Perhaps we could argue that the inclusion of women in the church led to a two-thousand-year-long crisis of masculinity within Christendom that prefigures the crisis now being experienced in society at large. Both are characterised by the experience of men feeling surplus to requirements when responsibilities became shared which previously belonged exclusively to them. Women entering the workplace is having the same effect as when women first gained religious enfranchisement all those years ago.
The Labour MP and shadow health minister, Dianne Abbott, gave a speech recently which called on schools and families to promote a broader understanding of masculinity to counteract what she sees today as a culture of ‘hyper-masculinity’ characterised by misogyny and homophobia, a kickback against the rapid social change which has welcomed women into public life. Her speech argued that we need to exchange an outmoded idea of masculinity for a ‘multi-faceted notion of what makes a man’.
I agree with Dianne Abbott’s recommendations and in my own article I was critical of certain Christian men’s ministries which seem to promote a rather more stereotypical version of masculinity. What I failed to do was praise the good intentions and the hard work that goes into these ministries as they attempt to reach out to the modern male. I do not believe that organisations dedicated to men's outreach are motivated in any way by misogyny but are simply fuelled by a passion to see men transformed by the gospel; I just don’t happen to agree with their approach, wary as I am of any method which endorses a version of maleness which mainly celebrates all the things that make men different to women, especially if it doesn’t spend equal amount of time finding common ground between the sexes.
The problem with complementarianism (and the accompanying slogan ‘men and women: equal in value, different in function’) is that it is argued using only snippets of Paul’s letters and it seems to ignore the radical, exciting, boundary-breaking ministry of Jesus himself! The one whose entire ministry was about destabilising our identity, calling us out of our comfort zones and away from the things in which we invest security so that we put our trust entirely in God. You only need to read passages like Matthew 12:46-50 to see how Jesus questions the monuments we like to hang our hats on:
While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. 47 Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” 48 He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
(Notice too how comfortable Jesus is with shifting gender designations here, even if only in a metaphorical sense. One can only imagine how these words would have got stuck in the patriarchal filters in the minds of his listeners.)
It’s not about saying that men and women are exactly the same, or saying we should never hold single-sex church social events which can be helpful for relationship-building, but it is about spending as much time celebrating what as men and women – as humans – we have in common; it’s about investing in the potential we have to learn from and serve each other. It’s this kind of narrative that the church could use to speak powerfully into some of our biggest social problems – by encouraging men back into primary school teaching for example. The recent report shows how around 80 per cent of primary schools have fewer than three male teachers as men have left what is considered to be a female-orientated profession in pursuit of careers offering greater status and financial gain. But the Christian message which says that it’s better to serve than be served, better to be where you’re needed than where you’re seen to be most powerful, could help get men back in the classroom as much needed male role models for young children and bringing a uniquely male perspective which their female colleagues could no doubt learn from.
For the key difference between the radical picture held out by the gospel and 21st century liberalism is that the former is about bringing our gifts and talents together to benefit each other. So much of the egalitarianism we’re surrounded with is about self-improvement, about gaining equality to improve one’s own lot in life – and this individualistic approach will always lead to a battle of one-upmanship between the sexes. The church has a message which is much more counter-cultural than this, one that offers the sense of value and usefulness that men are lacking in our society and one that can satisfy the laudable male inclinations towards protecting the weak, self-sacrifice and true heroism.