It came to my attention recently that there are still churches which don’t let women preach or lead worship.
Choosing the leaders because they are men is a hierarchical approach to social organisation and needs to be set in a context. The other ways of choosing leaders should be noted:
Egalitarian – ‘priesthood of all believers’ (become more like the Quakers and be suspicious of activities that require structured leadership)
Individualist – ‘work out your own salvation’ (become more like the new age and construct your own tailor-made religion out of bought pieces. Leaders are entrepreneurs).
Fatalist – ‘the lot fell upon Matthias; and he was numbered with the eleven apostles’ (Acts 1.26) (become more like a lottery and embrace chance. After all, leadership is pointless – who remembers what Matthias ever did?)
If you happen to think choosing leaders because they are men is in any way a reasonable position to take I recommend a historic pamphlet by Quaker pioneer Margaret Fell (1666): “Women’s Speaking Justified, Proved and Allowed of by the Scriptures, All Such as Speak by the Spirit and Power of the Lord Jesus And How Women Were the First That Preached the Tidings of the Resurrection of Jesus, and Were Sent by Christ’s Own Command Before He Ascended to the Father (John 20:17). The title says it all really. But the full text is well worth reading and stands the test of time marvellously well, while giving enough biblical proof texts to give even the most literalist plenty to ponder over.
But the argument can be characterised more fruitfully in terms of plural rationalities rather than just one axis of right or wrong. Grid-group cultural theory proposes four essentially contested cultural solidarities, each of which forms a coherent worldview by arguing against the other three. Anthropologist Mary Douglas established grid-group analysis and many others, such as Michael Thompson (2008), have further developed it.
Hierarchists see social relationships as strongly asymmetrical (unequal) while Egalitarians see them as strongly symmetrical (equal). Both solidarities try to shape the world to make it more like how they already think it is.
A Presbyterian minister who believes women should not lead worship or preach, but should only ‘help’ clearly has his ecclesiology determined by a Hierarchical worldview, while Egalitarians, Individualists and Fatalists emphatically do not.
‘a man’s duty is to lead his wife and family in a God glorifying direction and a wife’s duty is to help him to that end. When this does not happen it brings shame on the man and problems for the marriage.’ (reference) This is clearly not specifically a ‘biblical’ argument but the restatement of traditional hierarchical thought evident in almost all patriarchal societies throughout the world. (We can discuss whether this then offers evidence for a ‘natural law’, but I’m arguing that there are actually four conflicting types of ‘natural law’ claim – and that none of them are ‘natural’).
It’s my hunch that for this person “no to female preachers” is not the only expression of a hierarchical worldview. For instance deferring to the supposed authority of a religious text is a hierarchical approach to life.
Cultural formation, on this account, comes before – and indeed conditions – interpretation, so the Bible can be read, and is read, in ways that support any of the four biases described by grid-group cultural theory. For instance, Margaret Thatcher once said no-one would remember the Good Samaritan if he only had good intentions. He had money as well. To the other worldviews this individualist approach appears eccentric and even immoral. Similarly, hierarchist constructions of the meaning in the Bible are self-consistent and self-reinforcing, and contest the ground with the other three constructions of meaning available, which see the hierarchist view as vexing or infuriating.
St Paul has often been seen as an arch-Egalitarian. After all he wrote ‘Because all of you are one in the Messiah Jesus, a person is no longer a Jew or a Greek, a slave or a free person, a male or a female.’ (Galatians 3.28). But, typically hierarchists will resist reading this or any other passage in an egalitarian way, claiming that only the first one or two of these distinctions is really dismantled (anti-semitism and slavery were vigorously defended by Christians for a long time, much as gender discrimination still is).
If I am claiming that gender discrimination is a mark not of biblical fidelity but of a hierarchical worldview, then I still have to explain why gender discrimination is particularly the focus, rather than other possible discriminations (eg. race, nationality, class, wealth, language, family descent etc) that would enable a hierarchical society to thrive. I would suggest the following.
First, gender discrimination in practice rarely appears alone. It is usually one of a constellation of hierarchical distinctions. This was seen quite clearly in the debate about women priests in the Church of England, which is more generally about whether the C of E is a hierarchical institution or not. It would be interesting if a Presbyterian minister who wanted to bar women from leadership roles held a contrasting, non-hierarchical view of homosexuality (i.e. not organised on a scale of better-worse), and it might go some way towards discounting my argument if he did. But I suspect the chance of this is small. Typically hierarchists have trouble perceiving their views to be ‘-ist’ (sexist, or whatever), since to them they are merely thinking rationally. Indeed, according to Grid-group cultural theory, they are no more biased than anyone else: we are all biased – but in quite different ways.
Secondly, since the four cultures are dynamic, constantly shifting and in conflict with one another, it may be that at this particular time and location, female authority in the church is regarded by some as at the front line of the battle. In this case, female church leadership would be seen as the thin end of the wedge, which, if accepted, would send the whole hierarchical edifice crashing down. This catastrophist view of change might tun out to be correct, but only ever temporarily – the other worldviews would continue to require hierarchy to persist in order to define themselves against.
Thirdly, a focus on gender distinctions may suggest that the hierarchical way of organising is already losing ground. After all, only a couple of generations ago all sorts of social distinctions were available to be highlighted (for instance, on the north east coast of Scotland, the landed gentry and their tenant farmers were Episcopalians, the freehold farmers were Church of Scotland and the fishing families were Methodist). These days egalitarian and especially individualist ways of organising society have become so strong that hierarchists have had to pull back considerably. The trend towards female ordination in the church, and similar trends in the other main religions (ordination of female rabbis and Shinto priests and of Buddhist nuns, lively debate about the role of women in Muslim worship, for example) suggests that there is currently a rearguard action on the part of hierarchists in retreat.
Fourth, the theory is a social theory, investigating social relationships. It is expressly not a psychological theory investigating individual thought patterns, except as these are expressed in social organisation. So there’s plenty of room for psychological factors such as misogyny to be considered in addition. But my claim is that grid-group cultural theory explains the denial of female leadership fairly well even without recourse to lurid psychological explanations.
It is unlikely that arguments in favour of a more egalitarian Christianity will hold much weight for the hierachical world view. After all, egalitarianism, individualism and fatalism are perceived as the enemy. A hierarchical organisation tends to attract people who will support and promote it, leading to an increasingly extreme and rigid worldview. However, over time, this tends to undermine itself in a number of ways.
1. If you must be strongly hierarchist to belong, egalitarianism starts to take hold: the group is all, and a particular set of beliefs become a mark of group membership. In time this embryonic egalitarianism will infect the organisation.
2. The grid-group typology is held to be scale-independent, which means that the same conflicts between the four worldviews are repeated at all levels of organisation from international treaty talks to household budgeting. Within the church itself, the dominant hierarchist approach will be subverted. Look out for women in the church tacitly running almost everything, to compensate for the official line – which they subscribe to – that they mustn’t.
3. An organisation that holds views and practices significantly out of step with those that prevail in the wider society risks becoming defunct as the recruitment gap becomes steadily harder to bridge. Women have been leaving the churches in England and Wales at a rate of more than 50,000 a year since 1989, and since 1998 the rate of women leaving has been double that of men. Church leaders younger than forty are likely to face in their lifetime lifetime a stark choice between the continued defence of a hierarchical worldview and the effective demise of their religion. As sociologist Kristin Aune says,
“Young women tend to express egalitarian values and dislike the traditionalism and hierarchies they imagine are integral to the church.
“Women’s ordination, as priests and now bishops, has dominated debate and headlines – but while looking at women in the pulpit we have taken our eyes off the pews, where a shift with more consequences for the church’s survival is underway.”
The alternative to this kind of carry on is to recognise that rationality is plural – we don’t all think alike – and to recognise that this kind of debate is not really about God, Jesus, the Bible or religious faith, but about the ways we think we should organise and disorganise ourselves in relation to others. Michael Thompson writes about ‘clumsy institutions‘ – those that encourage more than one set of voices and allow for the dynamism and messiness of the ensuing arguments. At its best it can be ‘a vibrant multivocality in which each voice puts its view as pursuasively as possible, sensitive to the knowledge that others are likely to disagree, and acknowledging a responsibility to listen to what the others are saying’. The Anglicans have been rather good at this, with Rowan Williams just about holding the thing together, even though it all seems like an impossible juggling act at times.
But this ‘clumsiness’ would be the best case scenario. It is perhaps at least as likely that other ‘one eyed’ approaches to social organisation and to church leadership in particular might come to prevail – the basic options for leadership with which this piece began.