Linda Woodhead MBE is Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University and organiser of the Westminster Faith Debates. She’s been described by the Royal Society of Arts as ‘one of the world’s leading experts on religion’. Her research into religion and gender is highly respected and used globally. Professor Woodhead has been awarded an MBE for services to Higher Education and is regularly featured on BBC 1, Radio 4 and in the Guardian, Observer and the Tablet. I interviewed her about how she views the relationship between feminism and the Church of today.
VB: Linda, thanks so much for making the time to talk with us here at the Faith in Feminism project.
LW: It’s my pleasure. I admire what you’re doing here.
VB: The role of women in the Church is a very controversial topic these days. What’s your perspective on the current climate?
LW: Let’s start with the new Pope since he’s been in the headlines. The more he says, the more radical he seems. His latest speech unravels a lot that his last two predecessors had wanted to tie up. But when it comes to the issue of ordaining women he’s more of the same: “that door is closed,” he says.
So with the Church of England… As long ago as the 1970’s, the majority of people in this country were in favour of women holding the same positions as men in the church. Now it’s 2013 and women priests are nowhere near to achieving equality with their male counterparts, whilst the prospect of women bishops still remains distant and uncertain.
VB: What questions does this current reality raise for you?
LW: I think the main question would be: why has gender equality proved so hard for the churches, even churches in liberal democracies like the UK which have been transformed by a gender revolution since the 1980’s?
I ask that because the most remarkable and unprecedented social change in my lifetime has been the entrance of women into public life, and on vastly more equal terms with men than ever before. And the most depressing – if you care about Christianity and feminism – has been so many churches’ refusal to embrace this change and let go of… paternalism.
VB: Paternalism. That’s a great word to describe the root of the problem….
LW: The more I’ve thought about it, the more I think paternalism is the right word to unlock what is going on here. It captures what’s at stake better than “patriarchy”, “sexism”, or “misogyny”.
In the narrow sense “paternalism” means the rule of fathers. The father is the head of the family, with women and children depending on his leadership and discipline. His rule should be kindly and benevolent – like God the Father – but he’s still the master. Daddy knows best.
VB: Do you think paternalism is widespread within today’s Christianity?
LW: Yes, churches are shot through with it. It’s part of their core symbolism and language – ‘Abba’ God the Father, ‘Papa’ the pope,‘Father’ the priest – and it’s mirrored in their structures and hierarchies of power. Talk about the church as a ‘family’ is usually a reflection of this – it’s a family under a father(s).
But churches are paternalist in a broader sense too. This is the sense in which political theorists use the word. It’s the opposite of “liberal.” A liberal is someone who believes that individuals should be free to make up their own minds about how they live their own lives.
A paternalist, by contrast, is someone who believes that people should defer to higher authorities. Such authority might be a man or a woman, the Bible, or God – but if there’s a clash it should overrule your own judgement or conscience.
VB: How do you see this paternalism at work in practice?
LW: I think it’s evident in the churches’ continuing refusal to make their own structures more democratic, accountable, or participatory. It’s evident in their lack of interest in what their own members think and believe.
It’s evident in their growing clericalism (in the past lay people had more place and power). It’s evident in their fight to be exempted from equality laws. And it’s evident in many of their customs – I mean, where else these days does one expect to get preached at, other than in a church?
VB: Very true. Do you think the majority of people in the UK feel positively or negatively about this?
LW: I know from my surveys that most people in the UK, including those who call themselves Christian, no longer go along with it. They don’t take any notice of religious leaders, they’re in favour of women sharing power in the church, they find the church discriminatory. It’s their leaders and institutions which lag. Growing Christian support for gay marriage is also relevant here, because it undermines paternalism by subverting the masculinity of heterosexual fathers.
Against slavery, some churches took a lead in society, and against racism too. But if paternalism is the last prejudice that church leaders can’t shake off, it raises the worrying thought that this is because paternalism is so core to Christianity that it cannot excise it without losing its soul.
And I think there’s some truth in that. As I’ve said, paternalism is deeply woven into the very structure and symbolism of the churches. Its defenders can appeal to parts of scripture and tradition. And now that the rest of society rejects paternalism, the churches become a refuge for its last defenders. The problem becomes worse, not better – and young people see what’s going on and vote with their feet.
VB: Do you think this paternalism finds its roots in the person of Jesus?
LW: No…the one thing Jesus was not is a father. Nor did he have much time for the family – telling people to hate “fathers and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters” (Lk 14:26). And a great deal of subsequent Christian tradition agreed with him, exalting the “religious” life over the domestic.
This is all linked to the spiritual side of Christianity. The part of the tradition that doesn’t deny “nature,” but looks through it to its spiritual core, to the grace that perfects. In human relations it looks to a place where division and inequality fall away, and a more perfect community of love flourishes. This is the topsy-turvy world of the Kingdom in which the valleys are raised up and the mountains made low, the mighty are put down from their thrones, and the tax collectors and prostitutes enter heaven before you.
Jesus’s teaching is about love. For centuries this was interpreted by some in a paternalistic way – love as looking after. Daddy knows best. But it’s not at all clear that Jesus enacted love like that at all. Despite all the ambiguity of the gospels, he doesn’t seem to have made people dependent upon him, but to have offered them the same relation with God, and the same Spirit which inspired him. And Paul, at his best, does the same.
VB: Do you think there is hope for a feminist-friendly future Church?
LW: Perhaps. Paternalism is not the totality of what’s in the Bible and in church tradition, of course, but it is a major part. And I wonder – is it enough to erect a new, non-paternalistic church upon?
It would take a genuine revolution, a rethinking from top to bottom, plus leaders who have the ability and desire to do that. Will it ever happen? It seems unlikely at the moment, but there must always be hope.
You can follow Linda on Twitter at @LindaWoodhead.
The Westminster Faith Debates are also on Twitter at @FaithDebates.