Faith In Feminism

Linda Woodhead despairs of the Church’s paternalism


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?

// Professor Linda Woodhead MBE //

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.


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About The Author

Vicky Beeching is a theologian, writer and broadcaster who focuses on the areas of religion, feminism and technology. She is a regular on TV and radio discussing her areas of interest. Vicky is currently doing PhD research on the ethics of the Internet, exploring how online technology is shaping society. She lives in central London.


  1. Sipech September 30, 2013 at 3:07 pm

    It’s very interesting reading this from a non-conformist perspective. The tone is similar to that I heard at the Southwark Feminist Theology Group meeting last week, whereby “the church” is used as a shorthand meaning mostly the anglican church, or sometimes including the catholic church as well.

    Yet there are many more denominations that just these, usually with far less hierarchical structures. Churches which are structured more along congregationalist lines have far less wrangling over power.

    It seems to me that paternalism/patriarchy/etc is part of the traditionalism within the established church. Present efforts are trying to rid the CofE of the sexist hierarchy whilst keeping the hierarchical structure. Perhaps it is time to be *more* radical and propose a fundamental change to the way the CofE is structured. So long as tradition is kept sacrosanct, then I am sceptical about the extent of possible progress. If the CofE (possibly with the support of other denominations) were willing to abandon a structure that it has used almost unchanged since the Reformation, then it could free them from the constraints which irritate so many.

    Of course, how to convince those who worship tradition is another matter…

    • Phil September 30, 2013 at 7:04 pm

      Not just the Established Church. You can find women ministers in Anglican, Methodist and United Reform Churches. The latter two are nonconformist but there are also some individual churches within all three denominations. So far as I’m aware there are no women ministers in Baptist churches. My point though, is that it’s wrong to single out The Established Church as if it represents the whole of Christianity.

      • Belinda Copson October 17, 2013 at 7:47 am

        Baptists in Baptist Union churches have been ordaining women as ministers since 1922…

    • Jo Ind October 17, 2013 at 2:55 pm

      I think that’s an astute comment. I’m part of a project trying to create an ecumenical partnership between an Anglican congregation and a United Reformed Church and there are so many more complications on the Anglican end because of it being the state church. I think being institutionally embedded makes change all the harder.

  2. David Ould October 1, 2013 at 5:38 am


    Thanks for posting up this interview – it’s illuminating.

    However, I reckon there’s some serious flaws in the exegesis provided by Woodhead here which I’ve had a stab at addressing.

  3. carolyn October 1, 2013 at 3:40 pm

    Thank you for this. It puts into words a growing unease I have had with church, which I have put down to unconscious sexism or too many priests, but could well just be paternalism as you suggest.

  4. Jo Ind October 17, 2013 at 2:52 pm

    A beautifully clear analysis – Linda Woodhead brilliant as ever.

  5. Stuart Masters October 17, 2013 at 3:53 pm

    Maybe it’s time for the church to accept what Quakers have preached since the mid-17th century (but have not always put into practice themselves). Since Pentecost the Spirit of Christ might speak through and ordain anyone. Since “the spirit blows where it chooses” it is just as likely to speak through a woman, a child or an illiterate person as through a man, an adult or a university educated theologian/ biblical scholar.

  6. Martin Poole October 21, 2013 at 10:51 am

    This is a very English Anglican perspective given that other churches have already appointed female archbishops and presiding bishops (although that doesn’t mean that even those have lost a patriarchal mindset).

  7. Andy Milligan November 25, 2013 at 3:25 pm

    “Despite all the ambiguity of the gospels, he (Jesus) doesn’t seem to have made people dependent upon him”

    To what Gospel does Ms Woodhead ascribe?

  8. Lee Shaw January 29, 2016 at 4:16 pm

    I’m a British male living in Germany. I attend a Lutheran church regularly where there are two women priests and one man. They are all great people and very inspiring. The Lutheran church has had women in higher positions, e.g. as pastors and bishops etc, for some time now. I think that opening higher positions in the church to women can only have a positive effect. I’m 120% in favour of it! It imparts a more natural atmosphere to the whole institution – makes it like home. I attended a small village Anglican church in Britain last year in which a woman priest held communion. It was a couple of months after my return to christianity, following many years of atheism. In a chat with her after the service her kindness and understanding confirmed that I had made a very good decision returning to the fold, so to speak. I now firmly believe that ruling out 50% of humanity from being fairly considered for such important positions is very unwise. Although the Bible should be our inspiration and guide, slavishly hanging on to outdated traditons, supposedly rooted in the scriptures, will alienate the present day congregations more and more. I think we would be a happier society if more of us returned to faith in a welcoming, balanced and less overly formal atmosphere. The current movement away from the Anglican church by many people saddens me intensely, as I believe a could transform itself more and more into a modern, accessible, friendly, representative church, but with its traditional roots planted in British history. Changes do seem to be occurring but its all so sluggish.

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