Howard A. Doughty
As scholars of comparative religion and various schools of anthropology can attest, male chauvinism is so deeply embedded in human social relations, and especially in religious belief and behaviour, that it seems almost endemic to the human condition. Despite important examples of matriarchy and instances of gender equality in some tribal communities, patriarchy appears baked into the myths, legends, customs, and values of most traditional societies. It is also demonstrably present throughout the path to modernity as sequential stages in the division of labour and evolving modes of production consigned most women to domesticity and even intensified sexism.
Whatever the judgement on the universality of sex-roles, however, the tendency toward male chauvinism is especially well-recorded in the dogmas, doctrines, manners, and morals of the Abrahamic religions. It appears to greater or lesser degrees in all their combative constituent parts — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
From the earliest chapters of The Book of Genesis, patriarchy predominates, along with an ample portion of explicit misogyny. Throughout the various denominations and sects that have arisen from internal schisms and external squabbles over what their “just and merciful” deity wants from His followers, male domination in the theology of the “peoples of the book” has been a constant domineering presence in human history. In the paintings of Michaelangelo and the etchings of William Blake, as well as the ancient languages of the sacred texts, there is little room for the female presence.
The Abrahamic faith groups have nourished the earth with the blood of believers and non-believers alike for more centuries than we care to count. Women, of course, have been especially abused. Whether stoned as adulterers, burned as witches, held in subservience, or made the victims of forced “modesty,” they have suffered the consequences of being blamed for humanity’s expulsion from the mythical “garden of Eden” and condemned to suffer the injustices of the “Madonna/Whore” dichotomy in perpetuity.
True, the first three waves of 20th-century feminism made notable advances in women’s political, economic, and social rights. However, given the gravity of current events from the schools of Afghanistan (where women and girls are once again denied entry) and the U.S. Supreme Court (where Roe v. Wade’s reversal has lethal consequences for women’s choice and women’s health), secularists might be forgiven for discounting a debate now taking place in the United Kingdom.
Superficially, we seem to be witnessing an arcane dispute about gendered nouns and pronouns relative to the being variously called Allah, Jehovah, YWHW, or referred to by the job description of “God.” The dispute concerns the Church of England, which was born out of the wedlock of King Henry VIII, as he sought and failed to get his marriage to Catharine of Aragon annulled by Pope Clement in order to facilitate his marriage to the ill-fated Ann Boleyn.
Now, roughly 500 years after that fracas, women in Great Britain are a feistier lot. Many have tired of their subordination in the Church and have begun to win opportunities to join holy orders, starting with deacons, then priests (as of 1994), and now bishops (as of 2014) in most of its provinces. In fact, the majority of newly ordained deacons and those training for ordination are now women. So attention is turning to the language of the Church itself.
Under pressure from the growing proportion of women making the case that words matter in the struggle for full participatory rights in society, the Church is trying to cope with demands that social change regarding gender be reflected in the language and liturgy of the Church. Due for an update, then, is the image of the wise, gray-bearded old man, the self-contradictory notion of a jealous, yet merciful god who is, above all, the masculine creator of the senior magistrate over our species.
Among other things, the use of the words “He” and “Father” have to go. Thereafter, a careful review of the scriptures, the prayers, the hymns, and the rest must be undertaken. This, at least, is the view of Anglican “progressives.” Helen King, Vice-Chair of the gender and sexuality group of the Anglican Synod (the body that formulates and legislates forms of worship and controls the national budget) has asked that, since “God is not gendered, why do we restrict our language for God in gendered ways?”
One answer came from Rev. Dr. Ian Paul: “The fact that God is called ‘Father’ can’t be substituted by ‘Mother’ without changing meaning, nor can it be gender neutralized to ‘Parent’ without loss of meaning.” That, of course, is precisely the point.
Meanwhile, the Archbishop of Canterbury — the functional head of the Church (wherein King Charles III remains “defender of the faith”) and a man whose opinion counts — has so far finessed the issue by stating simply that “all human language about God is inadequate. God is not male or female. God is not definable and [is] to some degree metaphorical.”
What, then, should be the reaction of those not directly or meaningfully involved?
Most modern democracies adhere to a rights-based legal and moral framework in which allegedly universal “rights” and “freedoms” (mainly asserted against authoritarian states) present significant quandaries. In this case, the rights to “freedom of religion” and “freedom from discrimination” are arguably in direct conflict. Might the state legitimately take away an age-old religious practice in order to satisfy the wishes of a specific group, especially when that practice is part of a religious tradition voluntarily joined by individuals?
What about “freedom of religion” as an argument against Québec’s “laicity” law, which purports to guarantee citizens the right to a religiously neutral state, but which is argued to violate religious freedom and, perhaps, to be silently pointed at the Muslim community. Is it appropriate to divide, categorize, and prioritize enumerated rights, many of which are held by as august an institution as the United Nations to be universal?