It’s been a tough week to be a woman. And to be a man. But mainly for all humans.
The whole Page 3 debacle and the ongoing violent harassment via social media from those who seek to silence women. The tributes being paid by our state institutions to a Saudi King who prohibited women from driving and had women lashed for the crime of being raped. The new Bishop of Burnley (the new alternative to the ‘flying bishop’ for those who disagree with the ordination and consecration of women) is not going to be touched at consecration by anyone who has laid hands on a woman in ordination (a concession offered to him – sadly in my view – rather than requested by him). His supporters then kindly explained via Twitter that the touch of a woman lessens the efficacy of Communion; as a gift of grace from Christ it is not possible for human activity to reduce its efficacy!
A Christian blogger called Jarrid Wilson then asked women not to show any skin in church as it causes men a problem – so ironic when juxtaposed with the support expressed by men for the continuation of Page 3! The endless shenanigans continued over the enquiry into child abuse by establishment figures, and the reporting of ‘grooming’ showed the sexual exploitation of vulnerable young women in towns all across the UK…
All of these issues are examples of patriarchy; all are about the exercise of power and control by men over women. All are about the desire to control the bodies of women, whether by using and possessing them or by trying to keep them away at arms’ length from men. In a nutshell, a woman’s body is perceived to be dangerous.
This is a perspective that took root from the earliest times in Christianity, starting with Eve’s eating of the apple in the Garden of Eden and her portrayal as the means through which sin entered the world, selective reporting that ignored Adam also chose to eat! The early work of Plotinus and Augustine both sought to separate the body and its sinful desires from the more heavenly perspective of the soul, and Hellenistic culture influenced the early church in this. St Francis continued this trend, emphasising an ascetic desire for the mortification of the flesh “for it is a useless burden”, and on it goes throughout Christian history without any lessening today.
The ways in which this weight of negativity affects women, in the church and in society, are so many and really impair young women in their ability to unfurl, flourish and express themselves. There are so many situations in which it is communicated that it would be better for everyone if women kept quiet, covered up, shrank back, didn’t touch anyone…And men are also negatively affected by this. We are all damaged by an inability to embrace and bless the gifts of the body – we are our bodies! We are made to be physical and there are joys and pleasures in that which were deliberately created to be good. Relationships in the workplace, the church, in friendship and marriages are all impeded and degraded by our inability to accept skin and bone as our receptor of connection and communication. Men are impacted in their own health by their inability to accept and embrace their bodies; they are much less likely to notice they are ill or to seek medical help when they do notice changes in their health (Wendell-Moltmann, I Am My Body 1995 Continuum, p17).
Aswell as the influence of asceticism, we have also bought into a mechanised view of the body, an industrialised and utilitarian view of it as a machine, something that belongs to us to be made to do our bidding, a vehicle that gets us from a to b, but is not essential to the essence of us. And this is a lie! We are made physical, in the image of God, in a body that is at the heart of our human identity. We have no other way of being, and acceptance of it connects us to one another, as a collection of other human bodies making up community. Relying on one another, joining together where we are weak, touching, sensing, understanding, one another.
In fact our health is determined to a large extent upon our relationships with other bodies, with studies showing that isolation is a critical factor in mental health and in physical wellbeing. When someone being consecrated has only male hands laid upon them, they are denying the contribution to the faith and the care and community of half the human race – who God created in his image – to his own wellbeing and journey in ministry. This diminishes all of us, and denies the way in which we were made. No amount of theological arguments can trump this basic fact of our shared and joint humanity. We need one another. And we need to work out how to share and understand our frailties and fears and to embrace and care for one another as God intended when he first made two people.
The example of Jesus in his dealings with women during his ministry cannot be ignored here. Jesus was perpetually touched by women and touched them, and it appears his power and ministry were untainted. From the woman with bleeding who grabbed his cloak to the woman who sensually anointed his feet with perfume and her hair – imagine how scandalous this would be even now! He touched Jairus’s daughter and the sick mother in law of one of the disciples…the list goes on. Skin held no fear for him, affectionate touch did not frighten him, and he likely received support and mutual care from it as fully as any human being. We need to revert to embracing our humanity together as his example shows us, for all our sakes.
And there is some good news to celebrate, in this week of horrors! The NoPage3 campaign was joined by thousands more supporters enraged at the game playing of the Murdoch empire. Libby Lane is to be consecrated the CofE’s first woman Bishop on Monday in York Minster. I imagine she will accept both male and female hands will be laid on her in gestures of support and collegiality. In the world of social media this weekend, women supported one another with virtual hugs on Twitter and shared hope and care. A brilliant Christian blogger shared this post in response to the general ‘women should cover up in church’ question and it is brilliantly clear and helpful – please take the time to read it. http://www.restoredrelationships.org/news/2012/05/05/mens-urges-and-girls-bikinis/
Finally, I saw this and had sent it to my daughter earlier in the week: “My main advice to girls would be: take up space. Talk loud. Talk often. Write. Gesticulate. Have thoughts and tell them. Don’t hide!” Amen.