Women and worship

This is my third post on the general subject of why there are so few women bibliobloggers – as opposed to Christian women who blog – of whom there are many, many. My general thesis is that women are less inclined to blog on the Bible because the culture of the Christian church, especially the more “conservative” expressions of it, inculcates in them a feeling that their gender means that they have nothing worthwhile to say about biblical studies.

What we do in our worship also shapes how women view their roles. Marjorie Proctor Smith (I think she is a Methodist laywoman – teaches liturgy and worship at Perkins) in In Her Own Rite talks about the way we use language and space and the effect this has. In the more mainstream denominations, it is tradition for the minister to be up the front, raised up and often dressed differently.  When the one raised up is always male, this gives a particular message to women. It is interesting that in many of the denominations that still do not ordain women, the minister is referred to as Father.  A number of male clergy from other denominations (who know I am ordained) have suggested that I might like to call them Fr John (or whatever their name might be).  Sometimes I just ignore this and call them by their given names, like the male ministers do.  Other times, I suggest that they might like to call me Rev Judy. They never do. 🙂 However, if the person who is raised up is always male and it is expected that he will be addressed as “Father”, it adds an extra layer of authority to men that isn’t available to women. I never suggest that one of my male clergy calls me “Mother Judy” – only an idiot would invite the kind of response that that would evoke!

Elizabeth J Smith, an Australian Anglican priest who (amongst other things) writes contemporary words to traditional hymn tunes, talks about the power of hymns to shape our theology:

The theology I sing will be the theology I remember. Even the reasons I give myself for praying, believing, serving in the name of Christ are rehearsed in the words of the songs I sing. How much more, when a stranger puts me on the spot about what I believe, will the most fluent phrases I have for my faith be the words I have sung a dozen or a hundred times…

The language we sing will shape the church we belong to… the Australian English of public discourse uses gender-inclusive pronouns and plurals for lawyers, doctors, nurses, sales representatives and book keepers.

…So the church needs songs where believers are not simply ‘brothers’ and where (despite widespread reluctance to change the words of existing songs) it is not only good Christian ‘men’ who rejoice with heart and soul and voice in Christmas carols.  The church needs songs that will celebrate not only the particularity of the incarnation of Jesus Christ as a Jewish man born two thousand years ago, but the revelation of the living God not merely as He Who Should be Obeyed but als as She Who Must be Enjoyed. (Elizabeth J Smith. “Crafting and Singing Hymns in Australia” in Stephen Burns and Anita Monro (eds) Christian Worship in Australia.  Strathfield, St Pauls Publications, 2009. 183-4)

She goes on to say that the Bible passages that come most readily to mind are those that we sing, but that the passages of Scripture that have been set to music are traditionally quite limited. My observation is that music that comes from the more conservative churches also uses exclusive language for both human beings and God – often the male triumphalist God language that Brian Wren (English, Anglican) critiques in What Language Shall I Borrow?

All this goes to reinforce the unconscious sexism and misogyny highlighted by Colin in his response to my last post. Regarding women’s theological input as unacceptable, irrelevant, is seen as quite normal in some/many churches by both men and women.

Experiencing women’s ministry on a regular basis helps overcome some of this, but lots of people haven’t. Although my denomination has been ordaining women for a long time, I still meet people who have never met a woman minister before. I still lead worship and have people say that they have never experienced a woman minister leading worship before. I will never forget doing the eulogy for an international student who had been found dead of a drug overdose in a park some two hours’ drive from the campus. The funeral director (aka undertaker for those in North America), an Anglican, had made it quite clear that he thought that the priest presiding at the funeral was stark staring bonkers to have invited me to take part (I actually knew the girl and he didn’t, but the parents wanted a Catholic funeral). As I left the crematorium chapel, the funeral director said to me in a tone of utter amazement “You actually know what you’re doing, don’t you? You did a good job!” At least he was honest enough to admit that he’d been wrong, albeit somewhat tactlessly. Lots of women just get the hostility, not the apology, and one of the characteristics of the blogosphere is that many people feel free to express opinions and ideas electronically that they would never dream of saying to someone in person, so being a female biblioblogger is risky.

There is a discussion going on at the moment about April’s plan to link to as many women bibliobloggers as she can in order to draw attention to their work. There is some feeling among (male) biblibloggers that they link to people whose blog interest them and gender plays no part. However, I would suggest that in this world of information overload, we have to find some method of limiting what we read and personal bias plays an important part. Men (and women) who have had significant experience of the kinds of things I’ve posted about recently are likely to disregard women bloggers more often than men bloggers because they have inbuilt biases that say that women don’t know about bible and blogging with no evidence that your work is being read is rather discouraging.  Which is probably another reason why there are so few women bibliobloggers – and this is something that a linking program might help.

4 thoughts on “Women and worship

  1. Thanks for an interesting and helpful post, Judy. I’m sure that you are on to something here. Re. the last paragraph and “inbuilt biases”, it is also the case that many of the men bibliobloggers have strong biases in favour of adding women to their blogroll; I know that I do, and all the more so in light of the discussion in recent years on this problem.

  2. Thanks Mark. It may be overstating the case to say that many of the men bibliobloggers have strong biases in favour of adding women, but I have certainly felt welcomed by a significant number of them, including you. And a significant proportion of them are not “liberal” in their theological perspective.

  3. Pingback: Hevel.org: A Chasing after Wind » Blog Archive » Oh yeah, that clears things up

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