False perspectives need corrected vision, says John Turner

In its Christmas issue The Tablet recorded that Professor Mary T. Malone, a Church historian working in Canada, has let it be known that she cannot any longer consider herself a Christian, having been regarded amongst her fellow Roman Catholics is a moderate proponent of feminism she now says she thinks it impossible for the Christian tradition to be rescued from its male bias. Such a declaration is not new, since a few years ago Dr Daphne Hampson, a theologian at St. Andrews University, announced that for similar reasons she was abandoning Christianity. What should be our reaction to statements such as this?

We are bound surely, to be sad whenever anybody renounces the Christian faith. We ought too at the same time both to welcome the partial clarity of vision which leads some feminists to do this, and also to deplore their inability to see the Christian tradition in its true light.

It is because of their partial clarity of vision that such women see some part of the truth, and accordingly reject the shallow kind of Christian feminism which depends on rewriting the Bible and claiming that from early days the tradition has been falsified by male chauvinists. An unfortunate but typically liberal reaction to claims of that kind can be found in the recent Report of the Doctrine Commission, The Mystery of Salvation. This contains the assertion that ‘the traditional patriarchal images of God as King, Lord, Judge … hamper the Church’s mission.’ In an article in The Tablet (20 January 1996) Dr Peter Forster, vicar of Beverley, appropriately cites these words as an example of the Report’s ‘feminist agenda.’

We should therefore welcome the fact that Mary Malone and Daphne Hampson correctly see that we Christians cannot honestly eliminate the patriarchal colouring from the Bible. Nor, of course, if we believe it to be in any true sense divinely inspired, can we suppose that such images were produced by writers acting in opposition to God’s will. Christian feminists who appear to wish to say something of this nature, cannot really believe in a God ‘whose never-failing providence ordereth all things both in heaven and earth.’ (Collect for Trinity VIII)

Patriarchal or masculine images were, we must insist, deliberately intended by God to feature in the revelation he has given to mankind. But they were never meant to be seen by women as threatening their femininity. If, or in so far as, these images have acquired a threatening aspect, this is the result of sin on the part of members of the Church, both males and females: men sin, obviously, when any of them behave as chauvinists, but women also sin when any of them allow themselves masochistically to enjoy being treated as subservient in ways incompatible with Christianity. Whenever we traditionalists so present ourselves that others see our witness as a threat to legitimate feminism, we need to repent.

Faithfulness to the Bible, however, does mean that we cannot just explain away statements such as St. Paul’s: The head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. (I Corinthians 11, 3) Yet if this sounds threatening to women, men also ought to feel threatened when they hear the command: Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. (Ephesians 5, 25) The Bible is a treasury of ‘comfortable words’, but it also contains many which if heeded are bound to disturb sinful men and sinful women.

We must all pray that we may live in such a way that feminists and others may be able to see something of the truth about the patriarchal images in God’s revelation.

John Turner is a retired priest who lives in Chelmsford diocese.