Dead Semitic Males

I write as one who, through no fault of his own, is well into his fourth Bishop of Woolwich. But even I cannot remember with any accuracy the heady days of John Robinson. It was another world: a world of startling contrasts, where South Bank Religion stood out against stuffiness and cant. Women wore gloves, Flanders and Swan were wowing the middle classes at the Fortune Theatre; but the good bishop was attacking censorship at the Law Courts in the Strand.

Now cotton gloves are gone forever, and my Flanders and Swan LPs are a wasteland of scratched vinyl; but censorship is alive and well and has gone biblical.

It is, you will have observed, increasingly difficult to buy a Bible.

‘You won’t like that one Father’, said the ever-helpful Patrick in Faith House Bookshop, ‘it’s inclusive’ And so it was. So, indeed, were nearly all of them, as I searched for my confirmation presents. John Robinson (1919-1983) has failed and Thomas Bowdler (1754-1823) has triumphed.

Bowdler, who can probably take a good deal of credit for Victorian prurience, literally made a name for himself with his ‘Family Shakespeare’ (10 vols, London, 1818). He proved to be ahead of his time, and, it seems, of our time too. Bowdler rendered Shakespeare safe for young ladies. And the young ladies are being catered for once more. Now the Bible itself is being made safe for tender sensibilities who cannot stomach red-blooded patriarchy.

The trouble with inclusive language Bibles, so far as I can see, is that they are self-defeating. The problem that the right-on sisters suppose themselves to have (as I understand) is a problem about the past: it was run by men.

Their problem with Christianity, is that it is irredeemably patriarchal: it endorses male supremacy. (‘There arises,’ says Daphne Hampson, ‘a theodicy question, a question to do with the justification of God. How can God be seen to be good when one considers what history has been, and what it has meant for women that God has been conceived in primarily male terms’.)

Their problem with language is that it is just another form of male oppression. (‘Man Made Language’ is the title of a ground-breaking book by Dale Spender. ‘Language is part of patriarchy’, writes Deborah Cameron in ‘Feminism and Linguistic Theory’. ‘If it plays a crucial part in social organisation it is instrumental in maintaining male power.’)

But what earthly use, in the face of this massive oppression (or extensive paranoia), is a mere tinkering with vocabulary? Feminists have set themselves the demanding task of changing the course of history, and of human nature itself. What, then, is to be gained by pretending that the past was not what it was? Why falsify a documentary record which is an eloquent testimony to male oppression? To cloak the offence is surely to minimise the fervour: true radicalism will always scorn the merely cosmetic.

The problem, of course, is not restricted to the adoption of inclusive language. Women’s ordination itself raises a similar difficulty. ‘Until women can wear the symbolic robes of Christ,’ wrote Bishop Paul Moore of New York years ago, ‘the entire cosmos will seem sexist.’ But costume cannot change Christology. If the basic problem is that the Christian story (culminating in the incarnation and death of the only Son of a Father) is oppressive to women, women priests representing the offending deity will only compound the difficulty. The dislocation between the image and thing represented will come to seem increasingly poignant with the passage of time. However successfully Sarah Bernhardt may play Hamlet, the fact remains that he is not Ophelia. What is needed is not a change of actor, but a change of story.

In fairness some of the people involved have seen this. Hampson herself is forthright about the incompatibility of feminism and Christianity; Jack Spong has at last come clean and jettisoned both the incarnation and the atonement. But what are we to conclude about those who do not share this clarity of vision and for whom the policing out of every offending pronoun is another Pyrrhic victory?

I think, in the long term (whilst rejecting, of course, their biblical travesties in the short term) we can safely ignore them. I agree with Deborah Cameron:’…the non-sexist language advocated by the reformist tendency has at its core a politically dangerous illusion, the illusion of sexual neutrality.’ No love story, and so no history of salvation, can long survive if based on such an illusion. Bowdlerisation, though recurrent, is unstable. The real Shakespeare and the real Bible will always win out in the end.

The demythologisation and remythologisation of Christianity (respectively the agendas of moderate and radical feminism) have one thing in common. They are both parasitic. They cling to the trappings of a religion whose essentials they have rejected, in search of divine sanction for an ideology they have sadly failed to peddle as self-evident truth.

Christianity cannot survive long without him, boasts Spong. But, on the contrary, without Christianity he would not long survive. Stephen Sykes assured the General Synod of the Church of England (the Act of Synod notwithstanding) that women were being ordained into the traditional three-fold ministry of the Church. But of course, like Michael Adie with his claim that tradition ‘required’ the innovation, he was merely whistling in the dark. Both of them (and everyone else) knew that it takes more than a suburban bishop and a former Cambridge professor to turn quod nusque, quod nusquam, quod ab nullis into quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus.

The current attempt of the frightful phalanx of feminists to colonise the Pentateuch will, I am convinced, prove short-lived. It is true that, as I write, the innocent (if improbably named) Professor Jared Sakren is being persecuted out of a job in the Arizona Sate University for daring to produce ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ [The Telegraph, November 5 1998]; but his sacrifice will not be in vain. The sheer unspeakable absurdity of such sectional censorship will inevitably alienate the majority. And, faute de mieux, the productions of dead white males will once more rise to pre-eminence.

Meanwhile, let us all contemplate the industry of Dr Bowdler, who ended his days working on an expurgated edition of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. After the Bible, why not the Upanishads, one is inclined to ask?

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen, Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark