Geoffrey Kirk, a member of the working party which produced Consecrated Women? reflects on the emerging perception of patriarchy – no longer a mere symbol of oppression but the vehicle of God’s graciousness towards us

Among the more disconcerting developments of recent times, for both theological and secular liberals, has been the growing consensus that sexual differences are ‘hard-wired,’ that is to say that they are biologically and genetically determined more than they are socially constructed. This modern development might be said to have begun with the discrediting of the work of Dr John Money and the tragic suicide of his ‘patient’ David Reimer. It has recently produced two important and influential books: The Essential Difference by Cambridge Professor Simon Baron-Cohen (Allen Lane 2003) and Taking Sex Differences Seriously by Steven Rhoads of the University of Virginia (Encounter Books 2004).

The significance of this broadening consensus for both theology and ecclesiology is immense. Generally speaking there have hitherto been two possible reactions to the overwhelming predominance of male imagery in the scriptures and the tradition, and the restriction of the sacred ministry to males.

Hard-line rejection

One has been to reject that imagery as both dated and prejudiced. This has meant, for the boldest spirits (like Daphne Hampson in her Theology and Feminism, Blackwell 1990), that Christianity itself has had to be abandoned. For others it has meant a filtering of Scripture; viewing it, as David Gillet put it in a paper for the Rochester Commission, through ‘a fresh hermeneutical lens.’

The other and opposite reaction has simply asserted the primacy and authority of the male imagery of the scriptures in a quasi-fundamentalist fashion – as did C.S. Lewis notoriously in his 1948 essay ‘Priestesses in the Church.’ Such an approach, of course, has been robustly attacked by some as giving to ‘patriarchy’ (viewed as an oppressive social system) divine sanction and support. ‘If God is male then the Male is God,’ as Mary Daly pithily put it. But if the emerging consensus on the hard-wiring of sexual differences proves to be right, neither of these positions can remain quite where it was.

If it can be shown that the sexual imagery of the scriptures (far from being constructed by a particular society or societies) is grounded in biological and anthropological truths and inevitabilities (see Steven Goldberg’s book of 1973 The Inevitability of Patriarchy, New York, William Morrow), then its status and function in Scripture and tradition needs to be re-evaluated. To put it bluntly, if sexual differences are hard-wired, the use of sexual imagery in Scripture cannot simply be dismissed as exploitative.

Gracious acceptance

The contributors to Consecrated Women? have been learning to describe the functioning of such imagery in terms of a ‘gracious’ or ‘kenotic’ patriarchy. Male language about God as Father, Lord, King, and the rest (and the maleness of the Incarnation itself) exists precisely, they have come to believe, not to exalt but to correct and mitigate those aspects of ‘masculinity’ which, in a fallen world, serve to oppress others, both women and men.

Baron-Cohen lists what he takes to be the ‘advantages of the male brain.’ They are the making and use of tools; the desire for power and social dominance (and hence the acquiring of expertise); the tolerance of solitude; and the desire to exercise leadership. It is not difficult to see that to all these ‘advantages’ there is a darker side. For ‘tools’ read weapons; for the ‘desire for power and social dominance’ read various degrees of violence and criminality. If the ‘extreme male brain,’ as Baron-Cohen suggests, leads eventually to autism, then ‘less extreme male brains’ account for the fact that our prisons are overwhelmingly filled with men, who are responsible for the vast majority of all crimes of violence.

The self-giving love of the Sacred Trinity and the kenotic self-offering of the Incarnate Son are the divine antidote, both in the individual soul and in the society which women and men enjoy, to that shadow-side of masculinity. It is the calling of the priest (and pre-eminently the bishop) to image that generous and benevolent patriarchy. In a world where power and precedence was hereditary, he was a celibate. (Put it which way you like: he was either a paterfamilias who could never become a patriarch or a patriarch who could never become a paterfamilias.) In a society whose highest caste were knights and warriors, he was forbidden to bear arms.

Just as Jesus is the man who, by his self-oblation, returns manliness to its paradisal condition, so the priest (and pre-eminently the bishop) is a counter-cultural witness in every society to the possibility of a world without machismo. That women cannot exercise this office, without distortion of their own natural role, will be self-evident to anyone who has grasped the principle that you cannot give away what you do not already possess.

Beauty and logic

It follows from this principle that in a matriarchal society only women could be priests. But we do not live in a matriarchal society, nor has one ever existed (see Goldberg again). God, we are therefore to conclude, who created human sexual differentiation, is through a male Incarnation and sacred ministry, redeeming humankind in the only way appropriate or possible. The desire of women, as some have recently put it, to ‘get their hands on the levers of power in the Church’ is a basic misunderstanding both of the sacred ministry and the work of Christ. It exacerbates rather than redeems.

The beauty and logic of this vision of gracious patriarchy is apparent from a contemplation of the narrative of the passion of the Lord (in which the gospel, the tradition and the sacred liturgy are rooted). That narrative is of the willing self-oblation of a male victim. The abuse and death of a woman at the hands of male soldiers would not carry the same resonance or significance. Nor would a female victim be so easily identified with the Paschal or with the Abrahamic sacrifices. The tradition would thereby be denied its resonance and continuity.

Gracious Patriarchy – the understanding of the necessary maleness of imagery about God and of the Incarnation, based on an understanding of sexual differences as ‘given’ rather than contingent and constructed – liberates us from the need for the hermeneutical contortions which have generally characterized feminist theology. At the same time it allows us to address the main thrust of the feminist project, boldly asserting that the redemption of humanity requires a radical restructuring of ‘maleness’ resulting in a new understanding of the community of women and men in the Church.