JavaScript disabled. Please enable JavaScript to use My News, My Clippings, My Comments and user settings.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

Women make church more rounded


Sydney Morning Herald columnist, author, architecture critic and essayist

View more articles from Elizabeth Farrelly

<em>Illustration: Edd Aragon</em>

Illustration: Edd Aragon

God, says my favourite theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar, is the point at which truth, beauty and justice merge. I like that, very much.

Quite apart from the ethical appeal, and the tantalising hint of Platonism (which Balthasar rejects), these things are therapy. If you're feeling mopey, they're guaranteed pick-me-ups - telling truth, seeing beauty or kicking ass - which is a form of administering justice, right?

So it's weird that the contemporary church seems hell-bent, as it were, on dumping the lot of them. Worse than weird. Dangerous, since the need for muscular spiritual leadership was never more urgent.

Democracy, which seemed in its youth to gaze across landscapes of boundless optimism, is now shrunk to the pocket handkerchief between incompetence and corruption: fumey motorways on one side, dodgy land deals on the other.

In such a circumstance you might expect the church to pause and re-up, replenishing its stocks of truth, beauty and justice as enticements.

But no, far from it. Child abuse, protectionism, corporatism, misogyny, homophobia, and churches that feel like liquor barns. Truth, beauty, justice? Pah! Who needs 'em?

So Christmas, well adrift from its origins, is now less an answer to commerce and politics than, at best, a respite from them. At worst, a perpetuation.

But say you did want some church this Christmas. Say you craved solace, a sense of old time and a lungful of goodness to keep you swimming upright through the festive season.

In Sydney, you'd have a choice between a church whose hierarchy has actively cloaked paedophiles for decades and still cannot come clean, much less apologise, and one that sees beauty as an impediment to godliness and makes women and gays second-class congregants.

Ask yourself, as you light your midnight candle, how is this OK?

In Britain, the retirement this month of the sweetly sandalled Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, is seen by many, including him, as the failure of his long push to allow the church to have women bishops and gay priests.

Here, we don't even permit women priests.

I'm surprised this is legal, given that the law bans "discrimination against another person on the ground of sex … [or] on the ground of homosexuality". But I am advised, by those who understand that the law cannot be expected to mean what it says, that it's like getting big-breasted women to work in topless restaurants. There are loopholes for those in need.

There was that flutter of controversy, earlier in the year, over the Sydney Anglicans' new marriage vows - the pretence that ''submit'' implied some advance on ''obey''.

Excuse me? In a world where the girls regularly - and again this week - wipe the floor with the boys academically, say what?

Certainly feminism brings unresolved issues - in finding a gender power-balance that works in both the bedroom and the world, and in not simply licensing women as aggressive, hard-drinking, fast-driving faux men.

But resolution must come through engagement, not repression. And come it must, because the issues are bigger than just us or just marriage. Just women. Just priests.

The issues are huge. After 2000 years we've seen what the leadership of white Christian males can deliver. Penicillin. Space stations. Iphones.

But also, and increasingly, climate change. Extreme weather. Food shortages. Extinctions. Financial and glacial meltdown.

Cardinal George Pell accuses the Greens of being "thoroughly anti-Christian". He says non-Christians are "frightened of the future" having "nothing beyond the constructs they confect to cover the abyss".

The abyss of paedophilia? The constructs of denial? It makes you wonder.

Archbishop Peter Jensen argues for - nay, imposes - his doctrine whereby women and gays, in church or at home, are mere helpers.

This is not in Anglicanism's Thirty-Nine Articles. It's elective. He calls it ''headship''. Others would call it prehistoric. Misogynist. Homophobic.

Women should submit to men, Jensen says, as men should submit to the church.

Which makes it plain just how close in spirit this fundamentalist Christianity is to sharia, with its similar ''god-given'' (but man-written) hierarchy.

But the weird thing is, Jesus was such a girl.

The headship doctrine claims gospel roots, and maybe that's right. I'm in no position to exchange biblical quotations - except maybe this: ''By their fruits shall ye know them.''

A true fundamentalist would surely emulate Jesus's behaviour, as much as his words. And the behaviours that distinguished Jesus, against a male world, the qualities that distinguish the New Testament from the Old, were fundamentally female.

Ever submissive, meek and humble, Jesus consistently turns the other cheek, sides with the underdog, washes the feet of the disciples. These were the supposedly feminine qualities, as enunciated in Lear's tragic: "Her voice was ever soft, gentle and low, an excellent thing in woman.'' Jesus, in short, played the woman.

To me, as a child, this behavioural drag made Jesus rather dull. Such a goody-goody, he seemed, with none of the swashbuckling heroics, the pride and passion, the glory and revenge that I wanted in a story.

Yet of course that very humility was heroic, making Jesus subversive, and therefore dangerous. A man behaving like a woman? Crucify him.

Maybe that's why the church needed the ''headship'' doctrine, so Jesus could be seen as a servant to God, but not to humans. Certainly not to women.

Yet it is perfectly plain that the mindset we must cultivate to survive the coming century is strongly female-flavoured - less grabby and aggressive, more humble and communal; better sharing, more self-abnegation. More ''family hold back'', as my nana would say.

We don't need women being more like men. We need men to be more womanish.

If, as the world heads into its precarious future, the church wants a leadership role, it must enlist all three of the therapeutic virtues. It must stand rigorously and fearlessly for truth, whatever the political cost, supporting the whistleblowers from abused children to Julian Assange.

It must make its spaces, its music, liturgy, vestments and the entire sacrament as hauntingly lovely and as sensual as possible, engaging time past and time future - the whole person.

And the church must learn to value women's mix of ancient Gaia-type wisdom and maths super-smarts. It must let women speak as priests. Anything else looks like fear.

Follow the National Times on Twitter



  • Some bits of serious bits of inaccuracty need to be tidied up.

    The marriage vows with the word "submit" are just one set of several alternatives from which couples may choose.

    Jesus was not put to death because he behaved like a woman. The story makes it quite clear that he was put to death because he claimed to be God.

    Peter Jensen did not say that men should submit to the church. He said that men should submit directly to Christ. He also pointed to a multitude of situations in life where we submit to other people, sometimes voluntarily (as in a Christian marriage) and sometimes under compulsion.

    At one moment Elizabeth seems to be criticising churches for not following the Bible and the next moment she derides them for doing so.

    My only two options in religion are to be an agnostic or to follow beliefs which have been revealed by a supreme being or beings. Making statements on what I personally think churches and believers should be like would be extreme arrogance by a tiny speck in the uiniverse. Others seem to think they can make up a religion that suits them, but that is getting into the realm of fairy tales, even if promulgated by a respected writer of articles.

    David Morrison
    Blue Mountains
    Date and time
    December 20, 2012, 9:07AM
    • Yes David
      Others people beliefs may be fairy tales.
      Not like the Old Bloke in the clouds, -He is real.
      And if you pray to him, he may listen to you , and perform a miracle, but if He doesnt , than thats your fault for not being devoted to Him enough.
      And you accuse others of "Fairy Tales" ?
      This would be funny , if it wasnt from someone who takes their own fairy stories so seriosly.

      Date and time
      December 20, 2012, 9:36AM
    • David Morrison, it is you who are seriously mistaken. You make the claim that "...[Jesus] was put to death because he claimed to be God."

      You are manifestly incorrect - you need to read your bible, because Jesus never claimed to be god. On the contrary, it is written that he claimed he was a man who was less than god:

      John 14:28 (King James Version) "Ye have heard how I said unto you, I go away, and come again unto you. If ye loved me, ye would rejoice, because I said, I go unto the Father: for my Father is greater than I."

      ...and another:

      Matthew 24:36 (King James Version) "But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only."

      ... and again:

      1 Timothy 2:5 (King James Version) "For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus"

      David, you have criticised others by saying that they "make up a religion that suits them" - but that is exactly what you have done by saying that Jesus claimed to be god!

      It must be embarrassing for you to be caught-out so easily! If you really believe what you claim, please quote your bible for us (including the bible version) so we can make our own judgement about what Jesus claimed.

      Date and time
      December 20, 2012, 9:39AM
    • Why can't we believe in a fairy tale that a person (we are made in his image) lived before the universe, before time itself, who was not made (no father/mother) but was always in existence decided to create the universe. He/she made it bigger than anyone could imagine & on a small speck put human beings on it about 6000 years ago (as the bible tell us). He/she left fossils & other information throughout this world just to see if people believed his/her word through the bible because if we don't believe in God's word we will not go to heaven (in which we adore him forever) & we will end up in hell & burn forever. What is wrong with that?

      Date and time
      December 20, 2012, 9:57AM
    • FordPrefect- John 8:58 is a pretty claim to be God. "Truly, truly, I tell you: before Abraham was, I am". My translation. In the Old Testament God called himself "I am" and Jesus' words could not have any other sensible interpretation. The next bit which tells us that they took up stones to throw and kill him doesn't seem to have much to with his behaving like a woman.

      Your quotation from I Timothy simple reminds us that Jesus was (and is) both God and man since he was born as a human being about two thousand years ago. "a man" is a better translation than "the man". While he was earth he had voluntarily limited his power and for a while he was inferior to the Father in both power and knowledge.

      David Morrison
      Blue Mountains
      Date and time
      December 20, 2012, 10:13AM
    • Actually, when do you think you would get bored in heaven with all that worshipping? After 100 years? a thousand years? a million years? I think after a couple of thousands years you would want a holiday somewhere hot. And what person has an ego big enough to want to be worshipped for that long?

      Date and time
      December 20, 2012, 10:58AM
    • It really annoys me FordPrefect & Elizabeth when people assume that Christians are ignorant of what the bible says. Guys, this is our life, these words carry the authority of our God, and for 2000 years Christians have dedicated their lives to reading, meditating on and understanding what's been said. There is so much material available. even dating from the second century, that discusses the humanity and divinity of Jesus if you just searched for it.

      Date and time
      December 20, 2012, 1:32PM
    • @Pete.....then explain this one: 1 Cor. 14:34 Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.

      So you believe that woman should be silent & say nothing? It's in Corinthians.....that's the bible so it must be true.

      Date and time
      December 20, 2012, 2:06PM
    • @Bazza

      Eternity is not perpetuity - endless ticking seconds - but outside time and space and all human conception. Meditation, music, ritual and like give some hint of this in the religious experience common to all human cultures ever known (until ours).

      As CS Lewis said, God does not see the future or the past - it is all one eternal present. Try Time's Arrow and Archimedes Point by Huw Price to see how science shows that "particles" such as light/photons have no "arrow of time", thus illustrating it is not some mystical mumbo jumbo, but already physical reality, if in a limited sense (to photons etc).

      Date and time
      December 20, 2012, 2:47PM
    • @ David Morrison
      Archbishop Jensen also said women need to submitt to men which is why it is long past time he retired so that the church can move forward as it has many times before and find a way to be more representative and inclusive of all its flock.

      Date and time
      December 20, 2012, 3:36PM

More comments

Comments are now closed

HuffPost Australia

Follow Us

Featured advertisers