Disentangling Christianity from patriarchy - A reflection on St Bride's Day

The statue of St Brigid (also known as St Bride) at St Brigid's Well, Kildare, Ireland. She is depicted holding a flame to represent the eternal flame that burned at the heart of the mixed gender abbey she built in the fifth century.

The statue of St Brigid (also known as St Bride) at St Brigid's Well, Kildare, Ireland. She is depicted holding a flame to represent the eternal flame that burned at the heart of the mixed gender abbey she built in the fifth century.

Is Christianity inseparable from patriarchy, or can we somehow disentangle the threads? asks our Rector, Miranda Threlfall-Holmes on the feast of our patron St Bride: 

I am beginning to suspect that this task of imagination is the urgent task of the church today. It is no secret that numbers of churchgoers are falling, and I suspect that this is because the dominant narrative and metaphor of traditional Christianity – patriarchy – which used to also be the dominant narrative of traditional society, is beginning to fail. Hallelujah to that!

It is exciting to be part of a new generation of scholars and practioners who are re-focusing on Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection as the paradigm of gender-bending, patriarchy-smashing. Jesus refused to enact the cultural expectations of masculinity and power, instead literally bursting from the man-made tomb that he was placed in by powerful men.

It was a question that came into particular focus again for me this morning, as I sat saying the Church of England’s morning prayer in a coffee shop in my parish, with a young woman parishioner. Today is the feast day of St Bride, the patron saint of one of my parish churches, and we were struck by the contrast between her story – as an abbess of a mixed monastery – and the patriarchal structures that the daily readings are imbued with.

How do we separate the patriarchal structures that the Biblical texts were written in, reflect, take for granted (and, granted, sometimes challenge and/or subvert), from the ‘core’ or ‘essence’ of the Scriptures – the good news, if you like? Is it possible to do so? To me, at least, it seems obvious that it is desirable to do so, but I’m fully aware that in itself is a contested claim. And as a historian and theologian, I wonder how much it is possible to separate the context of the scriptures from their content. Since so much is revealed to us through contested history, narrative, story, poetry, is it even possible to say that there is a ‘truth’ that can be found within or beyond the context?

I gave a talk at a conference for women preachers back in the autumn, where I tried to untangle some few threads to give some strategies for preaching the text without drowning in patriarchy – look for the few women that ARE mentioned – they tend to be there for a reason, not accidentally. Look for what their stories do in the context of the main ‘male’ narrative – they often reflect on, or give a counterpoint to, the other characters or emotions that are portrayed in the same or adjoining passages, and often in really fascinating ways. Particularly look at, and take seriously, the few words that women speak – given how much the nature of the narratives tend to silence women by privileging male experience, when women DO speak, their words are hardly likely to be irrelevant. Study the original languages, where at all possible – sometimes our translations misgender passages or interpretations, by, for example using male pronouns because they are conventionally used by a language for a mixed group of men and women.

So there are things we can do, as feminist readers of the scriptures.

But more fundamentally, we have an issue with the whole patriarchal structure of society that is the context in which the scriptures were written, which provides their dominant metaphors and analogies, and which has then used the scriptural status of those dominant metaphors to justify itself. As Mary Daly put it so well,

when God is male, then the male is God

Or in a different context, James I is said to have declared, ‘no bishop, no king’, recognising that the church and societal hierarchies were intimately bound together as part of the same interpretative framework and worldview.

This is a much deeper question than simply looking for the women in Bible passages, or (correctly) pointing out that the scriptures often contain a subversive undercurrent which speaks of liberation and critiques the power structures that it mirrors and is used to bolster.

It isn’t just about maleness or masculinity, though of course these are key metaphors and components within patriarchy as a system of power. This is about the whole system of partriarchy – with all its ramifications for kingship, lordship, inheritance, strength, power, battle, success, as well as questions of gender, masculinities and femininities. Patriarchy is implicated in class and race struggles as well as gender struggles – it is a whole system of hierarchical values, where those who best fit the reigning view of masculinity (who, yes, might, on rare occasions, be female, or gay, but who generally won’t be) are assumed to not just have de facto power, but to be the ones who ought to be in charge.

In morning prayer this morning we read Psalm 99, which repeatedly refers to God using the metaphor and dramatic tropes of kingship and power. It begins:

The Lord is king; let the peoples tremble; he is enthroned above the cherubim: let the earth shake.

If we remove all the references to God as a king or lord – which are of course human metaphors – from the Bible, or indeed from our contemporary prayer books or song books - the pages would crumble into so much confetti. Trying to pick hymns for a service that don’t reinforce patriarchy is possible, but blooming hard work. Trying to address the patriarchal threads in the Bible readings can seem relentless – I don’t want to lose sight of everything else that is in there, and preach an unbalanced diet, but I also don’t want to let the patriarchal undercurrents go unchallenged.

Does this mean that we can’t ever rescue Christianity from patriarchy? Or is it possible to dream of a future where patriarchy has been replaced with egalitarianism, and Christianity is still true and loved?

I do hope the latter is true, and it seems to me that it must be possible, since to me and to so many feminist and liberationist theologians the driving motivation and rationale for smashing the patriarchy is our Christian faith and the call to follow the example of Jesus Christ.