Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Feminisation in the 1960s: the policy aspect, and the way out

Mass in the private chapel of the historic Catholic house, Milton Manor.
I've been writing about Callum Brown's thesis that discourse about religion became feminised around 1800. What he means is that, by contrast with the two centuries before that date, from 1800 onwards not only were the dominant exemplars of piety women (in obituaries, for example); not only were men regarded as in need of conversion in a way women were not (the vices of men were addressed at length, those of women little or not at all); but the very idea of religiosity was closely bound up with the idea of femininity. To be feminine, women needed to be religious. To be religious, even men had to become somewhat feminised.

One little straw in the wind was the way angels are represented. Before 1800 they look masculine; afterwards, they look feminine. Female angels, of course, are with us still.

Brown's thesis about the 1960s is that, after a 'final blast of feminisation', religiosity in the 1950s was uniquely vulnerable to a reassessment of what it meant to be a woman, in the 1960s. This duly took place in the context of Feminism. Without the support of women, religious practice collapsed, across all Christian denomenations, in the 1960s and 1970s.

I think there is a good deal of truth in this, but we need think also about the changes going on inside the churches at this time. Within Anglicanism the campaign for female ordination was already gathering pace. A female minister had been ordained in Hong Kong in 1944; rules were changed officially there in 1971, and in the USA in the course of the 1970s; other provinces followed. In the 1988 'Crockford's Preface' which led to his tragic suicide, Gareth Bennet set out how the organisational machinery of the Church of England had been seized by liberals in the 1960s. A world-wide theological crisis was taking place in Anglicanism and, of course, in the Catholic Church as well.

There is a good deal more to this revolution than feminisation, and the broader theological changes certainly contributed to destabilisation of the major denomenations, and this on its own explains a good deal. From the point of view just the factor of feminisation, however, taking that as the major sociological factor at work, the question is how liberalisation of theology and liturgy interacted with it.

This is important because the standard response, from liberals, to the observation that the liturgical reform and other changes from the late 1950s to the 1970s coincided with a staggering collapse of statistical indicators of Church life, is that it was a coincidence, with the loss of congregations and so on flowing from 'sociological factors'. Furthermore, liberals claim that the losses would have been even greater if their reforms had not happened.

It is these claims which need to be assessed. Contrary to the liberal contention, the liberalisation of Christianity did nothing either to mitigate feminisation, nor its disastrous effect, in conjunction with ideological Feminism, on religious practice.

On the first point, from an institutional point of view the effort to 'include' women had the result that the role of men in religion was further undermined. It seemed to the liberals that it was silly for a congregation dominated, numerically and morally, by women, to be served by an exclusively (or at least overwhelmingly) male caste of ordained ministers, church wardens, vergers and so on. The fact that the liberals drew this perverse conclusion from the acknowledged facts - men were increasingly few in informal leadership roles in the religious sphere, and therefore, instead of doing anything to address that as a problem, it should be made infinitely worse by replacing men, in whole or part, in formal leadership roles as well - suggests that they believed the narrative of men as heathens, who could only be saved by the gentle but firm intervention of a 'good woman'.

On the second point, liberals often say that their efforts to facilitate formalised female leadership in the Church is an attempt to make peace with Feminism, which says that women should not be excluded from such roles. This ignores the more fundamental threat posed by Feminism to 1950s spirituality: it's undermining of the idea that to be a woman, to be feminine, is to be religious, along with being romantic and domestic. 1950s domesticity collapsed under the feminist attack, and female religiosity went with it. Letting women take over various parish roles, letting them serve and read the readings and even letting them be ordained, doesn't do anything to address this fundamental problem. In neither strengthens resistance to the feminist attack on the feminised conception of religiosity, nor does it replace that conception with an alternative not so vulnerable to this attack.

Tell your non-religious feminist friends that, really, your local church is not a patriarchal fossil, and, in the unlikely event that they believe you, they will say: well, ok, but why would anyone actually want to go there? Once upon a time, women understood going to church as part of their self-understanding as women, but that is a model of femininity we have rejected. So tell us again: why should we go to church?

The withered stump of the major churches left after the 1960s were and are, for these reasons, even more feminised than the highly feminised churches of the 1950s, but unlike in the 1950s, this feminisation isn't paying any dividends. The lack of men is still, perversly, seen as a reason to focus even more on 'not losing women', and no doubt liberals will go on making this inference until the last male has left and slammed the door behind him. Male vices and female virtues still make the running in preaching. Female models of piety are still still privileged over male ones. But the meaning of feminity has, in the meantime, changed. Instead of being a somewhat passive, domesticating, unifying force, the official stance of the churches has given a stamp of approval to Feminism as an ideology. So while you'll find old-fashioned girls in congregations, the newly available leadership positions are generally given to women who are not only more assertive (which may be a welcome contrast to the 1950s model of what a woman should be like), but who are also imbued with a set of beliefs and attitudes radically incompatible with orthodox Christianity. These women have a very powerful effect on the more 'old fashioned' men who have been inculcated with the theory of the natural superiority of women, which I have described here. Middle-aged celibate male clerics, in particular, sometimes find even the less formidible ones quite terrifying. Boys and young men want nothing to do with them. The women in leadership positions themselves, of course, are sometimes accused of having a power trip. This may be true in some cases; I am sure most are motivated by a concern to serve the Church as they are officially invited to do. The problem is, it makes little difference.

Callum Brown himself falls prey to the thinking I've mentioned when he says that, while in the 1960s congregations lost men faster than they lost women, while the gender imbalance was getting worse, the problem the churches faced was the loss of women, not the loss of men. But this is a paradox. 1950s men had a reason to humour their wives or mothers by going to church because it was widely believed that what women wanted - religiosity - represented hearth and home, respectability and domestic happiness. When femininity became detached from all these other things, men, like the secular feminists I've just mentioned, had to make an independant assessment of religion. They needed a reason to go, to associate themselves with this churchy thing. What they saw was an ecclesial environment dominated by femininity, a situation getting even worse as the decades passed. Not only is this in the normal way not an especially attractive option, but for young men it is actually a threat to their masculinity.

The one thing which had resisted feminisation, because it had remained unchanged from an era before this process had begun, was the liturgy. This, of course, ceased to be the case in the course of the 1960s, in the Catholic Church, and in the 1970s in the Church of England. In the Catholic context, it is this which offers us a way back, because the traditional liturgy and its spirituality has the ability to reach the deep tradition, and to bring us back into contact with that deep tradition. I mean the tradition before and above the silly nonsense of Victorian Puritanism, Romantisism, and sentimentality, of angels with bosoms and the temperance movement, of men being told to be women and women being told to be passive and irrational, and of religion as an assertion of respectability. The Traditional Mass and the spirituality it sustains is that of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, of the catacombs and the Tyburn martyrs, of the Gospels, the Book of Revelation, the Psalter, and the tradition of chant stretching back to the Temple. Go into a church where the Traditional Mass is being celebrated on a Sunday, and look at the gender balance for yourself. These are the truths that lie too deep for taint.

See the FIUV Position Paper on the Traditional Mass and the Evangelisation of Men.

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  1. I love the traditional mass but the sermons I hear from priests who lovingly celebrate mass in this way are full of doom and gloom. The joy of Christ seems to be far away from their words. This is in stark contrast to the joy of the liturgy. What has gone wrong here?

  2. That would be unfair... They are all fantastic priests, very dedicated and I love them all but as someone who frequents both forms of the mass I have noticed a contrast in the preaching.is this a danger that traditionalist priests who fear that orthodoxy is under attack, can 'overdo' the legalistic need of 'getting it right' balanced against the freedom of Christ found in the Eucharist within orthodoxy itself? Its more of an observation than a criticism.. I continue to admire all who promote reverence and mystery.

    1. Well I reject your generalisation, and if you don't tell me who you are talking about then I can't assess the particular examples. You are being unfair: tarring all (or the 'usual') EF-saying priest with this accusation and not giving any verifyable evidence. Retract or substantiate, please.

  3. I respectfully retract. This is not the right forum for this discussion. I will send you a letter instead. Apologies.

  4. Traditional homiletics might well be offputting to someone accustomed to never hearing any reference to the Four Last Things from the pulpit. Which of course is the normative reality in most parishes throughout the West, sadly.

  5. If Brown asserts that it is/was necessary to to be Catholic, he is wrong. In my Jesuit parish ( 40s/50s ) with a huge altar boy contingent, femininity simply did not come into it.

    The Pauline liturgy, noticeable to my generation from the early 70s, ( we had other things to worry about such as jobs and and marriage ), was already banal and feminised, although that word would not have been used . Men were already losing interest.

    A good thesis is by Leon Podles tracing this effect as far back as the 12th century. But it is long, and so far, I have only skimmed.

    What is clear from our Catholic history is that Catholicism is a peaceful, but not passive religion.

    Martel's fierce Gallic warriors, Don John's eager boarders carrying their banner blessed by Pius V and Sobieski's heavy Lancers were Catholics, good or bad is not for me to say.

    The Crusading spirit is valid Catholicism and I suspect will be called on again in the near future.

    1. You can't both say that there was no feminisation in the 1940s and 1950s, and say that the Church was feminised in the 12th century. Which is right?