Persistently over history God is seen as male
– Reverend Dr. Miranda Threlfall-Holmes is Chaplain and Solway Fellow of University College, Durham. As a historian, she has published work on late medieval monastic history and the medieval economic history of the North East of England, notably “Monks and Markets” (Oxford University Press, 2005). Her current research interests are the history of the doctrine of the Trinity, and women’s issues in the contemporary church. She is a member of the General Synod of the Church of England, and a committee member for the group Women and the Church.
International Women’s Day on March 8, is an important opportunity for us to reflect on the fact that women are still taken less seriously than men all around the world. Even in supposedly equal cultures such as my own in the UK women continue, for example, to be paid less than men for the same work, and to suffer pregnancy-related discrimination in employment. Women are disproportionately under-represented in government and on the boards of large corporations. Women’s sport is generally less well funded and less popular than men’s, whilst women’s contribution to art and literature has a tendency to be marginalised – as “chick lit,” for example.
Of course, viewing women as of lesser value than men has a long history. We cannot expect such deeply held cultural stereotypes to be overturned instantly. But it does worry me that some people in our culture seem to believe that we have eradicated sexism from our society, and that further progress is therefore at best unnecessary, at worst signs of a suspicious “feminist agenda” aiming not for equality, but for superiority for women.
Just because we (thankfully) have laws in place for gender equality and against discrimination, does not mean that the fight for equality is over. Underlying attitudes and assumptions about men and women are much harder to change. The sexism that we are barely aware of, or accept as being “just the way things are”, is an extremely powerful disincentive to change.
It is a sad fact that for many people, the male is still seen as the norm for humanity, and the female as deviant from the norm. Even where this is not intended as a value judgement, it remains an insidious underlying assumption of a great deal of day to day activity and discourse. For example, medical trials are often based on men alone except for specific “female complaints.”
In the church, the debate over women’s ordination provides a good example of how the male is still seen as normative. In Christian theology, it is axiomatic that God is neither male nor female. Yet persistently over history God has been normalised as male, and men have therefore been seen as closer to God than women.
In arguments against women’s ordination as priests or bishops in the Church of England today, claims are still made that only men can represent Christ. Yet Christ in Christian theology is the ultimate representative human being, not the ultimate representative man.
Otherwise women would be excluded from the message of salvation, which is both absurd and offensive. Claims are also made that the weight of historical tradition means that women should not be ordained – an argument for never changing anything. Or that nothing should change until the worldwide Catholic and Orthodox churches all change together. But an international day like this shows us that the world never changes together or at once. Different cultures have very different starting points, and different issues of pressing concern.
But in all our cultures around the world, even the most apparently “developed,” things have not changed enough for women. For the benefit of women, men, girls and boys, we still need to strive towards full gender equality of opportunity, so that each individual may be free to reach their full potential and make their full contribution to society. What a waste – in Christian terms, what a sin – to settle for anything less.