Criticism and the Church

Monday, 3rd October 2011 at 23:41 UTC 4 comments

It annoys me that the Church is so bad at hearing and dealing with criticism. There are plenty of things the Church needs to hear, reflect on and respond to, particularly from its own members and especially if it is to regain credibility as a place where people’s hurts are healed.

This post is based on a comment I wrote for this post, which is worth reading in its own right, and which bares only partial relevance to what I write here. I realise this is a sore topic of contention, as most issues of privilege and hierarchy are.

I was having a discussion with someone just the other day about the way in which many politicians and wannabe politicians, particularly right-of-centre, are increasingly resorting to an image of being Reasonable™ to get their own way. Any and all opposition is illegitimate if someone puts their point in a way that deviates from being Reasonable™, i.e. shows any emotion in making their point.

In the case of politicians, it seems to be born partly out of the belief that scientific reason should dictate policy, blind to any and all human suffering that may arise. It seems incredibly at odds with what Christianity is meant to be about. But in reality, its a way of shutting down an argument I’ve seen used in churches, most commonly on issues of gender justice and social justice.

Focusing on gender justice issue, when men talk calmly, they do so from a position of everything being ok for them. When women talk calmly of their position in church, its most often because they’re resigned, happily or otherwise, to fulfil a stereotype in which they have little say in what happens. It really irks me that what is going on is men defending their own position in the church by refusing to listen to anything they don’t like. For the men talking calmly, safe in their own position of relative authority and historical privilege, any woman who doesn’t do likewise must seem like quite a threat.

The fact that women seem to be told off more often for getting angry over debates in churches could come down to any number of things. One suggested reasoning is cultural conditioning – they haven’t been taught to raise their opinions without getting angry, or wait longer before “letting it all out”. I really don’t buy this one at all. Much more likely that they’ve learnt the need to make much more of a fuss when they want to change things as they’ll be ignored the first time round. I could see this happening when I was a child, and it grates no less now. It could also be because men feel they have less to get worked up about, or simply because there’s actual less of them.

I’m not sure its strictly limited to women or to gender issues, as the post I launched this one from implies. I’ve found on numerous occasions that applying any kind of political analysis to a church or Christian organisation will be taken far worse than applying an analysis to a political or cultural entity. I reject any notion that it has to be this way: in fact, it has to change or the church will not survive.

But the reason its so horrifying to see such a reaction in gender debates is that this is where the greatest, most common and most stark internal injustice of the church so often rears its head. Race? We often have separate churches. Economics? Very often the working/under class are just plain excluded. Gender? Its laid out clearly inside many churches, with men visible at the front and women (who usually outnumber the men) invisible in the pews or at the back.


Entry filed under: Church, Religion, Women.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Greg  |  Tuesday, 4th October 2011 at 10:37 UTC

    “Scientific reason should dictate policy, blind to any and all human suffering that may arise” doesn’t make sense to me. What reason, based on what premises? Reason that leads to suffering is usually a bad, incomplete attempt at reason that is actually irrational because of what it excludes. Otherwise, evil premises are to blame, not reason itself. The solution to misuse is right use not disuse, so let’s not go around promoting irrationality. Most people who criticise reason are at root saying that they know they’re wrong but don’t want to admit it or work through the arguments themselves; I sincerely hope you’re not one of those.

    On the issue at hand, I think you’re being unfair to many, if not all churches. One of my biggest problems with feminism is the assumption that women are always, everywhere, the oppressed party when in fact, both sexes have moments when they’re on top. As you say, when I’m in church I’m in the minority as a man, so it’s really galling to hear that I’m supposedly oppressing people by being there. The vicar (when we had a vicar), the office and half of the wardens in my church are female, so this talk of mysoginistic oppression sounds very much like “yah boo sucks to you”. Sometimes, it’s appropriate to switch out of feminist mode and recognise a job well done.

    Finally, you say “I’ve found on numerous occasions that applying any kind of political analysis to a church or Christian organisation will be taken far worse than applying an analysis to a political or cultural entity.” Well, maybe that’s because the analysis was designed for politics, not worship? You can’t just port stuff across wholesale and expect it to fit in, any more than you can expect to get your policy defined explicitly by calling on a higher power (George Dubya take note!) Are you sure the problem isn’t with your analysis here, rather than the churches? Remember the time you labelled a men’s weekend as patriarchal and harmful when you’d never been on it and so didn’t know anything on which to base your claim? That was bound to get people’s backs up – it wasn’t criticism but needless and groundless insult – you’ll have harmed the cause of feminism by associating it with such in people’s minds. If that’s the sort of criticism you’re talking about, I’m not surprised churches take it badly! Yes, churches need to listen to criticism: it’s our duty in order to save the lost and win souls. However, if critics want to make a difference rather than just get a rise, their criticism needs to be intelligent and based on facts, plus they need to listen to people’s reasons for why they want to maintain the status quo. Critics may get accepted, crusaders almost always get ignored.

  • 2. Graham Martin  |  Friday, 7th October 2011 at 20:49 UTC

    With regards your second paragraph, I never said this was targeted at Heslington. I’d go so far as to say Heslington is a church that I’ve heard many good and positive things about in this area. If you think I was talking about Heslington, you’re being paranoid (unless you want to explain why you think this applies to Hes?).
    I’ve tried to be a lot more careful about reading what people have written/said properly before criticising them. Its interesting, though, that in the end, Mark Driscoll was actually held to account and forced to apologise for his outrageous Facebook status back in the summer. The crusaders as you call them certainly weren’t ignored that time.
    With reference to the church, what do you think Women have done to put Men down or prevent them from participating fully in the community?

  • 3. Greg  |  Saturday, 8th October 2011 at 21:50 UTC

    I didn’t think you were talking about Heslington, the point is that the gender imbalance is spread across churches everywhere. Men are a mission group who need reaching out to, or else the seats at heaven’s table will look like they’ve had a discriminatory admissions policy. Ignoring clergy and looking at actual churches, women often run the places so you can hardly say they’re powerless.

    I haven’t said that women have put men down (and I have no idea about Women and Men), but more generally in life, women are (surprise surprise) at an advantage sometimes. When I run a youth club, I’m tacitly viewed as a potential kiddie fiddler. Should I have kids, I’ll go back to work after 2 weeks while mum will get 6 months off. Should I ever get divorced, I’ll probably lose the house and kids, and when I die, it’ll probably be be more than four years before the average woman. Funnily enough, I’m not too keen on any of those figures but I’ve just got to lump them.

    • 4. Graham Martin  |  Saturday, 8th October 2011 at 22:16 UTC

      One of those figures was incorrect – you get to split the parental leave as you and your wife/partner see fit.

      Part of the issue, especially within some Anglican churches, is that women are often heavily represented in carrying out weekly tasks, but visibility and actual input into decision making leans towards the men.

      I know from experience that certain individual churches have had PCC’s where women regularly had to ask men to make suggestions for them, because otherwise they wouldn’t have been considered. I know this doesn’t apply at St Mikes, for instance, where they’ve had a woman chair for some years who wouldn’t stand for it!


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