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No need to patronise men with toughness

by
01 January 2016

Ministry should not be based on gender stereotypes, but on meeting the seriousness that all seek, argues Hannah Cleugh

IN THE novel Moondial by Helen Cresswell, Minty, the central character, is told that children like orange jelly. Her response is to comment: “No one ever says grown-ups like lamb chops.”

The Revd Paul Eddy, Vicar of Stanford in the Vale with Goosey and Hatford, and Diocesan Missioner (Unreached Men), offered some suggestions about how to make Christmas Eve services “man-friendly”, in a blog post on the Oxford diocesan website (News, 11 December). The piece touched a nerve, and the strength of the reaction was such that it was taken down less than 24 hours after being posted.

Many objected to the gender-essentialist assumptions in which Mr Eddy seemed to ground his piece: that there are things all women like, and things all men like, and that these can be easily categorised. The assumptions were seen as patronising to both men and women, just as Minty found the statement belittling about her dessert preferences.

Dr Jem Bloomfield, who teaches medieval and early modern literature at the University of Nottingham, in a typically perceptive critique of the post, commented: “One thing that I know puts a lot of men off is being treated as a homogeneous macho mass who all like beer, action movies and can’t relate to their emotions. I am lucky enough to work in an environment where there are a lot of young men doing a lot of thinking about their lives, the world around them and what it can offer them.”

More troubling were the theological premises underlying Mr Eddy’s blog: the suggestion that at Christmas we should focus not on the infant Jesus, but on the adult man (as men might be put off by the picture of weakness and vulnerability) was utterly startling. That, surely, is the very heart and mystery of the incarnation — that, in the words of John Betjeman, “the maker of the stars and sea, Became a child on earth for me.”

The incarnation is supposed to be challenging and uncomfortable; to throw into sharp relief all our illusory strength and self-sufficiency. If our contemporary understandings of masculinity mean that this is particularly difficult for men to hear, then we need to communicate the point more effectively, and shine prophetic light into some of the more toxic aspects of our present culture.

 

Like Dr Bloomfield, I work in a university, and am fortunate enough to be surrounded by young people who do a great deal of thinking. In our college chapel, where I — female, liberal, and feminist — lead most services, the regular congregation, students and Senior Common Room alike, is overwhelmingly male. My chapel committee — composed of undergraduates aged between 19 and 22, with whom I share responsibility for the chapel’s day-to-day life — is entirely male.

It is not the men who are missing; often the only women in chapel are the front row of the choir and me. This maybe wholly coincidental, but the Church of England young-vocations statistics (about seven men for every two women) would suggest not. They would suggest that in the demographic that is perhaps hardest to reach (18-30s), the men who come are not looking for gimmicky approaches that collude with contemporary assumptions about gender roles and identities.

For many of our male students, one of the greatest difficulties that they face is how to be free of the lad culture prevalent on many university campuses, and how to build healthy, lasting relationships. Universities across the country now offer workshops about sexual consent, and how to address alcohol-fuelled laddish behaviour. The last thing that many of these young men would welcome is a Church mirroring the culture that they seek to challenge and escape.

What they seem to find in chapel, with its structured, formal worship and (I hope) thoughtful, thought-provoking preaching, is space to engage in morally and spiritually serious ways.

This term, apart from the carol service, the acknowledged highlights were the solemn formality of Remembrance Sunday, and two sermons — one that considered the Church’s response to the refugee crisis, and one reflecting on chaplaincy in a maximum-security prison. The latter elicited extraordinary reactions from men and women, regular and occasional chapel-goers alike. These were genuine questions, focusing on people’s lives.

 

The Christmas story speaks for itself if we let it and engage with it in serious ways. It does not need “sexing up” with action films. And it is a story full of men: we have a man who struggles to work out his responsibility to the woman he intends to marry and a child not his own, who with courage leaves all behind to protect those whom he loves. We have rough men out in the fields, drawn to the wonder and mystery of the baby; and learned, wise men seeking to interpret the signs of their times.

There are a violent, fearful man who sends his troops to massacre children, and a powerful ruler whose diktat sends people to be taxed each to their own city — and at the heart of it, that girl and her baby, undercutting all the assumptions, turning worlds and cultures upside down.

As a child who always preferred lamb chops to orange jelly, I take exception to any approach to mission which is predicated on gender stereotypes. What my experience with my college-chapel community suggests is this: young people seek seriousness. When we do what we do well, with confidence, we give people a reason to come back.

We need a broad Church with a mixed economy of worship styles and theological approaches, in order to reach different people. Analysing this on the basis of gender is not only patronising: ultimately, it confuses — rather than clarifies — the question.

 

The Revd Dr Hannah Cleugh is Chaplain and Solway Fellow at University College, Durham University, and a member of the General Synod.

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