Something skewed

by
17 June 2016

Rachel Mann praises writing on the sexes made accessible

 

Women and Men after Christendom: The disordering of gender relationship
Fran Porter

Paternoster £14.99
(978-1-84227-759-1)
Church Times Bookshop £13.50


THE General Synod’s 2014 vote to enable the consecration of women as bishops was a watershed. Since then, the pace at which women have taken up senior posts has been, by C of E standards, dizzying. Indeed, for some, the fact that women can be bishops is indicative that the work of gender equality and justice is done.

Fran Porter’s splendid book exposes that conclusion as false. Her intelligent and lively analysis of the way “gender” has been represented in religious discourse indicates the structural problems and opportunities available to those who identify as Christian in a “Post-Christian” age.

Women and Men After Christendom has, then, an ambitious agenda. It places theological and political arguments about the “meaning” of men and women in the context of more than 2000 years of thought. Yet it also attempts to be suitable for a non-specialist audience.

Porter achieves this brief with aplomb. It is a delight to read. Porter’s argument is both feminist and liberative. She reminds the reader that, from the outset, the Christian faith offered liberation to women and men from patriarchal Romano-Greek household structures. Her patient analysis of how Christianity’s shifting position in European society produced a reinscription of oppressive ideas about gender is subtle and careful.

Porter’s concern with how patriarchal understandings of sex and gender damage relationships between men and women is hardly new. Nevertheless, her ability to synthesise classic theological ideas without compromise is impressive. Like Paula Gooder, she has a gift of handling complex ideas with a lightness of touch rare among contemporary theologians — for example, in her treatment of the notorious passage in 1 Timothy which seems to claim that “women should not teach men.” Her analysis of the rhetorical and etymological status of the passage’s claims could have proved stodgy. Rather, she makes new expansive readings available even for the casual reader.

Porter’s book, however, is at its most striking when analysing some of the (modern) anxieties implicit in the Church’s suspicion of women and “femininity”. Porter reveals how anxiety about the so-called “feminization” of the Church is an old patriarchal fear grounded in constructions of masculinity. Yet she is not simply concerned to pull down the old. As she notes, “the status of a woman’s or man’s personhood before God seems to me fundamentally . . . part of the gospel.”

Her conclusion — that we are called to “new, restored [and] non-hierarchical gender relationships” — challenges all who imagine that simply placing women in positions of hierarchal authority as bishops will topple the patriarchal skewing of gender relationships.

 

The Revd Rachel Mann is Priest-in-Charge of St Nicholas’s, Burnage, and Resident Poet and Minor Canon at Manchester Cathedral.

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