Part Three: Moving Beyond Prejudice
In my previous post, I wrote of how Mary Magdalene has become for many the saint for our times; the de facto saint of the #metoomovement. Traditionally, of course, another Mary has been the role model for both men and women: the Blessed Virgin Mary. In what is a startling reversal of fortunes, it is Mary Magdalene who is now in favour and the Blessed Virgin Mary who is seen as problematic.
For many, the Blessed Virgin Mary – or, at least, the traditional image of her – is regarded with suspicion. She is seen as patriarchy’s archetypal female: sexually pure, passive, submissive, and obedient. In disgust at this image, many have rejected the Blessed Virgin Mary and turned instead to Mary Magdalene. In contrast, she is seen as sexually ambiguous, active, dangerous, and rebellious.
Quite what St Mary herself would make of this is another matter altogether. Her sexual reputation is based, as I have said previously, on a papal misunderstanding and the preferred contemporary description of her as the ‘apostle to the apostles’, while complimentary and doubtless well-intentioned, goes way beyond how she is described in the Gospels.
Ironically, it is again a Pope – the present Pope no less – who in recent pronouncements has confirmed her in her new exalted status. While what the Gospels actually say is that she was amongst the women who looked after Jesus and his male disciples (see Luke 8:1-3), which is not exactly what many are looking for in a female icon.
So what are we to do if we want both to be faithful to Scripture and Tradition and also to treat women equally as in the image of God? Needless to say, I am not going to be able to answer this in a short sermon (not even in this extended version of it!). And I would probably upset everyone and please no-one, whatever your views, if I was to elaborate on my own thoughts on the subject. So let me limit myself to saying what I think we should all agree on, regardless of our own personal take on the subject.
1. Firstly, we need to be honest. We really can’t go on pretending or claiming that we believe in gender equality and, for example, the ordination of women and then acting as if we don’t. We need to make our minds up. I suspect that there are those in the Church who deep down do not want to see too many women in positions of leadership, but who feel that they have to go along with the idea in theory. But it’s really not good enough, and we must come clean about what we do or do not believe and act accordingly.
2. Secondly, there needs to be mutual respect between men and women in the Church. The Church has to acknowledge that it has failed to treat women with respect in the past and, in many cases, is failing to do so in the present. Whatever we may believe about the roles of the sexes, there can be no justification for the abuse that women have suffered and are suffering both in and out of the Church. Being in the image of God demands minimum standards of behavior regardless of what we think about the roles of men and women.
3. Thirdly, we need to stop the name calling. The incontrovertible fact that the Church has been guilty of abusing women and defending that abuse in the past does not mean that all in the past were abusers or even that they were wrong in their thinking. Equally, just because some in the Church today still believe in different roles for men and women does not necessarily mean they are bad people or anti-women. Respect is a two-way street. As Christians, we should respect both those who believe that men and women should have exactly the same roles and those who don’t.
4. Fourthly, the Church in thinking through its attitudes to gender and the roles of men and women needs to do better than simply conforming its thinking and behaviour to that of the world around it. We are called to follow Christ not trends in society. We are called to confess Jesus as Lord not to parrot the slogans of a godless society, no matter how popular they may be on social media.
5. Fifthly, while the Church needs to be critical of itself and its past failings in its treatment of women, it also needs to be critical of the society in which it lives. Much that passes at the moment as the championing of ‘freedom, liberty, and equality’ for women is nothing of the sort, but is just the Devil’s old trick of masquerading as an ‘angel of light’ to promote values, attitudes, and actions that are as destructive and abusive as those being criticized.
In my next and penultimate post in this series of posts, I will write of how St Mary can show us, both men and women, the way forward as we seek to be faithful to Christ.