Given that I’ve already established that I think that feminism is a Christian calling, many of my struggles with the church as an institution and with its cultural presuppositions should be immediately apparent. That post was coming from the perspective of how sexist misunderstandings and misrepresentations have been used against women in marriage and relationship roles, alluding only briefly to women’s role within the church itself. That connects to a bigger point about the concept of hierarchy in spirituality.
I think an ideal spiritual environment eliminates the concept of hierarchy entirely. I think that to assume that any individual, or any type/class of individual, is closer to God or more God-like than any other is pure idolatry. I was raised Catholic, but when I came to my own genuine faith for the first time a couple of years ago, I started attending an Anglican church. One of the reasons I can’t see myself ever going back to Catholicism (though anything is possible, I suppose) is that the entire system is based on an authoritarian model and the presupposition that some individuals have or can gain a unique conduit to God. The message that God sends must be transmitted, or minimally, is better transmitted, though priests ordained to do so, and increasingly high-quality, less-distorted messages come from those further up on the Church chain of command. They are better than, higher than, greater than the masses, regardless of how much we talk about priestly poverty and sacrifice.
When I talk about my disagreement with this principle of Catholicism, people generally assume I’m expressing disagreement with many of the individual tenets/interpretations announced by the men in charge, or with the fact that it continues to be only men who are allowed to take on these roles. This is true, but it’s not the point.
The Reformation improved the general issue by allowing people to start reading and interpreting the bible for themselves, removing the need for a third-party, church-sanctioned translator between God and lowly human, and many of the Protestant churches (including Anglican) allow women to be ordained. But I don’t think we’ve yet gone far enough toward the egalitarian structure modeled both in the garden and by Jesus, who, by my reading, established himself as the boss and put everybody else on an equal plane. We talk a lot about priests being “servants” or “serving the community”, but I don’t think we grasp properly that service and humility mean that they are subservient to the people, not glorified by them, and called to both guide and be guided by them, not to command or regulate them. We also refer to them as ‘holy men’ and, when we want to depict a person of faith, a person who is better than others, on television, we reveal him to be a priest.
Recently, a story came out that a Roman Catholic diocese has decided to evict a group of nuns in order to use the proceeds from selling their convent property in order to pay out a settlement to victims of sexual abuse by priests. On one level, the problem is that the church is protecting pedophiles and finding ways to transfer responsibility away from the individuals and institutional elements involved. A further layer down into the systemic problem reveals that the individuals who are being asked to make enormous personal sacrifices are women, despite the fact that the perpetrators are uniformly men. The system is both corrupt and sexist, but I would argue that the specifics of the situation are the inevitable result of hierarchy. It’s not just that we’re denying that priests can do these things, or that we should be more forgiving when they do (though the Church is, in fact, saying that). What is also being said here is that the needs of some are more important than those of other others, because the work they do is more vital, they are less dispensable, less replaceable, closer to God. Now, they’re all these things because they’re men in addition to priests, but, like the broader system of privilege, it’s a problem because it exists, not because of who has it and who doesn’t.
One of the reasons I love the service that I attend every Sunday morning is because, in lieu of a sermon, we have “teaching” which is often done by lay members of the congregation. Several of these people have studied given topics extensively or have a particular passion for and awareness of a specific issue, and we tap into the resources that our church has to offer beyond just the education and thoughts of the one guy wearing the robe (at this service, by the way, he also doesn’t wear the robe, which I personally appreciate as part of refusing to ‘other’/idolize the priest). I appreciate the knowledge that people have, and I certainly appreciate that many of them have spent more time than I have examining this stuff, but no one pretends that these individuals have any increased ability, natural or learned, to access God and understand his will.
Why is this a feminist issue? Because to my mind, feminism provides us with a model that goes beyond flipping the dichotomy and helps us start to see things in terms of completely opting out. Feminism, to me, isn’t about putting women in positions that have been created and defined under the conditions of patriarchy, it’s about radically rethinking the whole structure. It’s through my initial questioning of the male power structure of the church that I personally started to see the problems with inequality, and I only get more convinced that they’re bigger and deeper than those surface representations.
It’s idolatry to see some as higher than others. It’s putting them closer to and almost in the place of God. Sexism creates a dichotomous version of this, but a hierarchical structure is just setting more layers into the idol-chain.