Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Gender and Religion

Interesting piece in the WSJ this morning about gender differences in religious participation:

This fall, the entering class of rabbinical students at the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative institution, is 34% female. At Hebrew Union College, a Reform seminary, women are nearly half the student body. At many Protestant seminaries, women pastoral students now outnumber men, and between 1983 and 2000 the number of women who identified themselves as clergy tripled. It seems that Catholic scholar Leon Podles's prediction of a few years ago, that "the Protestant clergy will be a characteristically female occupation, like nursing, within a generation," may soon prove true.
This lopsided picture is not a new development. Women have dominated American churches since the nation's founding; church records from the early colonial period document largely female congregations. Lamentations about the lack of men in the pews are similarly longstanding. In the 1830s, the Rev. Sebastian Streeter observed: "Christian churches are composed of a great disproportion of females." As historian Ann Douglas notes in "The Feminization of American Culture," the "19th-century minister moved in a world of women," and concerns about whether a feminized church could retain its men were a recurrent theme in the spiritual literature of the era. By the 1920s, the 60-40 gender split that is today the norm was firmly entrenched (the 1950s and 1960s saw a brief return of men to churches, but by the 1970s it had again eroded).
Interestingly, Mr. Murrow notes that, among the major Christian denominations, it is the mainline churches that suffer the largest gender gaps in church attendance. These churches, still pilloried by feminists for their patriarchal pretensions, have in fact become spiritual sorority houses. It is the more conservative denominations, such as the Southern Baptists, that have the most even ratios. In these more traditional churches, many of which do not have female clergy, parishioners hear less about cooperation and feel-good spirituality and more about spiritual rigor and the competition to win souls. Churches that embrace male leadership, including the Roman Catholic Church, remain the largest in the country, and the Mormon Church, which also does not have female clergy, is the fastest-growing.

Although Mr. Morrow offers a useful diagnosis of the feminization problem, he overlooks a simple answer to the question of why church is more appealing to women than to men: its domesticating influence. Why else did pioneer women who helped settle the West make one of their first priorities the erection of churches? This leads to another observation, albeit an unpopular one in our age of gender egalitarianism: For as long as women have tried to tame and domesticate men, men have resisted. Understood this way, perhaps the lack of men in the pews is not so much cause for alarm as it is an affirmation of that unspeakable truth--men and women are different.

Generally the parishes I've attended have very little gender gap. Nor have any of them been liturgical or theological paradises. They've mostly just been very ordinary places. So I don't know if suburban Catholicism manages to break this mold. Certainly, some of the older ethnic parishes were heavy on the 'only women, children and old people go to church' ethic.

The key, as always, seems a sort of via media. Within the available types of practice and spirituality, the church should (within good practice and reason) strive to be 'all things to all men' neglecting neither the emotional, nor the spiritual, nor the ritualistic, nor the intellectual sides of the faith.

In this sense, while I think they do a valuable service to the extent that they bring anyone closer to God, I question the wisdom of 'mens ministries' or come to that 'womens ministries' in that a well rounded liturgical and pastoral approach should address the needs of both.

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