Arguments for male-only ministry, good and bad

A conversation with a good friend yesterday reminded me of an old (9 months; palaeolithic in internet debating terms) blog post by another good friend, Mike Higton. Mike addresses a class of arguments for restricting certain things – church teaching ministry, perhaps, but the argument works equally well for frontline combat roles or for preschool childcare – to people of one gender. He addressed arguments of the form: ‘This role requires characteristic X; But characteristic X is generally more developed in people of one gender; so this role should be reserved to people of that gender.’ Thus expressed, this is formal, but the concrete examples are not hard to list: men are generally physically stronger, so only men should be miners; women are generally more nurturing, so only women should be full-time parents; men are generally more logical, so only men should be teachers in the church; … Mike’s point, wonderfully argued – do read the post – was that arguments of this form inevitably fail. Given their prevalence – I have seen similar arguments widely celebrated online in the past couple of weeks – it is worth spelling out this failure very carefully. Let me get formal again, and lay out the logic as carefully as I can: C1: Role A requires people with a high degree of characteristic X, a requirement so important that it over-rides every other potential qualification. C2: Characteristic X is unevenly distributed between genders, such that people of one gender on average exhibit it to a much higher degree than people of the other gender. C3: Therefore, role A ought to be available to people of one gender only. Thus stated, this argument is not quite demonstrably false, but it is very nearly so. The crucial point lies in the definition of ‘much higher’ in C2. The argument sketched can only have logical validity if ‘much higher’ is so extreme as to exclude the highest example from the other gender. Let me illustrate by imagined example: let us take ‘height’ as characteristic X; unquestionably it is a gendered characteristic; the Scottish Health Survey in 2008 recorded the average height of men (aged 16+) as 175cm, and the average height of women (aged 16+) as 161.3cm. Role A might be ‘Goal Defence in a Netball team’; this is no doubt profoundly unfair to very gifted athletes, but suppose that actually height was what mattered here, far beyond talent, fitness, or any other characteristic; in a mixed netball team, should we reserve the GD role for men only? The answer is – obviously I trust – no, or at least only yes in extraordinarily restrictive circumstances. Average heights are merely average; individual people are below or above them. I am, it happens, some way above the average male height according to this survey; but I have several female Scottish friends who are taller than me. When we went to the women’s Netball tournament at the Commonwealth Games, I am fairly sure that every single player on the four teams we watched was taller than me. Now, I suppose that the tallest person in the world is a man (although this was not always true). So, I assume, is the second. Are the top hundred all male? The top ten thousand? It seems clear that, if a random village were to put together a netball team, it would not be at all impossible that the tallest person in the village would be female. It is unlikely, but that would lead us not to male-only Goal Defence play, but to a situation where most, but not all, GDs were male. Perhaps the proportion would be 80-20, perhaps 90-10; at some elite national level, it might even be 99.5-0.5. The point is it can never be 1-0; this form of argument cannot lead to a restriction of a role to one gender only; in the logic sketched above, C3 can never follow logically from C1 and C2. Now, like Mike, I do not suppose that the characteristics necessary for Christian leadership of whatever form are gendered in any interesting way. But even if they were, a blanket ban on men (or women) serving in a particular leadership role would be wrong; we should instead be expecting and accepting a gender imbalance, not a gender monopoly. Someone committed to such an account of gendered characteristics might plausibly argue that preachers/church leaders ought to be 80% male, but s/he can never argue that these roles are restricted to men only. Any argument of the form C1-C3 above necessarily fails. An argument for the restriction of church roles by gender on the basis of uneven gender distribution of a characteristic is always a bad argument; on...

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The consolations of faith: on leading on non-religious funeral

Today I led a funeral service for my grandmother; in accordance with her views, and the wishes of her children, the service was devoid of any ‘religious’ content. I found this odd. Not difficult, but odd. Obviously, when asked to do it, I said yes; it did not take any thought to decide to help family members at such a time, and I rapidly worked out that, whilst I could not lead a ceremony speaking words I did not believe, I have no problem (indeed, a fair amount of experience, one way or another) in acting with integrity in public whilst not saying certain things that I do believe. What difficultly there was lay in working out what the service was for, in order to construct an appropriate form of words (I keep saying ‘liturgy’ in my head, although that’s the one thing it definitely wasn’t…). But for a funeral that was not so hard: we come to remember; to say goodbye; to stand together in grief. There is little trouble in finding words that speak well to these purposes. Inevitably, I looked around for help; I’ve done enough liturgical work to know that there are always riches from which to borrow. That said, the Humanist material I discovered surprised me – although on reflection the problem was predictable. Like most contemporary ‘humanism’, it all failed rather badly to be nonreligious. I looked at half-a-dozen or more published patterns for a humanist funeral; every one borrowed central Christian texts, deleted the obvious references to God, and then used the filleted remains to shape the service. (Even Scripture was not immune; Eccl. 3 was several times in evidence. John Donne’s Divine Meditation XVII was also referenced more than once.) This of course reflects the reality – and the tedious banality – of too much contemporary Western atheism: take a philosophically-rich account of things; delete surface references to the divine; and assume that what is left will be meaningful or coherent or interesting. Nietzsche, the world hath need of thee… The experience itself was interesting; the defiant rebellious joy of a Christian funeral was of course absent (‘Where, death, thy sting? Where, grave, thy victory?’ (a phrase I recall Graham Tomlin describing as the liturgical equivalent of ‘You’re not singing, you’re not singing, you’re not singing anymore!’); ‘Thine be the glory, risen, conquering Son – endless is the victory thou o’er death hast won!’), but that did not feel like a huge problem. We came to say goodbye, and goodbye was said; if I personally could have said so much more, that was the absence of a wonderful bonus, not the presence of a yawning absence. I know the philosophical stuff on the obscenity of death, but my grandmother died old and full of years, and it did not feel like that. My mind went to various nonreligious weddings/civil partnerships I have attended. They were far worse; duty was heaped upon duty, and responsibility upon responsibility, and not a finger was lifted in promised help. The offering of prayer for a couple newly-wed; the humility and confidence expressed in the confession, ‘by God’s grace, I will’; the sense that these open-ended and absolute promises are undergirded by benevolent divine power – all of this, for me, is necessary to the uttering of wedding vows, or their equivalent. To commit oneself in one’s own strength to such things is an act of promethean courage, of which I at least would not be capable. All of which makes me reflect: for me – I do not generalise – the point at which I find God’s grace to be necessary for existence, and not merely a wonderful bonus, is not in thinking about what happens beyond death, but in thinking about how it is possible to live before death. I desperately need grace and strength and assurance of the forgiveness of sins not for eternity, but for tomorrow, and for tonight, and indeed for this moment right now. I respect and admire those like Nietzsche who, with eyes wide open and with no self-deception, can live and die in their own strength; at the same time I know that I am not one of them (and I recall Nietzsche’s own last years). That said, I suppose that dying will be relatively easy; everyone seems to manage to do it adequately in the end. Living is the challenge. I do not propose a general rule, but, as far as I know my own heart, for me the reality is this: I need grace to live more than I need it to...

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