Sexing the soul faith & reason

Paul Handley, the editor of the Church Times, has been brooding about gender and spirituality. This week he went to hear a American Franciscan priest give a workshop for men in the East End of London.

I am not in the habit of allotting a gender to inanimate things, like my toothbrush. (Though now I look at him, I see that his sullen, ragged, too-early-in-the-morning appearance could only be male.) Our car is an it; the Church is an it; when I cursed the clothes rail which caught me such a blow between the shoulder blades on Monday, I cursed an it.

How much more difficult, then, to sex the anima, or animus, itself (themselves?). Is the soul like a spleen, reproduced in men and women alike? Or is it affected by chromosomes, so that men end up having a male soul and women a female one?

Feminist spirituality seem-ed right when it grew up during the 1980s. The Church's spiritual language has been male for centuries, not least in the personal pronouns allotted to God. When the rest of the male world was being challenged, it was natural that women should tackle spiritual language and the concepts behind it.

This process has been complicated slightly by one of these concepts, namely that spirituality is already regarded as feminine, not only in the sense that it is largely women who pursue it, but also because the virtues it teaches - patience, submission to the will of God, passivity, receptiveness - are perceived as female characteristics.

Nonsense, say the feminists: there have been plenty of tough, powerful Teresa of Avila types about; it's just that they couldn't get a publisher.

In this post-modern world, a solid definition of feminist spirituality is not to be had. But I can give an approximation by deconstructing (i.e. picking a few words out of) a piece Sara Maitland wrote for the Church Times last week. It is about bodies, physicality - dancing, breathing, touching; it raises questions about sexuality. It is emotional: "A lot of feminist spirituality is tearful with the tears of pain and of relief, but even more is giggly, silly, funny, joyful," writes Maitland. And its anti-hierarchical nature puts it at odds with existing church patterns: "Feminist spirituality seeks ways to structure mutuality while acknowledging difference."

Nevertheless, the perception that mainstream spirituality is female is cited as one reason why men are absent from worship. I asked a priest from Lincoln on Tuesday, did he have a group of men back in his parish who were interested in male spirituality? "No." Did he have a group of men in his parish? "No."

Our conversation took place in east London, at an introductory day to one of the better brands of masculine spirituality in the United States. Richard Rohr is a Franciscan priest from New Mexico who conducts retreats on social action, contemplation and men's stuff. His work sits alongside the Promise- Keepers, a mass movement among US males which is designed to put men back in charge of themselves - and their families. It also co-exists with the wild-man, New-Age ventures associated with Robert Bly's Iron John writings. Rohr won't knock either movement, though the Promise- Keepers worry him. His own work is different, as indicated, perhaps, by the high proportion of gay men in the audience (about one third).

Rohr's message is, predictably, that we have screwed up. Male identity is about power, yet without some sort of painful initiation rite, found in most cultures around the world but no longer in the west, young males never learn how to use that power.

Applying the same technique to Rohr as I have to Maitland, we see that masculine spirituality is about embodiment. "In the new masculine spirituality, the focus is on Jesus the Word becoming flesh, embodied and truly sexual instead of merely dutiful, correct and controlled."

Men need a God who does not reject them for being "passionate, embodied and engaged". There is a masculine way of doing things which is different from the feminine, says Rohr; but if the immediate object is to rediscover that difference, the ultimate aim is mutuality.

So, then, feminists and "masculists" are using identical language to express their newly uncovered spiritual sides. They are also using similar methods. Men might have got the monopoly on drums (Rohr uses them, too, though only in the mountains, not in east London), but coloured ribbons feature prominently on both sides. Rohr has men tie them to whichever parts of their body have been wounded; and I have read of a rite to celebrate menstruation which involves long dangly red ones.

So, why not stop talking about masculine and feminist spirituality and go straight for the mutuality? Can't spirituality, like my toothbrush, just be an it?

Not at the moment, it seems. Men are too fearful of matriarchy, women too abused by patriarchy: only apart can they start the journey towards spiritual wholeness. On our male-only day on Tuesday, Rohr was firm about this. The women who meet at places like Webster's, in London's West End, seem to agree.

I'd rather it wasn't the case, but we might have to accept this. However, it is clear that until the male and female journeys converge, the Church, and society, will be in a rotten condition. In ribbons, in fact.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are in need of a HR Manage...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager - HR Consultancy - £65,000 OTE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + £65,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: London, Birmingham, M...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick