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.

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