Of Mothers and Fathers: Male Privilege, Parenting and the Priesthood

This is a response to Rachel Held Evans’ request for men to write about the women, femininity and the Church.

When I became a stay-at-home father several years ago, I slowly realized that all the theology I had studied in seminary, if I were honest, didn’t connect with my new reality of diapers, spit-up and frozen breast milk.

The liberation theology, the ontology, the epistemology — all the ologies of ologies — rarely intersected with how I lived my life.

And it should come as no surprise. The Bible is a male document that sings the praises of heroes with mighty deeds and works. Now, some like John Piper and others employing a severe and chaueventistic reductionism, will take this to mean that God has given our faith a masculine feel, when in reality it only means that our sacred texts were written at  a time when women were belongings first and human beings second.

In fact, the miracle of our sacred texts is that women are featured in it at all as disciples (Mary of Magdalene), as teachers of Jesus (the Syrophonecian woman), and as equal to the Apostles themselves (Lydia). Still, even the Gospels, as revolutionarily inclusive of women as they are, show a Jesus who might welcome the children but who also criticizes the work of Martha the home-maker while eating her food, washing his feet in her basins and staying under her roof.

It is certainly revolutionary that our faith follows a homeless man, but sometimes, I can’t help but think how much more revolutionary our faith might be if Jesus had actually kept a home like Martha.

There is a gaping hole in the Bible that no doubt women have known about for ages. The day-to-day experiences of the home are largely absent from our sacred texts. For as much as the American Christian tradition lauds the family, the Bible itself, on the whole, doesn’t because it doesn’t, on the whole, give anywhere near equal representation to women and to what is traditionally a woman’s world.

The concern instead is for the broad narratives of faith that overwhelmingly feature men as central heroes, minimizing women leaders like Miriam and turning matriarchs like Sarah into a shrewish laughingstock, Rachel into a petty mother who plays favorites, Hannah whose worth is in giving up her longed-for chance to be a mother.

Child care and homemaking are the assumed background noise against which the story of God unfolds, so unimportant it doesn’t bear much more than a mention. In the wilderness, we hear of the great things that Moses and God do together. We do not hear of the women who managed to keep children fed, of falling behind in the caravan in the desert because of sick child or a temper tantrum. We do not hear of what it took to entertain the children in the monotony of the dark wilderness.

We hear of the wonderful works of Paul, galavanting all over the Mediterranean, telling people not to marry because it is a burden. We do not hear of the women who were the first to pass on this new faith to their children — the women who likely created, or at least carried out, the first (unofficial) catechism into the next generation in between the cooking, cleaning, hosting and homemaking, the women without whom the faith would have been lost.

This is a glimpse of what many women have expressed to me before, an ever-present frustration that their faith’s sacred texts do not mention them, do not consider them, do not represent them as equals.

Our faith may have a masculine feel, but it is also a sinful one, an unjust one, a blinded one.

So what does this mean for someone like me, who has experienced life as a stay-at-home parent, a role once reserved exclusively for women, and now as a postulant for the Episcopal priesthood, a role reserved exclusively for men until 1979, a role where being male still gives one a cultural and statistical advantage, even if it is unacknowledged?

What does it mean for me as I move from being a father to becoming a Father+?

What does it mean for a man, privileged by the luck and lack of a single gene, to worry about my cultural privilege in religious institutions? Is there something paternalistic in and of itself about me going out of my way to defend women’s right to be fully human? Does a woman need a man to complete the argument that women are equal and should have equal access to religious power?

After all, it has always been women who have in an act of righteousness seized religious power from men in ways that refuse to be denied, from Joan of Arc and Teresa of Avila to Jarena Lee and Aimee Semple McPherson.

No, to my mind, the power in an exercise like this one organized by Rachel Held Evans is that it gives a man like myself a forum simply and publicly to say, “I am culpable in this mess.”

Despite being an advocate of egalitarianism. Despite being a feminist. Despite being a stay-at-home dad.

And I am sorry, and humbly repent, for all that I have done and all that I have left undone as my sisters and fellow sojourners seek equality while I glide through denominational structures, powers, hierarchies and institutions with an ease that I truly should not.

When I say to my denominational committees that my first commitment is to my children not the church, I am not looked down on, but am rather held up aloft as a progressive example of male tenderness.

When I bring my children to work at my parish, no one mutters about me confusing my home and my work life or about not being professional. Instead, I am embraced, smiled at and encouraged to set an example of a male who is a primary caregiver and a father before an employee.

When I am express concern that I won’t be able to complete my discernment process within the allotted timeframe because of my obligations as a father, my commitment to the church is never questioned.

When a church committee looks at my resume and sees a three-year gap in my employment while I was a stay-at-home father, they do not question whether I lack the skills for the job because I spent months changing diapers, cleaning house, and cooking for my family.

Instead, being a stay-at-home dad adds to my allure as one seeking ordination, a mark of my sensitivity, my patience, my ability to let the children come to me. I’ve been told that being a stay-at-home dad will give me a unique insight as a minister. I’ve been told that it makes me special.

Would I be in the same situation were I woman, a mother?

I think we all know the answer to that question.

What makes me special is that my anatomy means I am privileged in whatever I do.

Now, perhaps this is not my fault or maybe I downplay what others see in me as a potential priest. But, at the same time, I do nothing to question this system that benefits me even as I subvert cultural expectations.

Such is the unjust privilege of being a male in the church.

About David R. Henson

David Henson received his Master of Arts from Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, after receiving a Lilly Grant for religious education for journalists. He ordained in the Episcopal Church as a priest. He is a father of two young sons and the husband of a medical school student.

  • http://profiles.google.com/brandonclazarus Brandon Lazarus

    I agree with a lot of what you say here, especially about the double standard you pointed out at the end and that women are the backdrop in the Bible and far too often aren’t even given names. I too am a feminist and am often troubled by how male dominated our history is and although most denominations of Christianity have come a long way to empower women there is still a long way to go.

    I want to point out a few little glimpses that we can see of the importance of child raising. I’m thinking of the story of the Syrophoenician Woman and her strong faith and perseverance in order for her child to be healed, Jesus telling us we should be more like children and that the children should come to him, in 2 Timothy when Paul giving thanks for Timothy’s faith which came from his mother and Grandmother, and Herodias…ok maybe not that one.

    Also, I wonder if you really think that the theology you learned doesn’t connect with you. Unless you are a Rabi, fisherman, or maybe a tax collector the Bible doesn’t talk about the day-to-day experiences for anyone. It rather is a compilation of writings to help teach us about God, ourselves, and how we interact with God. I would think that interacting with a baby or child on a daily basis would give you a greater understudying of ontology or when the children begin to play and interact with others you would see your ecclesiology formulating. I realize that you were trying to make a point but I hope that you have a greater understanding of how theology connects with your daily life after being a stay at home Dad.

    • http://www.facebook.com/unorthodoxologist David Henson

      That’s kind of ironic that you used 2 Timothy, considering it’s the same book where the author (probably not Paul) forbids women to speak. And no I do not think the Bible represents a woman’s typical experience but does a man’s typical cultural experience. The fact that the Syrophoenician woman has to argue (and win) with Jesus so that her child can be healed kind of makes me wonder what exact value Jesus might have had on child raising. The perspectives of women are largely not included in the Bible. Women are included, but from a male point of view. And in the Bible there is much more than the rabbis, fishermen, clerics, politicians, rich landowners, tax collectors, soldiers that are found in the Gospels.

      And no, ontology seems rather superfluous when I play with my children. It doesn’t deepen my playtime with them. It does make those conversations I had in graduate school seem small, unimportant and disconnected from my current reality. And, no, I don’t envision an ecclesiology of the playground. And no, as a stay-at-home parent, I don’t think theology really intersects all that much with my life, especially not the theology taught in academia. That was kind of the entire argument of the post. I mean, even the talk-down-to-me tone of your post pretty much dovetails nicely into what I’m saying here, that the male-dominated world of theology has no clue and little meaningful connection to my lived realities as a SAHD.

      • Anonymous

        Wow, I was surprised by how hostile your response was but after rereading my post I have to apologize for the way it came off. That wasn’t my intention at all and I should have read back over it before publishing it. Again, my apologies.

        I also do not believe that Paul wrote 2 Timothy but rather said Paul simply out of ease of writing. I see the disconnect on the treatment of women but merely wanted to point out a few examples of scripture that can be used to affirm child raising. I’m not say that they are enough or that they are the best examples but they are examples that we can turn to.

        I have studied the Syrophoenician Woman text in great detail for sermons and multiple papers and the more I read and study it the more I see her faith and perseverance. In my studies I realize that I am a minority voice among scholars but there are others who agree that the Syrophoenician Woman is in fact a very important character in Mark. It is indeed a shame, however, that she is not given a name and that she has to work to prove her faith while other male characters have a much easier road.

        I lament the fact that women are underrepresented in scripture but believe the Gospel narrative has the power to transcend race, gender, etc.

        As for theology correlating into daily life I was not meaning for it to be a “talk-down-to-you tone”. It may be that I have had a unique experience in seminary but what I receive it not merely the “male-dominated world of theology”. Nearly half of my professors are women and many of my male professors are feminists. I have the opportunity to read from church fathers and mothers and also more current feminist, womanist, and mujerista theologians. My school is also over 50% women and so I get to study alongside women. Yes the theology world is still male dominated but my studies have intentionally worked to deconstruct that model.

        I also am very much a practical theologian as are many of my professors. Whenever I study theology I am constantly asking the question of how this relates to my day to day life. Sometimes it is obvious like when my theology leads to a need to clothe the naked, feed the poor, and heal the sick. Other times it takes a little more work like looking at God as Trinity and seeing that the idea of perichoresis extends not only to how God relates to Godself but how God relates to us and we relate to one another. I was not meaning to be sarcastic or judgmental, I really think that a stay at home parent can reveal theology in a different light and although I myself am not a parent I have had friends of mine who have graduated form seminary or are currently in seminary and have said that interacting with their child has really given legs to their theology.

        Again, I sincerely apologize if any of what I’m saying is interpreted as condescending because that is not my intention at all.

      • David R. Henson

        I’m sorry you interpreted my response as hostile. I was simply being firm and direct. If we are going to discuss the Syrophoenician woman, I think we should probably start with the misogynist and ethnic slur Jesus addresses the woman with, calling her a dog (essentially a “bitch”).

        I think it’s a cop-out to believe that the Gospel narratives transcends race and gender, when in fact, it has not for some 2000 years and counting. I think it’s an affront to the reality of those oppressed by white men using the Gospel as a weapon to simply shrug it off.

        No, you have not had a unique experience at seminary. I did my graduate work in Berkeley, where feminism was practically invented. And I humbly suggest that your studies have not gone far enough if you aren’t willing to call out the Bible on its flaws and to understand it also as a social document. Because the first thing a seminary should teach men is to listen instead of lecture, to listen instead of preaching, to listen, to listen, and learn. And realize that you might not have all the answers (which from your tone and your vast research for papers and sermons), you clearly believe you do. That’s why what I offer here is an apology, not a sermon.

        And I’ll just leave this conversation with the observation that your ability to project your unexperienced opinions of parenting as authoritative onto someone who is discussing the intersection of theology and their lived experience smacks of both privilege and condescension. Imagine for a moment, that you were lecturing a mother instead of a father on this subject and I think you’ll see my point.

        I’m sorry if you view this as hostile.

      • http://www.facebook.com/unorthodoxologist David Henson

        I think you mean well, Brandon. And my guess is that we probably actually agree and have a great deal in common. I just find it curious when someone with whom I likely agree feels the need to offer a corrective on a subject they have no personal experience in. I learned one thing from my first few years as a stay-at-home dad and that’s that well-meaning liberals without children (parents can tell without you admitting it) often thought they knew how I should parent, how I should feel about it, and how I should understand it.

        But that they honestly thought they were helping and not being condescending.

      • http://lenguadelaz.blogspot.com/ Brandon Lazarus

        I too think that we most likely have a lot in common. I will concede that I sometimes come off as someone who things they know all the answers. It’s never my intention but I rather just like to share my opinions and hear others opinions. I need to work on how I word things and knowing when to simply keep my mouth shut.

      • davidrhenson

        And I should work on my hostility issues :)

      • David R. Henson

        And I should work on my somewhat abrasive replies, I think. :)

  • http://cortneydale.wordpress.com/ Cortney Dale

    Maybe this privilege is unjust, but I’m encouraged by it. You’re a bridge- on one hand you’re outspoken about your faith and the right gender to appease the old guard, and on the other hand, you’re openly progressive and have challenging ideas for the church-to-come. The simple fact that whatever patient and sensitive qualities you have are positives and not negatives is great!

    Many women do get through the same process, and it seems more the case that it’s not despite the fact they’re a woman but because they’re a woman. It’s an imperfect process, but we’re getting there. Slowly.

    • David R. Henson

      I suppose that is middle place where we operate — where an unjust privilege is an improvement on a journey to equality. Thanks for balancing my general pessimism.

  • Jon Carl Lewis

    Amen.

  • Rob Burgess

    As a non theologian, but nevertheless someone with a very broad view of theology, I will probably muddy these waters. But here goes.

    Growing up a young boy in the Catholic Church in the 1960s, we certainly learned early on that the church was male dominated. My father was a church janitor and at least partially as a result our family was close to both the male priests and female nuns of our local church. To my (in hindsight) pleasant surprise, I found that the nuns could curse like sailors or cheat quite adeptly while playing poker with my dad. (If they ever bet for real money, I was not aware of it. Not sure if cursing or cheating at cards is a feminine or masculine attribute. It may just be human.)

    With Pope John’s Vatican Council, the role of women did expand somewhat, in a very limited way.

    Several thousand years of sociology are hard to over turn in a few decades.

    With that as background, I was attracted to the Episcopal Church in 1980 partially because it had recently itself opened up and allowed women to preach and lead in more formal ways.

    Remember I mentioned growing up in the 1960s and my broad view of theology, have I mentioned George Harrison yet? Are there many young men or women growing up in the 1960s not influenced by the Beatles?

    Clearly, in the late 1960s George Harrison took a turn in his path of spirituality. George’s own spirituality was heightened by his studies of eastern religions, primarily, Hinduism. My Sweet Lord. Hare Krishna.

    I am not one to believe that any religion has a lock on the truth. Hinduism and other religions that emerged from that tradition have always had a feminine side to them. In some respects, a stronger feminine side than the religions of Middle Eastern origin. I am not saying that Hinduism and its offspring are better in this regard than Christianity, just different in how they depict or relate to the feminine side of the divine.

    So now that I am firmly planted as a non-conformist, heretic, I will also say that I am now a stay-at-home grandfather. Not by choice, but more out of necessity. My daughter died of an overdose last fall and my wife and I have the responsibility for the care of her now nine month old child. My wife continues her job at a local elementary school. I had retired early last spring in order to devote more time to volunteer work with the United Way, the local Soup Kitchen, and other local non-profit organizations.

    Every Sunday from the back of the church while holding my grandson, we watch my wife in the church choir. My grandson and I are more involved in whether or not he can play with the stained glass window near our pew or the little red or blue books in front of us, whether his diaper is soaked, or if he needs a formula bottle or just wants to scream/screech out in the middle of the service.

    In fact, right now, I am enjoying the calm and serenity of a baby’s morning nap, hoping that it lasts just a little longer, perhaps long enough for me to enjoy another cup of coffee or a sandwich.

    As a young lad, one of my best friends, a male, was attracted to cheerleading and chess. Bernard did not care much for baseball or other sports. Many of my fellow lads were cruel to my friend calling him a sissy and many other worse names. Bernie went on to distinguish himself as a college cheerleader for a Division I school and later as a multi-lingual foreign language teacher.

    Have you ever seen how athletic and gymnastic the Division I college cheerleaders are? Yet, because it is considered a “female” role, we often do not appreciate it as much as the athletes on the field.

    I wonder. Do we still not appreciate the so-called feminine attributes of the church because they are not macho/masculine, i.e., not important?

    If I had a nickle for every female friend of mine who listens better than I do, I would be a rich man. (My mother used to call this male habit “selective hearing”.) But is not listening an important Christian and religious value? How can one “walk a mile in another’s mocassins” without listening to the other’s views?

    Is listening a feminine or masculine value? Or is it simply a human value?

    Caring for the least and for the children was certainly a role that Jesus exhibited. So, did Mother Theresa and Francis of Assisi.

    And yet, I am afraid that we all too often have forgotten the values taught by their actions. Were these feminine or masculine values? Or are they human values?

    In God’s eyes, is knitting or stitch less important than carpentry? Is their more dignity in being a stay at home parent or in dropping off the kids every day at a day care? In God’s eyes, is a nurse less or more valuable than a doctor?

    Right on cue. My grandson is waking from his nap in the nursery. His diaper is probably soaked and his tummy empty.

    So this theological ramble will have to pause.

    There are some things more important. The care for children is one of these.

  • Heidi in AK

    Amen, Father+ !!! As a stay-at-home-pastor/mom, I can completely relate. I would write more, but I have to go finish dinner and look at my toddler son’s toy. Well said. I wish I had time for a response, but I have dishes to unload and towels to tend to. Such is a life not reflected in the Bible, and minimized in today’s evangelical framework.

  • http://motheringspirit.wordpress.com/ mothering spirit

    Very provocative reflection. I, too, went from the world of theological studies to work that was largely defined by at-home parenting (though I also work part-time for a theological research institute). The disconnect between “ologies” and everyday life is all too glaring, as you note. But even more disturbing – and important for us to wrestle with – are these double standards you describe between the way the genders have been treated throughout our history. Your description of how your time as a stay-at-home parent will be viewed by your discernment committee and future congregations you pastor is spot-on. And frankly, we should all be disturbed by it. Domestic relational work needs to be valued for its own merit, not for the biological sex of who does it. And if we as church value caring for our young in this way (which I believe we should!) then we need to challenge unjust structures that keep more parents – mothers as well as fathers – from being able to take the time needed to do this work. And we need to challenge our own assumptions about gender roles and how the practices and traditions of our faith can perpetuate unfair stereotypes. Well said.

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