Tuesday, 31 March 2009

An excuse, language and gender theory and feminism. Sort of.

Sometimes work takes over. Not very often at present, I grant you, but sometimes. And things like laundry and cleaning require to be done. And photos, which haven't been attended to for months. They're not done yet - I need to find another evening or two to fiddle with them, but evenings are at a premium and it's not looking that likely, at least for the time being.

That's my excuses made, anyway.

Traci and I went to Ely on Sunday, because we had a free afternoon on a lovely day and it was nice to get out of Cambridge for a bit. Went to Evensong at the the Cathedral - now THAT is a fantastic building. The girls and men were doing Howell's Worcester Service, which I didn't know but knew I'd love (and did), the Leighton Responses, which I can still sing by heart and Leighton's Solus ad Victimam* which I've been wanting to hear for ages and which was divine. The building itself is spectacular - one of the oldest and largest Medieval buildings in England if not the world, built in 1109 (that's 900 years old this year). We wandered into the Lady Chapel, where I did a concert in January, to admire the light and the acoustic, and then wandered around the town a bit. It's a pretty place, and the light was nice. I took some pictures I might put up if they're worth it.

The bit that grated was the sermon. I don't listen much to sermons in general, regarding them as interludes between the singing, unless something grabs me. A really good speaker is worth listening to, almost no matter what they are saying, and the kind of people who preach in Cambridge or in the Cathedrals will say something worth hearing, that might have a Christian basis but will be applicable for nearly everyone. And they say things, usually, in an interesting way using interesting words and with anecdotes to make points. This guy, and I don't know who it was because they don't seem to publish a helpful service sheet with things like the readings or the name of the preacher on it, had an incredible voice, too, and I can always listen to a good voice. (Music list, I can get hold of, but surely that's less liturgically relevant and hence less important to the work of the foundation, and hence shouldn't be easier to find than a sheet of the lessons? This is the second time I've had this problem in an English Cathedral in the last three months; what's going on?!) Anyway. Maybe he was the Precentor, that would explain the voice, though he didn't seem to be acting as cantor.

The reading was from Romans 5, which is more or less irrelevant to my point, except that it comes from the letters of Paul. He's quite widely regarded as having been fiercely misogynistic, and it's often from his writing that people have taken the excuses for discriminating against women in the Church and hence in more secular areas of life. One of the key parts is 1 Timothy 2 - particularly verse 11 to the end^. There are people who don't believe that Timothy letters were actually written by Paul, but it's like debating the authorship of the plays of Shakespeare in terms of amount of speculation - worse, in fact, given their age. Anyway. Romans 5:14 mentions 'Adam's transgression'. The speaker interrupted the flow of his sermon (which focused on the free gift of the sacrifice of Christ) to point out 'for those who believe that Paul was a misogynist that he describes it as Adam's transgression.'

Yes, it is described as 'Adam's transgression' - Paul doesn't blame Eve for the Fall of mankind at least at this point. I have no idea about whether he does elsewhere in his oeuvre and now is not the time to trawl. But WHY does he not blame her? Is it about chivalry? About taking responsibility? But it IS Eve's fault. SHE is the one fooled by the serpent and Adam blames her and by implication God, saying in Genesis 3:12, 'The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree'. The blame, for Adam's part, is shared between God and the woman. God cannot be blamed, and so it is Eve's fault. God punishes both of them. They are equal in their fault. Paul's claiming of the sin for Adam alone in the passage from Romans makes her a child. His chivalry enfeebles Eve. Her reasoning is felt to be inferior than his and she is regarded as incapable and hence cannot be held accountable for her actions. This is worse than blaming her outright and extending that to the whole of the female species.

With one word, it emasculates every woman. Not that you can emasculate a woman, really. But it's the right word. Makes them impotent. Another word you can't use about women. Maybe I need to read the theories about gender and language I always sniffed about at college. In fact I probably do - our language is inherently masculine, inherently limits what women can be in our thoughts. Well. Up to a point. Everyone knows what I mean when I use the terms 'emasculate' and 'impotent' about women. I mean 'render powerless' and 'ineffective'. Maybe I should have used those, but they don't contain within them the cut to the self esteem that the words I did use do. Is there an equivalent feeling in women? The inability to have children does have some of the same helplessness to it, I suppose, but it's not the same. Does it create the same 'I am not a woman' feeling that losing essential pieces of anatomy does for a man? I guess it does in many women. But there isn't the same level of competition between women - it's not about prowess. Maybe those words are so masculine because women actually can't feel those things, though they can imagine them well enough from understanding men to comprehend the concepts in the words. So language isn't inherently sexist?

But the sermon irritated me because this man clearly wanted to score points for Paul and felt that this was the way to do it. In a public space, he expressed these sentiments and didn't see what was wrong with them. It implies that he, too, holds such patronising opinions about women as expressed by the author of the letter to the Romans. And he would deny that he did, and would hold up this sermon as an example. It could be an honest mistake; he could be blinkered by arguments from feminists about Christianity blaming women for the human condition. But I don't think it is.

*The words to that are amazing, as is the story of Abelard and Heloise. 'Alone to sacrifice thou goest, Lord, giving thyself to Death whom thou hast slain. For us thy wretched folk is any word? Who know that for our sins this is thy pain? For they are ours, O Lord, our deeds, our deeds. Why must thou suffer torture for our sin? Let our hearts suffer in thy Passion, Lord, that very suffering may thy mercy win. This is the night of tears, the three days' space, sorrow abiding of the eventide, Until the day break with the risen Christ, and hearts that sorrowed shall be satisfied. So may our hearts share in thine anguish, Lord, that they may sharers of thy glory be; Heavy with weeping may the three days pass, to win the laughter of thine Easter Day.'
Peter Abelard (1079-1142), trans. Helen Waddell

^'Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression. Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety.'


  1. Firstly, I am extremely jealous. It sounds fabulous, except the sermon without which most churches would be really pleasant places (did I just ensure my place in hell?).

    Secondly, it sounds a bit like the speaker/sermonizer thought he might add that so he didn't catch any flack. I can see where feminists would get upset at placing the blame on Eve instead of Adam and he might have thought he's soften that bit up a little. Of course, you're right. It really was her fault, or both Adam's and hers really. She tempted and he ate. Neither one is blameless.

  2. Sermons get bad press. They are often great examples of scholarship and public speaking. Depends where you go as to how much of an axe they have to grind. For myself, I very rarely hear one I think it's worth paying a lot of attention to.

    I don't think it was put in just to aviod flak - he could just have not said anything about it and not opened the can of worms. He clearly did think that he was softening up some blow or other, but he just made it worse - and didn't realise that it made it worse. It was that that bugged me. Of course Eve should shoulder some or all of the blame for the Fall - and not allowing her to take the blame on the basis that she's just a weak woman who wouldn't know any better and blaming Adam instead for listening to the wiles of a fallible woman is a whole lot worse. THAT is why it angered me so much. Chivalry is fine, provided it's shared between the sexes. When it's not, it's just patronising.