Patriarchy, Christianity and Families

There are two main areas where religion has been identified as patriarchal or male dominated.

  • Structure
  • Language


Structure means who is in charge and who takes orders and the system that puts them in charge. It is argued that many religions contain a patriarchal structure, that is to say they are institutionally biased towards male supremacy in posts and decisions that reflect largely male concerns. More than this, these structures create a male culture, ways of thinking and acting that reflect male preoccupations, and they channel the spirituality of women and limit their role in deciding on forms of spirituality and belief.
Key terms to remember:

  • Patriarchal
  • Structure
  • Institutionally biased
What does this mean in practice? It means that maleness is like:

  • Pyramidal shape of appointments with authority stemming from the top
  • People below are subordinates
  • People at equal level are competitors
  • Stress on rationality and logic
In religion this means hierarchy and rationalised forms of theology.
It also means that where there may be feminine gender areas of religion, such as caring and listening, and perhaps some ritual; these are either taken over by the males into some exclusive rules, or the female aspect is narrowed, closely defined and highly regulated. In religion, the female becomes defined as subordinate, or subject to dress code, restricted in expression, and prevented from promotion within the sacred setting.
The dominant Western Christian Church is the Roman Catholic Church. It has a pyramidal structure where the Pope is infallible. The Pope has supreme authority if he wants it, because he is regarded as the successor to Jesus' apparent main organising disciple, Peter, who arrived in Rome, and is called God's vicar on earth, but usually he operates in consulation with his all male cardinals. The cardinals rule over archbishops, they over bishops, they over priests and they over deacons. The hierarchy claims direct descent by ordination from the apostles of Christ (called apostolic succession); the laying on of hands must be done by someone who has had hands laid upon him. The laity might be consulted in parishes but have no institutional role.
In the Anglican Church priests with freehold (this gives them ownership over their parish space and cannot be sacked) have some resistance against a bishop's authority, although freehold is declining. Bishops are likely to be more consultative but they also claim apostolic succession, continuous through the change of Church becoming part of the one Holy an Apostolic Church. The chain of command stops at Archbishop, and there are a number of them around the world. They generally have consultative powers and bishops together carry special authority of leading pastors. The Anglican Church also has a tricameral synodical structure where bishops, priests and lay people each have their own House of Synod, and each house can block new legislation and also some votes need two thirds majority.
Priests in some Anglican provinces can be women too. Some bishops in fewer Anglican provinces can be women too. The Church of England is considering including women bishops; at present no woman priest can be promoted.
Protestant churches tend to have more lay input and simply ministers and most have fewer barriers to women achieving the highest posts. However, some Protestants point the biblical instruction that a woman should be silent in church and keep her head covered, that is said to come from Paul (although this is disputed by biblical critics).
Nevertheless a central and unchangable difficulty Christianity has is that the incarntion of its God is male, Jesus Christ, and he chose twelve all male disciples. He did have women followers, the most significant being Mary Magdalene (who some speculate he even married - more likely is that she was a wealthy supporter who kept the company materially afloat).
Later tradition labelled Mary Magdalene as a prostitute. This has no biblical or historical basis and shows the Church in its patriarchal phase, marginalising a powerful and important woman at the side of the God-incarnate of the religion. It also glorified mary the Mother of Jesus. The Church proposed that she herself (not just Jesus) was immaculately conceived, and was the perfect vision of motherhood. Historically there are clues that Jesus had a difficult relationship with his mother.
The Church created, with the two Marys, a bad woman and a good woman. These have transmitted important cultural messages down the centuries, especially for how families should model themselves. The Roman Catholic Church, and Anglican Catholics too, believe in the Holy Family, and this Holy Family is a model and vision of families. From this and into this stems views on only the married having sex, on marriage being for having children, on them not using contraception, going through with the birth, and opposition to euthanasia.


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful