Friday, October 21, 2005

Church Ladies

Women dominate America's pews.
Is that a problem?


Friday, October 21, 2005
12:01 a.m. EDT

This fall, the entering class of rabbinical students at the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative institution, is 34% female. At Hebrew Union College, a Reform seminary, women are nearly half the student body. At many Protestant seminaries, women pastoral students now outnumber men, and between 1983 and 2000 the number of women who identified themselves as clergy tripled. It seems that Catholic scholar Leon Podles's prediction of a few years ago, that "the Protestant clergy will be a characteristically female occupation, like nursing, within a generation," may soon prove true.

Pulpits aren't the only places that women dominate. According to a recent survey, the typical U.S. congregation is 61% female. Women are also the force behind most lay organizations and volunteer activities and make up the majority of church employees.

This lopsided picture is not a new development. Women have dominated American churches since the nation's founding; church records from the early colonial period document largely female congregations. Lamentations about the lack of men in the pews are similarly longstanding. In the 1830s, the Rev. Sebastian Streeter observed: "Christian churches are composed of a great disproportion of females." As historian Ann Douglas notes in "The Feminization of American Culture," the "19th-century minister moved in a world of women," and concerns about whether a feminized church could retain its men were a recurrent theme in the spiritual literature of the era. By the 1920s, the 60-40 gender split that is today the norm was firmly entrenched (the 1950s and 1960s saw a brief return of men to churches, but by the 1970s it had again eroded).

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What is behind these ratios and what, if anything, should church leaders do about it? The most recent diagnosis of the feminization problem comes from David Murrow, whose book "Why Men Hate Going to Church" indicts contemporary Christian culture for "driving men away" from organized worship.

"Church is sweet and sentimental, nurturing and nice," Mr. Murrow writes. "Women thrive in this environment." Men do not. Everything from the compulsion to participate in singing to the pastel tones and frilly accoutrements of the modern sanctuary spell trouble for the church's ability to keep men in the fold, he argues. Charlotte Allen, the author of "The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus," explains, "The problem is that men love ritual and solemnity and women, influenced by our all-pervasive therapeutic culture, bring a therapeutic style to the liturgy.

Among the earlier responses to feminization of the church was the "muscular Christianity" campaign of the late-19th and early-20th centuries. In the 1990s, the evangelical "Promise Keepers" filled stadiums with men eager to devote themselves to the "manly challenge" of pursuing a Christian life (which oddly included frequent displays of emotion and the occasional group hug).

Mr. Murrow crafts a very 21st-century solution to the feminization problem, with a message that seems more like a PowerPoint presentation than a masculine manifesto. He is keen to revive some of the prescriptions of the old muscular Christianity--emphasizing Jesus' manliness rather than his meekness, for example--but Mr. Murrow infuses them with the modern vocabularies of marketing and self-help: focus less on relationships and more on risk and reward; less "have a love affair with Jesus" and more "build the kingdom of God."

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Interestingly, Mr. Murrow notes that, among the major Christian denominations, it is the mainline churches that suffer the largest gender gaps in church attendance. These churches, still pilloried by feminists for their patriarchal pretensions, have in fact become spiritual sorority houses. It is the more conservative denominations, such as the Southern Baptists, that have the most even ratios. In these more traditional churches, many of which do not have female clergy, parishioners hear less about cooperation and feel-good spirituality and more about spiritual rigor and the competition to win souls. Churches that embrace male leadership, including the Roman Catholic Church, remain the largest in the country, and the Mormon Church, which also does not have female clergy, is the fastest-growing.

Although Mr. Morrow offers a useful diagnosis of the feminization problem, he overlooks a simple answer to the question of why church is more appealing to women than to men: its domesticating influence. Why else did pioneer women who helped settle the West make one of their first priorities the erection of churches? This leads to another observation, albeit an unpopular one in our age of gender egalitarianism: For as long as women have tried to tame and domesticate men, men have resisted. Understood this way, perhaps the lack of men in the pews is not so much cause for alarm as it is an affirmation of that unspeakable truth--men and women are different.

Ms. Rosen's "My Fundamentalist Education" will be published by PublicAffairs in January.

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