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The Eve Of Destruction

By Karen Armstrong

The Guardian
15 February, 2004

Still reeling from last year's virulent dispute about the foiled appointment of its first gay bishop, the Anglican community is now faced with another potentially irreversible split. Forward in Faith, a group opposed to women priests, has proposed the idea of a province separate from but parallel to Canterbury and York, with its own exclusively male hierarchy. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has apparently hinted that he would be prepared to consider this suggestion, designed to prevent a mass exodus from the church when women are consecrated as bishops.
More liberal Anglicans condemn the plan as a form of sexual apartheid, even though Forward in Faith has 4,000 women members. Nevertheless, the new province would represent a male bastion in a world in which women are increasingly entering spheres that were formerly the preserve of men. The fantasy of an all-male enclave is not new in the history of religion. In the ancient world, women often served alongside men as priests. This did not affect their inferior social status, but they were regarded as worthy representatives of the divine. That changed during the axial age, from circa 800BCE to 200BCE, when all the world faiths that have continued to nourish humanity came into being at roughly the same time.

These axial religions hold many values in common, but they all share a fateful flaw. Wherever an axial faith took root, the position of women underwent a downward turn. Most of these religions had an egalitarian ethos, but they were and have remained essentially male spiritualities. Confucius, for example, seemed entirely indifferent to women; Socrates was not a family man. In India, the Jain and Buddhist orders were irenic forms of the ancient Aryan military brotherhoods, and though nuns were permitted to join, in a second-class capacity, many felt that the presence of women was inappropriate. Even the Buddha, who did not usually succumb to this type of prejudice, declared that women would fall upon his order like mildew on a field of rice.

Such misogyny damages the integrity of faiths that insist that male and female are both created in God's image and that all human beings are capable of attaining nirvana, knowledge of Brahman or the Tao. Yeshivas, madrasahs, seminaries, monastic orders and colleges of cardinals are all-male clubs that rigorously exclude women. This chauvinism infects the spirituality of the faithful, male and female alike. Male Jews are supposed to thank God daily for not creating them women; every Christmas, Christians sing "Lo! He abhors not the Virgin's womb", as though Jesus's tolerance of the female body was an act of extraordinary condescension on his part.

Even when there was an initial attempt to introduce greater sexual equality, men hijacked the faith and dragged it back to the old patriarchy. This happened in both Christianity and Islam, latter-day reassertions of axial age monotheism. The Prophet Mohammed, for example, was anxious to emancipate women and they were among his first converts. The Koran teaches that men and women have exactly the same responsibilities and duties, and gives women rights of inheritance and divorce that we would not enjoy in the west until the 19th century. There is nothing in the Koran about the veiling of all women or their confinement in harems. This practice came into Islam some three or four generations after the Prophet, under the influence of the Greek Christians of Byzantium, who had long covered and secluded their women in this way.

Jesus would have been surprised by the confinement of women. Both he and St Paul had women disciples. They did not ordain them as priests, because there was no Christian priesthood until the third century. The early Christians espoused a revolutionary egalitarianism; a priestly hierarchy was too reminiscent of Judaism and paganism, which they were beginning to leave behind. Those who today condemn women's ordination as a break with tradition should be aware that priesthood and episcopacy are themselves innovations that depart from the practice of the primitive church.

The gospels give women a good press: it is the women who stand by Jesus throughout the crucifixion, while his male disciples are skulking in hiding, and it is women who receive the first news of the resurrection and bring it to the men. They were, it is often said, "apostles to the apostles". St Paul proclaimed that in Christ there was neither male nor female. Most of the misogynist passages attributed to Paul are taken from epistles written decades after his death, when Christianity was beginning to retreat from its early radicalism.

Once this had happened, Christianity found issues of sex and gender more difficult than any other faith. Some of the fathers of the church seemed totally unable to deal with women, and attacked them in vicious, immoderate and, indeed, unchristian language. Because they believed that celibacy was the prime Christian vocation, they projected their own frustration on to women, whom they castigated as evil temptresses. Tertullian told women to shroud their bodies in veils and make themselves as unattractive as possible. He blamed them for the sin of Eve: "You are the devil's gateway ... because of you the Son of God had to die!"

Many of the fathers wanted to make the church a male enclave. St Augustine told his priests to shun the company of women, even if they were sick or in trouble. Even mothers were not safe: "It is still Eve the temptress that we must beware of in every woman." The fathers' ideal woman was a virgin, who had renounced her sexuality and thereby become an honorary male. Some women, such as Joan of Arc or Catherine of Siena, exploited this symbolism and used their virginity as an entrée into the male spheres of war and politics, but in general virgins were supposed to retreat from the world and leave it to men. They would eventually be locked away in enclosed convents.

Later St Thomas Aquinas saw women as biologically flawed, "defective and misbegotten", and thus inherently inferior to the male sex, to whom it was their duty to submit. Even Luther, who left his monastery to marry, believed that, as a punishment for the sin of Eve, women must be driven from the world of men and confined in the home "as a nail is driven into the wall". Protestantism made Christianity more male than ever; by abolishing the cults of the Virgin Mary and the women saints, it banished all female imagery from the Christian consciousness.

Forward in Faith's dream of an exclusively male preserve draws its strength from a Christian tradition of denial, frustration and disgust that can by no stretch of the imagination be regarded as spiritually wholesome. In all the world faiths, women are trying to redress the pernicious chauvinism that has tainted their traditions. We are now living in a world that is perilously torn apart by religious extremism. We can no longer afford faith that feeds in any way upon hatred, exclusion and disdain. Before we condemn the bigotry of other traditions, we should try to heal the prejudice that has damaged our own.

· Karen Armstrong is the author of The Battle for God