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Sunday, 24 August 2014

The Virgin Birth and the Resurrection: Subverting Patriarchy

I’ve just returned from a day at Greenbelt where one of the most interesting sessions I attended was a panel discussion exploring whether we can re-imagine marriage. This was chaired by Vicky Beeching, who rightly received a standing ovation on arrival for her bravery in recently coming out. Her panellists were Linda Woodhead, Sarah Miles and Robert Song.

Linda Woodhead briefly summarised the history of approaches to marriage within Church history. All marriages were civil contracts until part-way through the medieval period, only becoming predominantly church ceremonies at the Reformation. Affirmation of the nuclear family is much more recent phenomenon with the Church. The Church has, therefore, viewed a spectrum of relationships – some formal, some informal – as marriage across its history, with celibacy often being the primary stance recommended. Since the 1970s, the numbers marrying within our society have been in decline, while within these numbers civil marriage has grown significantly. One consequence has been that society is accepting of a greater diversity of relationships.

Sarah Miles spoke from her own experience of same-sex marriages as a sign of the radical inclusion to which Jesus’ ministry points. God’s love is at work to bind all people together and equal marriage can be a sign of this reality.

Robert Song suggested that sex before Christ is not the same as sex after Christ. Much of our thinking about marriage is based on the creation patterning of Genesis 1 and 2 and this is also the case with Jewish identity which is based on genealogy. In Christ, however, membership of God’s people is not based on shared ancestral blood but on the blood of Christ, and, as a result, the hope of having children is not intrinsic to the Christian community (as demonstrated by its affirmation of celibacy). In Christ, procreation is no longer central. The resurrection changes everything. If there is no death, there is also no need for birth or marriage. Therefore, Jesus said that in heaven there is no marriage. This makes non-procreative covenant partnerships possible – with a focus on faithfulness, permanence and fruitfulness - as a third vocation (after marriage and celibacy).   

For me, this made connections with some of my thinking and reading during my sabbatical. On my sabbatical I visited lots of churches which were dedicated to Our Lady and, as a result, had thought rather more than usual about her significance for Christianity. Martin Jay in ‘Force Fields’ suggests that the monotheistic religions of Judaism and Christianity sought to replace “their mother-goddess predecessors with a stern patriarchal deity.” At times on my sabbatical the Protestant in me has wanted to argue that if that is so, the significance that Mary gained within Catholicism, in particular, could be seen as an attempt to redress the balance and reintroduce a mother-goddess to Christianity.

As a counter-balance, though, I’ve also seen a number of churches and chapels dedicated to St Joseph. At Aylesford Priory, where I had my first sabbatical retreat, St Joseph’s Chapel contains the following inscription: ‘The wise and faithful servant set over your family as guardian and fosterfather of Jesus Christ our Lord.’

One of the art books that I read during my sabbatical offers a different and more helpful perspective on the Virgin Birth and patriarchy which is, I think, closer to the subversive nature of Jesus’ words and actions. It seems to me that the significance of the argument which Thierry De Duve advances in ‘Re-Enchantment’ begins with the existence of two creation stories at the beginning of Genesis. In the first, men and women are created equal while in the other the woman is created by God from the man's rib as a help-meet to him and is named by him as well as taken in the context of marriage. The second story, therefore, institutes or confirms patriarchy. The primary purpose of patriarchy is to assure the man of the legitimacy of his offspring.

De Duve quotes Amelia Jones: “Patriarchy's investment in systems that ensure proof of authorial possession results from the necessity of overcoming male anxiety over the ultimate uncertainty of biological paternity. Although the woman always knows she is the mother - through her physical connection with the developing foetus - the man never knows for sure that he is the father, and thus has a high stake in maintaining a system by which he can claim paternal ‘ownership’.”

Genealogy plays a very important role in Patriarchial systems. The Ancestors of Christ windows at Canterbury Cathedral originally consisted of eighty-six life-sized seated patriarchs of the Old Testament, largely based on the list of names contained in the Gospel of St Luke (III, 23–28) and interpolated with additional names from the Gospel of St Matthew (I, 1–17). It was the largest known series of the genealogy of Christ in medieval art and the images represent his male biblical genealogy, beginning with Adam and coming forward to King David, from whom Mary and Joseph are said to descend. Matthew’s genealogy is, of course, strange in that it is traced through the ancestry of Joseph who, by virtue of the Virgin Birth, did not have a blood relationship to Jesus.

The anomaly of Jesus’ genealogy may highlight a different perspective i.e. that the Virgin Birth subverts patriarchy. Joseph is not the father and does not know whether Mary has slept with another man or not. The Joseph-based genealogy of Jesus is by adoption only. A different role is asked of Joseph from that of the Patriarch. As the inscription in the St Joseph’s Chapel at Aylesford Priory reads: ‘The wise and faithful servant set over your family as guardian and fosterfather of Jesus Christ our Lord.’

De Duve suggests: “The great invention, the great coup of Christianity, is to short-circuit all this [i.e. patriarchal ownership through genealogies] … the production line of sons is brought to a sudden halt … And the status of woman changes drastically … Virgin and mother, rather than virgin and then mother! and then mother-in-law, and then grandmother, and then old. This means that her function is no longer to take her place in the production line that fabricates sons. One Son is enough. He will have no offspring. He will save the world instead …”

Jesus' birth occurs outside of or at a tangent to the Patriarchal system. He is a man who doesn’t marry and who has no physical offspring - the furtherance of his 'seed' is of no interest to him. His emphasis is on his followers as his family, rather than his blood and adoptive relatives. His death is for the entire family of God - all people everywhere.

On the one hand, this seems a part of what it means that: “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away. Behold, the new has come.” Also, as St Paul suggests in his discussion of marriage, the new situation created by Christ means that it is better not to marry. Physical offspring is now less important than bringing people into the family of God and the make-up of that family takes us back to that first creation story as in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free; all are equal.

Putting De Duve and Song’s arguments together, therefore, suggests that both the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection subvert the patriarchal system and the necessity of creating physical offspring in families meaning that, in the present, relational and family structures in society can be diverse while in the future family of God, marriage is no longer necessary and equality will be the norm.


U2 - Ordinary Love.

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