Notes on The Church Impotent: Chapter 1

Chapter 1: Armies of Women

The thesis of this chapter is found in Podles’ first sentence: “Despite the constant complaints of feminists about the patriarchal tendencies of Christianity, men are largely absent from the Christian churches of the modern Western world”(3). The truth of this claim should be evident to any church-goer. Podles could have made this chapter into a monotonous series of statistically citations. However, he wisely decides to primarily build his case by citing pre-first wave feminism testimony from pastors and social commentators. This not only avoids the droning tone of similar works but also demonstrates that the feminization of Christianity has deep historical roots.

Podles captures the pervasive masculine attitude towards church in a quote from John K. White:

“A devastating criticism of Christianity is many men see it as not only irrelevant, but as effeminate. Words and phrases such as ‘unmanly,’ ‘for women and kids,’ ‘wimps,’ and ‘they can’t make it so they hide behind God’ are common.”

The effeminacy of Western Christianity, as Podles see it, is directly related to the effeminacy of its ministers:

  •  “…liberal Protestants ministers…had a reputation for being soft and working best with women.”
  • “…all [clergy] had to face ‘the popular stereotype that men of the cloth were neither male nor female” (4).
  • “As one layman put it, ‘life is a football game, with the men fighting it out on the gridiron, while the minister is up in the grandstand, explaining it to the ladies.’”
  • “Moreover, [ministers] were typically recruited from the ranks of weak, sickly boys with indoor tastes who stayed at home with their mothers and came to identify with the feminine world of religion.”
  • “Masculinity is vanquished in the congregation and, even more significantly, in the pulpit” (5).

The pews were mainly populated by women and the pulpits by womanish men. Consequently, in 1800s “the English identified weakness and femininity with saintliness.” Podles explains, “To be Christian, for the mid-Victorians, was to lack exuberant physical masculinity of the normal boy, to be weak, to be helpless, to be a victim” (6).

It is interesting that he moves from “victimhood” to the latent homosexuality of the Anglo-Catholics ministers. He says, “The whole atmosphere of Anglo-Catholicism, its preciosity, its fussiness, its concern for laces and cassocks and candles, struck the average Victorian (and later observers) as unmanly” (7). He points out that this tendency to have “weak masculinity” is still present among the Church of England to this very day. Not just there. Its everywhere.

He goes on to argue that this isn’t limited to a single nation but to the entirety of the West. In Spain, he writes that priests often have “been shielded from the harsh tests that other Spanish men have to undergo to prove their manhood.” According to Podles, studies reveal that “the more masculine the man, the less likely he is to be interested in religion, the more feminine the man, the more likely he is to be interested in religion” (8). The unmanly cleric isn’t just a stereotype. It is a cross-cultural reality in the West.

He spends a few pages demonstrating that according to every metric females are more “religious” than males. Only “less manly” men take a deep interest in Christianity. This is because “Christianity is especially associated with female spirituality” (10). One might think this is a fairly recent phenomenon. I know I did. To the contrary, Podles argues, “Nor is the feminization of Christianity a recent development: it goes back to pre-industrial times” (11).

Podles works backwards from Twentieth-Century America to Colonial America to prove his claim. This section was full of a lots stats that I won’t reproduce here. I will, however, provide few quotes from these pages I found noteworthy:

  • Young men were especially absence from the church in the 1920s. “Only some seven percent of the young men of the country are in the churches” (15).
  • “A 1902 New York Times Survey of church attendance in Manhattan showed that ’69 percent of Manhattan worshippers were women’” (16).
  • “The nineteenth century ministered moved in a world of women. He preached largely for women; he administered what sacraments he preformed largely for women; he worked not only for them but with them, in mission and charity work of all kinds.”
  • “In one Presbyterian church, ‘prior to 1814, 70 percent of those admitted to full communion in the society were females’” (17).
  • “In 1792, “southern women outnumbered southern men in the churches (65 to 35) though men outnumbered women in the general population (51.5 to 48.5)” (18).
  • Cotton Mather, the colonial preacher, said: “I have seen it without going a Mile from home, That in a Church of Three or Four Hundred Communicants, there are but a few more than One Hundred Men, all the Rest are Women, of whom Charity will Think no Evil.”

Podles notes that revivals were mainly a feminine-fueled movement. These movements, through female pressure, did temporarily increase the number of men in the church but made men resent the church. He writes:

“Female zeal later found outlets in such crusades as the temperance movement, in which female church members allied with ministers to conquer male vices, to the continued annoyance of men, who chafed under the reins of the alliance of women and the clergy” (19).

Podles labors to show what has been true in America also was true in the European countries. He says, “Wherever Western Christianity has spread, the church is feminized.” Missionaries seem to have carried this problem with them to Korea, India, and the Philippines (26).

He concludes the chapter by bluntly stating the dilemma in which the West finds itself:

“There is something about Christianity, especially Western Christianity, that drives a wedge between the church and men who want to be masculine” (26).

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