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Della Robbia, Madonna and Child

exuality may be a blessing - or it may be a bane. We are one of the three Peoples of the Book, Judaism, Christianity and Islam being based on the Bible, and thus have an ancient written history behind us, and hopefully a splendid one before us. Yet we may have inherited distortions which can now be tearing us apart - or tearing our Christian churches apart. Besides our religion borrowed from Jerusalem we have also borrowed philosophy from pagan Athens. Christianity had its birth in the Roman, Hellenised Empire. It was the religion of 'women and slaves', but Paul preached in Hellenistic cities such as Corinth where women could not speak in public, and trimmed his sail and epistle accordingly (1 Corinthians 14.34-35). In classical Greece romantic love was exalted between men, but not for women, who were regarded as less than slaves and kept rigorously housebound, while boys were protected from pederasts by being accompanied to and from school by pedagogues, who were slaves. Later Christian writers, such as Aelred of Reivaulx, leaning back in this direction had to single out the love of Jonathan for David, as 'above that of women'. Pagan philosophers desired to be solitary and free from the burdens of sexuality in marriage. Celibate Christian hermits followed suit. But paradoxically among their number were such sturdy women saints as Pelagia, Marina, Cecilia , and many others. We hear their names in the Mass, Saints Agatha, Agnes , Anastasia, Cecilia and more.

Before Christianity in Rome, in contradistinction to Greece, however, women like Lucretia could express great love for their husbands and be honoured for doing so. Pompeian frescoes and Egyptian paintings show Roman wives and their husbands, both with writing implements, styli to their lips, casting up their household accounts, as spousal equals. Paul, himself a combination of Jew, Greek and Roman, by religion, education, and citizenship, was to give expression to these sexual contradictions in his Epistles and thus shape Christian theology. It was his Jewish and Roman cultural backgrounds which shaped Canon Law on spouses equally owing to one another the 'marriage debt'. Christianity's Jewish and Roman strands honoured women and marriage, but its pagan Greek strand, still very much with us today, tends instead to denigrate her and to despise spousal contact as inferior to that between men.

In early Christianity through the early Middle Ages - for twelve hundred years - the role of women in the Church was of respect and authority, as virgins, wives, widows. That held until the rise of the Universities, which monopolised the authorising of theological study but whose model was pagan and specifically Greco-Arab, deriving from two cultures which rigorously separated men from women, allowing the men a public presence, the women only a private one. Women, from the twelfth century until the twentieth, could not be present in the lecture halls where theology was shaped, and with it, culture. At that same time, in the twelfth century, a paradigm shift occurred from the romantic love between men only of Athenian culture to romantic love between men and women outside of marriage, in adulterous relationships, as in the rewriting of the Arthurian legends, in European culture. In both forms, Athenian, Arthurian, this romantic love was seen as deeply bonding, yet as not correct and needing hiddenness, thus creating a 'double standard'. Both forms of 'romantic' love undermine the family, the equality of women with men, and can gravely damage children with the traumas of pedophilia and broken homes.

In Judaeo-Christianity, Anna the widowed prophetess had lived in the Temple to the age of eighty-four (Luke 2.36-38); Mary (whom Joseph almost divorced, Matthew 1.19), had been publicly at the Presentation in Jerusalem's Temple (Luke 2.22-39), returning there each year (Luke 2.41-50), and she found Jesus with the Temple Doctors (Luke 2.46-49), she was at the Marriage in Cana (John 2.1), she was among the crowd at Galilee (Luke 8.20), she was at Calvary's Crucifixion (John 19.25-27) and at the Pentecost (Acts 1.14, 2.1). Jesus' miracles were performed largely to women, children, slaves, cripples, lepers. Jesus and his disciples were supported by women (Luke 8.3); the disciples met in the house of John Mark's widowed mother (Acts 12.12); Paul wrote to Timothy speaking of the consecrated widows of the Church (1 Timothy 5.9-16), and often referred to women in important positions in the Church in his Epistles, sending messages to them as well as to men. Mary Magdalen, in the legend about her as a hermit, preached in Provence; Cecilia, in her legend choosing chastity on her marriage night and giving her house in Rome to the Church, likewise preached the three days she was dying. Nuns preceded monks in early Christianity. We can witness the Christian debate concerning women and men, sexuality and chastity, in the Letters of Jerome and in those of Abelard, written to such women as Paula, Eustochium and Heloise. Boniface and Lioba likewise use the model of Jerome and Paula - but do so with such equality and serenity - a gift of their English form of double monasticism, with both genders present, with women as Abbesses, the universities not yet invented.

However, from the twelfth century on, nuns in convents ceased to be able to learn Latin, internalising the sense of inferiority men, trained in the gender-apartheid of the new-founded universities, expressed towards women's lack of education. More serious problems have recently come about. Marriage itself, in our own century, instead of being a blessed sacrament for life, has come to be seen as fragile and, rather than being a bond, as bondage. Nature is prodigal and of infinite variety. We each contain both genders. Our sexuality is that of God within each of us, and it is of the love we owe to God and our neighbour. Yet Culture is now especially exaggerating gender formation away from the pairing of men and women as equals but opposites in love and respect. We seem to be returning to pagan Athens and Lesbos rather than basing ourselves upon Christian Jerusalem in our sexual mores. No one seems quite to understand why these problems may have arisen. Or of the churches' share in them.

These are problems today:

haucer has his ideal Parson say 'If gold shall rust what then shall iron do?' In Protestant theological programmes for ordinands who may marry it can be expressed openly that marriage is a hindrance rather than a help and that the wife is expendable. (This was said in a committee of clergy in the hearing of a Anglican nun, tutor to a woman ordinand who is married with five daughters.) But surely where marriage is permitted to clergy, as in early Christianity and in modern Protestantism, such marriages should be as exemplars to their flocks? Meanwhile Protestant sects are being asked to ordain practising homosexuals and to sanction marriages of same-sex couples. In religious communities, whose members make vows of chastity, sexuality has sometimes been misdirected towards non-consenting persons. (It would be preferable for the perpetrators to request that their bishops release them from their vows and return them to the laity, where they could accept the consequences of their acts.) Secular priests have also carried out such practices and been then protected by church hierarchies - but the victims left to fend for themselves. Alcoholics Anonymous meetings too frequently are told by their participants of their loss of faith - and the beginning of their alcoholism - where a member of the clergy had sexually abused them in childhood or later. Every person is a 'holy place'.

Methodists have charitably decided to ordain homosexual ministers but with the wise stipulation that they not practice their homosexuality. Catholic Canon Law, based upon Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians 7.3-6, sees marriage vows as more binding and sacred than those of monastic chastity and likewise, from that text, mandates for both man and woman equal sexual rights within that marriage. Sexuality with love in a marriage of equals but opposites is sacred, indeed a Sacrament, for marriage is an Order. But where it is imposed upon another lovelessly, outside a marriage and as an act of power, in a hierarchy of rank or age, in whatever gender combination, it shatters the souls of both individuals and is profoundly selfish. It is particularly devastating where it is done by one who represents the teaching of God and whom the other is bound to respect and trust.

These may be the solutions:

he restoration of the theology of the marriage sacrament as the voluntary bonding between Christ and his Church will need the equal participation by women with men in a dialogue at all levels, in university and other ordination programmes in theology, in the hierarchies of the churches, in the parishes, and in the marriages themselves. It will take time to undo the damage wrought by the pagan Greco-Arabic model of male-only theological discourse adopted by the Latin Christian West for the last six hundred years. But which is now intensifying its antithesis to Christianity's thesis of sexual equality. Then, perhaps, a peaceable synthesis can take place. Such a paradigm should honour first married love, and the resulting family, then celibacy, admiring the God-given stuff of love in us, but not exploitive sexuality. In the meanwhile, can we afford more broken single-parent families whose children will continue such cycles of poverty and despair? These are the widows and orphans the Early Church cared for deeply. In Greece and in the Arabian desert the denigration of women may have been because of the need to limit population, Athens, for example, not having the resources to feed a large population due to its poor ecology. But once this pagan pattern is emmeshed in Christian education and religion, religion deeply hurts itself. Today, women and children have again become like 'discardables'. Falconer Madan, himself in 1893 embedded within the structure of a then male-only Christian university, wrote that the earliest surviving Greek papyrus was a pagan curse on a father of a dead daughter by the mother, Artemisia, left without a penny to bury her.

Another aspect is Christianity's paradigm of the Holy Family in devotional art. Anthropologists working in Spain when the bottle feeding of babies was introduced by the American AID Program found that the statues of the Madonna and Child in the churches were being covered up, since human lactation, which is best for the child's nutrition and health - and for the biological spacing of children in the family and thus for the mother's health as well - is now considered obscene. Protestants, whose Christianity is deeply contaminated by Greek Platonism and its distaste for the human body, having also adopted the Hebraic condemnation of images, for centuries have been barred from this message of the Mediterranean Mother and Child. But now even Catholics are succumbing to the loss of the sacred icon of the family, to be replaced by those of commercial pornographic sexuality on billboards and in glossy magazines, on television and on the Internet. Catholic Florence's birth-rate is almost the lowest in Europe. Today's consumerism has thus deeply interfered with the position of women and children, damaging even their most natural relationship to each other. We are, biologically, mammalian.

The advertising for bottle-feeding has been particularly devastating in Third World countries where families cannot afford adequate supplies of formula and the fuel needed to sterilise unclean water and bottles. The single factor that increases life-expectancy and reduces infant mortality in Third World countries is women's entry into education and dignity. We need to revive the Church's more natural and life-giving art and bring it into our own time. Instead, what icons we have today are fashionably borrowed from the archaic Byzantine past, shaped by the Greek distaste for the Word become flesh, distancing women and children further from love. Preceding these had been mass-produced plaster statues. Instead, we need those created in the Renaissance, the Middle Ages, showing Epiphanies of real women, real babies, the Virgin and Christ in our midst, dwelling amongst us. Emmanuel.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Madonna and Child

Most Protestant churches now ordain women. Paradoxically, parts of these churches oppose the presence of women at the altar or of girls in cathedral choirs. But in Catholicism worldwide one can be present at Mass where children of both genders gather around the altar for the Consecration and where women read the Lessons and give the Prayers of the People and administer the Host as Eucharistic Ministers. This inclusiveness is true to the earlier Christianity of 'neither male nor female' (Galatians 3.28). New monastic practices, such as at Buckfast Abbey in Devon and the Jerusalem Community in Paris, returned to the double monasticism of St Hilda's Anglo-Saxon Whitby , both genders being present at the Offices. These practices are an excellent safeguard against sexual abuse and ideal for priestly formation. The vow of celibacy must be made with the whole heart, not abusing the trust the laity have in it with any 'double standard'. The ideal is the life of perfection lived out unselfishly on the laity's behalf, exemplifying to the utmost the love of God and one's neighbour. While the corruption of the best is the worst.

For solutions, we can look into our past, which continues alongside us, as well as into our future. We can find solutions in the oldest People of the Book. In Judaism, sexuality in marriage is held to be sacred. Christianity was the 'world-upside-down'. So is Judaism. It is the woman who begins the Sabbath by blessing the candles with her prayer to God 'Blessed art thou , O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who hast sanctified us by Thy Commandments, and commanded us to kindle the Sabbath light'. Mary would have done this. It is the child who begins the Passover by asking the question of the assembled family and guests. Jesus did this, asking questions of the Doctors of the Temple (Luke 2.46-49). The child and the elder are equal in synagogue worship.The bridegroom of the household meanwhile had been greeted with 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord' (Psalm 118.26, Luke 19.38), as was Jesus on Palm Sunday. Then it is the father of the family who - like Melchisadek, the peaceable priest king of agricultural Canaan, to Abraham, the nomadic Hebrew - blesses and gives the wine and the bread of the Sabbath Eve and at the Passover. 'Blessed art thou, O Lord, King of the Universe, Who createst the fruit of the vine, Who bringest forth bread from the earth, with the labour of human hands,' as did Jesus on Maundy Thursday (Luke 22.18). The Sabbath is seen as the sacred act of sex between God and his Creation. The Sabbath is greeted as God's Bride. Judaism is centred upon the Sabbath and upon the family as holy.

Sources and Materials

Mary Anne MacPherson Oliver has written a book on the need to revision and reawake Christianity's original sense of sexuality in marriage as blessing, not bane, in Conjugal Spirituality: The Primacy of Mutual Love in Christian Tradition (Sheed and Ward, 1994). To which, now having left the Church of England for that of Rome, I should like to recommend also Anne R. Lastman, Redeeming Grief. For a study of Wisdom in Judaism, see Asphodel P. Long, In A Chariot Drawn by Lions (London: Women's Press,1992). For women in the Scriptures, see Katherine C. Bushnell, God's Word to Women (1923, republished, Box 147, North Collins, NY: Ray B. Munson). For Christianity's absorption of the celibate philosopher model, see Helen Waddell, The Desert Fathers (who include Desert Mothers); The Letters of Jerome (Loeb Classics); The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, edited by Betty Radice (Harmondsworth: Penguin); Prudence Allen, R.S.M., The Concept of Woman: The Aristotelian Revolution, 750 B.C.-A.D. 1250 (Montreal: Eden Press, 1985); and Equally in God's Image: Women in the Middle Ages, edited by Julia Bolton Holloway, Joan Bechtold and Constance S. Wright (Berne: Peter Lang, 1990), on the gender apartheid caused by the adoption of the pagan pattern of the University by the Latin Christian West. Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa similarly drew the parallel between apartheid in race and in gender at the time of the controversy concerning women's Ordination to the Priesthood in the Church of England, and the Head Rabbi in England, Jonathan Sacks, simultaneously noted that women's acceptance as Rabbis had proved beneficial rather than otherwise. John Paul II in 1988 spoke of women as of the 'Royal Priesthood' in Mulieris Dignitatem. This essay is not arguing for the ordained priesting of women; it is asking for women's inclusion in education, in marriage, in the Church, in fulfilment of our Baptismal Vows, eschewing the World and the Flesh and obeying God and the Commandments.

Yet perhaps the best documents for the argument of this essay are Jan Van Eyck's 'Marriage of Jan Arnolfini', and the Van Eycks' Ghent Altarpiece of the 'Marriage of the Mystic Lamb'. Before these two paintings, the one privately celebrating the Sacrament of Marriage, the other publicly, that of the Mass, we take off our shoes, entering into holiness, into the Shekinah, into the presence of God.

See also the web essay by Kenneth Rexroth on 'The Hasidism of Martin Buber':,

our own,

and Pope Benedict's Encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, on the Vatican Website:


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