Thursday, June 02, 2016

"Where are you going, where have you been?"

Where's all the lady people? 

Here we go again, and with apologies to Joyce Carol Oates, but first, having served churches in the late 20th century, and worked in others into the 21st century, let me say we shouldn't be too quick to dismiss the decline in attendance by women as a factor of being very, very busy.

Haven't all the sociological studies shown that women are working more than men?  That they are still expected to be caretakers and housekeepers and cooks and maids and nannies, as well as bring home the bacon?  I don't think that's really changed all that much, has it?  Because popular culture still treats women as sex objects (which popular culture critics tell me I'm supposed to respect as giving them sexual agency, and despise as treating them like objects), and still treats men as natural leaders (much of the disrespect Hillary gets is little different from that meted out to Obama, albeit for different surface reasons.  If Hillary's tough she's heartless and cold, if she laughs she's shrill, if she loves her daughter, she's weak and feminine.  Obama is too "cool," too "no-drama," but if he were more emotional, he'd be the classic scary black man who is out of control.  You know the drill.).  Anyway, nothing has really changed for women in this society, and I remember from my time in the pulpit how many demands on Sunday morning there were which didn't exist when I was a kid and the whole town closed for Sunday.  Not only are stores open (some people do work, especially women, at retail jobs), but for the white collar Moms there's soccer/field hockey/you name it games to attend on Sunday morning.  Or it's the one day you can even try to sleep in, or go out for brunch, or not have to be somewhere before noon.

The claims on our time are myriad, and the societal demand that "du muss gehen" (sorry, can't manage the German double-s on this machine), which was very German but also very American in my childhood, is all but gone.  Truth is more people went to church for that reason than any other, and attendance after World War II skyrocketed (which was its own kind of social expectation), only to fall off and then rise again (as Miller notes) and then sag again.  Pick your place on the graph line, and draw your conclusions from the limited perspective you prefer to slice up:  context is all, except in this context.

So there are lots of reasons people are leaving the church, and I don't think it has all that much to do with Pope Benedict (because, surprise!  Not all Christians in America are Catholics!) or with women not feeling welcome.

Well, probably the latter.  Oddly, church and Biblical scholarship has been transformed by women and their perspectives; but that has yet to trickle down to the pews, where most members are still catching up with German scholarship from the 19th century (that set off a bomb in American religious culture in the early 20th that still obscures the usefulness of insights from the 19th).  Biblical scholarship from the 20th century, especially feminist scholarship, is still considered highly rarified and radioactive (in the metaphorical sense).  It would do a great deal of good in at least many Protestant denominations, but it can't get a hearing.

Mostly because, as I say, we've always done it this way, even when we stopped doing it that way 50 years ago.  Or 150 years ago, in some cases.  Except we didn't really stop, and, as I say, our common religious culture was shaped more by the reaction to German biblical scholarship than by the teaching of it.  One reason we still have trouble teaching it, a century and a half later.

And yes, there was the fusion of religion and politics with Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority, and the anti-abortion movement making common cause with the U.S. Catholic Bishops (or maybe it trickled up to them later), but correlation is not necessarily causation.  I suspect it was far easier to drift away (especially since attendance in churches rose in the '80's; who was going so often?  Children?) than it is to stake your rejection of church on current events.  Most of us just don't work that way.  We stop doing things because we are no longer interested, because it is no longer part of our life; or maybe even because the church has changed too much, and there is too little of our common life to be found there.

Church has become the domain of the elderly; just as it was in my childhood, when my parents seemed elderly (especially when I was in high school).  It is run by old people for old people and, again, who has time for that?  Who lives like their mother did, especially if their mother was a housewife in the '60's (a role almost as fabulous and unbelievable as a medieval anchorite).

And besides, if the men are leaving, why should the women stay?

I don't mean to be glib, but why attend church?  Working women today have full, busy lives; church is one more demand on their time.  Who cooks at home, much less cooks meals for the church supper, or the gathering after the funeral service for a church member?  Can you imagine anyone under 60 doing that today?  And why should women be tasked with it?  Yet, at most churches, that would be the expectation, even in the most liberal churches I know.  "What life have you if you have not life together?," but what life together does the church really offer?  After working 50 hours a week, my wife has her weekend full with chores that can't be done during the week (grocery shopping, errands, matters she does at home while I do others).  Church is more a burden than a blessing, more another commitment to another set of people, and she already has commitments at work and to family that keep her busier than she wants to be.

Who would add to that?  Especially when the church of our childhoods seems to be a fairy tale, a child's dream, a memory from a favorite book that was itself ideal and not reality.  I dunno; I can think of several reasons not to attend church, and most of them don't have to do with whether we are less religious now than we were before; but rather with, were we really all that religious before?


  1. My favorite scene from "Chariots of Fire" is the one where Eric Liddel is leaving the wee kirk in the heather and a soccer ball comes bouncing across his path. He pauses, picks it up, turns to the sheepish lad who was obviously chasing it and says, sternly but gently, "Sabbath's not for playing football, is it?"

    A different world.

  2. It's not only church that is seeing a decline in participation, lots of older organizations that had meetings every month or more than once a month, groups that made some demand on the time and efforts of members are also having a hard time attracting and keeping members. I can count two or three such groups that have gone out of existence in my small town over the past few years and there are probably others that I don't know about.

    On the other hand, I recently found out there is an actual meetings scheduled, dues paying group that gets together to play pool that, so far as I can tell, doesn't have that problem and another group of my sisters' graduating class mates who have been gathering regularly for breakfast for years and years. I suspect one of the differences is that most religious denominations actually ask people to do something they might not find entertaining.

    I suspect the future of Christianity will like largely in less formal and larger gatherings, though I can't think of Christianity apart from interaction with other people, including appeals to others to take up the Gospel and the Law.

    I think the alleged growth in "secularism" what most of those who are making such claims really mean to be atheism, is that it is a bullying in-group of people who believe they are superior to most people. There is an appeal in such groups that pander to peoples' weaknesses that Christianity where the last and lowest will be first can't match.