Toxic Masculinity & Our Use of Pronouns

by the Revd Canon Rosie Harper, Chaplain to the Bishop of Buckingham

Rosie Haarper

Archbishop Justin has some gay friends. He knows them and likes them, and indeed he thinks their relationships are fabulous. So it’s not personal. There is however a way of treating gay people in the Church which has been normalised. There is a level of emotional, spiritual a and verbal abuse which is woven into the fabric of the institution. It  almost feels as if there is a fault line in human nature which cannot be changed. The latest flurry over “Living in Love and Faith” (aka the Teaching Document), we hear, is about the fact it is all happening on the condition that the status quo is upheld.

Well, I’m feeling the same about men!

I know some fabulous men. People I admire, respect and love as individuals. This week however, has left me thinking that gender wars are at the root of most of the evil in the world. I am experiencing a sort of despair. There has been a perfect storm.

I  really struggled with my reaction to the unfolding story in America around the appointment of Judge Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Virtually everyone knows that Christine Blasey Ford is telling the truth, but they still went ahead and appointed Kavanaugh.

In a way we are familiar with the politicalisation  of patriarchy in the Republican Party. What dug the knife in though was the role of the Conservative Christian lobby.

As an email I received from Faith America on October 7th usefully summarised:

‘Franklin Graham said attempted rape was “not relevant.

Jerry Falwell Jr. bussed hundreds of Liberty University students to Capitol Hill to rally in support of Kavanaugh as Christine Blasey Ford testified.

An official at Catholic University tweeted that one of Kavanaugh’s accusers should be treated as a “perp,” not a victim.

If you want to understand why Republicans are voting lockstep to confirm Brett Kavanaugh, look no further than the religious right.

For decades conservatives having been telling Christians to vote Republican because of sexual morality. It’s time to end the charade.’

There is a not a calm, measured way to react to this stuff. I’m sorry, but it makes me want to vomit.

In case you think it’s just Christians, The Times reported (8/10/2019) that Amazon has a scheme that supports the extremist Muslim cleric Haritha al Haddad who condones child marriage, FGM, and stoning people for adultery. He naturally believes that women should remain in the home and not have independence or complain when their husbands beat them.

Ironically in the same edition of the paper there is a report on research that shows that the quality and quantity of men’s sperm is falling so rapidly that were it to continue the future of the human race would be in doubt. Too many pies it seems!

Does it HAVE to be like this?

Is this actually what the story of Genesis is all about? Are we being given an insight into the root cause of so much of our cruelty and suffering?

What most women experience is that “toxic masculinity” has invaded our families , our workplaces, our schools, our politics  and our churches. Patriarchal ideologies are the norm. The Church has been horribly silent in the face of violence and abuse against women. We don’t talk about it even though in our congregations there will be many, some say 87% of women who have experienced some form of harassment, and one in 6 who have been the victim of rape or attempted rape.

Why? Why when our message is about love and transformation and healing, is the Church not the one place where things are different? The one place where we can model a way of justice and equality. It’s all in the bible after all.

Deep breath. But I’m going to say it……

It’s because “God is male”.

At the deepest level we have chosen to create an image of God which colludes with the toxicity of male dominance. So much religious language is violent. It is about heroic leadership, Kingship, subjection, dominance. It’s about who wins and who looses. It’s about punishment and reward. There are wars, physical and spiritual. Every level of oppressive patriarchy is right there in our holy text.

Of course I hear our feminist theologians. You don’t have to read it that way, but we do. Instead of turning the script on it’s head we use it to reinforce male dominance at every turn.

This is about so much more than making a few women bishops. This asks us all if there is a way in which Christianity can be so counter-cultural that inhabits a universe that is free form gender war at every level.

To even begin to make that happen we need to talk about pronouns.

While God goes on being caricatured as ‘he’ the conversation cannot even begin.











This entry was posted in Human Sexuality, Rosie Harper, Sexism. Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to Toxic Masculinity & Our Use of Pronouns

  1. iveson47 says:

    When I see that the Episcopal Church is going to rewrite their prayer book to use inclusive language I’m glad I will have passed away by then.Give me traditional language and traditionalist theology.


    • kevinwscott says:

      Uhu? So God really is male then? So that makes me more like God than a woman can ever be?
      Glad I’ve got that straight now.


      • chris russell says:

        According to Karl Barth, masculinity is a theological category. Be that as it may, we have it that “God really is male” according to the biblical Christ. If you find this unacceptable, you could look for a new religion such as one that doesn’t discriminate, or perhaps you could continue in a formerly Christian church eg. the Episcopal Church.


      • Andii says:

        Much though I like Karl Barth for many things, the deified masculinity thing is not something to take straightforwardly and one has to wonder whether it is not also true, if Barth is taken seriously on this, that femininity is also a theological category. ‘in the image of God … Male *and* female…” is the relevant biblical quote here.


  2. Brenda Wallace says:

    Well written! Keep on fighting! But what a shame it has to be such a battle to overcome this innate sexism in our Christian faith – which is contrary to the teaching of Jesus, and indeed contrary to St. Paul, although many think otherwise.

    Liked by 1 person

    • chris russell says:

      Brenda, we may need to accept that the sacred writings of our ancient faith are sexist and homophobic i.e. in the modern sense. If we believe that Scripture is normative for the Christian life, we may have to repudiate Christ if our moral compass is now defined by different standards. It may be a difficult choice to make, but there is no point pretending that we are not making it.


  3. Gareth Lloyd says:

    Excellent piece Rosie, well argued and timely. Sadly, also very necessary (as your first comment shows!)
    Give me the radically untraditional theology and life of Jesus, full of grace and truth …

    Liked by 1 person

  4. David Payne says:

    In my confirmation class back in 1963 we were asked by our priest how could a girl who had been sexually abused by her father could pray the Lord’s Prayer? The answer given was that as God is she could rightly pray “Our Mother in Heaven…”

    I personally do not find this totally acceptable but if it is helpful to the individual, then I do not object.

    However, I accept that our understanding of God is constrained by our language and culture. God is neither male nor female and my, and others, understanding of the world and creation is far removed from that recorded in either the Hebrew or New Testament accounts.
    Imagery found in art and our churches and Cathedrals tends to support and promote a ‘traditional’ and historical portrayal of both God and Jesus which I find unhelpful.

    God is beyond definition, God is Spirit.

    Christianity has, and is being, abused, often for political purposes. Remember Jesus did not die as a Christian. He did not found a new religion. He wanted to reform and develop prevailing religous thought and apply it to everyday practical living.


  5. Ian Tulloch says:

    So how do we deal with the feminine aspects of God ?
    “Our Mother who art in heaven” ?

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Payne says:

      Within holy scripture aspects of God can be determined as both masculine and feminine.

      Whether we describe ourselves as male or female we all, to various degrees, have traits of the opposite gender. God is neither male or female but genderless.

      We often refer to Mother Earth, but we know that our planet Is neither male or female.
      Some folk refer to their cars as ‘she’ but cars are genderless.

      So, if some folk find it helpful to refer to God as ‘Mother’ then let them. I’m sure God doesn’t worry how we refer to him/her/thy/it

      The traditional ‘Father’ reference to the Godhead can sometimes seem a bit distant and detached. In the modern liturgy of the Church in Wales the Lord’s Prayer petition translates as ‘Our Dad in Heaven” indicating a closer loving relationship.

      An inclusive, radical, and loving approach embraces and acknowledges all aspects and descriptions,and surpasses constraints of language in our corporate worship and personal relationship with the ‘oneness’ of God.


  6. Richard Lamey says:

    This is a challenging and thoughtful article let down by the aside about male infertility. You treat what is often a personal tragedy as something laughable, as if masculinity ties in only with the ability to make babies. I have spoken to enough couples who couldn’t conceive to know how painful and difficult this is. When a couple come to talk to you about their sadness, I hope you say more than “Your fault for eating too many pies.” (If nothing else it is often a deep sadness for women as well as men.)


    • Kirstin says:

      Isn’t it strange how a man picks up on a comment, backed up by the article referred to, and diverts the topic away from how women are treated to how men are being treated.
      I am sorry Richard, maybe you are not aware what you have just done, but you have done it.
      The way women are treated is a personal tragedy, the language used is deeply harmful, the way some men react when women speak out it destructive and extremely unhelpful to anyone, male or female.
      You are using the language of the person who blames the women’s clothing for being raped, the woman’s possibility of getting pregnant fot not getting a promotion, a women’s choice of words as a symbol of her being less than you, a man are.
      The article clearly says, did you read it, that bad diet is a factor in low sperm count. To suggest for one second Rosie might say that to an infertile couple is utterly outrageous.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Opinion – 10 October 2018 – Thinking Anglicans

  8. Esther says:

    Yes, yes, yes.
    Thank you Rosie. This gives me hope.


  9. Kirstin says:

    The language we use for God, including but not exclusive to male pronoun and masculine toxicity, is in my opinion the churches biggest millstone.


  10. Sylvia Earle says:

    Yesterday two 12 year old boys at Confirmation preparation asked me if God was male, female or gender neutral. They questioned the default use of ‘he’ . We had a discussion about reducing God to human terms and the historic assumptions equating power and authority with with masculinity.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Ken says:

    Whether God is a he depends on what your religion is based on. The original Hebrew and Greek of the JudeoChristian bible uses a male pronoun to refer to God. If you disagree with the Bible, that is your well-deserved right. However, this argument does not really address how one group of people (male) treat another group of people (female). The Bible does not teach men to mistreat women. They figured that out on their own. In fact the Bible teaches respect and submission to each other (both sexes, both ways).
    It seems a better question in today’s society would be is there such thing as gender. If a person can be anywhere along the “gender” spectrum, including fluid, then the Bible is irrelevant. That means there is no absolutes. Therefore “I” can choose whatever “I” want to believe and do whether “you” like it or not.
    In the Bible, we are told of several incidents where the devil misquoted or twisted scripture to deceive someone and lead them into something God never intended. Why would that be any different today? The Bible teaches that every human being is responsible for their own actions. That means men are, and have always been, responsible for their actions. So are women.
    I believe there are two other culprits, different from what the author says. The first is “might makes right”. Most men tend to be physically stronger than women, and also seem to be better at intimidation. Their “might” has been used throughout history to make them “right”. That idea has always been a lie that’s used as truth.
    Then we have the hero Hugh Hefner who fathered the modern pornography problem. He used sexuality to make money. Hefner had sex with a teenager or early twenty-something every night for his entire long life, (even after he got married). Yet the world idolized him to the tune of several billions dollars. Not only has pornography overrun the globe, so has all versions of sexuality. And the more someone pays attention to something, the stronger it gets in their life.
    Are you sure you want to blame God for how humans act?


    • When scripture is translated into, say Basque or Turkish, is it being untrue to the Bible to simply use the gender-neutral third person pronoun those languages (and Chinese etc) have as normal, or should be be insisting that there is a ‘properly gendered’ version or gloss invented in order to convey the Bible’s original language more correctly?


      • Ken says:

        Being unfamiliar with those languages I am not able to accurately answer that question. However, I can say that everything a Christian believes is based entirely on the Hebrew and Greek scriptures. Yes, I know not everyone agrees with that statement. But without the written Word of God, we can each make up our own version of religion.
        I honestly don’t care about gender in reference to God. God is so high above me that I cannot imagine a gender. But if God references himself with male pronouns in his word, then I should pay attention and try to find out why. It’s not hard to fathom that the male pronoun was preferred because of the paternal social order (as the author does in the article). But that is not enough to supply an answer. The Bible is so poetic and descriptive and analogous and literal that we find “new” things in it everyday. Again, the question becomes, “Do you accept the Bible as the written word of God, or just men’s interpretation of what God said?” So your choice is to make up your own religion or accept what was written and try to understand it.


      • andiibowsher says:

        Ken responded to this -but there’s no button to reply directly to his (?) response. I’m not quite sure where your response was going, Ken.
        I was making a reductio argument about gender pronouns. At the level we’re pitching in, you don’t need to know the languages concerned as the principle is clear enough, I think, from what I’ve written (and incidentally, I might have added Mandarin to the list). If you think that the masc. pronoun is so important in scripture, then it would surely be important to find a work-around in gender neutral-pronominal languages to re-emphasise the masculinity. But, I note that you suggest that perhaps a big part of the masc.pronoun usage is actually about cultural/linguistic background and is a kind of ‘incidental’ matter at that level.
        You also, rightly imo, note that God is ‘bigger’ than our conceptions of gender -and this is precisely the point. Add those observations to the verse in Gn.1 about the image of God which is glossed in the text ‘male and female he created them’ clearly both male and female image God -and that latter observation then helps us to make theological sense of those points in scripture when God’s (self-) description breaks gender stereotypes.


  12. unholyjoe says:

    “Virtually everyone knows that Christine Blasey Ford is telling the truth, but they still went ahead and appointed Kavanaugh.” That is a flat-out lie. Polls show the US public, for example, to be pretty evenly split on the issue.

    “This week however, has left me thinking that gender wars are at the root of most of the evil in the world.” And there I was thinking that it had something to do with the love of money. Clearly God didn’t have her [sic] head screwed on when she inspired that bit of the Good Book. Perhaps she had a headache. Or it was the time of the month.

    You really should be prosecuted for fraudulent misrepresentation – claiming to be a Christian so that you can take the little old ladies’ tithes to put bread on your table.


    • andiibowsher says:

      Maybe not so quick to judgement, unholyjoe? Maybe it’s not a lie, maybe an honest mistake? And In any case since Rosie is in the UK, perhaps UK polls might be more relevant? So, maybe, she might even be right when a wider sample is taken?
      Love, in 1 Cor.13, would seem to involve being not quick to assume bad faith or ill will. And if loving “enemies” might be purposed, at least in part, to helping them to change their minds, then will your tone and uncharitable assumptions here do that trick?
      Can I suggest, too, that you have a closer look again at the wording of 1 Timothy 6:10? -you might just want to tweak your sarcasm a bit. And while we’re at it, I’m wondering whether sarcasm is loving -maybe it could be but I’m not sure it comes over so here.
      I’m also a little concerned that you have assumed a state of affairs with regard to finance which may not apply. It’s a nice piece of rhetoric but it does only really work if that were the truth of the matter. I suspect it is not.
      Could you frame your criticisms and irritation in a way that could do two things? One reach out to your opponent with the possibility of forming a dialogue which could change minds? Two would be (and integral to the first) not to start by assuming what is not yet proven -that your ‘opponent’ is entirely wrong and is not trying to follow Christ.


      • unholyjoe says:

        I am not aware of any polls on UK attitudes to Kavanaugh – unsurprisingly, all or most seem to be have been conducted in the US. I seriously doubt Harper has any more insight into UK opinions on the matter than the average Joe. In any case, if she has paid any attention to the story at all, she will be aware of views in the US.

        Harper ought also to be aware of very serious problems with both Ford’s evidence and the manner in which the allegations were handled by senior members of the Democratic Party. It had all the hallmarks of a witch-hunt from start to finish – nothing to do with truth, justice or decency but purely the pursuit of power by evil people. This is all available on the web, if you are sufficiently interested and open-minded.

        As for “criticisms and irritation” – the last time I looked in the Bible they both applied to God and Jesus on occasion. So I am in good company. And, again, you might find it fruitful to discuss them with Harper.



      • unholyjoe says:

        Oh, one final thing that I nearly forgot. One of the other Kavanaugh accusers (you know, the women used as corroboration to prove that there really is “no smoke without fire” and that he is definitely a bad ‘un) has now been backed into a corner where she has been forced to admit the whole of her claims was a fabrication. I believe that she is being referred for prosecution.

        But I bet you won’t see that splashed over the media. Or picked up by the likes of Harper and exhibited as a matter for regret at the injustice and abuse.


      • andiibowsher says:

        I think I’ll let readers decide whether you engaged with my substantive points or avoided them, unholyjoe. I think you avoided them and missed the important bit that came with the ‘criticism and irritation’ remark. I think it is clear where your interest lies here -not in the same zone as the discipleship matters I’ve mentioned.


      • unholyjoe says:

        Since the system does not let me reply to your new comment, I shall reply here.

        I did engage with your substantive points, in particular the lie vs. mistake part. Unfortunately that entire paragraph was removed by the moderator (note the “EDITED”). I am not sure why; for example, it did not seem defamatory to me. However I will not repeat it in case the same thing happens.

        One thing that occurred to me (it disappeared with that paragraph, although a repeat of it survived to the end) is how your criticisms of me could just as easily be directed at Harper. But they are not. Nor do you seem to care about the very serious aberrations in the accusations thrown at Kavanaugh and the way in which they were managed by his opponents. I sincerely hope that you never find yourself on the wrong end of such a travesty.

        I am not sure why you think it is “clear” where my interest lies, since you do not seem to understand it. And finally, and with all due respect, although this is of course a forum in which you can push back on others’ ideas, it is emphatically not anyone’s place to “disciple” someone whom they do not know. I entrust that to my church friends, including a small accountability group.

        I think we should leave it there.


  13. Heather-Joy Garrett says:

    Good piece Rosie and one I am happy to support 100%. For what it is worth the one thing the church could do to start the necessary change is to stop ordaining men who refuse to accept women as priests. Let the old guard work their years out but do not consider them for promotion so they line manage anyone one who disagrees with them. The mixed messages start for me when the church continues to allow these men to be ordained. It is like a kick in the teeth every time and undermines equality.


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