Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Feast of the Annunciation and Fear of the Feminine Touch

Listening to the BBC this morning at the just-after-5.30 news, I was reminded that on this day in 1957 the Treaty of Rome was signed. They don't bother with these historical reminiscences in the later news broadcasts, which is perhaps a shame. I was also reminded of John, one of our churchwardens at S. Giles-in-the-Fields who used to come to church wearing a tie emblazoned with the £ sign, a fierce opponent of all things European (although he'd picked up an MBE for helping make peace between Britain and Spain over Gibraltar), who pointed out that Europe Union was a Catholic conspiracy which begun on the Feast of the Annunciation.

I bristled somewhat at this, because my Nan was born on the feast of the Annunciation (a century ago today), and named, by her Italian parents, Annunziata, after it. The English registrar struggled with the name, and for the rest of her life she was saddled with a birth certificate which named her Noziate. Which possibly makes her unique. But John's slightly barmy words made me look to the Book of Common Prayer, which was the reason he came to S. Giles, and at the collect for the day, which is this:

"We beseech thee O Lord, pour thy grace into our hearts; that as we have known the incarnation of thy Son Jesus Christ by the message of an angel, so by his cross and passion we may be brought unto the glory of his resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."

Well, nothing to argue with there, but it's rather glaring that Mary's name isn't mentioned at all. In fact, her name doesn't feature in any of the Book of Common Prayer Collects - not even for Candlemas, and Christmas itself, when you'd have thought she'd get some credit for having done all the work. It was a Reformation thing to be rather afraid of Mary's name. In the Middle Ages in this country, devotion to "Our Lady" was so deep that England was known as "Mary's Dowry". The Reformers were quite antsy, theologically butch types, who were worried that she'd been made into something of a goddess, and that if that much attention was paid to a mere woman, well, who knows what would happen? We can forget that in the 16th century all sorts of outlandish ideas broke out, like pacifism and communism, both of which are roundly slapped down in the Thirty-Nine Articles. There were a lot of educated women about - they had reason to be antsy.

When I worked as a chaplain in Cambridge, I had a colleague who used visibly to flinch when Mary's name was mentioned. There's a Eucharistic Prayer which sums up the incarnation of Jesus "giving him to be born of a woman, and to die upon the cross". To my ears that sounded like adding injury to insult - "not only did he have to endure the indignity of engagement with a female's softer parts, but then they killed him". So I substituted "to be born of Mary". And my colleague flinched. What's interesting is that she was a woman. Her roots were evangelical, I'd say she was a "recovering evangelical" because some of them never quite get over it, and I think her objection was a feminist one, that for her the Icon of Mary had been turned into the Impossible Woman - Virgin and Mother, and that this was fundamentally oppressive.

It's certainly true that the feminist critique has an immense body of male misogyny to draw on (men are keen on being immense, but this is not something to be proud of). You find it in Saint Jerome, the learned translator of the standard version of the Bible into Latin (the Vulgate, in the days when Latin was a "vulgar" tongue "understanded of the people"), who says that the only good women are nuns and the only good that can come of sex - and only in marriage - is that it might breed more nuns. Which, as a state of mind, is not entirely well in the head. And it echoes into our own times. I was aghast when I was told by Jeffrey John (then Dean of Magdalen College, Oxford, briefly bishop-designate of Reading, now Dean of St Albans) what had been said to him by Gareth Bennett, Dean of New College, when Jeffrey first became a college chaplain. He tentatively asked if Jeffrey had any young lady in tow, and, much relieved that he hadn't, said "they're just walking vaginas". Given that Dr Bennett, who killed himself at the end of the term in which I'd attended his seminars, had almost certainly had no such intimate acquaintance with a woman since his own birth, this was extraordinary. What was less brutal, but actually worse, was his performance in those seminars, in which he would quite obviously and bluntly ignore the women present. I'd never seen this before. He was a fellow of a college which admitted women on equal terms to men, and a member of the Doctrine Commission of the Church of England. This was in 1987.

Dr Bennett was a high church man, but it's not just a high church problem. Evangelicals too have an interest in the idea of "headship", that, following sub-Pauline writings in the New Testament, the man is head of the woman, as Christ is head of the church. So, the chap's in charge at home. They will tell you this is not misogyny - "I love and respect my wife". So you do, dear boy, but only while she does as she's told and conforms to your model of what women are for. But is that really love? And if women start to say "I can be and do more than this" and you reply "oh no you can't, get back in the kitchen", isn't that misogyny? It looks cosy, and there are lovely children in the photographs to make it seem cutely OK, but is it kind, is it real love, is it "life more abundant"?

For those of us saddled into the sorry part of Anglicanism that the Church of England has become, some of the arguments about women bishops have had roots in both these psychotic mindsets. And still, in public life, we see far fewer women than the demographics would suggest. John Major's first cabinet in 1990 was the first ever to have more than one woman as a cabinet minister (if you except that Baroness Thatcher had briefly tolerated Baroness Young in the early 1980s). The UK Supreme Court has only one woman. Business, commerce, industry, the city, the civil service, the law, the police, even academia, it goes on and on, all have few women at the highest levels. Men and women still have, in even the smallest roles, significant differences in pay for the same work, even though this is against the law.

We're not put on this earth to be the same, no two people could be, but to be equals. I think in some way the story of the Annunciation, which features so wonderfully in paintings and icons and stained glass and poetry, tries to redress the balance of a world that puts, and keeps, women down. Mary said yes to God, and allowed the incarnation to happen. And more, she raised the Son of God, and made him a home, until he was ready to go out and save the world.

I doubt strongly that men (in general) will ever be as keen or as good at making homes and raising children as women (in general). Where needs must, both usually rise manfully (ho ho!) to the task. But where we can, respectfully and gratefully and even lovingly, co-operate, the task will be done that much the better.

Years after seeing my Nan's birth certificate, I discovered that there is still a tower in her mother's village in Italy of a church dedicated to the Annunciation. She was born on the day; in a strange and often unfriendly foreign country, perhaps her name was also a reminder of home. A feminine touch?

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
The Annunciation, 2014


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