On Wednesday it was the first instalment of my Lent course for the church: everyone there was female apart from me and one chap, who is an ordinand with us on placement and so doesn’t count as an ordinary human being any more than I do. Then on Saturday curate Marion led a Quiet Morning, and that was completely female, too. ‘Why men don’t go to church’ is a perennial question: in fact Swanvale Halt parish emerged from its ‘church survey’ a couple of years ago (part of the Mission Planning process) as less sexually unbalanced as many churches are, but unbalanced it nevertheless is, and the further you get into ‘churchy’ activity the more the inequality is apparent.
The typical answers to the question circle around the accusation that church and what happens in it is too girly to appeal to chaps: all that stuff about emotion, self-doubt, and submissiveness. You find this talked about quite a lot at the evangelical end of the spectrum, and people counteract it with the opposite sort of language: battle, struggle, manliness. There are severe problems with adopting this tactic, however; not everyone responds at all well to it, and furthermore even Christian pastors worried about getting men to take part in church know full well that they necessarily have to engage with all the girly stuff at some point: it’s inescapable because that rhetoric is at the centre of Christian experience. So you end up with, for instance, worship songs like Martin Smith’s ‘Men of Faith’ from 1995, which tries, awkwardly, to have it all – combining a profoundly gendered vision of Christian life while acknowledging that both sexes are ‘broken’:
Men of faith, rise up and sing,
Of the great and glorious King;
You are strong when you feel weak,
In your brokenness complete.
Women of the truth,
Stand and sing to broken hearts,
Who can know the healing power
Of our glorious King of love.
I found myself wondering whether this wasn’t looking at the matter from the wrong end. Is it perhaps the case that men engage with religion less because religion is less 'important' – meaning that its utility isn’t obvious and is hard to demonstrate – and activities perceived as less important are socially delegated to women? Nowadays the idea that men are always the sole breadwinners in the family unit is hopelessly outdated, and yet the idea of paid work is still coded as male. Other things which might distract men from church, from popular hobbies to team sports, are also coded as male regardless of how many women participate in them. Society has indeed shifted far enough to regard spending time with one’s children as intrinsic to being a good parent, of either sex, but at that point another social pressure kicks in and fathers’ time with their children usually involves doing things the children will find fun: except for the especially pious, religion isn’t important enough to compel parents to make their children join in with it.
Women disproportionately do church because it isn’t important. Naturally the converse is true: that whatever women do is unimportant, and so church is unimportant because women do it disproportionately. While mum takes the children to worship on Sunday (or Messy Church, perhaps), dad will usually find – even if his levels of belief are no different from hers – that almost anything else is a more worthwhile use of his available time.
Of course I don’t have any evidence of this: it’s buried and inarticulate, which is why it would be very hard to winkle out and bring into the light. That doesn’t mean it’s incorrect.