Bridal Church – There’s something about Mary

“Whoever wishes to think about the incarnation of the Word of God must look carefully for the woman” (Hans urs von Balthasar)

Ive got to admit, this piece has taken a while to write; its been swirling around my head for about 4 months, since Christmas. That’s when id got to the end of the books on my bookshelf i wanted to read and started to read ‘The Von Balthasar reader’ (1997), as it was the last of my theology books i hadnt read. The other reason its been sitting on the drafts pile is that its become either difficult/popular/patronising (delete as appropriate) for men to talk about society’s & the church’s attitude to women (especially on twitter), however i thank @markrhewerdine, for forming a conversation on this, and also the Easter holidays when ive had some time off to try and articulate some of this.

At the time of beginning to think about this in Dec/Jan, The church of England had passed a motion to allow for women Bishops, and subsequently appointed three ( it might be 4 by the time ive finished this), three women too are knocking on the door of the westminister elite, and roundly being praised for their ideologies, passion, compassion and wisdom after the leaders debates last week. There is an emergent conversation about the opportunities for women in society currently, to have a voice that they possibly couldnt before – whether thats because Social media is an egalitarian space to have a voice, blogs circulated and articles shared, or something else, but im not a sociological expert on these things.

So, early in January i was at the YFC Conference, and was reading the aforementioned writings of Balthasar, if anything just to keep me sane, and also because i wanted to finish it before my chosen books of choice from christmas got opened, where i began to hear various proddings about voice and shape of women in the church.

On one hand the low-church evangelical in me was awoken to the relevency of the ‘catholic’ faith as a teenager with a good friend of mine, and also in the ecumenical flavour of the theology taught at ICC, and in Bathasar ( and Vanhoozer) this continues;

In a study of the people around Jesus, Balthasar compares Mary ( mother of Jesus), John the Baptist, with Peter. With Mary and John there is an origin story, there may in all likelihood have been communication between Mary and John. John is the first to proclaim the saving-act of Jesus after that with which Mary had known since his birth. Yet somewhat ironically, the shape of the church subsequently has had little, if anything to do with the nature, theology or ministry of Mary or for that matter John – who proclaimed him directly from God, instead ‘overtaken’ by those chosen by Jesus, the disciples.  In describing the incarnation Balthasar uses the depth of the female body, the womb

In describing the incarnation, Balthasar uses the depth of the female body, the womb as a metaphor for the depths, almost obviously, where Jesus emerges from- and as metaphorically it is from this depth the Word must rise from- the ‘bottom most foundation of life’.

In relation to the Ephesians 5 22-24 passage, Balthasar describes that “the church (as his body) owes its existence as a whole to him who brought it forth out of his own fullness, only then can there be any talk of the church as “bride”. Here the church is wholly female, it is conceiving, bearing and giving birth to what she has received from Christ as his fruitfulness” (HUVB p232)

He goes on to say that the church in its infancy was described, perceived and represented almost entirely as female despite its leadership being male. There is some sense of dischord between then the pronouncement of the church as female, and the disappearance of the female evangelist ( ie Mary after the tomb), however, this is a somewhat secondary point that kind of hit me between the eyes as i was reading Balthasar in January. Two questions that this segment of Balthasar raised for me are:

1. What of the conceiving, bearing and giving birth nature of the church still remains? – and how might church be female? and;

2. If ‘traditional’ youth ministry is shaped by the ecclesiology of its local church, how is youth ministry also akin to the ‘conceiving, bearing and giving birth’ female nature?

It is kind of ironic that the structures of the church, from the Fathers onwards have pre-eminated maleness, but that the nature, character and essence of the church was female. In Christs self giving, he bestows upon the church a desired form and structure, the life of the Holy Spirit that corresponds to him ( ibid p234), So in going back to the questions, what of the female nature of the church, in and amongst the metaphor of the church being the freed bride – in waiting.

In some ways youth ministry, taking the example of YFC in Britain as a starting point, began from a male led church and pursuit of evangelism (in comparison with so called ‘christian america’), it became a youth ministry of programmes linked to churches. When at the same time (1967) community based  youth work approaches were also being pioneered by agencies such as YWCA and the like.

If there was a simplistic contrast, is that one looked at the gaps in the churches where there were no young people- was organisation first, the other sought to spend time with young people in their community, listen and learn about and from them, an experience that was painful and testing. It might not be too far off the mark to see the masculinity in one of these two approaches, and the more feminine in the other.

Yet it is the church as an organisation that should (more than a so called ‘para-church’ organisation) have more female and feminine tendancies. Has this more masculine / evangelism focus of youth ministry been effective? – what are its limitations- due to its nature – a lack of discipleship and focus on renewing of an initial buzz or high? – how might it become truly compassionate, caring, bearing or maternal?

In thinking about church – does it look/feel/act like a female organisation? (it would be as fair to ask if it acts male – but thats not the point here)

Does church act with compassion, tenderness and loyalty to those within, to those struggling, to those on the edge?  (does even the pre-requisite of inside/outside show a tendency to ‘model’ church on a business paradigm?)

If church as female is a metaphor – more than a model, would it look at people differently – possibly more in terms of human flourishing, rather than coherant obedience/adherance?

And what of the churches work with young people – maybe more delivered by females traditionally ( as they wouldnt have been allowed to ‘teach’ adults) – but what of the ‘big elements of youth ministry’ – the events, conferences, camps and programmes – do they have at their heart an essence of the feminine?  how might mission statements, strategies for evangelism, programmes for discipleship, be models that could be dispensable, yet at the same time the church got in touch, quite literally with its feminine side? less proclaiming, more listening, less organisation, more love.

In the tragedy of the last act of the world, so that the nature of the person (female) and its role ( male) church seems at a contradistinction – at an odd state of suspense. Like the early church -its actions and acts tend to be male, yet its essence, where love, growth and friendship (discipleship) occur would be more female.

For the church to conceive, bear, to grow, to birth – what might that mean in your community, in your church? what might that mean in your youth ministry or youthwork at the moment? As Balthasar goes on to say, the church often appears as a mother with whom it is hard to get along (p252), the motherhood of the church often only appears as a transmitted word which, in the present age has lost all helpful meaning.  Does todays church need to be more female/feminine/maternal?

When I read this , I was at the YFC conference, where it was pretty obvious that the voices that were most prophetic were either those from females, or were from men who used pictures, drama and poetry as illustrations of theology – as a way of drawing thinking, of conceiving thought and ideas, in contrast with those who simply shouted and used the platform to tell their own stories in the hope that these would inspire – in a male kind of way. The same male way that doesnt allow women to speak at first in groups when i meet mixed groups on the street, or the same male way that interrupts women on bbc’s question time.

This is long enough as a thought, yet, even though the question has stuck with me since January, i havent got any further with it- , and so i leave it with you – How might youth ministry be more metaphorically female? – How might the church? what about its activities like conferences, in terms of delivery & style?

I hope this hasnt offended or patronised anyone, its an odd place to be male and wanting to connect with the female nature of the church, and do so with a male voice. If it comes across as patronising then i am sorry, its not meant to be, it was a personal awakening for me of the key relationships of Mary & John to Jesus , and the nature of the church as the female bride, and what that might mean in todays church and work with young people.


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