Why women are leaving the church….

// 16 September 2008

Feminist researcher Kristin Aune from University of Derby has been studying why women appear to be leaving the Church of England. Her conclusions? Women see more relevance in, for example, TV icons who promote female empowerment than in traditional religion. This despite the church (and the media) focusing heavily on issues such as women’s ordination and their slow climb up the ecclesiastical ranks. And thus women, apparently 50,000 each year have been leaving the Christian flocks (all brands, not just CoE).

Dr Aune cites a number of reasons why women are not going to church.

  • ● Fertility Levels – women have fewer children and are not having enough children to replace the older generation lost from the church.
  • ● Feminist Values – feminist values began influencing women in the 1960s and 1970s. Feminism challenged traditional Christian views about women’s roles and raised women’s aspirations.
  • ● Paid Employment – At the beginning of the 1900s, a third of women were in paid work, now two thirds are in the labour market. Juggling employment with childcare and housework causes time pressures and attending church is one activity to suffer.
  • ● Family Diversity – compared to wider society, churches include fewer non-traditional families. Family forms which are growing such as singleness, lone-parent families and cohabitation are under-provided for and even discouraged by churches.
  • ● Sexuality – The church’s silence about sexuality is driving women to leave, feeling that the church requires them to deny or be silent about sexual desire and activity.

From University of Derby

The research, from a book called Women and Religion in the West co-authored with Sonya Sharma (Edinburgh University) and Giselle Vincett (University of British Columbia) has recommendations for Churchs – like audits of congregational losses, profiling of attendees and arranging activities to suit women to attract them back to the church.

Christina Rees, chairman of the pro-women bishop campaign group Watch, said the report highlighted the damaging effect that traditionalist attitudes within the Church of England are having on women…Ms Rees told The Daily Telegraph: “What this research reveals is that a lot of people are put off by traditional stances and attitudes. We still have a long way to go before women, particularly young women, feel as included in the church as men do. I’m absolutely convinced that when we have women as bishops that it will send out a very clear message that women are as valued as much as men.”

From The Telegraph

Of course as an atheist I have to say one of the things that might put women off is the fundamentally patriarchal nature of organised religions. But on the other hand I totally admit that I am “out of touch” with what’s happening in religion today. But it seems to me that on the issues listed, christianity tends to be either silent or largely anti-woman (I’m going to ignore the clunky wording of the press release in lumping together declining demographic with women choosing not to go to church). I think the fact there hasn’t been a substanial decline in the numbers of women who say they a religious combined with the decline in attendance rather flags up that the institutions of christianity aren’t working for women – after all sermons don’t tend to talk about “women’s issues” (unless it’s how supporting a man is a really important thing to do) – nor do they talk about the issues affecting everyone’s lives – longer working hours, how to find good quality affordable childcare, how to find a fulfilling life balance, why being single/single parent/left by your partner/leaving your partner doesn’t make you a bad person and so forth.

We don’t do a lot of blog posts on religion so I thought I’d do this one – am interested what other people think. Particularly if there are feminists who are also christians out there and your views.

Comments From You

chem_fem // Posted 16 September 2008 at 3:23 pm

Interesting post.

I have to say that I rejected christianity as a teen before I rejected the existance of any god. I just didn’t want to be part of a religion that had those views about women. There is sexual inequality throughout the bible and much of it is done by the god character than by the people in it.

Once I’d rejected that, it felt inevitable that I would become athiest.

Rachel // Posted 16 September 2008 at 3:39 pm

Hmm, those results really don’t reflect my experience, and the experiences of most people I talk to in the church. Yes, women are leaving the church, but from what I can see (in Scotland), the church is still, in terms of numbers, massively dominated by women. The real inequality, is that women make up by far the biggest chunk of most christian groups and make up a much smaller percentage of leadership roles.

I think the author does make a valid point that too many churches and christian groups are silent on specifically ‘women’s issues’. Most churches I’ve come across to have ‘women’s groups’ but are (in my limited experience) usually either only appropriate for the very old, or based around husbands and babies. My experience is fairly limited though.

Kath // Posted 16 September 2008 at 3:59 pm

Cath Elliot got it right in her Guardian piece the other month: organised religion just isn’t compatible with feminism. And once you start questioning the patriarchal structure, the misogyny, the homophobia and the antiquated sexual moralising you will probably find yourself questioning the plausibility of an all powerful, all knowing superbeing who supposedly created the world too. That is to say I do think there is a link between feminism and atheism (as opposed to just not liking organised religion), just as there is a link generally between progressive-thinking and atheism.

Anne Onne // Posted 16 September 2008 at 4:19 pm

I do remember reading an article where it was hilariously phrased that women are leaving the church/not getting involved because of (I kid you not) ‘percieved inequality’!. Because of course, it’s that women feel there is inequality, but not that there actually is. That kind of defensive attitude doesn’t help.

Pair that with the fact that we’ve just had the first instance of a Bishop’s wife even in a portrait of a Bishop (despite the huge role that clergymen’s spouses have traditionally played throughout history), let alone a portrait of a female Bishop!

I’d say that there still seem to be a lot of women attending church, particularly of the older generations, which seem to be attending church more than teenagers or people in their 20s/30s. In my experience of churches, the vast majority of attendees seem to be older, and the community spirit and chance to socialise seems to be an important a part of attendance as the religion itself. That element (the hymns, the sense of community, the spirit of helping each other) is not a bad thing, but people allow their prejudices to overshadow what religions should be about: love for your fellow creatures. There’s so much that could be good about having these communities, but the homophobia and misogyny currently embraced can’t be ignored. Stances on and interpretations of passages change all the time, and with all the changes/concessions that have been made in the past, the argument that they just HAVE to view women or LGBTQ people as lesser doesn’t hold weight. It’s convenient to hide your hate behind a text by insisting it’s set in stone, but it doesn’t change the fact that the text is human, fallible and full of contradictions.

It also could just be that more people today (some of the older ones included) feel able to stay away from church, having less pressure to attend than there used to be, and that as society placed less of an emphasis on churchgoing in general, less people felt like they wanted/needed to go, which may be nothing to do with the patriarchical element.

That said, many churches and denominations are positively medieval when it comes to women’s issues, and It’s a favourite quote of mine that it’s about time the churches started to lead the way and encourage people to support equality, rather than have to be dragged kicking and screaming into every human rights issue.

miriam // Posted 16 September 2008 at 5:59 pm

It depends if you see organised religion as being about the superstructure or the local community. I worship in a church where the majority of the leadership is female, and a large proportion of the congregation male.

For me, I celebrate the fact that Jesus had more female disciples than male, that he began some changes in society. I celebrate an understanding of Creator as Father and Mother, and the Spirit as female. I celebrate a church that seeks to empower the sex workers in and around King’s Cross, where I live, that offers house room to those that the statutory authorities won’t touch.

And I criticise it from within. I stand up in Synod and say “no” when they try to make people play nice instead of face up to real consequences. I stand up and say “no” to ministers that abuse their power, both male and female.

Sarah Louisa Phythian-Adams // Posted 16 September 2008 at 6:09 pm

I think Kath is spot on here. I think a big chunk of the above should be devoted to the treatment of women in the bible! So much so that I’d challenge any feminist believer to actually read the bible (old and new testament) and still come out such – for there were two simple steps to my rejection of religion: the first was learning to read and the second was reading the bible. Indeed, Richard Dawkins devotes a whole section of ‘The God Delusion’ to the bible’s treatment of women. Considering that most women will never actually read the bible (beyond the ‘poster’ passages that tend to be rolled out on occasions), I actually applauded when I read it and grinned inanely to myself at the thought of middle-England housewives suddenly revolting!

earlgreyrooibos // Posted 16 September 2008 at 7:10 pm

Like chem_fem, I rejected Christianity well before I became an atheist. I spent my teen years exploring nonchristian religions, then decided that organized religion didn’t work for me. And then in college I firmly decided that I was atheist (as opposed to high school, where I was agnostic and rejected organized religion).

And the reason I rejected various religions, one by one, was that I didn’t like what any of them had to say about the status or role of women within that belief. Even if I did believe in one or more god(desse)s, I would not be affiliated with a particular belief system or church/shul/whatever, because I have yet to find a belief system compatible with feminism.

Well, maybe Unitarianism, but by the time I found out about that one I was an atheist anyway.

ConservaTorygirl // Posted 16 September 2008 at 9:38 pm

It’s not just women that are leaving the Church.

It’s also important to remeber when thinking about religion and the CofE specifically, that although there is an official line, there are many many interpretations of scripture. Added to which most vicars are basically compassionate and thoughtful people so to say that ‘the Church’ has ‘those views’ on women is simplistic at best and almost wilfully overlooks the many Christian feminists who seek to show how truly inclusive Christ’s teachings are.

It’s Christians that put people off going to Church, not religion itself.

Politicalguineapig // Posted 16 September 2008 at 11:40 pm

The only thing I think that was not mentioned is that the younger generation may not have grown up going to church. My family stopped going when I was three and it’s pretty hard to start going again when you’re twenty or so. The media may have something to do with it- any time I hear what Pat Robertson or Dobson have been saying I thank the FSM I’m going to hell.

Rochelle WW // Posted 17 September 2008 at 1:32 am

I’ve found myself slowly slipping away from the church myself. It’s just difficult to feel like part of ‘the body of Christ’ when it just isn’t reflected in sermons. The Bible itself always uses masculine pronouns [blessed is he…, a man with a temper is…, etc.], God is always referred as a man despite being a spirit with no actual sex and the speakers are always men too. I know that there are competent female speakers and leaders of care groups, so I wonder why I never see them more than once every three months when they have sex segregated sermons.

And I also look back on things that were taught to my age/sex group in junior church and I just feel….dissatisfied. Things like don’t wear shirts with writing or graphics that draw attention to your chest. Don’t wear thin strapped blouses cause men will look at them and will imagine undressing you. Don’t cause a brother to slip and so on. It’s gotten to the point where I just want to stop going to church altogether and just concentrate on applying the principles of Christianity to my life without the organised structure of church itself. That’s what the point of the belief is anyway. :/

Jo // Posted 17 September 2008 at 4:40 am

I am a young woman, a feminist, and a Christian. I’m a member of the C of E, on the liberal catholic wing. The published part of the study looks interesting, but the full picture is inevitably more complex (figures are from the website for the campaign group Women and the Church).

C of E congregations usually have far more women than men and women priests now make up about 20-25% of the clergy. This is not bad considering the first group of women priests were ordained only 13 years ago. Half of all ordinands currently training to become priests are women. The C of E’s governing body has also recently voted for the consecration of women bishops – in particular the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke against any compromise on their consecration that would end up structurally humiliating women. So it looks like half of clergy may well be women, at all levels of the Church, within a generation, which again I don’t think is bad. Parliament is a long way off doing this. And the way the Church looks and works will change as a result of women clergy. It’s already changing.

Where I suspect the Church falls down on the figures (couldn’t find any for this) is that women are probably overrepresented among non-stipendiary clergy (i.e. not receiving financial recompense for ministry). Anecdotally, non-stipendiary women priests are propping up ministry in rural areas. Patterns of ministry are changing – more and more priests enter the Church after having had a different career, so it may be that many of these women are financially independent and choose not to seek a stipend. But we should still find out what the situation is and address it if need be.

I agree with the report on some points – the Church should adapt better to new societal patterns: different employment patterns and different kinds of families – but for most of these points, whether they are accurate or not depends largely on what your local parish church is like, and there is huge variation. There are churches where gay women are priests, and churches where women aren’t allowed to preach at all. There are churches which have excellent ministry for young adults (usually university towns), and churches where there is no pastoral support for anyone who isn’t married or an infant. There are churches where you can happily take communion with your gay partner and churches where they tell you you’ll burn in hell if you have sex outside of marriage. There are churches which use feminist language in their liturgy and ones which insist that God is the old man with the beard. And that’s all just in the C of E!

As you may be aware, these kinds of differences between individual parishes and between different provinces in the global Anglican Communion are beginning to crystallize into a real split. The core split is on the interpretation of the Bible (roughly, conservatives say it’s the literal word of God, liberals say that you have to interpret it), but the inflammatory issues are usually homosexuality and the role of women, because where you stand on either issue will depend on how you read certain bits of the Bible and how you understand the relationship of the Old Testament to the New. It remains to be seen how women will be affected by a split.

Sorry this post has been so long. But the relationship of women and the Church is much more complex than can be expressed in some glib Comment is Free column or by the partially published results of a study …

catherine // Posted 17 September 2008 at 9:51 am

As a Christian and a feminist, there are some churches (individual churches and some whole denominations) that I wouldn’t go anywhere near. But there are some (dare I say many?) churches where there are people who care about women and believe that being a person of faith involves believing in equality, social justice, and working to change things. There will be women bishops, many churches do properly consider womens issues.

Yes, the church has been guilty of promoting a patriarchal version of religion. Some churches continue to do so unashamedly. But it is just that – a version. Faith isn’t the same as church.

I wonder if, in some ways, feminism isn’t a little bit like a ‘religion’: passionate beliefs, wanting to change society for the better, a group activity. I guess that, in the same way as there are feminists and feminist groups/movements with really different views, there are Christians and churches with different views.

Essen // Posted 17 September 2008 at 2:39 pm

I’m a young woman, a feminist and a Christian. I’ve struggled with ‘The Church’ (I’m Anglican) and have been in many churches that were sexist – not in obvious ways, always, but in ideas like single women were always wanting to be found a special someone and that sort of thing.

To address the points on the Bible some people have been making. The Bible was written by many different people over a period of at least 2000 years. It’s almost impossible to say ‘the Bible says’ absolutely definitively on things – it’s always a bit more complicated. (Of course, there are plenty of churches not willing to accept that)

Sure, women are treated very badly in (parts of) the Bible, but then parts of it assume we’re all keeping slaves, and we seem to have managed to get past that in the modern church! And while God is usually ‘he’, there are ‘feminine’ images of him (a mother hen gathered her chicks to herself in Isaiah, for example) and the Spirit is almost always ‘female’ (the word ‘spirit’ in both the original biblical languages, Hebrew and Greek, is feminine) and is properly thought of as just that, Spirit, not a human gendered person.

It’s not perfect, by any means, but I think in many places things are improving.

That said, I’m looking for a feminist-friendly liberal catholic CofE church in central London atm – if any of the Christian commenters on here know of anywhere, I’d appreciate a tip-off!

Ruth // Posted 17 September 2008 at 8:08 pm

Essen, ever been to St James’ Piccadilly? From what I remember, it might fit your bill…

Rhona // Posted 18 September 2008 at 12:49 am

I agree with what several posters have said – the problem and/or solution tends to lie not with the denomination but with the individual congregation.

I am a lapsed Protestant (so much less romantic than being a lapsed Catholic!), although I have an enduring faith which, while generally not subscribing to any one organised religion, leans towards the Church of Scotland (old habits die hard). CoS (and please note there is an EXTREME difference between it and ‘hard-line’ Presbytarianism) is a relatively democratic, liberal schism, governed by committee and has, in recent years, seen several female Moderators at its head. I (ocassionally) attend a wonderful church, formerly presided over by a fantastic female minister until her unfortunate death from breast cancer, now guided by a great male minister who is an outspoken advocate for many, including women, those of alternative sexualities and all creeds and colours.

He has actually spent time in jail protesting against state crimes and our church is open at all times of day and night to anybody in need.

To me, this is the true embodiement of the Christian message – putting one’s feelings into action – and I actually feel ashamed that I, as a ‘woolly liberal’, am less embracing of society’s challenges than these people who are seen by many leaning towards the left as a conservative ‘anchor’ on society’s morals.

However, who is to say that these people are perhaps just genuinely good, caring individuals who would do the same without the ‘guiding rote’ of the Church? (Please note cap C – as I say, old habits die hard!)

I have met a large number of ‘lefty’ individuals who, quite frankly, wouldn’t spit on you if you were on fire if you didn’t agree with their views – conversely, I have also met a large number of ‘religious’ people of all faiths who would quite literally walk naked in the rain if it meant giving their clothes to somebody who needed them.

Like many other feminists with faith, I often struggle to reconcile my perception of religion and God with my politics. However, I try to lead my life in as ‘right-thinking’ a way as possible, in all respects, and while I may use my God to help me with that, I will also challenge my faith band religion where necessary to do what I think is right.

PS – I advise skipping Paul (apart from the Damascene moments) and moving onto Matthew. ;)

Sarah // Posted 18 September 2008 at 9:07 am

Essen, I wonder if you might get on well with a Unitarian church? They’re not Catholic or C of E, obviously, though they do draw on Christian traditions among others, and are generally quite liberal and pro-feminist. There are several in Central London.

miriam // Posted 22 September 2008 at 9:44 pm

Liberal Catholic – St Matthew’s Westminster, especially Moot would fit the bill. I’ll second St James Piccadilly.

You’d be welcome at Wesley’s Chapel or either of the W.London Mission churches (Both Methodist – King’s Cross is my little church – we’re dead opposite the station)

I read the bible and that inspired my feminism – stories of Jael and Deborah, Mary Mag, Priscilla, Salome, Esther, Ruth and co. I have read it cover to cover, and I’m a qualified preacher.

John Bell on 10 things they didn’t tell you about Jesus gives a wonderful feminist apologetic. Greenbelt is a welcoming space.

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