Where are the Men in our Churches?
In one of the parishes I previously served in, in preparation for the celebration of the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday, we couldn’t find 12 men, as used to be required by rubrics for that part of the liturgy. There just weren’t 12…
Men in the church in some parts are a rarity. I thank God that the parish I serve in now has a much better gender balance, but this has not always been the case in my experience and ministry. I also can’t remember this as something I particularly noticed when I was growing up — the men were around.
The actor Tim Plewman was well-known for his very clever stage production called Defending the Caveman, a humorous look at the real difficulties of inter-gender communication.
Where are the men? What are we doing, or not doing, to having to ask what has happened to them, in our churches and societies?
This year I have been struck particularly by the plight of the Older White Man.
Before you start reporting me to some Chapter 9 institution, hear me out. We’re not talking about the wealthy here. We’re talking about the men who have worked and been on the Border and tried to raise a family and who are now at retirement age, with little or nothing to show for it. In the area in which I work, we had six suicides early this year — all in this age-group. Suicides out of despair.
As a Church and a broad society, our bruising narrative about land and privilege and return and restitution often forgets that all sides have winners and losers. And sometimes the winners are actually the losers.
One of the interesting common denominators to the recent suicides was that many of the men had spent time on the Border, that defining experience for so many white South African men. This is something that we as South Africans — of all hues and persuasions — need to face. The extraordinary violence and the burden of guilt and shame that even perceived “righteous” conflict brings.
So we begin to build up a profile of a sad and lost generation who had early and formative experiences of trauma, violence, abuse—physical, mental, sexual, substance, military so-called discipline and the unbelievable violence associated with it. And that was not just the white male…
We are moving into a generation free of war and military—we are indeed a privileged country, if one discounts the violence of the Crime War. But we have not moved into a space that favours the “laying down of arms”.
A number of recent experiences has shown this to me: from the racist-rants sagas, to the permissible divisive electioneering, to how we perpetuate apartheid in so many different ways.
So what does this have to do with the Church and a parish and how we deal with men?I don’t think that we can tackle the depth of our rage and violence as a society until we find a way to face, reconcile and heal the extraordinary violence that we engrain and perpetuate in our South African psyche — the collective one, the emerging one.
This is a huge task for the Church, to actually do the reconciliation work that is 20 years overdue and much neglected. We can do this only if we are engaged with the “Other Half”, the men who are steeped in cultures of violence.
If we don’t have them in the Church, we have to make the Church reach out to them. We cannot wait for them to come to us, for most will come only feet first in a box.
We, as a whole Church, need to seek out the men of violence and alienation in their often confused and protective spaces and bring them out of their caves, our caves, our man caves.
This will not be done by anyone other than the brave spouses, sisters, mothers who have memory of a different man. And by the men themselves. And by their children who know and choose a different narrative and future.