Wednesday, 2 March 2011

On Pentecostal women (that is to say, ladies)

Anybody who was brought up, as I was, in the clamorous joy and madness of Pentecostalism, will know something that ought to have been obvious all along: that the Christian faith is really sustained not by its ecclesiastical hierarchies or its salaried religionists, but by its women.

One of the marks of Pentecostalism is the presence of strong women. You will find them in every Pentecostal church: praying in the spirit without ceasing; worshipping with solemn exuberance, as though they alone must bear vicariously the whole joy of salvation; interpreting their thumb-worn leather Bibles, which are always extensively underlined, annotated, and committed to memory; issuing swift, infallible, ruthlessly imposing moral judgments; and, through all this, patiently inscribing their own faith on the bodies of their children. (That, incidentally, explains the remarkable contrast in traditional Pentecostal gatherings between the uninhibited expressiveness of the women and the polite docility of their neatly dressed children.)

As a boy, I was often told that the most important person in our church was not the preacher or the musicians or even the swaggering itinerant evangelists who so often darkened our doors, but Mrs Loy, an 80-something (and later 90-something) Chinese woman who had devoted her life to prayer. In all the years I was there, I rarely heard Mrs Loy say anything, but every Sunday morning her tiny arthritic fists could be seen raised high in palsied worship, her little balding head shining with goodness and joy. Sometimes during worship she would deliver a message in tongues, and an awed silence would fall across the congregation like a blanket. To this day, I don't know what those tremulous glossolalic homilies meant, but instinctively I knew – as everyone knew – that they were the most important things ever spoken in our midst. Not because we understood them, but because they came from the heart of Mrs Loy. She was, I forgot to say, the pastor's mother.

Such women are the engine room of the church. To a great extent, even the formal power structures depend on their secret society, their prayers and prophecies and discerning of spirits. They exercise a tremendous social and theological power, even in churches where the official theology is repressive and the official power rests solely in the hands of men. All this is, as I said, explicit and transparent in Pentecostalism – but isn’t the same thing true in churches semper et ubique?

Here, perhaps, lies the explanation of a strange fact that has often puzzled me. Why is it that churches persistently refer not to women, but to ladies – the “ladies’ group”, the “ladies’ Bible study”, the “ladies’ morning tea”, and so on? As far as I can tell, the church is one of the only cultural institutions – another being the public restroom – that still favours this quaint terminology.

But truths lie buried in language. The word “lady” comes from the Old English hlaefdige (literally “bread kneader”), a woman of high status to whom one owes obedience – the wife of a lord for example, or the head of a household. In popular piety, the term was used to designate the Mother of God, “Our Lady”, the one to whom our homage is due (in Old English, the Latin domina is translated hlaefdige). Looking down from the cross, Christ calls his mother “woman” (Jn 19:26); when we address her, she is always “Lady”.

Is this, then, the reason for that curious ecclesiastical archaism, whereby women are addressed as “ladies”? Is this why an assembled group of women is convoked under the fearful nomination of “Ladies’ Group”? Is this the church’s subliminal recognition of where the real secret of its power lies – not in the young men with their furious ambitions or the old men with their weary dignities, but in the hlaefdige? For is this not the mark of the hlaefdige, the Lady, that she governs the whole household and makes every servant tremble, all the while indulgently allowing her husband the idle vanity of believing himself the sole lord and master of the manor? Is it any different in the church?

That’s why there is no greater comedy, nothing more rib-ticklingly ironic, no greater instance of institutional slapstickery, than a church (like the Pentecostal church where I grew up) that restricts positions of power to – of all people – the men!

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