RE AND MASCULINITY – Christians in Education


Thanks to RE teacher, husband and father Michael Merrick, for this week’s guest blog. You can read more of Michael’s blogs on his website Outside In, and follow him on Twitter  @Michael_Merrick

Last night I came across these two excellent blog posts here and here), exploring the tension between masculinity and our English curriculum and, secondly, our approach to dealing with the (social and physical) challenges of being a teenage boy. I commend them both fully – well written, thoughtful, and admirably honest.

And they rang true for me for various reasons. In the first instance, it reminded me of something I had read a while back by Cardinal Burke, talking about the ‘man-crisis’ in the Church. For Burke, the root of the problem stems from radical feminism, which in an American culture-war context might make sense, but which I’m going to steer well clear of here, not least because I’m not even really too sure what feminism means anymore, with each subsequent wave seemingly disagreeing with those previous in ever more acrimonious circumstance. For Burke, however, it is a key issue, and he has been at the forefront of a new cultural movement within the Church trying to appeal to the masculine, purposely using the language of (spiritual) warfare and militant service as his perceived antidote to the crisis he identifies. Whether one agrees with his diagnosis or his cure is moot – he is surely on to something in identifying the problem.

A little closer to home, it also reminded me of a chat with a parish priest, during a 40 hours’ devotion we held last year. For non-Catholics, the 40 hours is a period of continuous prayer and devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, day and night. I remember the priest telling me how the night/early-morning ‘watching’ used to be known as the ‘Dads and lads’ slots, as the males of the community took it upon themselves to do the more anti-social/difficult hours, an act of service but also responsibility traditionally expected within the community. In this sense it was both a ritual and a rite of passage – it shaped and identified the role of the male within the community. One might bray at this nowadays, but it was considered an act of service rather than superiority, or the suggestion that ‘Mams and lasses’ were incapable. Alas, this practice had fallen away now and, along with it, so has the attendance of ‘Dads and lads’ more generally.

There is nothing much new in any of this – Benedict’s reform of the liturgy was itself often framed as a return to the kind of ritualism that appealed to the minds of young men (the context being a catastrophic drop in seminarians in the West) – and the idea that the Church has abandoned a consideration of the masculine is a long and well-tested thesis.

But it had me wondering about what we do in our schools too – and I should say at this point that I’m thinking about Catholic education, the only type I really know. Have we done the same? How often is faith deemed to be a bit, well, un-manly? How often are prayer groups and social justice projects female-dominated? How often do boys see it as an assault on their masculinity, rather than an affirmation of it? Increasing the general involvement of boys in our academic and spiritual programme is a constant source of discussion – is this unique to our particular locale, or is this a wider trend?

And one wonders if our RE curriculum can sometimes be the same. RE is often very good at tackling difficult issues, but how good are we at proposing difficult solutions? Generally speaking, it is all too easy for RE to be transformed into a gospel of nice – think ‘gospel values’ and the Golden Rule and you’ll be getting close – but does this talk to all students equally? Do the general tropes and slogans and images, common to all RE, have equal appeal across the board? Does the drilled repetition to ‘Love thy neighbour’ get through the gender gap? And why is it so tempting to edit out the less fashionable things Christ talked of – his vision of hell, his call for sacrifice, his bringing of the sword (and the spiritual warfare, but also Judgement, it pointed toward)?

Indeed, therein lies a good example: God is Love, I’m certain all students will know that, but He is also Judge – do we hold both equally? And if we don’t, what is the impact of that?

Or to bring this down into my own practice, how often have we explored the gospel through the lens of heroic sacrifice? How often have we really thought of why Christ might have flipped those tables, or Peter slice that ear? How often do we speak of heroism of martyrdom, the joy of sacrifice, or the sheer bloody-minded revolution it really is to proclaim a gospel of Love in a world that despises it? Christ said we should expect to be hated for His sake, and that takes some guts. Do we make faith something altogether much easier than that? A kind of safe-space spirituality where nothing should be allowed to be difficult? And how often have we discussed whether that is justified? Indeed, how often have we challenged males with just such an injunction, a calling to sacrifice – an important virtue whether one holds faith or not – as a choice that is (dare one say it), ‘manly’?

Of course, I fully understand why some might think this exclusionary – there can certainly be no suggestion that women do not also fully take upon themselves heroic sacrifice, dutifully and joyfully. But is our language unwittingly exclusionary is another sense, too, that being in its appeal to masculine self-image? One must tread carefully here; there are potential landmines all over the place (policies aimed at boys, despite their huge comparative underachievement in school, often seem less popular than one might hope for). But at the very least, this: is this issue something of which we even take account?

And with all these questions, I have no easy answers – I’m not decided one way or the other. But it’s got to be a perspective that warrants inspection. Any thoughts?