Tuesday, 2 June 2015

'Oh Mother!' What's at stake in our God-Talk

In the past week, there’s been a flurry of excitement in both broadsheet and tabloid press about how we address God. ‘Male’ or ‘Female’? ‘Father’ or ‘Mother’? And so on.

Those of us who’ve been writing about this stuff, academically or otherwise, for many years have been inclined to yawn. Some have said this is a ‘70s debate, presumably along with discussions of bra burning and such like.

The level of reaction is partly an indication of how very far the Church and, perhaps more significantly, wider society has to go before talk of God in non-masculine terms is irrelevant.

As a feminist writer and poet I’m acutely aware of the extent to which the male is the default. One does not need to be a post-Lacanian theorist to be aware of the inscriptions of gender in the way we talk. One does not need to agree with ‘Where God is male, the male is God,’ to be aware that the way we talk about God has implications for how we construct what it means to be a human.

If there truly is nothing at stake when we say ‘Christ is our sister’ or invoke ‘God our Mother’, I do not understand why such terms are not everyday in our liturgies and prayers. Our Liturgies are one of the ways we construct our conversation with the Ineffable and we negotiate the terror of the Ineffable addressing us. How we speak about God is a potent indicator of how we see ourselves and delimit the possibilities of God/G-d.

I am minded of a conversation I once had with a senior woman cleric regarding the use of expansive language in a liturgy I’d written celebrating women’s ministry. She said it was 'So very ‘70s'. I assume she meant that it was of the past and of a time we have since transcended. As if the presence of women as ordained is what transformation ultimately adds up to.

The liturgical theologian Gail Ramshaw once wrote about how the Church has said 'yes' to Father and Lord, and has rejected other terms (like 'witch'). Others are still being tested. Perhaps one of those is ‘Mother’. Ultimately, the Church may reject it.

I want to say we haven’t really tried with expansive language, certainly not in the C of E. One of the questions feminist theologians have raised about the monomaniacal obsessions with terms like ‘Father’ and ‘Lord’ is the extent to which they indicate authoritarian and tyrannical discourses.

The dismissive, mocking and often fearful reactions to a desire to be expansive in our God-talk seems to me to indicate a profound anxiety at the heart of monarchical, authoritarian thinking. It is a politics which relies both on creating an 'Other' and defining itself as 'complete' without her. It is contradictory. It is doomed to pull itself apart.


  1. I wonder if those who first heard Jesus refer to God as 'Abba' were similarly queasy about how it transformed their idea of who God is. I know that my own experience of God is enriched by the various contrasting images of 'Lord' and 'Daddy'. I'm also aware that adding 'Mother' to this tapestry would alter my prayers and eventually alter who I am. I am therefore not surprised that it is a contentious and difficult issue even among those who haven't yet reflected on their gut response.

    As for me, I've never experienced God as Mother in my prayers. But perhaps that's because I've never allowed myself to see her in that way - just as it took me a few years to see beyond God solely as Judge.

  2. Thank you for this.

    I agree that woman in various times have not been acknowledged and appreciated as they should. As a church we need to do all we can to insure that women are affirmed in the life of the church, that their gifts are appreciated, and that they are celebrated for who God has created them to be.

    However, I don't think calling God Father, Son has much to do with discrimination against women, nor do I agree with the view that God as Father stands in the way of appreciating and celebrating women.

    Here are few reasons:

    1. God as Father is not God made in male image. God as Father is beyond our human experience of fatherhood. The language of Fatherhood when used of God is not metaphorical. God - in and of himself is Father. His fatherhood is far greater than any earthly father humanity have ever known. In fact God's fatherhood rather than fashioning itself on human male fatherhood, it deliberately sets itself apart from it. Calling human fathers evil (Matt 7:11) not allowing us to think God affirms us but rather calls us to fashion our earthly fatherhood on his one.
    2. Jesus, I am sure we all agree, valued humanity - male and female alike. He did not show partiality, while the 12 apostles where male, he valued his blessed Mother greatly; likewise he had a high regard for the Mary-es whom he appointed as first witnesses of his resurrection. In short Jesus affirmed both sexes - and if I understand anything form Gal.3:27-19 it would be that, rather than blurring the opposites, we are called to delight and embrace the uniqueness of the other.
    That being the case, we find that same Jesus teaches us to call God Father 'Abba'.
    (I am sure when Jesus said that he did not think for a second that God as Father stand in the way of women recognition). So, for me, I call God Father, because that is what Jesus taught us. He has revealed God as Father to us.
    3. I grow up in a Muslim society where male dominance and authoritative figureheads are much more common than they are in the West. Yet when we become Christians, both male and female, rejoiced in the fact that God is our Father and we are his children and that Jesus is our Brother. We never saw this as an extension of male dominance, we knew that God as Father entails motherhood also. Calling God Father includes the feminine attributes we read in the Scriptures.
    4. Finally, I worry that this debate risks dragging God to our human level and tray to create him in our image. As I said earlier, when we call God Father, Son, and Spirit that is who God is, yet these titles are way beyond our human experience. We can only through grace stat to apprehend the Fatherhood of God. Let us learn from St. Athanasius who argues that, God is not dictated by language’s natural grammar; rather language is dictated by, and redefined in light of divine revelation. ‘For terms do not disparage His Nature; rather that Nature draws to itself those terms and changes them.’ Neither can we introduce the concept of ‘time’ or ‘matter’ into the life and being of God; for ‘God does not make man his pattern’.

    I worry that by using God's identity to prove a point such as this, we may end up not gaining a Mother and in the same time loosing him as a Father. Hence we end up calling God: it, creator or unoriginate.
    I suggest that we should let Jesus’ humanity affirms us both as male and female, and follow the example of St. Paul who rejoices in calling God ‘Abba’ yet he sees this revelation as a affirmation of male and female. Again Gla. 3

    Many thanks

    Fr. Timothy