Whatever happened to Mother God?

Whatever happened to Mother God?

Glynn Cardy

Sun 12 May

There is a little prayer that one of our fellow parishioners was taught by her mother in the early 1930s.   It went like this: “Father Mother God, loving me, guard me while I sleep, guide my little feet up to Thee”.

The notion that God can be pictured as a mother is not a creation of the late 20th century feminist movement.  As the Shirley Murray hymn, From Mother’s Arms, notes, the Bible has many feminine references to God.[i]  God, of course, is not literally male or female or a human being – these are all metaphors.  And yet the Church has curtailed its God language to such an extent that a little 1930s prayer addressed to ‘Father Mother God’ is somehow still radical.

If each and every human is made in God’s image, then a ‘face’ of God turned towards say a child reflects that child’s own face, for the purpose of encouraging, loving, and cultivating the best in that child’s unique and precious life.  God is a child.  So too say for a woman, or man, or someone seriously ill: God’s face is female, or male, or suffering.  So, today, Mother’s Day, we remember God is a mother and is there to encourage, love, and cultivate the best in any mother’s unique and precious life.

We need to be expansive, playful even, with our spiritual language.  Language at its best opens the door for our imagination to dance with the Spirit of God.  Metaphors become invitations.  At its worst language becomes fossilized, locking the Spirit of God into the past and out of contemporary need and relevance.  Metaphors become idols.

In 1993 there was conference called Re-Imagining held in Minneapolis.  More than 2,200 people attended from 27 countries.  The conference was three years in the planning.  It was held at the midway point in the World Council of Churches’ Decade in Solidarity with Women, 1988-1998.  This decade of Solidarity followed the UN Decade on Women, 1975-85, which promoted equal rights globally but had little impact on churches.

The Re-imagining conference celebrated and affirmed women in church leadership – and you will remember that from the ’60s those doors were just beginning to creak open.  Margaret Reid Martin was the first woman ordained in the PCANZ in 1965.  But the first woman Moderator of PCANZ, Joan Anderson (proudly from this parish), was not ordained until 1979.  Other churches though were much slower.  Note that since Joan there have been only 3 women moderators, and 23 men.

The purpose of the Re-imagining Conference however was to demonstrate and disseminate current theology and practice that incorporated feminist methods.  To this end many of the world’s leading female theologians were present.  In brief, feminist theology perceived the longstanding exclusion of women and women’s perspectives from organized religion to stem from more deeply-rooted linguistic and doctrinal practices that sanctified images of God that privileged things masculine. 

On the one hand for those who were part of academia, or had kept up with theological reading, there was nothing new at the conference.  On the other hand, sharing those ideas and knowledge with participants, and then sharing those ideas with home parishes, caused an immediate, intense, and lasting backlash, the effects of which are still felt today.  It was as if suddenly many of the denominational power-holders realised how threatening the principle of women’s equal value could be when it came to expression in religious language and practice.  What was being enunciated in Minneapolis was a different way[s] of reading the Bible, doing theology, understanding the role of women in the church, and women in the world.

At the conference God was invoked by names different from those commonly used in the churches, including “Father,” “Son,” “Lord,” and “King.”  The conference explored and presented alternative names and images  — from the Bible, from other religious traditions, and from women’s religious experience — that depicted God in a feminine frame.  Yet it was the name ‘Sophia’ that critics latched on to.  Sophia is found in the Book of Proverbs and is a Greek translation, Hagia Sophia, of Divine or Holy Wisdom. 

The conference organisers were well aware that a communion service at an ecumenical gathering would be highly problematic so an alternate ritual using honey and milk was devised.

In the post-conference furore publications such as the United Methodist Good News and The Presbyterian Layman [yes, in 1993 there were still magazines with names like that!] described the conference having pagan goddess worship, and the use of milk and honey as a gross replacement for traditional bread and wine.  Much of the criticism was a deliberate misconstrual. 

Since a number of the conference speakers questioned certain Christian doctrines, which detractors recognized as essential tenets or fundamentals, like “the atonement,” the conference was labelled and criticised as a place where heretical views were championed and applauded.

It is possible that the most heretical act of the conference was the one called out by the Presbyterian Revd Dr James R. Edwards who wrote, “Most distressing, however, was an undisguised intolerance for other viewpoints…  No male voice was heard in four days of the conference (only 83 men attended).”  Women shouldn’t do theology without men!

One of the key organisers of the conference was Mary Ann Lundy, then director of the PCUSA’s Women’s Ministry Unit.  She was the most senior woman in PCUSA leadership at the time.  Following the Conference she was dismissed from her role, the Women’s Ministry Unit was disbanded, the denomination as a whole suffered a $2.5 million decrease in giving.  Other denominations similarly suffered from a withdrawal of support for any enterprise considered ‘feminist’.  The push for inclusive language, which had gained headway in the 1980s – language both for people and for God – took a backward step, not only in parishes but in seminaries.  For conservative Christians the word ‘feminist’ became synonymous with ‘godless’.

What the event of the conference and resulting criticism made clear was that the church was deeply divided theologically and theoretically, between at least two groups: a group on the one hand that believed there is a definitive revelation, well-understood by the tradition of the church, and well-expressed by its traditional language, which establishes the parameters for legitimate and acceptable experience, and which ought to instruct and discipline lives that deviate from those parameters; and a group on the other hand that believes revelation has been in various respects misunderstood, misrepresented, and oppressively communicated throughout the tradition and practice of the church, and needs to be corrected by the experience of suffering to which that misbehaviour has led, especially since that experience is an ongoing vehicle of revelation.  That divide  – what I would summarized as ‘The Word fixed’ vs ‘The Word experienced’ – is still with us, and when one debate finishes and another begins, that divide I suspect will remain.

In Aotearoa New Zealand this re-imagining of both God, language, and how we ‘do Church’ in a way that reflects our values of inclusion and justice was also alive and well.  Many parishes, including all the ones I’ve served in, have been a part of this.  But a tour of other parishes across our land, or in our seminaries, or at our conferences and assemblies reveals quite a different reality.  While there are, thankfully, many more women leaders in our churches now, though often not in the ‘top’ leadership roles (and therefore not being able to be heard or seen to speak on behalf of the denomination), there is an obvious (and painful to many of us) withdrawal for any re-imagining into protecting the maleness of God and the doctrines that support that deity.  In PCANZ God is almost exclusively referred to in male pronouns, and many church leaders don’t even seem to be aware that they are making a theological and political choice in doing so.  I’ve had a number of conversations with ministers who though wishing to understand my ‘strange’ perspective seem to be hearing this for the first time.  There is a big gulf.

Today we remember mothers – our own mothers, mothers in our society, and the joys and responsibilities and support needed in mothering.  Yet I can’t help but think what it would be like if our received tradition had been matriarchal rather than patriarchal, that the norm had been ‘Mother God’ rather than ‘Father God’, and how would the normative systems and practices be different now?  What would it be like to grow up praying to ‘Our Mother which art in heaven’?  Would it make a difference to how we perceive the world, and how we work for love, justice and compassion among and between all?  I would like to think it wouldn’t.  But I think it’d be wrong.  I think the maleness of God permeates the church and more than just the church, and more than just those who purport to believe in any deity.

[i] From mother’s arms, we see the world,

in mother’s arms we look for food,            Isaiah 66: 12-14

she gives us life, she holds us close,     Hosea 11:3-4

and so may God be understood.

This God is tender, loving-kind,

the mother bird who guards her nest,     Psalm 36:7

this God can rage with angry tears,

the mother bear deprived and stressed.  Hosea 13:8

This God is home and warming hearth,

does not forget us when we leave,              Isaiah 49:14-15

is quick to welcome and embrace,

absorbs our pain when we must grieve. 

God is the seeker of that coin,    Luke 15: 8-10

the child she lost but longs to find,

the seamstress God who stitches peace  

from all the tatters we’ve designed.

More than our minds can comprehend

more than our bodies can attest,

God is the love that mothers give

that every child be held and blessed.

Shirley Erena Murray 2015, Tune: O Waly, Waly