John Richardson gives some thought to the language used
at the enthronement of the Bishop of Leicester
AT ONE LEVEL, the decision by the future bishop of Leicester to include in his enthronement service a reference to God as “our mother” might be seen as quite innocuous. As he has pointed out, it is taken from a liturgy used by the Church of the Province of South India and was used (without creating headlines) during the 1998 Lambeth Conference. The reference is a congregational response, “Lead us, Source of all, our Father and our Mother”, and could be seen as nothing more than an acknowledgment that, as Creator, God combines two rôles which in human beings are distributed between fathers and mothers.
Moreover, the Bible itself is capable of using feminine descriptions of masculine persons without any resultant theological controversy. In his lament over Jerusalem, Jesus desired to gather her children “as a hen gathers her brood under her wings” (Matt 23:7). And the Apostle Paul likened himself and his team to “a nurse taking care of her children” (1 Thess 2:7). Yet few would dispute that Paul is clear about his own gender and, equally, no one would imagine that Jesus thinks he is a chicken.
Unfortunately, if newspaper reports are to be believed, the bishop is consciously making a contentious theological point. He refers to using “new images” to talk about God (yet simultaneously cites Julian of Norwich to show that he is doing nothing new!). And he speaks of the need to “stretch our religious vocabulary” in order to “communicate the love of God as widely as possible”.
Certainly others are suspicious of the bishop’s suggestion. Canon Michael Banks, the Chancellor of Leicester Cathedral, has written in the cathedral newsletter that there is “no authority from scripture or tradition to address God as ‘Mother’”. Yet in a world where ‘?inclusive language’ is the norm and ‘sexism’ is a cause for opprobrium, is it not necessary to emphasize what Banks himself calls the “feminine face” of God? And since God has no body, is it not clear that God is beyond gender? Isn’t the Bible’s almost exclusively masculine language for God a hangover from a patriarchal past that must be critiqued in the present as the Spirit leads us deeper into the truth?
If we are to insist on using gendered language for God, we need more than an uneasiness about feminism to justify this. As a preliminary observation, therefore, it is noteworthy that the world in which the Bible came to be written was well aware of the possibility of feminine deities. Nor were the Jews culturally inured to such deities by their supposedly ‘patriarchal’ outlook. The sin of Solomon was that he “went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians” (1 Kg 11:5). And presumably he was not the only Israelite tempted in that direction!
Doubtless there was far more theological variety available to the inhabitant of the Ancient Near East than there is to the modern Westerner. The previous acceptance by our own culture of a ‘?masculinized’ God may have been thoughtless before now, but this was hardly likely to have been true in early Israel. Moreover, if we accept Scripture as the word of God this all suggests that its choice of language about God himself is neither merely ignorant nor sinful. So what does the Bible tell us about God’s gender, and what will we lose if we reject this?
The Image of God
One of the most extraordinary statements in the Bible occurs in Genesis 1:27: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”? Commentators have debated the structure of this verse, but the poetic parallelism seems to link the notion of “male and female” to the “image” referred to earlier. Yet this statement undergoes no immediate elaboration. We are simply left asking, “In what sense, if at all, do male and femaleness ‘image’ God to us?” Karl Barth famously tried to link this to the relational aspect of male and female interaction. But the passage itself makes no immediate comment.
However, as Scripture unfolds, we find that gendered language is not only used of God individually but is applied to the relationship between God and Israel. And this should not surprise us. Gender is, after all, not merely a matter of difference but of complementarity. Maleness consists not simply in size and shape but has significance specifically in relation to femaleness – and, of course, vice versa. To posit a theologically justifiable ‘he’ is to assume an equally justifiable ‘she’ – otherwise our gendered language is indeed born of mere convention and properly lies open to the accusation of ‘sexism’.
In the Bible, that corresponding ‘she’ is the people of God. Certain key passages bear witness to this, such as Isaiah 62:4, Ezekiel 16:8 (cf 38) or Hosea 2:14-16. And the concept is, of course, carried over into the New Testament where Christ is hailed as, and identifies himself as, the bridegroom (Jn 3:29-30; Mk 2:19-20). The most theologically explicit passage in this respect, however, is Ephesians 5:22-33. Here Scripture states that Genesis 2:24 points forward to the revelation of the relationship between Christ and the church. The ultimate resolution to the question of how ‘man’ as male and female ‘images’ God is therefore Christological. He is ‘he’ in relation to the church as ‘she’. The male-to-female relationship of marriage corresponds to, and illustrates for us, the relationship between Creator and creation and Redeemer and redeemed.
The Bride and Mother
By the same token, as the collective people of God is analogous to his bride in relationship to him, so this bride is analogous to a mother in relation to the individual believer (cf; Isa 50:1; Jer 22:26; Ezek 19:1-2; 23:2; Hos 2:2-5; 4:5; Gal 4:26, contra Rev 17:5). It would be wrong to conclude from this that an earthly organization called ‘the church’ is to be obeyed unquestioningly. We know from Scripture and experience that this church is still spotted and defiled by sin. It is the fiancée of Christ, but not yet the wife (cf 2 Cor 11:2). However, (insofar as these distinctions are in any sense meaningful) as the church is mother to the believer and bride to God, so God is husband, and not wife, to the church and Father, and not mother, to the believer.
Yet some would argue that the gender rôles should be interchangeable. Is it not appropriate to say God is our Mother and Wife, since mothers and wives are no less significant than fathers and husbands? The answer is that this is not a matter of significance in the sense of ‘status’?, but of signification. A wife is as important as a husband, but a wife is not a husband, nor is a mother a father. Therefore the use of these terms evokes different associations and responses.
It is a great irony that, in the search for the so-called ‘gay gene’, the heterosexual chromosome has been entirely overlooked. We have been asked to believe that an unknown, and indeed hypothetical, fragment of a chromosome is responsible for fundamentally influencing sexual orientation. Yet staring us in the face is the Y chromosome, unique to males and potentially responsible for innumerable differences between men and women. Given our knowledge of genetics, it is highly improbable a priori that men and women are otherwise indistinguishable, though sexually differentiated. And indeed common sense and simple observation bears this out. Despite the best efforts of our re-educators, boys and girls remain stubbornly so, if increasingly marred emotionally and spiritually by their attentions.
Biology tells us that gender differentiation is a reality. Psychology gives us some insight into what this might mean at the level of personality. But only theology can tell us its deeper significance. And this significance is that, in their interrelationships as parent or spouse, men and women model different aspects of the divine ‘give and take’ which occurs between God and the people of God. It is not our right to challenge this, but it is our privilege to accept it.
If we insist on overthrowing this understanding, as the church is in danger of doing, we will no longer be able to speak coherently of God. We know of no ‘personhood’ which is not gendered. Certainly there is no human person who is co-equally both ‘he’ and ‘she’?. If, therefore, we treat these terms as interchangeable in referring to God, we will in fact create an image of a ‘god’ which cannot correspond to our normal use of language. If we cease referring to God exclusively as ‘he’, the only viable options are, with similar exclusivity, to call God ‘she’ or ‘it’. On the day when God becomes ‘he or she’? we must admit that we do and can know significantly less of God than we imagined.
By the same token, we would also know less of ourselves for, as Calvin pointed out in the opening chapters of the Institutes, the knowledge of God and the knowledge of self are co-dependent. The believer whose God is a Mother and Wife would, as C S Lewis observed, not be a Christian believer. But the believer without Father or Mother – which is the only option truly available if we ‘?de-gender’ God – is indeed a spiritual orphan.
Finally, it must be said that bishops bear a considerable responsibility in this area. Liturgy puts words in people’s mouths and (hence) concepts in their minds, which is why the Reformation in England was a liturgical movement. A cavalier attitude by bishops towards liturgy is to be deplored – as it would no doubt be a matter for discipline were the bishops themselves to be critical of an innovation in a parish. By all means let us have liturgical variety, but let us beware of liturgical Trojanism. Once again the need is demonstrated for a process of episcopal discipline. We must remember that Peter was a fallible “co-elder” ( 1 Pe 5:1). Recognition of this limitation by those who seek to follow him would restore a healthiness to the church which it currently lacks.
John Richardson is Senior Assistant Minster at St John’s, Stratford Broadway in the diocese of London.