A Hymn to God the Mother by Lindsay Llewellyn-MacDuff
What difference would it make if we regularly – in our worship, our preaching, and our everyday conversation – talked about God as ‘she’? I don’t mean all the time, but often – perhaps even 50% of the time. What would it mean if we could talk about God as ‘her’ without sniggering or stropping, but as evenly as we talk about God as ‘him’. What would it do to the way we approach God, or each other?
For some, I suspect, it makes God seem smaller, or more anthropomorphised. As though mucking about with pronouns makes it look as though we’re taking them seriously, as though either were accurate. For so long the default has been masculine (in so many ways) that when we talk about feminine forms and grammar it sounds much more intentional, more personal. ‘He’ for centuries might actually have meant a woman, it just meant we hadn’t bothered to check. ‘She’, on the other hand, means we are sure we are talking about a woman. It is robustly, emphatically, feminine. To use it for God, then – so some might argue – is to make God more female than the masculine pronoun makes him male.
But how we talk affects how we think. Centuries of keeping women linguistically out of the picture has helped keep them out of the picture politically, financially and legally – what the tongue doesn’t mention, the eye needn’t see. Keeping silent about the feminine aspect of God, helps keep our theology androcentric, keeps us thinking, at some level, that God is male, that male images of God are somehow more accurate. Take, for example, the way it was once said that to refer to Christ as ‘made human’ in the creed was to imply a sort of ‘only’, as in ‘only human’. ‘Made man’ was stronger and kept him sounding more divine, more powerful, more pure. The unspoken logic was that if the incarnation is described in a fashion that includes the female half of the race, Christ is somehow made less.
To talk about God as ‘her’ – not all the time, but often – widens our concept of the divine. God ceases to be an old man in the sky, but becomes someone ‘bigger’ than can be described by just one pronoun. She becomes a God of wind and fire and smoke and silence. We can stop crowbarring the Holy Spirit into some sort of false-feminine aspect, but allow the whole Trinity to be ‘she’ from time to time. God becomes the Queen of Heaven, Holy Wisdom, Divine Comforter, still robustly personal, but also more, also beyond us and above us: the Unknowable Incarnate.
And when I think of God as ‘she’, when the ‘thou’ in my heart has a female face, it changes me. I become a creature made in the image of God not only in my most general humanness, but also in my female-ness. I represent Christ, not despite being a woman, but because I am. I, in my priesthood, remind people that Christ is our sister and mother, as well as our brother. As Holy Wisdom she rejoiced alongside the Father as he wrought the universe, as Jesus of Nazareth he wept at the grave of his friend.
For my brothers in Christ, would the feminine pronoun help remind them that God is more than just an ideal man, that God is strange and other, as well as intimately one with us? Bound as we are, to seek out the ‘other’ in one another, would a God more consciously addressed as ‘sister’, be a God more easily met?
Lastly, and most uncomfortably for me, more emphasis on the feminine in God, is a greater emphasis on the vulnerability of God. I loathe the stereo-types that paint the little woman as soft and gentle and defenceless, but like it or not these culture-bound ikons are part of who we are. Allowing God to be the God who weeps, who hurts, who waits – who is a girl – allows those who also weep, and hurt, and wait – male or female – still to be in the image of God: the lover who is spurned. And perhaps, just perhaps, it might weaken the justifications for abuse of power, if the Church proclaims Jesa Christa, crucified.
So, what difference would it make if we, unselfconsciously and naturally, talked about God as ‘she’ as well as ‘he’? I think it would change us all – and perhaps even the world: another mustard seed, from which God can do great things.
by Lindsay Llewellyn-MacDuff, Chaplain to the Bishop of Rochester, and Diocesan Worship Development Adviser