Comments: God - he or she?

As Our Saviour has taught us so we pray: Our Father.... No more need be said!

Posted by Benedict at Tuesday, 2 June 2015 at 9:52pm BST

Poor Julian of Norwich now condemned as a dangerous radical.

Posted by Richard Ashby at Tuesday, 2 June 2015 at 10:08pm BST

Labels are important. Otherwise I'd make some very big mistakes in the kitchen.

After being offered a lot of choice of articles by TA, I decided to read only a few and, of those, Kate Bottley's was articulate and had the added bonus of mentioning the very nutritious, and lean, kangaroo meat. Thanks Kate. I'll throw another kangaroo steak on the barbie!

Posted by Pam at Tuesday, 2 June 2015 at 10:47pm BST

Just for the record, it is my understanding that Jesus didn't speak English and never taught anyone to pray "Our Father ..."

Posted by Mark Bennet at Tuesday, 2 June 2015 at 10:56pm BST

Genesis 1:26-27
26 Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’
27 So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

So female is clearly included as being created by God in the image of God. Yup. No more need be said. It's way past time for inclusive language that is more truthful.

Posted by Cynthia at Tuesday, 2 June 2015 at 10:57pm BST

Ah yes, Benedict, as it always has been, so must it ever be. What an excellent argument.

'Tis not G*d we in the CofE worship but the Almighty Status Quo.

Posted by DBD at Tuesday, 2 June 2015 at 11:29pm BST

Those who find controversy in the use of female imagery and metaphors in addressing The Divine are rather late to the party, the articles listed here above notwithstanding. Janet Morley, for example, published All Desires Known: Prayers Uniting Faith and Feminism, in 1988.

"All you works of God, bless your creator,
praise her and glorify her forever."

(Benedicite from All Desires known

Posted by Rod Gillis at Tuesday, 2 June 2015 at 11:57pm BST

Personally, I have no problem with the particular orthodoxy of attributing male pronouns to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, but English - unlike many other languages - does not denote gender in the definite article. It is worth remembering that Proverbs (where Wisdom is female) was written in Hebrew which does classify nouns in this way; as does Spanish, where the Most Holy Trinity is grammatically female: La Santisima Trinidad. I haven't done any polling but I can only imagine that some Spanish women think that's good enough for them.

I don't think anyone is attributing genitals to the Godhead, nor indeed to the Father and the Holy Spirit (though clearly Jesus was genetically male). But that in itself leaves room for manoeuvre within spirituality to perceive and express the female (or should one say feminine?) characteristics to be observed across the spectrum of God's creation. There is room, too, for sparing use of, for example, 'God's love for God's people' which grates if used to excess. I happen not to agree with the alleged assertion that some women may feel less Christian unless they hear feminine attributions. That may be specifically a feminist opinion or perception. But I think these relative rarities, which mainly didn't afflict our parents and grandparents, are probably a good deal rarer than those men AND women for whom the image of God as Father is hard to accept based on their personal family experiences.

So, no willies apart from Jesus, but certainly NOT 'no more need be said'. You can't just shut down a subject (not least on TA) in such a manner.

Posted by Peter Edwards at Wednesday, 3 June 2015 at 12:13am BST

Benedict: He alsoo told us to render to Caesar; there being no more Caesar, I assume your view would be that it is no longer necessary to pay taxes? Or did Jesus speak in the language and idiom of His time?

Posted by Nathaniel Brown at Wednesday, 3 June 2015 at 1:06am BST

A new religion is born - CHRISTA-INSANITY.

Posted by Father David at Wednesday, 3 June 2015 at 4:28am BST

All it takes is to most politely, in faintest voice, raise a *question* of gendered theological language, and misogynists come out of the woodwork in DROVES. ["infestation": one of the least offensive descriptions for women by Torygraph commenters] Mercy...

Posted by JCF at Wednesday, 3 June 2015 at 5:24am BST

Am I the only one getting worried about the now frequent and unexamined assumption that the first chapter of Genesis is a clear indication that neither gender on its own is the image of God? I am utterly unable to put any orthodox construction on it and it is ever so frequently alleged among evangelicals and RC conservatives. Where does it come from? It's not patristic. It's never been defined by any council. It's the hub of so many an anti-gay arguments, like Gagnon's, Ian Paul's, More Issues etc...

Posted by Lorenzo Fernandez-Vicente at Wednesday, 3 June 2015 at 5:50am BST

Benedict, so Jesus spoke English did he? Or should we restrict our statements of belief to only use koine Greek and Hebrew?

Posted by Jon at Wednesday, 3 June 2015 at 5:52am BST

It'd flatly contradict the RC Catechism, for instance, cf. article 1701. The image of God is fully present in every human, albeit defaced.

Posted by Lorenzo Fernandez-Vicente at Wednesday, 3 June 2015 at 5:52am BST

There seems to have been quite shift between the 2011 document and what has emerged from the Piccadilly event. First, the 2011 event was addressed by more recognised professional theologians. The Piccadilly event (with the exception of Linda Woodhead who is, arguably, a sociologist of religion) had no professional theologians. That puts the whole forum at a distinct disadvantage. When Sarah Coakley spoke in 2011 about the ‘deep suppurating wound’ of theological incoherence surrounding the ministry of women, this seems to have been compounded by the Piccadilly event, precisely because the lack of professional theological insight seems to have fuelled a sense of frustration and (if the reports are accurate) anger.

As David Jenkins famously reminded us in the 80's, theology (i.e. our attempts to describe and face the reality of God) is one big language game. Confident theological perspectives, with a strong grasp of historical theology and the development of doctrine, biblical theology and, significantly, patristic thought, would have brought a far more grounded and insightful perspective to bear on how the male metaphors for God are more negotiable than we imagine. I wonder, also, how many of the people present use Common Worship Daily Prayer with its rich use of feminine imagery - not least in the canticles.

But put a group of 'campaigners' together, without the insights of theological rigour, and it's no wonder the media are portraying the event as an opportunity to throw toys out of prams because the Church is not 'playing our tune.' This issue is too important to be allowed to become WATCH's latest noise. It's time for the campaigners to stand back and the allow the House of Bishops to reconvene the Doctrine Commission, under the chairmanship of Sarah Coakley, Simon Oliver or Graham Ward (there is currently no serving diocesan bishop competent to chair it) with membership including Alison Millbank, Jane Williams, Ann Loades and Elaine Graham. Only then can we 'search the depths of God's being' with faithfulness to Scripture, Tradition and Reason.

Posted by SImon R at Wednesday, 3 June 2015 at 9:08am BST

Simon R:
Where to start?
1. We have a successor to the doctrine commission, chaired by + Chris Cocksworth who has a PhD in liturgical theology.
2. WATCH works with many theologians and Emma Percy is currently a committee member. However, others of us involved in WATCH are full time teachers of theology.
3. The original Transformations event at Lambeth in 2011 had plenary addresses by Sarah Coakley, Paula Gooder and Mary Gray-Reeves. All these were very good but none really addressed language for God as I recall.
4. The seminar on liturgy and gender, from which this current debate may be seen to derive by a slightly convoluted route, was led by myself and Janet Morley. It was informed in part by the PhD work on inclusive language in CW undertaken by Julie Nelson and myself.
4. Both Julie and I conclude that there is inclusive language for God in CW but it is 'hidden' in texts which are (very) optional. Only in rare cases (like Prayer G - misnamed Prayer D in some of the press reports etc.) is there a female image for the divine in a text likely to be used frequently.

Posted by Charles Read at Wednesday, 3 June 2015 at 9:58am BST

First "Reformation and Renewal" and now "Transformation". Both seem to me to lack any coherent grounding. The "Transformation" steering group is in real danger of appearing like a frustrated rump who need to remind the Church that they're still here because a younger generation of women, who have different priorities and visions, is overtaking them and becoming more influential. Yes, of course, women have had to fight for equality of ordination (of sorts... we're not anywhere near it yet); but let's stop beating up the younger generation who haven't had to fight previous battles - and don't need to be burdened with the visceral scars that others still bear. I can't honestly imagine this kind of juvenile foot stamping is going to make any impact with anyone except the metrosexual set who worship in places like St James's, Piccadilly. The history of Christian imagery, language and symbolism is far richer (and less overtly male) than The Transformers admit - and I, for one, would like to see greater engagement with the totality of Christian tradition. Otherwise, this is just going to become another ecclesiastical club, alongside groups like Reform and Forward in Faith, for those with unresolved "issues".

Posted by Colin Graham at Wednesday, 3 June 2015 at 10:03am BST

Simon R, I think you highlight an important issue, relevant not just to this issue.

If there is no serving bishop competent to chair, what happened to our theological leadership?

I would, however, also agree with the complementary point which is made well by Kate Bottley. In the past the theology might have been more sound, but the communication to the man and woman on the proverbial Clapham omnibus has still failed.

Posted by Ian Paul at Wednesday, 3 June 2015 at 10:58am BST

Whatever else may be said, this Faith Debate has been impressively effective. To get the national secular press talking about what God is like must rate as a major achievement. The gender issue has turned out to be exactly the kind of hook popular journalism could latch onto and do some theology. Not the church version that some here seem to be arguing for - Christian imagery, language and symbolism are alien religious artifacts for most of us - but trying to make sense of God in contemporary non-church mindsets.

If campaigning on any issue raises the profile of this kind of theology it's probably good for the semi/post-church and "spiritual not religious" demographics. How receptive the Church of England can be to it is another question. For every Kate Bottley able to talk credibly about being a vicar it seems there are a mass of voices able only to express theology in terms of effectively inpenetrable ecclesiology.

The last thing the Church needs is another Doctrine Commission, unless to ratify that the C of E is no longer a doctrine-producing institution. "A Church that teaches" has no point if its constituency rejects the idea of being taught, which I think is the case with ideas about God and morality. What's needed is a Constitution Commission to begin the process of re-inventing the C of E for a post-doctrinal secular context. Either that or, I suspect, "get ready for elimination" (Dylan reference).

Posted by David Marshall at Wednesday, 3 June 2015 at 12:42pm BST

I think there are two very strong God as female references in the NT (not listed by Ian Paul or the scholar he references):

(1) 1 Peter (not by Peter) 2.2-3 'like newborn babes, desire the undeceptive milk of the word, if indeed you have tasted (maintaining milk metaphor) that the Lord is good'. Here the milk is Jesus (and the word 'chrestos' puns on 'Christos'), whose 'mother' is God, and 'Lord' is both God and Jesus.

(2) James (possibly even Jesus' brother) 1.15-18 'then desire [feminine] when it has conceived [female] gives birth to [tikto can be used of both male and female)sin [feminine], and sin when it comes to fruition gives birth to [of females] death ... 17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is ... from the father of lights, 18 he gave birth to us of his own will' (i.e. he didn't need a partner in willingness: this is an autosexual act). So he's both father AND mother.

Posted by John at Wednesday, 3 June 2015 at 1:24pm BST

Mark Bennett, would you like to find me one reference in the Bible that does describe God as "her" or "she" in English, Hebrew, Greek or indeed in any other language.Jesus does refer to God as His Father. For that, there are any number of references.

Posted by Benedict at Wednesday, 3 June 2015 at 1:52pm BST

It is fascinating to me that many who are able to accept images of God as various as she-bear, mother hen, mountain, fortress, slave-master, king, rock, volcano, and so on seem to balk at Mother.

Of course, this is a case of what the New Yorker magazine used to call "Block that Metaphor." All of these images are meant to tell us something about God and the nature of God, and none of them are meant to be pressed into literality. But the other odd thing is that some of the same folks who want to press the marital imagery in Ephesians into concrete reality are also the ones who balk at the merest suggestion of a "mothering" side to God.

FWIW, on the other question, yes: it is utterly heterodox to suggest that a male and a female are both required to embody the image of God. Each individual human being does so, though it is sometimes hard to see.

Posted by Tobias Haller at Wednesday, 3 June 2015 at 2:30pm BST

Strange discussion. We have had women bishops in Canada for more than 20 years, but this doesn't seem to be an issue. Indeed two women are nominated for the election on Saturday of a successor to the Bishop of Montreal but neither has suggested a change in gender for God, thank goodness(or God)!

Posted by Peter Denis at Wednesday, 3 June 2015 at 3:01pm BST

It seems to me that this discussion falls into a trap of assuming that 'Father' is a metaphor among metaphors. Unfortunately, it is not that simple, because the God Christians worship is not just 'God' but 'the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ'. This is in fact the Name of God. It seems to me that, as much as non masculine metaphors of God can and should be used liturgically (Prayer G h/t Charles Read), faithfulness requires us to hold to the 'F' word. Maternal metaphors are fine, but not adequate.

Posted by Simon Butler at Wednesday, 3 June 2015 at 3:31pm BST

Julian of Norwich wrote "Jesus Christ therefore, who himself overcame evil with good, is our true Mother." It is rather old hat (as they say). Moreover to confine God to one sex or the other would be to restrict that same God who would not longer be God.

Posted by James Barnett at Wednesday, 3 June 2015 at 4:15pm BST

Good point well made, Simon Butler, reminding us that the Almighty is "God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ" NOT His mother. No one seems yet to have mentioned the essential role played by the Blessed Virgin Mary, Theotokos, Mother of God. What a highly complex and complicated DNA the supreme deity undoubtedly has.

Posted by Father David at Wednesday, 3 June 2015 at 4:27pm BST

I would demur from saying that "Father" is the "name of God." "Father" is a title or form of address, and is used as a placeholder (in the genitive) in such phrases as "in the Name of the Father...." and (in the vocative) "Our Father." I think that only in the North is "Our" applied to a proper name, and though Galilee is to the north of Jerusalem, I have some difficulty hearing our Lord with a Yorkshire accent. (Though my ancestors hailed from there and I love the sound of it!)

I don't mean to be frivolous, but this seems to me to be pressing language far too far, as if we had somehow encapsulated God in a form of words rather than accepting that God became incarnate in only one very particular Word. If I want to give a "name" to God, I will use Jesus.

Posted by Tobias Haller at Wednesday, 3 June 2015 at 4:39pm BST

Simon Butler: Thank you for putting it so clearly. "Maternal metaphors are fine, but not adequate." Isn't that exactly the point? Paternal metaphors are fine, but they too are not adequate. We are ALL made in the image of God. God is male AND female, Father AND Mother. It is the paucity of our gendered language which creates the dilemma for us.

Posted by Anne at Wednesday, 3 June 2015 at 5:18pm BST

@ Simon butler, something of a circular argument. All Language about God is analogous.

Posted by Rod Gillis at Wednesday, 3 June 2015 at 5:57pm BST

Benedict - the main point is that there is a hermeneutical distance. The word "father" has a different domain of meaning in English from the meanings of the different words it translates. Part of this relates to other words or expressions which may exist in the language to express similar relationships - daddy, dad, papa, old man, baby father etc etc. Another part relates to the different social context of fatherhood.

St Paul has the idea that we are adopted, and St John says we are children of God but not by human agency (John 1, John 3 - where Jesus explains this to Nicodemus) - so when we use the father image scripture itself steers us a way from biological notions of fatherhood.

In Biblical terms, speaking of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob immediately invokes a notion of fatherhood associated with the patriarchs of Israel - those from whom the people inherit their identity - and that notion of fatherhood is absent in the normal connotations of the English word.

You will find the image of the mother hen gathering her chicks as a description of God's care for Jerusalem in Luke 13 and parables like the lost coin (contrast the lost sheep - and the shepherd image which is often in the foreground).

In Genesis 1 it is clear that both male and female are made in the image of God.

So my issue is not that we should change our language completely, but that the English word "father" doesn't capture completely and accurately what was originally meant by the word - and also that even though this is a dominant image in tradition neither Jesus nor the Bible reduce the idea of God so that it is contained within the idea of fatherhood. So we can't just say "Father. QED"

Posted by Mark Bennet at Wednesday, 3 June 2015 at 7:16pm BST

I seem to remember this argument from more than thirty years ago. The idea that God, (being 'God') is exclusively male, is obviously preposterous; as is the idea that she is exclusively female! God is God. Simples!

Posted by stephen morgan at Wednesday, 3 June 2015 at 7:57pm BST

Thank you Cynthia on Tuesday, 2 June 2015 at 10:57pm BST!
I don't know whether the Hebrew of Genesis 1:27 is a compound sentence or three short sentences, but the logic is absolutely straight-line and inescapable. Women are made in God's image. Period. It’s my favorite passage on the subject of God’s gender AND the fundamental equality of men and women.
God is both and neither male and/or female.
Both male and female, because God cannot create that which God is incapable of knowing. Just as one simply can't walk up to a computer and tell it "play a game of chess". Someone had to program that computer to do so. Someone knowledgeable of chess. Likewise, God cannot create that which God has no conception (pun intended) of. So, God has masculine and feminine attributes.
Neither male nor female, because God has no beginning and no end. God just is, therefore has no need for male or female to continue God’s line.
God is beyond our ability to understand, otherwise God wouldn’t be God. Masculine, feminine are mere metaphors.

Posted by peterpi - Peter Gross at Wednesday, 3 June 2015 at 8:08pm BST

@ Benedict, "Jesus does refer to God as His Father."

Father is a title. Titles, whether for God or for Jesus, have a degree of cultural and historical context. Such titles often function, not so much to express abstract essence, but rather to make claims that are comparative or relational.

Interestingly, the titles King, savior, and shepherd are applied in scripture to both the God of Israel and Jesus. Ezekiel, for instance, describes God as the gold standard for the shepherd king of Israel in a way that the monarchy of the day was not presumably. The lord (God) is a shepherd in terms of a relationship with the flock. Jesus is titled both savior and lord, and presumably is so in a way that the emperor is not, but in a manner that is referential to God. The title father placed on the lips of Jesus, whether pater or abba, is an analogous expression for a relationship.

The use of the term "father" by Jesus says something about both the authority of Jesus and the freedom of Jesus to be who he is, and to be understood as such,within his cultural context.

The use of "mother" as a title for God can also have the very same implications. It's use, which follows Jesus not verbatim but by example, allows women, for instance, the option of expressing a relationship with God that may make greater sense of their experience. It also may lend emphasis to the authority of women to name God for themselves rather than fit themselves into a strictly patriarchal paradigm.

One notes as well a kind of key note title for God as creator in direct relationship to human beings who are created male and female in the very image of the creator.

One wonders if perhaps Jesus was absent a "father figure", with the role eventually filled spiritually by intimacy with the God of Israel. Hence, Jesus refers to God as pater and abba, and, according to John, reassures his friends upon his departure that he will not leave them orphaned.

Posted by Rod Gillis at Wednesday, 3 June 2015 at 8:08pm BST

I strongly commend Elizabeth Johnson's 'She Who Is'.

Personally, I believe that Godde transcends gender, but expresses, feels, and understands everything it is to be female, and everything it is to be male.

I am equally relaxed about referring to Godde as 'He' or 'She' though my favourite nomenclature tries to express that essence that drives right down the middle between 'God' and 'Goddess' and transcends both.

Godde is sort of there in the middle of the two words, with their traditional gender suggestions. I also like it because of its sound of something from ancient times in our language.

Explained here: http://www.Godde.com

No offence intended, just my personal view and feelings.

Posted by Susannah Clark at Wednesday, 3 June 2015 at 8:35pm BST

@Simon Butler: I would say that both maternal and paternal metaphors are necessary, but neither is sufficient. God uses maternal imagery, speaking through Isaiah: "as a mother comforts her child so will I myself comfort you".

Posted by Jo at Wednesday, 3 June 2015 at 9:22pm BST

There was a fair amount of interest in "The Shack" by William P Young a few years ago - anyone remember that?

To Simon Butler - "the" name of God? How about the name revealed to Moses, or the trinitarian name of God. The commandment against images of God is a potential warning against over-identifying the reality of God with who we imagine God to be (in our fallen human nature). The commandments enjoin care in the use of "the" name of God. So your comment on naming ought, perhaps, to come with a warning.

Posted by Mark Bennet at Wednesday, 3 June 2015 at 9:41pm BST

My unease with Kate Bottley's point (@ Ian Paul) and the constant clamour for 'accessibility' of language, especially when we're talking about God, is the obvious danger of reducing mystery to the prosaic. Surely, we can all think of episodes of Christian history (and religious history generally) where a primary concern with ease of comprehension has fuelled fundamentalist tendencies, and (as Schleiermacher famously remarked) leads to tighter definition and greater certainty with the proscription of the mysterious. Liberals are as prone to this as anyone else. The fundamental task of theology, surely, is not to constantly simplify and provide fodder for the mass media; it is to invite human beings to contemplate the reality of God who (in Gregory of Nyssa's insight) is not so much an object to be understood as a mystery to be loved.

Posted by SImon R at Thursday, 4 June 2015 at 7:59am BST

The reaction of some of my flock to this debate has been to drive them even more strongly towards the (catholic) flying bishops. 'The faith as we have received it ...' It would be interesting to know how many parishes are signing up under the new arrangements. And how many will sign up for oversight by the Bishop of Maidstone.

Posted by Fr William at Thursday, 4 June 2015 at 8:25am BST

Simon R
I find your comment fascinating! For me, the insistence that God is male and must be addressed as He, is more likely to reduce the mystery to the prosaic.
Sometimes, we can be so comfortable with the way we express things that we no longer think deeply about the underlying meaning.

The simple suggestion that God might occasionally be referred to as she has resulted in a fascinating debate about the nature of God. That alone has helped to highlight the mystery of it all.

Posted by Erika Baker at Thursday, 4 June 2015 at 10:19am BST

With all due respect to @Charles Read, 'Full time teachers of Theology' (of which there seem to be many on various courses and schemes these days) are not the same as those who hold a chair of theology in a mainstream university. Until this debate is lead and given appropriate weight and authority by those who are recognised as authoritative by the academy, rather than sections of the Church (as, say, Ramsey, Habgood, Williams, Coakley, Rowell & co), I fear the Piccadilly Westminster Debate will be seen as little more than another movement of disaffection.

Posted by Will Richards at Thursday, 4 June 2015 at 10:21am BST

@Simon R:
Isn't the fundamental task of theology to make sense? I agree God is not an object, but neither is God divorced from human reality. God in Christian tradition is never less than the creator/first cause of all that is. As such the mystery associated with God is not that different to gravity and causation in general. Focusing on uniquely human attributes attached to God through stories (like the biblical narratives) artificially creates distance from everyday reality. It prevents what can be known about God making sense. Yes, gravity is mysterious but I don't think we struggle much with the fact that it's real. It should be the same with God. There's no good reason to locate God in some other-worldly sacred plane of mystery.

Posted by David Marshall at Thursday, 4 June 2015 at 10:46am BST

Will:
well we are back to another debate! I am very supportive of university theology and have two theology degrees from a good university (soon I hope a third to complete the set!) They have been a good grounding for Christian ministry but also for much else. However, there are other equally good ways of approaching theology which work with 'the academy' approach.

We are not lacking in university theologians writing about the issues at hand. My shelves are full of their stuff. Indeed, as others have noted, this in no new debate, even if the Daily Mail thinks it all happened last week!

and as you say, we have quite a number of staff teaching on courses and in colleges nowadays. There is no shortage of theological expertise in the Church of England, if only the Church were to appreciate it more!

Posted by Charles Read at Thursday, 4 June 2015 at 12:04pm BST

I guess one of the problems for those who crave an exclusive masculine nature for God, is that they see the male as the Boss. In today's society, when this is not necessarily so; can we not just envisage a God who is All things to All people.

Surely Mother Julian was not wrong to address the Deity as Father/Mother God ?

And what about Jesus, saying that He would be like a mother hen looking after her chicks?

Surely, in the divine there must be the possibility of fusion? God, after all, is ONE.

Posted by Father Ron Smith at Thursday, 4 June 2015 at 12:18pm BST

As both a 'hard' and a 'soft' liberal ('soft' in wanting everybody reasonable to be happy within the C of E and everybody reasonable to be given due representation), I'm disturbed by Fr William's comment. On the one hand, everybody has a right to discuss what they like and say what they think (and, from a historical perspective, even a 'now' perspective, women more than most). On the other hand, immediate mass communication now ratchets things up. On the other hand again, we should all say (if we can say it) that these discussions don't affect fundamentals and nobody should be scared or outraged.

Posted by John at Thursday, 4 June 2015 at 12:34pm BST

@David Marshall raises some helpful points. I'm not sure that I suggested mystery is divorced from human reality (we speak of the incarnation as a mystery, for example, precisely because we cannot claim to know everything there is to know about it). I would never want to say that mystery and reality are mutually exclusive (heretical, surely?). This is why sacramental theology has a key role in this debate because we are attempting to say how the raw realities of human flesh and blood stand in relation to the eternal nature and identity of God and God's disclosure in - and to - the world. Absolutely, I agree that a task of theology is to 'make sense.' But it is also to take us beyond what is - and can be - known and understood. That is why (what seems like)a rather blunt demand for female imagery for God can only be part of a much wide-ranging discussion.

Posted by Simon R at Thursday, 4 June 2015 at 1:54pm BST

Picking up on Mark Bennett's point about idolatry (3rd June 9.41pm), I was reminded of a point made by the Jewish theologian Lionel Kochan (Beyond the Graven Image: A Jewish View, 1997, p97) that 'what constitutes an idol depends on no inherent attribute, solely on its context and relationship.' Surely worth noting in this debate?

Posted by Michael Mulhern at Thursday, 4 June 2015 at 2:02pm BST

@Simon R: A traditionally orthodox perspective does hold its mysteries to be realities. That's the essential assertion of sacramental theology. Traditional metaphors have become sacred and original context and limits on applicability have been superceded by dogmatic attachment.

Anything beyond what can be known and understood is personal experience - no less real, but subjectively so. Whatever ontological claims are made for it, and for sacraments and incarnational theology in general, they have no non-subjective basis. That's why they make so little sense outside the Church, and why objections to female imagery for God are so hard to understand when gender equality is so reasonable.

Posted by David Marshall at Thursday, 4 June 2015 at 11:10pm BST

I'm energised by the Simon R/David Marshall conversation. It seems we have two people coming, broadly, from the 'Protestant' and 'Catholic' ends of the spectrum but not quite meeting in the middle. That, I suggest, is precisely why we need a Doctrine Commission and some more serious work done on the debate(as Gavin D'Costa might put it) about 'sexing the Trinity.' Of course, Sarah Coakley's recent study of the Trinity 'God, Sexuality and the Self' is as good a starting point as any.

However, I do take issue with David Marshall in his contention that the work of theologians is no good unless it makes sense outside the Church. Surely, the Church's theologians are there to give the ecclesia a coherent linguistic, doctrinal and liturgical framework from which we then seek to engage, contextually, with the wider world. Simple answers to supposedly simple questions will only take us so far. Which is why, as others have already said, crudely resorting to female imagery which is disconnected from the historic experience of the Church and its theological sources, is a questionable starting point. More theology, please; less placard-waving.

Posted by James A at Friday, 5 June 2015 at 1:44pm BST

James (A),

People have been doing the theology for ages. If we want to engage with the wider world, it would help to recognise that certain theological previously 'untouchables' are indeed stumbling blocks for ordinary and intelligent people in the world.

Elizabeth Johnson, the Canadian Catholic theologian, has explored the whole subject of 'gendering God' in really intelligent and coherent manner (see 'She Who Is').

She hasn't had much thanks for it from the Catholic hierarchy, but that doesn't make the work less relevant to the wider world... just the opposite.

I think it is incorrect in this day and age to suppose that the theology has not and is not being done... just that perhaps ecclesiastical establishments resist the logic and justice of the theology which is being done, and which is urgently needed.

Posted by Susannah Clark at Friday, 5 June 2015 at 8:28pm BST

A ton of work has been done on feminist theology. The resistance on the part of the male hierarchy to take it seriously does not mean that it hasn't happened! To suggest so is certainly to buy into the gazillion Facebook memes that have women uttering brilliant ideas that are only taken seriously when a man utters it as if it is his own, brilliant, idea.

One might start with the Cambridge Companion to Feminist Theology. A look at the table of contents, however, show that it is not all encompassing. The Johnson book that has been mentioned, She Who Is, is terrific. A ton of work has been coming out of the US since at least the 1980's. Some of it includes the wildly provocative Mary Daly, and the more tame and scholarly Rosemary Radford Ruether and Sallie McFague. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza's In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins, is mind blowing.

There are a lot of great writings out there. It seems to me like the English enjoy re-inventing the wheel, so here's a journal that might help, Feminist Theology. http://www.uk.sagepub.com/journals/Journal201751

Posted by Cynthia at Saturday, 6 June 2015 at 10:41am BST

Do people here think that the application of male language/imagery to God puts people off coming to church? I find that claim difficult to believe.

As for more theology ... You're never going to get agreement on the matter here under discussion, even (or perhaps especially) with professional theologians on the job. Theology, to put it at its mildest, is not an exact science. On the other hand, theology's engagement with science must be serious and unremitting. That's an area where too few theologians are competent (and where many of them don't even admit the need).

Posted by John at Saturday, 6 June 2015 at 3:35pm BST

That is very interesting and inspiring, Susannah.

Thank you.

And I shall look out the work of Elizabeth Johnson.

As a Roman Catholic myself, I will look forward to reading her contribution.

Posted by Laurence Roberts at Saturday, 6 June 2015 at 4:19pm BST

John, yes, at least in America, some feminists do say they won't go to church because of the masculine nomenclature. On the other hand, just this week I had a couple of missionaries come to my door and try to get me to go to their new church in town. Why is theirs better? Because they always refer to God as Mother or in the feminine. According to them I need to "stop going to a misogynistic corrupt church" and go to the "real" church that worships the loving Mother Goddess..."That's the way to real peace," among other things. After their spiel and the look on their faces when they had to use the word "Him" to refer to Christ, I just can't see a church that uses "mother goddess" language as Christian and if my priest were to start spouting it I'd leave, so I guess fair's fair. Perhaps I should stay away from the cathedral; if a certain bishop's posts about the bishops' retreats are correct, American bishops hate using the "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" and use other "trinities" in their Eucharists among themselves.

Posted by Chris H. at Saturday, 6 June 2015 at 11:38pm BST

Chris, I respect that you find the 'Mother Goddess' terminology upsetting, and I am sure quite a lot of other people do too.

Personally I do not. I don't believe that it's a case of elevating one gendered term above another. I am quite as happy with the term 'Holy Mother' as with the term 'Father God' which is routinely used in many churches.

However, I don't believe one gendered term should be used to the exclusion of the other.

In my personal usage, I quite often use ungendered terms for God like 'Holy One'.

I think there should be space in the church for all these terms to be used.

Personally, I love the mystery that long before we were ever born, Godde knew us and loved us and carried us, and anticipated our birth and our potential.

And that to me is a wonderful, motherly concept.

Posted by Susannah Clark at Sunday, 7 June 2015 at 12:18pm BST


When I was a child: One day I was waiting for a bus on a street corner not far from my home. The brick Church on that same corner was a *different* denomination than I knew and the priest wore a business suit. I assumed he wouldn't know very much when he came out of the Church building but I thought he would be a safe person to ask THE question (I didn't dare ask at Church) that I always had the same question...is God a Male or Female or both? Of course it seemed reasonable in my young mind that GOD would be everything, the all knowing and the ALL being and ALL experienced everything...the non-priest-minister-fellow JUMPED UP AND DOWN and demanded that I understand that GOD was a MAN until my bus arrived! He annoyed me. I didn't believe him and up to this very day I think my question about GOD is 100% bonafide (and maybe more). God, is indeed a greater God than I can conceive of and specific gender is a very SMALL thing!

Posted by Leonardo Ricardo at Monday, 8 June 2015 at 10:01pm BST

Dear Laurence,

I'd like to understand the process by which you have ended up an RC. Until very recently, you were castigating C of E people for homophobia and misogyny, declaring you'd never enter the doors of a C of E church again, and refusing to countenance any notions that people who think homosexual activity wrong aren't necessarily homophobic or that people who reject women's orders aren't necessarily misogynist. Surely, in these respects your current church is substantially worse than the C of E? (That is, at an institutional level - of course, in the RC church, as in the C of E, many people are much better than their leaders.) Please explain.

Posted by John at Tuesday, 9 June 2015 at 8:45am BST
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