Sunday, July 06, 2008

WATCH with Mother

The General Synod vote on women bishops is tomorrow (Monday), and I hope that it goes through, with some satisfactory framework for people who can't agree with it. I'm in favour of women bishops for 2 reasons:

1. Women are found in church leadership in the New Testament, a fact made all the more striking by their low social status. If you look at the practice of the early church alongside their teaching, their theology of women and authority clearly didn't bar women from church leadership.

2. I'm not entirely sure we're right to exalt bishops so much anyway - again, the New Testament sees churches led by small teams of people, and terms like elder, presbyter and overseer are used pretty much interchangeably. The idea that the order of deacons was founded in Acts 6 is slightly hilarious - 2 of those appointed sit so light to their job description that they'd be sacked under the Clergy Discipline Measure: Philip abandons the food programme to do mission work to foreigners, and Stephen does lots of miracles then gets himself killed.

My main caution over women bishops is when I look at some of the people who support it. There is a lot of wafer-thin theology which talks more about the rights and experience of women than about God. Women and The Church (WATCH) is one of the main campaigning groups. Their website has quite a thorough and concise digest of the main arguments in the bishops debate. They probably cover quite a spectrum of people, but one of the papers on the website, on inclusive language, caught my eye. Here's an extract:

God, Christology and the Church
The constant and uninterrupted use of language which is exclusive
and used repeatedly can be intimidating or even aggressive:
Almighty God, Lord of Power and Might, Everlasting Father,
Dear Lord and Father of Mankind. Intimidation and aggression
do not give life to the people of God called to grow in wisdom
and understanding. We need to use the full range of biblical
images for God, the tender and nurturing as well as the powerful.
Yet we must recognise that our growing includes encouraging
fresh expressions of language for each new generation. The
gospel always has a reforming, reinterpreting edge to it.
“Almost all of the language used in the Bible to refer to God is
metaphor, with the possible exception of holy...There is no point
in pontificating what metaphors like “God as father” ought to
mean. If God metaphors become problematic for a significant
group of people, it is pointless and patronising to tell them they
ought to understand differently”. (What Language Shall I
Borrow” by Brian Wren). God reveals the Godself to us throughout
the scriptures as mother, father, friend, love, wind, fire. And
for some God is more than static noun: God becomes dynamic
verb. We may leave words behind entirely: “The more I walk
with God, the less words about God will do” (John Spong). The
best God metaphors are those that move us deeply and enable
us to encounter and be encountered by the dynamic dance of
incandescent love that Christian experience names as Trinity.

Aside from having a vague worry about anyone who quotes Spong as an authority in theology, there are a number of problems with this approach to language, God and prayer:

1. The problem is not with the language, it's people's interpretation of it. Fair enough, a bad experience of fatherhood will make it more difficult to relate to God as a loving Father, but the idea that the hymn 'Dear Lord and Father' is intimidating or aggressive is bizarre. It's beautiful. These titles belong to the God who is on the side of his people: 'the Almighty God is our fortress' (Psalm 46). What's more, fathers can be 'tender and nurturing' too, and women can be aggressive and intimidating. We don't do ourselves any favours by caricaturing the genders.

2. I've no problem with finding fresh expressions of language, but they have to be anchored in the right harbour. Yes there are plenty of metaphors in scripture, but there are some key ones, and when Jesus teaches his disciples to pray 'Father', that's not something we can ignore. 'Leaving language behind' can become just a pretext for leaving the language behind which we don't like. The best God metaphors are not those which move us deeply, they are those which are true. Something which moves us deeply can be simply a good bit of manipulation. There are films which move me deeply, but most of them are selling a subhuman myth - the revenge Western, the overblown romance etc. They move me because they manipulate me through image, words, music and mood. Does truth come into the equation at any point?

3. We can't leave words behind - words carry meaning, and God has a big history of using words to communicate with us. God uses meaningful words because he wants to communicate with us, to establish a relationship. If there are no words, there is no revelation, and we are completely in the dark about God.

4. God has revealed himself to us in particular ways. If I introduce myself as 'David' and the other person immediately calls me 'Dave', I get slightly irked. Part of human dignity is being able to name ourselves, and not have other people decide what to call us. If God has spoken, and revealed himself to us, we're not at liberty to ignore that and just find names which we like saying.

and a couple of wider concerns
a) Orwell noted in 1984 that control of language is key to control of thought. If you can outlaw certain bits of language, you make it impossible to think in particular ways. I'm aware that I may be just as guilty of this as the WATCH paper, but we need to be careful with this stuff, and not assume that anyone who calls God 'Father' or 'Mighty' is an unreconstructed patriarch.

b) In terms of fresh expressions, we will find new ways to communicate the gospel to a changing culture, but how do we make sure we stay faithful to the gospel? We can't redefine God completely according to human experience - this experience is limited and touched by sin. God has shown himself to us in scripture and in Jesus, so we must stay anchored to this, whichever direction we paddle in.


  1. Missed this the first time round - very good. I think I'm an unreconstructed patriarch...

  2. While training for ordination our cohort was visited by a prominent female cleric who will probably be one of the first female bishops. We spent the evening discussing exactly these issues of language and I was struck most by her assertion that there could be no element of 'maleness' in God. When I mentioned God the Son, resurrected and ascended, her response was that the post-resurrection Jesus was probably gender neutral. Really. I fully support female ordination at all levels but I agree that some of the theology going on at quite senior levels is shockingly poor...

  3. Thanks Paul, that's frightening. I would hope that we're able to overlook whether potential bishops are male or female and simply ask whether they're up to the job. This one clearly isn't.

  4. I disagree about the language: I think the article has a point. As cultures change, so languages either change or lose their original meaning. What is appropriate for one age may be inappropriate in another. The question is whether that point has been reached for various metaphors for God that are gender exclusive. It is very easy for men not to see this as problematic. It already is for a significant number of women.

    The female cleric is also too easily dismissed. The Alexandrian approach to Christology always emphasised that the word assumed humanity, not a singular human. In that sense, it is fair to say that Christ is gender neutral: all are united to him, male and female, slave and free, Jew and gentile.

  5. A further point: you seemed to have missed the point about why 'Dear Lord and Father of Mankind' might be seen as aggressive or intimidating. 'Lord' 'Father' and 'Mankind' are all gender exclusive terms. They are male terms. God and people are all portrayed by default as male. And if this is repeated in nearly every single hymn or song, and prayer, and preaching, then it begins to be intimidating and aggressive. Theology has always held that God is beyond gender. So why use male terms for God continuously?

  6. On metaphors, we are still using Jesus agrarian metaphors long after we all stopped farming. Theology helps us to bring these things to life, rather than abandon them because they no longer 'work' in our culture. It's too easy to dismiss male metaphors simply because they are male. Male and female are both made in God's image, and so both reflect God's nature to a degree. Once our personal experience becomes the judge over which bits of theology and scripture we pick and choose from, we start to end up with a warped view of God. That's just as true for the unreconstructed patriarchs as the radical feminists.

  7. 'The constant and uninterrupted use of language which is exclusive
    and used repeatedly can be intimidating or even aggressive'
    Using male metaphors is not the problem. All metaphors are limited and misleading in some respects. The problem is 'the constant and uninterrupted' use of male metaphors, and treating that as the default, without even realising that it might be problematic for a significant number of people. The radical feminists might have a point here: constantly using solely male metaphors for God in today's culture is in itself proposing a warped view of God. It's just that it is so familiar to us that we don't recognise just how warped it is.

  8. Again, a further thought having posted the first thought...
    (..and a thank you for engaging...)

    You appear to have imposed upon the article the assumption that the problem with the language stems from bad experiences, for example with fatherhood. You refer to personal experience again in your reply. The quotation makes no references to such personal experiences, and neither did my argument. The issue is not that some people have a bad experience with their father; the issue is that the language used of God, in today's culture, implies that God is male. Further, such language (if used constantly and uninterruptedly) implies that God's values are mainly what would be seen traditionally as masculine. Both these implications are heretical and unhealthy.

  9. Thanks Jonathan. I think we get into some serious problems if we start second-guessing the way God has chosen to reveal 'him'self. Jesus, whether we like it or not, is male, and teaches us to call God 'Father' in prayer. Ok, within a patriarchal society most of the metaphors for strength, power etc. (which are attributes God has) are male ones, but that doesn't stop the Bible using maternal imagery as well.

    My issue with the WATCH piece and things like it was that justifies binning Biblical language completely and coming up with a new set of metaphors that we're more comfortable with, or which 'move us deeply'. Her primary criterion for a good metaphor is experience: 'if it feels good, believe it'. Sorry, but that won't do.

  10. Thanks again for engaging.

    It may be that other material has influenced your thinking, but the piece you posted was quite explicit in calling for the full range of biblical images for God to be used - the very opposite of binning Biblical language. The problem arises when churches stick to the male ones exclusively and repeatedly.

    Also, the primary criterion wasn't 'if it feels good, believe it', nor whether we were comfortable with it. The primary criterion for a metaphor for God in the piece quoted was that it both moved us deeply AND that it enabled us to encounter and be encountered by the Trinitarian God.

    Isn't that what we should be aiming for - language that moves and enables meeting God?

  11. Thanks Jonathan: fair point, but reading this -
    "The best God metaphors are those that move us deeply and enable us to encounter and be encountered by the dynamic dance of incandescent love that Christian experience names as Trinity."
    both the criteria are couched in terms of experience, the first explicitly (it moves us deeply), the second in more flowery language (encountering the love which Christian experience names as....)

    The thrust of the argument is to move beyond words, and in moving beyond words you move beyond truth as well.

    Of course we need to experience God as well as know and understand him, but if God has used words as a means of revelation then it seems a bit odd to decide that we've outgrown them. Moving beyond words might just mean moving beyond the words we don't like, to make it easier to construct a God in our own image.

  12. At this point, I have to point out that the WATCH piece falls squarely within the long-established Christian tradition of apophatic theology. It's not that we've outgrown words - it's that God is bigger than words. Words can help but they are not enough. I'm also tempted to get a little charismatic here and point out that the NT expectation is that the Spirit of God/Christ dwells in us - isn't this 'experience'?

    Moving beyond words might mean moving beyond words we don't like and constructing a God in our own image. It might also mean moving beyond words which construct a distorted, male image of God into a deeper reality of God.