Monday, June 01, 2015

WATCH with Mother: recreating God in our own image?

“If we take seriously the idea that men and women are made in the image of God both male and female language should be used.”

When I meet someone new, I introduce myself as David. I'm gently riled if they then refer to me as 'Dave'. Dave is a TV channel, my name is David. That's how I've chosen to identify myself. 

WATCH (Women And The Church) have for some time now advocated using female terms to refer to God. The Bible has female imagery (Jesus speaks of himself as a mother hen, for example), and the danger of using one set of words repeatedly is that they can come to confine God to a certain set of meanings, rather than allow God to be God. The issue has surfaced again over the weekend

Under all of this is the basic question: has God revealed Him/Her/Its self to us. Has God given us a name by which to call him? (I'm going to use the male pronoun out of habit and precedent, and because it'll be unreadable otherwise). Through scripture, and Jesus (God incarnate, lets remember), has God given us particular ways in which to understand his character and nature? If so, then these images, metaphors and words have to anchor our ways of talking about God. Alternatively, if these are just the best guess of the people at the time, then we're quite within our rights to talk about God in any way we like. We are more likely to end up making God in our image, but at least we can ditch the words we find unhelpful or upsetting. 

Cranmer has a piece up at the moment on 'truthiness' - our tendency to believe the things we want to be true, rather than the things that actually are true.  History is littered with attempts to rewrite the Christian faith in the image of the writer, or the culture of the time, to have the God that we want to be real, rather than God as he actually is. If God is fundamentally other, then in describing him in the metaphors and titles we prefer there is the danger that we simply end up talking about humanity in a very loud voice, and cease to talk about the God who is who God is. 

In WATCH's terms, this is part of a long-term goal to change the language we use about God: Watch’s chairwoman, Hilary Cotton, added: “We are at a very, very preliminary stage in terms of shifting the language of worship.
“The question of how might we rewrite the worship services of the Church of England in a way that broadens our understanding and perception of God is a really difficult question over which we will wrestle for a number of years to come.

Yes we need to use the full range of Biblical language to talk about God: wind and fire, judge and servant, warrior and lover, etc. But it's a brave person who thinks they know God better than Jesus: 'when you pray, say 'Father....' Of course, I'm a bloke, so this can all be discounted as patriarchal ranting by a theological dinosaur. But once we end up with a definition and an image of God that we're entirely comfortable with, then we're in trouble. We're sinners, we aren't whole people, we will only be entirely comfortable with God when we're fully renewed with him in glory. A God who really is God will never be an easy God for anyone in this life, as a skim-read of the Psalms will testify. 

Yes, lets broaden our understanding and perception of God, but lets make sure it's God we're looking at, not just a reflection of ourselves. 

The story is told of a girl who was hard at work drawing a picture. The teacher asked what she was doing: "I'm drawing a picture of God" she answered. "But nobody knows what God looks like." responded the teacher. She replied "they will when I've finished."

update: if you can bear it, here's a list of links to various comments and opinion blogs on this topic, which for some reason doesn't include Ian Pauls piece


  1. I don't think we should be aiming at a definition or image of God that we're 'entirely comfortable with' - how could God ever be 'comfortable' (in a cosy sense). What does matter is how the language we use about God is heard by contemporary men, women and children. It matters because communication of the gospel matters. There is a much larger range of metaphors for God in the Bible than is regularly used in liturgy. There has been a lot of silly headlines in the media lately about female bishops (or/and priests) wanting to feminise all the language we use about God. This is a misleading interpretation of what WATCH and others are seeking to do. Personally I pray to God as 'Father' but also occasionally as 'Mother'. I have not yet had the courage to do the latter when leading public worship although I have sometimes used 'Mothering God' - usually in a context where 'Fathering God' is also used.

  2. "But it's a brave person who thinks they know God better than Jesus: 'when you pray, say 'Father....' Of course, I'm a bloke, so this can all be discounted as patriarchal ranting by a theological dinosaur. "
    And I';m a woman- in my 50's so maybe a dinosaur!! but I agree with you :)

  3. This has legs and no doubt will run for some time to come.

    I'm comfortable with those who want to use alternative words to meet with God, Father or Mother are equally valid in my view. However the key point for me is that the only vision that we are provided with of God is through Jesus Incarnate, which presents difficulties for the concept of God as another gender. But the idea presented of God as Father and Mother is one that I can accept, as long as I'm not expected to confine myself to the image of Mother God in exclusion of any other.

  4. Thanks David. I think I come to a similar conclusion in my longer reflection here

  5. David
    i think the key issue is what we understand Jesus and others to be doing when they use language for God. such language is always metaphorical, the use of Father we don't take to mean God is a man who has sex and thus has children. so the question then is what are the appropriate uses of the metaphor and why where they used. we could apply this to all biblical language for God, but you have highlighted Jesus use of Father and that is clearly a key metaphor. you have suggested this is like you telling people your name and then liking them to use is as you have revealed it. this automatically raises a problem, we have a biblical text in which God reveals his name, at the burning bush in Exodus. and yet this doesn't sound much like either your or my name and of course for the Jews there is a long tradition of thinking that name can't be used. Father is no more a name than 'i am that i am' etc. so i think your connection to the self revelation of God's name is weak at best.

    so we are left with the question; when Jesus give us that prayer does he use father because he wants us to use that word, and again if it is name we usually don't translate people's names so we ought to use it in Aramaic? or does Jesus use it because he wants to convey the kind of relationship we have with God? we must add to that the important theme of being inheritors with Christ which only works in a father son relationship through which women become sons.

    for such reasons i would be opposed to changing biblical texts (not that i think anyone is proposing that) and think we have to be careful of rendering 'sons' as sons and daughters were that is in adoption passages. But liturgy i think is different. in liturgy we are doing something more than expressing a theology of adoption in a particular cultural context in which mothers didn't pass on an inheritance, we are expressing a living relationship with God. if 'Father' cannot be viewed as a preferred revealed mode of address, and it seems to me very far fetched to assume it is, then it is an expression of our relationship to God as a loving parent and when elsewhere scripture give ample witness to God as mother it seems totally in keeping to use that language in our liturgy and view that as totally consistent with Jesus prayer.

    the language of She and He is i think more difficult. rendering the beginning of the Lord's prayer 'God our mother and father in heaven' can hold together that God is both not one or the other. what we do not want to do is replace language that implies we believe in a male God with language that sounds like that of a a Goddess and a God, i think it important we hold together our Trinitarian understanding in our liturgy as opposed to the understanding of Contemporary Paganism. this is harder to do in practice with She and He. i have once used a liturgy in which alternate sentences about God as creator used She and He. i think in holding the pronouns together so closely this did hold together. it was of course clumsy English, but perhaps neat language for God is deceptive when applied to the mystery God is? in other places however using sometimes he and sometimes she is just confusing.

    i work a lot in mission with people who think Christians have a male God and find that a major barrier to Christian faith. if i use language for God in talking to them that reinforces that image i am creating an unnecessary barrier between them and God. so is simply don;t use pronouns to speak of God at all rather than using she for the reasons stated above. i would suggest that is a good way forward in liturgy - along with male and female metaphors, the language of mother and father and of course the non-gendered you.