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More Solid Than Stone? A Reflection on God and Gender

Talk Given to the United Methodist Women in New Rochelle, NY on September 28, 2018

What an honor it is to be with you today. Thank you, Barbara, for inviting me, and to all of you for such a warm welcome.I’ve been an Episcopalian for over twenty years; before that I was a Baptist. The Methodist church, though, I have interacted with at various points. Growing up in Ohio my best friend’s family was Methodist, and her church was one of the first in our community to have a woman pastor. I credit that pastor with showing me that women can do this work when I would otherwise have had no idea. I certainly didn’t have that example in the church of my childhood.

More recently, my sister and her family as well as my parents have all become Methodists out in the Midwest, Kansas. My mother served as a delegate to her annual conference a few years ago and will again next year. (Though I’m quite sure she doesn’t always vote the way I and probably many of you here wish she might.)

I spent a number of years on the Episcopal Methodist Dialogue Committee in the Diocese of New York, and chaired it for two years. We met around four times a year to pore over documents and talk about what we share in common and where we differ.

And on a larger level, we’re connected through our history. Your founder John Wesley was an Anglican – what we in this country call Episcopalian – and he lived and died an Anglican. Most of us are not proud of the fact that our church at that point, 18th century, couldn’t accommodate the growing Methodist movement within it. You were way ahead of us on social issues, most notably the abolition of slavery both in this country and in England. When pastors were needed out on the frontier, you were the ones that raced on horseback to serve in far greater numbers than we.

So I’m an admirer of your tradition and it’s possible I even have you to thank for my being a priest at all.

I’ve been told that the choice of topic for today was wide open, and one of you sent me a few links to the sorts of things that the United Methodist Women are involved with. So I think I’ll be within range here. The issue I’ll talk about is one that is at the forefront right now of our discussions in the Episcopal Church, and will probably be debated and fought over for the next at least ten to twenty years. It’s by no means unique to our church nor is it a new topic: the use of gendered language for God.

Now let me say one thing about the way the Episcopal Church works which is, I believe, a little bit different from Methodists. Our Book of Common Prayer, which came out of the Reformation in 1549 but has been revised several times since then, is THE unifying document of our tradition. When we do approve a revision every fifty or so years, it has to be agreed upon by the majority because everyone will be using it. From the very beginning of our history, the most strenuous fights in our church have been over prayer book revisions because so much is at stake.

In past revisions of the prayer book, fights have been over going from Thees and Thous to You, changing rhythms and cadences, adding prayers with slight theological differences to reflect the changing times. Stuff like that. This time, it’s the language we use for God. And while there’s an expected uniformity or worship not asked of in all traditions, these are debates other denominations have had (and are having) as well. Including your own, I know.

Now to be honest, this is not a topic I’d taken much interest in in the past. At Divinity School I was surrounded by such famous feminist theologians as Letty Russell, Serene Jones, Margaret Farley. I took classes from two of them, but never on women’s issues. I would probably even say I tried to avoid the subject.

But then I became a priest, a rector, a mother, I reached my thirties then forties, and I started to look around me: at male colleagues as they moved up the ladder. At women colleagues who didn’t. For a brief time I had a boss who treated his women employees differently from the men. I got away from that situation by moving myself upstate to a tiny struggling church where I worked for next to nothing, but where I was the boss (that ended up being a miraculous and happy time). The woman who after 10 years took my place admitted to similar circumstances with her former boss. In fact, she endured far worse.

The experiences many of us women were having were confirmed by a study in the Episcopal Church of women clergy. That was back in 2009 so I suspect a bit has changed then, but I remember when that report came out. I was in my struggling church up the Hudson River. The report, named “Called to Serve,” examined the status of women by looking at the ratio of ordained women to men in leadership positions, pay disparities between women and men in comparable positions, geographical locations of male and female clergy (women, they found, were likelier to be in smaller rural churches than men, where they also made less money). The Methodist Church did a similar study in 2006, with results very much the same as ours.

Things have changed since both these studies were conducted, but more recent reports, at least in our church, suggest Not very much.

Like feminists in the church I once had little to do with, I began wondering about root causes, and why these problems persisted after forty years of women’s ordination (longer for you Methodists). It was inevitable that sooner or later I would begin to wonder whether the liturgy might play some role in keeping women from moving forward.

Is there a link between gender disparity in deployment and the language we use for God?

Is there a link between the pay gap and the language we use?

Is there a connection between the liturgy as it now stands and the anonymous letter I got after church one day telling me that I’d used up all my political capital in just being a woman, that I better not ever try to talk about world events or our current political leadership in church?

There are many deep seated structural forces that make it difficult for women in this profession, as in other professions. I just never wanted to admit that this might be one of them.

The language of worship then matters. The language of prayer matters. Wil Gafney, a professor of Hebrew at Brite Divinity School in Texas and one of the standard bearers of this issue in our church recently said “As long as ‘men’ and ‘God’ are in the same category, our work toward equity will not just be incomplete … I honestly think it won’t matter, in some ways.”

I don’t think I’d take it that far, but more and more, I’m not sure.

Think about what people experience the most, of church. They come to church on Sundays. Services. Theologians for years have been mixing up pronouns and metaphors for God, but most people don’t read theology. They hear the priest (or minister) preach, they hear the words of the service, the prayers, and then they go home, back again the next week. It’s HERE that we learn the language for God that we take out into the rest of the world with us. The language that shapes not only what we think of God, but what we think of our church, others, ourselves. We encounter it most in public worship, “liturgy.” That word, liturgy derives from two root words in the Greek, laos and ergas: work, and people. Liturgy is “the work of the people.”In one of the most famous books on this topic, She Who Is, theologian Elizabeth Johnson writes “The symbol of God does not passively float in the air but functions in social and personal life to sustain or critique certain structures, values, and ways of acting.” And then, as she says multiple times, a refrain, really, throughout her introduction to that book “The symbol of God FUNCTIONS.”

Are there multiple factors keeping women leaders from moving forward in the church at the pace we should expect? Yes. But this is surely a significant one that we have to take more seriously.

At this point I’m curious – maybe just a show of hands – who practices inclusive language in your church. And I mean, regularly hears pronouns like “she” along with “he” OR whose pastor doesn’t refer to God as any gender.

And who’s not sure?

How many of you are Methodists? Other denominations? Congregational?

Other religions? Reform Judaism, as I understand, is way ahead of us on this matter.

There are certainly groups in the Episcopal Church that use authorized liturgies with more variety of language for God, but I doubt many people in the pews even know that. I’d be surprised if anyone in my congregation is aware of this issue.

The burden for Episcopalians, at least, is tradition. The aesthetic of tradition, which is important in many Episcopal Churches. Near the entrance of my church is a sign with a slogan I recently came up with: “Traditional Worship, Modern Values.” I thought it was catchy. But I’m also aware that “traditional worship,” worship that has for so long identified God as predominantly masculine, butts up against “modern values” when it comes to this issue.

But it doesn’t have to. There are myriad images of God in Scripture, male, female and neither. In one of my favorite passages from Deuteronomy, God goes from being a father to a mother, all in the span of just a few verses. Likewise in Luke’s Gospel, God goes from being the (male) shepherd looking for a lost sheep to a woman looking for a lost coin – again, in the span of just a few verses.

There are myriad images of God in church tradition, too. St. Anselm, St. Clare, St. Julian of Norwich, all used diverse pronouns and images for God.So there is really no excuse, not even tradition, and certainly not aesthetics, for failing to expand our language and understanding of God. Keep Lord, Father, King, he and him, but add or sometimes replace them with Mother, Midwife, she and her. Or Rock, Fortress, Light, Creator, Righteous One.

“The Lord is risen indeed” becomes “Christ is risen indeed.”

“Blessed be his kingdom for ever and ever” becomes “Glory to God for ever and ever.”

“In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit” becomes at points “Praise to the Holy and undivided Trinity.”

Or this lovely blessing, which picks up on the fact that “Spirit,” in the Greek of the New Testament, is feminine. Again, what’s new is old.“May the blessing of the God of Abraham and Sarah, and of Jesus Christ born of our sister Mary, and of the Holy Spirit, who broods over the world as a mother over her children, be upon you and remain with you always.”

Examples like this abound. I’m guessing you Methodists have many more than we because you have more local autonomy over issues of worship. Masculine language can be reduced, and other images (from tradition) come in to take its place. Not solely, but to balance it out. And tradition is reinvigorated, not compromised.

But this will be a challenge. Once again quoting Elizabeth Johnson in She Who Is: “More solid than stone, more resistant to iconoclasm than bronze, seems to be the ruling male substratum of the idea of God cast in theological language and engraved in public and private prayer.”More solid than stone, more resistant than bronze. Women (and men): There is work to be done.