When I first began to think about female language and images for God I imagined that changing God-He to God-She and speaking of God as Mother some of the time would be a widespread practice in churches and synagogues by now. I was more worried about whether or not images of God as a dominating Other would remain intact. Would God-She be imaged as a Queen or a Woman of War who at Her whim or will could wreak havoc on Her own people?
Forty years later, very little progress has been made on the question of female imagery for God. I suspect that most people in the pews today have never even had to confront prayers to Sophia, God the Mother, or God-She. Most people consider the issue of female language in the churches to have been resolved with inclusive language liturgies and translations of the Bible that use gender neutral rather than female inclusive language.
In her new book, Women, Ritual, and Power: Placing Female Imagery of God in Christian Worship, Elizabeth Ursic states that one of the reasons that the issue of female language seems less pressing than it once did is because those for whom the issue was important have for the most part left the church. But the question is why. Ursic’s research demonstrates that reactions against feminist experimentation with female language for God in public spaces have been swift and more violent than has generally been recognized.
Early advocates of Sophia, pastors Susan Cady and Hal Taussig were tried for heresy in the Methodist Church for daring to speak of God as She. The way Cady as a young divorced woman pastor became a target for vitriolic attacks is for Ursic more significant than the fact that the two were eventually acquitted of heresy. Cady’s treatment by members of her church sent other women a clear message: leave the church or if you stay, keep your opinions about God to yourself or you will be sorry.
According to Ursic the Re-Imagining Conference in 1993 was a turning point that nipped feminist experimentation with female God language in public spaces in the bud. The liturgy in which the participants welcomed Sophia and celebrated the nourishment of Her milk and honey at the banquet table of Creation was dubbed “theologically aberrant.” Sophia was called a “centuries-old idol with a fresh coat of paint” and the controversy was considered by some to be a “holy war” between “Christians and pagans,” “orthodox vs. heretics.”
In the midst of the controversy United Methodist Bishop Susan Morris wrote: “When over 2000 women and men gather from around the world plus a huge waiting list, it indicates there is a need that hasn’t been met through traditional gatherings.” Despite the truth of Morrison’s statement, the few highly publicized firings of women from positions in Protestant denominations that followed effectively put an end to public exploration of the question of female language in mainline Protestant churches.
Ursic also documents the controversy about the Motherhood of God that nearly tore the Church of Scotland apart. In 1982 Anne Hepburn unwittingly unleashed a storm when she opened a conference of the Women’s Guild (an organization for the wives of ministers) with a prayer to “Almighty God,” “Our Father” followed by a second that began with the words “God Our Mother.” Hepburn was called everything from a “heretic” to a “Roman” (Catholic) and it was even suggested that the “Womanhood of the Devil” be investigated. Though the Church of Scotland has since included a few hymns to God as female in its new hymnal, its ministers seem to have concluded that it is best to stick to familiar male language for God in order to avoid controversy.
Ursic considers two more successful attempts to introduce female language into Christian worship. Members of the Roman Catholic Order the Daughters of Wisdom in Litchfield, Connecticut have been referring to God as Sophia in private and group prayers for several decades. Perhaps because their order was dedicated to Wisdom (Sophia in Greek) at its inception and because the the Sisters do not attempt to lead the mass, the Vatican authorities have not felt the need to chastise them. Ursic documents the power of female imagery in the prayers of the Sisters, while noting that their order has an aging membership. Will their prayers to Sophia even be remembered if their order dies out?
The final chapter of Ursic’s book is dedicated to the work of Stacy Boorn in Ebenezer Lutheran herchurch in San Francisco. Called as a pastor to an elderly Swedish congregation, Boorn found herself in the middle of a controversy with the church’s leadership council when she baptized a child in the name of “God who is both Mother and Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit.”
Boorn not only was vindicated, but went on to convince the San Francisco branch of the denominational hierarchy of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to allow Ebenezer Lutheran Church to focus on feminism as its mission. Ebenezer Lutheran herchurch refers to God as “Christ-Sophia” but also as “God/ess” and “Goddess” in public worship, and sponsors a “Goddess Rosary” prayer and meditation in the church sanctuary each week. It has embarked on an ambitious program of decorating the inside and the outside of the church with art work celebrating God as female.
Herchurch appeals to a small but growing group of women and men including families who consider themselves Christian but who are looking for less patriarchal, hierarchical, and heteronormative forms of worship. It is unlikely to make many inroads among those who have already found ways to worship the Goddess through Starhawk’s Reclaiming and other groups in the San Francisco Bay area. Still, I am a-mazed that herchurch continues to thrive under the Lutheran umbrella. Will it continue to grow? Will it come under Lutheran Church scrutiny at some point? Will its experiments with feminism and female imagery affect the denomination as a whole?
I began reading Woman, Ritual, and Power with two main questions in mind. I wondered why Ursic chose to focus on worship of the female God in public spaces, when much creative work is being done in small womanchurch communities. I also wanted to know why God-She has not made more inroads in liberal mainline Protestant churches.
Ursic’s answer to my first question is that she focuses on public spaces, because she believes that private prayer and worship outside the church or “down the hall” in a church meeting rooms—while meaningful to individuals–leave the patriarchal structures of common worship intact.
The answer to my second question became clear as I read Ursic’s chapter on the Sophia controversies and the Re-imagining Conference. Female God language did not die a natural death in the liberal Protestant churches. Rather, a vicious campaign against it succeeded. Only a few Protestant women lost their jobs after the Re-imagining Conference and Cady and Taussig were acquitted of heresy. But what happened was enough to silence a widespread and growing movement.
I am reminded of a lecture I heard years ago on the witch trials in Salem. “Only a few women were killed,” the speaker acknowledged, “ but it was enough to put the fear of being accused of being a witch into every other woman in America.”
I suspect that many of the women who attended the Re-imagining Conference left the church. Others retreated into silence, private prayer, or small groups where they could continue to experiment with female language for God. As Ursic points out, mainline Protestantism is in decline in Europe and America. In this situation, a new generation of priests, ministers, and pastors are not inclined to introduce innovations that will upset the more traditional members of their congregations. Nor are those for whom female language is a crucial issue likely to study for the ministry.
There is a song that says: “You can’t kill the spirit.” In the long run, this may be true. But in the short run, I would say, individuals and groups can do exactly that.
Ursic views the situation positively. She finds reason to hope in the fact that female language for God and its advocates were not declared heretical and that both scholarship and liturgical expressions continue challenge traditional views. I hope she is right.
Painting the Divine Feminine workshop at herchurch with Shiloh Sohpia McCloud.
Carol leads the life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete (facebook and twitter)–space available on the spring and fall 2015 tours. Carol’s books include She Who Changes and and Rebirth of the Goddess; with Judith Plaskow, the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions; and forthcoming next year, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology. Photo of Carol by Michael Bakas.