The Lady Be With You – A Closer Look at Liturgical Idolatry by Tallessyn Zawn Grenfell-Lee


Even though I realized at least 17 years ago that it makes no theological sense to limit our symbols of the Divine to male symbols – Lord, God, Father – it took several years for this idea to embed itself into my subconscious. Over time, male language moved from ‘unnoticed’ to ‘noticed’ to ‘distracting’ to, eventually, ‘oppressively violent when used exclusively, without female images to balance out millennia of the idolatry of maleness.’

One of my favorite ways to dislodge this subconscious, internalized patriarchy has involved rewriting favorite old hymns. I usually try to incorporate a combination of images, to represent the incarnate divinity of all genders and all Creation. But let’s be honest: female terms for the Divine remain startling in many religious and secular, cultural contexts. In my own Methodist tradition, even though progressive Methodists sign up on paper to the idea that “God” (there we go again with the male terms) is bigger than any symbol or gender, I’ve as yet only ever been to one Christian church that used balanced gender images of the Divine, and that was a queer welcoming Methodist ministry with intentionally inclusive theology and liturgy.

I think that church saved my life. Some days, I also think it ruined my life. It showed us all what Methodism can be; and then, its time ended, and we alums drifted into the diaspora to try to take the hope and healing we experienced there into our own journeys. Some of us remain within Methodism and continue to work for the vision of welcome, of the kin-dom, that we sought together there. Personally, I love being Methodist. Grace, the journey, grace, the quadrilateral, grace.

Every community has its history; I join those who name the harm and work for healing, name the oppression and seek liberation. Every community involves hard work; where we end up is about what work we are up for. Rather than the work of defending my decision to be part of the Christian tradition in a non-Christian context, I have opted to continue to defend my decision to be part of feminism and queer inclusion in a Christian context that, at least in my area, usually believes it is already as feminist and queer inclusive as any group should be. It’s exhausting at times. It’s also my tradition, and it nourishes and feeds and strengthens me every single day. So, I keep at it.

Anyway, back to the hymns. I love hymns. My teenagers love them too, so maybe there is something to them – something worth saving. Saved – resurrected – liberated from idolatry, the profound theology in hymns explodes forth:

A mighty fortress is thy Love – a bulwark never failing.

Joy to the world, for Love is come – let earthly praises ring!

Joyful, joyful, we adore thee, Source of Glory, Life, and Love!

Were you there when they crucified my Friend?

Now, idolatry is a tough nut to crack. Most of us don’t realize what our idols are until they are threatened. And it’s so painful to let go of idols. Recently, the school board in my hometown up in Maine voted to remove the name “Indians” as the town ‘mascot’ or ‘symbol,’ making Maine the first state in the US no longer to have any indigenous mascots. The backlash of some of the (non-native) residents reveals just how attached they had grown to this idol, this nostalgic dream of a past in which the mascot didn’t cause any harm but was simply a celebration of regional identity. It doesn’t matter what the indigenous communities say – people still cling to this idol, terrified of what might happen when we let go.

It’s scary to let go. I was trying to explain to some European, Catholic colleagues just how threatening revised hymn lyrics can feel to Protestant communities, and they couldn’t understand it. Eventually, I suggested, what if we made the Eucharist liturgy inclusive? Their eyes got huge. I had found their idol.

So I leave you with part of a feminist Eucharist liturgy. Communion is a precious ritual at the heart of my tradition. We take ‘bread’ and the ‘fruit of the vine,’ and we share them with one another, recognizing the deep sacrifice required to nourish justpeace, the kin-dom. We name our divine Oneness, the holy unity of all Creation and the Cosmos. We commit to serve healing and liberation.

Where are your idols? May Grace give you the courage to release them – and set you free.

The Lady be with you.

And also with you.

Lift up your hearts

We lift them up to the Lady.

Let us give thanks to the Lady our Goddess.

It is right to give our thanks and praise.

It is right, and a good and joyful thing,
always and everywhere to give thanks to you,
Mother Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth.
You formed us in your image
and breathed into us the breath of life.
When we turned away, and our love failed,
your love remained steadfast.
You delivered us from captivity,
made covenant to be our sovereign Goddess,
and spoke to us through the prophets.
And so,
with your people on Earth
and all the company of Heaven
we praise your name and join their unending hymn:

 Holy, holy, holy Lady, Goddess of power and might,
     Heaven and Earth are full of your glory.
     Hosanna in the highest.
     Blessed is she who comes in the name of the Lady.
     Hosanna in the highest.

Amen.

 

Tallessyn Zawn Grenfell-Lee recently earned her Ph.D. in social and ecological ethics from Boston University School of Theology. She continues to study intersections of ecofeminism, permaculture ethics, grief, and nature connection. She previously did graduate research on Alzheimer’s Disease and preventive research on Ovarian Cancer. She received a B.Sc. in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an M.A. in Molecular Biology from Harvard University, and an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology. She lives in central Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters, and enjoys gardening, canoeing, learning about medicinal and edible wild plants, and rewriting old hymns to make them more inclusive.



Categories: Belief, Christianity, communication, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Theology, Gender, General, God, God-talk, Naming

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

17 replies

  1. Isn’t it amazing that so many liberals and even feminists do not see God only language as oppressive and violating? Just this morning I read an essay posted by WIT Women in Theology in which the female author explained her veneration of the cross while quoting from the sexist language of the Episcopalian (yes Episcopalian) liturgy!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Carol, I agree; it can certainly be frustrating. I encounter this kind of thing even in secular contexts with feminism, too. I think in some cases, there is a lack of awareness; and of course, sometimes it really is a kind of idolatrous attachment to certain symbols of the divine. I know I have my own idols, too, and I am sure my idols cause frustration and harm as well. It seems to me fear is at the root – so, maybe we need to heal our fears? Thank you for your comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Love this post. Love the rewritten hymns and liturgy. I am over the moon about Kin-dom of Heaven. I have heard people say the Commonwealth of Heaven, but that always made me think of Massachusetts. Kin-dom is brilliant.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m so glad, Elizabeth. I love kin-dom as well. Isn’t it an incredible feeling, when our tradition is liberated from idolatry? So freeing, so joyful – so powerful. Many blessings to you.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I like your rewritten hymns! I used to rewrite Christmas carols, hymns,and the occasional spiritual, too. I like the tunes, but didn’t like the patriarchal lyrics. So I turned God into Goddess wherever I could. Sometimes, of course, two syllables don’t scan, so I had to be a bit more clever. “Joy to the world/ the Light is come.” “She’ll rest you merry, gentlemen/ Let nothing you dismay.” I can’t remember any others right now, but I think your changes are excellent.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Barbara, that’s fantastic. Such a wonderful way to draw attention to this pervasive issue and find a liberating frame! I often find people are non-threatened by gender neutral language, but female language ‘goes too far.’ Even for people who fully acknowledge that the Divine is beyond human concepts of gender, there is still an assumption of normative maleness that has been internalized as an idol. I think using female imagery is one of the only ways to reveal this idol for what it is and help to dislodge it. Blessings to you.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Very interesting, lovely, provocative post, thanks Tallessyn.

    And regards your title — “The Lady Be With You,” there is an inner voice I sometimes dialogue with, a very motherly voice, and what I consider my conscience. It doesn’t happen a lot, but sometimes that interchange can be priceless.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m so glad, Fran. I, too, experience a feminine voice of Wisdom, healing, and courage in my spiritual journey. It’s amazing how transformative that experience can be when we have been socialized to identify the Divine with maleness. Many blessings on your journey.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Persephone is risen today, alleluia
    Her triumphant holy day, alleluia
    She went once beneath the earth, alleluia
    Seeking secrets of the rebirth, alleuia
    Persephone is risen today, alleuia
    Her truimphant holy day, alleuia!

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  6. Hi Tallessyn – a social media friend shared this article online and I recognized your name from CWM. Congrats on your PHD and thank you for continuing to fight for progress!

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    • Laurie, how lovely to hear from you! Our time at CWM together was unique and very special. Thank you for your congratulations and for your support, and always! And thank you for all you do! Hope you are well!

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  7. Hi there, this is lovely — and so much of it resonates with and affirms my experiences. Thank you! Also, it seems that the term Lady, like Lord, is classist/feudal. As a black woman, it’s near impossible for me to think of patriarchy without also thinking about economic oppression, and how the two intersect so explosively in the lives of black women. I avoid using the term Lord because it is both patriarchical and classist. Lady seems to address patriarchy to a certain extent, but not classism. Thoughts?

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    • Good question. This has been addressed for example by Marcia Falk who in rewriting Jewish prayers refused to translate King as Queen or Lord as Lady. On the other hand, when I objected, I was told by black women friends that they like the idea of honoring black women as Queen because it feels like an antidote to the degradation of black women’s souls and bodies. I have never used Lady but recently I started calling the Goddess of a particular mountain in Crete, Lady of Lasithi. ???

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    • Thank you so much for this comment. This is a reason I generally do not use the term Lady, either. I specifically used it in this liturgy as a way to draw attention to the maleness (and idolatry thereof) in the liturgy. I agree with you: Lord and Lady, in English at least, come from a toxic system, although ‘ladies and gentlemen’ is used generally, whereas ‘lord’ usually is not, so ‘lady’ has come to have general cultural meanings that ‘lord’ has not. Still, as words go, its liberative qualities remain suspect, or at least, mixed. (Therefore, this liturgy has value in raising awareness, but it could be experienced as oppressive and perpetuating oppressive ideas in other ways.)

      Sometimes I use symbols in different contexts for different reasons, partly because no symbol works for all times and places (at least, for me). The idolatry comes in when one particular symbol of the divine is identified completely with divinity, to the exclusion or at least, vast superiority over, other symbols. And, times change, too – what feels liberating/healing/empowering can change, for different times and different communities.

      Thank you again – I was hoping someone would point this out! Many blessings to you.

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  8. Great article!! Reminds me of Jann Aldredge-Clanton, she’s re-written many whole hymnals to be inclusive of Divine Feminine (as well as inclusive of race and gender!)
    Keep up the good work, may everyone begin to realize the importance of balance!

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    • Thank you for your comment! I love the work of Jann Aldredge-Clanton! There is a real hunger for inclusive, diverse symbols of the Divine; it’s wonderful to see.

      Like

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