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.
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.
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.