WATCH Chair Emma Percy and Rev Kate Bottley were on the BBC One Show last night, 28th February, talking about God, feminism and fancy clergy frocks. You can see the piece by clicking HERE (from about 8 minutes 50 seconds).
Here is the sermon Emma was preaching in full.
Genesis 1 26-27
The German playwright Frank Wedekind wrote
‘God made man in his own image and man returned the favour’
I doubt if Frank was playing with ideas of gender in this quote, simply making a statement about how the concept of God has been used and abused to serve certain ideas about being human but, it seems rather apt for what I want to say today. For it is fair to say that ‘Man’ as in the male idea of humanity has historically tended to perpetuate the idea of God as being male. Some of this is simply the way language has worked. He has been the default pronoun used for much of history both for humans collectively and for male humans specifically. Man has been both a collective term for human and the term for a male human.
Our Bible reading from Genesis 1 maintains that humanity, both male and female are made in the image of God yet, traditionally, little attention has been paid to what that inclusion of the female might mean for our understanding of God. It has been generally assumed that women are made in the image of God, in so far as they share a common humanity with men, but male humanity has been seen as the normal state of being human with women as a derived state; a different kind of human. Womanliness has not been associated with the image of God. In fact, tradition has tended to see womanliness as part of the more animal nature of humanity, less about the mind and the soul and more about the body. At times, in the churches history, it was thought that holy women would in fact become men in heaven, laying aside their female bodies to reveal holy masculine souls.
In today’s world we are much more conscious of how we use gendered pronouns. We try not to use men to mean men and women. We try not to assume that there is a normative kind of human being but in doing so we are seeking to change centuries of assumptions.
So what happens when we talk about God? This God in whose image both men and women are in some way made?
The Old Testament was very clear that speaking about God was always a process of metaphors and images. God was and is beyond full human comprehension and it is this to some extent that defines God. God is encountered as something like fire, cloud, glory a still voice after the violence of a storm. Uncontainable and unfathomable. Yet, this God seeks to know people and to relate to people and human metaphors are used. God is like a mighty King, a Warrior strong to save, a Mother feeding her child, God has a strong arm, a compassionate heart, a fierce anger and sense of justice, a merciful and forgiving nature. The images are multiple and the people of Israel were at pains to differentiate their understanding of God from the local gods. These included the female fertility goddesses. God’s own self naming was as ‘I am’ the one who is.
In writing and speaking and teaching about a God who was personal and interested in people, pronouns were necessary and the default male pronoun was, unsurprisingly, routinely used. And, returning to the opening quote, it is not surprising that those in power over the generations have stressed the attributes and images of God most associated with their own values, affirming how God mirrored their own desired image. So God is more often addressed as Almighty, King Lord and Father and as He is so addressed the idea that these are metaphors begins to be lost. God is not simply like a male king God is at some level a male king.
In all of this there seems little room for the idea that women too reflect the image of God. Most of us have been brought up with an unrelenting sense of the maleness of God. We may know intellectually that God is beyond gender, that the sexual differences that take on so much importance in human interactions are meaningless for a God who has no need of reproduction. And yet to speak of God as She, to draw on specifically female experiences of life to image the divine can feel inappropriate and transgressive; somehow it feels like importing sexuality into God. And that is why I think it is so important that we do just that.
Women need to play with language that celebrates the divine image in their experience of being human. They need at some level to find the affirmation in being a woman that comes from knowing that it is good enough for God. They need at some level to know that God recognises them and rejoices in the wonder of the creation that is woman.
Men need to be unsettled by understanding that God is not simply an amplified male. They need to recognise the incompleteness of their understanding of the Divine that God is both like and unlike them. And they to need to really understand and believe that women are good enough for God.
So if you are someone who prays, whether you are male or female, have a play. See what it feels like to pray to God as mother, to mix the pronouns and address God as She. I am not arguing for a wholesale change but I am suggesting some unsettling of the dominant picture. A way of reconnecting more fully to the idea that female and male are made in the image of God.
In a world where we continue to deal with violence towards women, oppression of women, the denial of education and justified discrimination on both religious or ideological grounds something needs to change.
God our mother,
Creator of all that is
whose compassion is boundless
and whose judgement is shaped by mercy.
Look kindly on us your children and teach us to value all of humanity.
That we may learn to see the divine spark
in those who are like us and those who are different.
That we who are made women and men in your image
may work together to build up the common good
and establish heavens values here on earth.