On Liturgy and women: Part 2

by Anna Blanch on December 7, 2011

As I mentioned yesterday, well written explorations of complex issues are a great place to begin conversations, to learn and to understand. This afternoon’s 16 days of action post is Part II from Rachel Mann. I’m sure Rachel would welcome comments and questions. Read Part I for context.

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Elizabeth Stuart notes, ‘depriving people of language with which to make sense of their experience is a particularly effective way of keeping them silent and disempowered’[2]. Women, of course, have varied and rich experiences of the ways in which the Church uses language to speak of God, humans and the love which shapes and enfolds. But there is no
doubt that I am one of those who has often felt that my story and the story of others – as a woman, as a lesbian and so on – is very rarely celebrated and genuinely located in the worshipping life of the church. I have often felt outside the liturgy.

I suspect that most intelligent people of faith understand that when we talk of God in male terms we are being metaphorical. This is not to suggest that such terms cannot indicate truth, but simply that one is not asserting what might be called a ‘Rigid Designator’. To be blunt, God is not actually a bloke. However, the almost monomaniacal obsession the church can have with particular gendered terms is, I suggest, a denial of richer forms of encounter with God and a form of violence against certain kinds of experience. ‘The Male’ in some liturgy is almost total. Half of the human race is expected to redact itself into a monochrome way of worshipping God.

To put it another way, how we see God has an impact upon how we see ourselves and vice versa. I am not suggesting that we need to have a quota of so-called ‘feminine’ ways of addressing God (God preserve us!), but rather that as a church we need to find genuinely expansive ways of a) opening up our experience to God and b) opening our images of God to our experience. I sense that if people’s experience is not to be elided, new ways of going on must be sought. Gail Ramshaw suggests,

‘The Christian Church has said yes to Father, Son, Spirit. Some Christians have said yes to Sovereign, Lover, Mother, Wisdom and Way. Most would say no to Witch and Wigwam. I say yes and no to each. I will consider each new proposal, weighing its insight against the tradition. Each might capture something of mystery; yet it can become a black-robed male if it stands alone. The gem has many facets, and light must reflect off each for the jewel to shine.’[3]

I recognize that some of Ramshaw’s references (especially God as Witch) will be considered not only beyond-the-pale but extraordinarily offensive. Ramshaw’s point – and my own – is that as one begins to explore expansive ways of talking about God, language will be tested out against tradition, but equally we should not be afraid of what our language reveals. Certainly a word like Witch will stir strong, negative responses in most, but the point is ‘Why?’ And the answers to that will reveal yet more about how we see God, ourselves and the theological and cultural reality of which we are part.

Equally, no measured person is suggesting that a traditional word like Father should simply be banished to the outer darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth, only that it should be set alongside other words tested out against scripture, tradition and experience/reason. As we explore both the God who exceeds all our feeble designations and who also wants us to be our true selves, we shall be called again and again to be faithful to traditioned ways of talking about God. However, we may discover God surprising us with new language and more than that the call, sometimes, to silence: not the silence of those who have had their voices taken away, but of those who choose to meditate on the God who simply cannot be tied down by language.

Rachel Mann is an Anglican priest & writer based in Manchester. Trained in philosophy, she is a published feminist/queer theologian and music journalist. She is currently writing her first full-length poetry collection.

[2] Elizabeth Stuart, Daring to speak God’s Name, London, Hamish Hamilton, 1992, p.10.
[3] Gail Ramshaw, Under the Tree of Life: The Religion of a Feminist Christian, New York, Continuum, 1998, p.
65.

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This post is part of the 16 Days of Action toward eliminating violence against women. The 16 Days of Action is a global campaign founded by the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University, I’m hosting posts across the 16 days, from 25 November to 10 December. You can help by sharing these posts on social media, by taking care of the women around you, & by standing against violence against women. You see the full list of posts here.

Connect with Anna on Academia.edu, Linked In, facebook page, & Twitter.

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  • Kathryn de Belle

    Great post! Indeed, God can't be tied down by language. I wouldn't be able to shift the male terms for God from my vocabularly, but on the other hand I am moved when I hear the word She used instead of He in the liturgy. Not throughout, but enough times for me to feel the point, as I totally get the point. Personally, I don't identify with the word Father, so I don't use that if I can avoid it. A new set of nouns and pronouns would be good! Silence suits me too, and the last sentence sums it all up beautifully. Thank you

  • http://www.diannaeanderson.net Dianna

    Oh, goodness, this is awesome awesome awesome. Thank you so much. I don't really have anything intelligent to add right now, but the language with which we address God definitely has a major effect on how we see God (and even just then, I wrote "him" as a pronoun referencing God…). It's insidious in our church culture, and I know a lot of pastors/preachers who would balk at the suggestion that, maybe, just maybe, our language depicting God as male is not only inadequate, but a method of silencing other needed voices in the church.

    Lots of food for thought here!

  • http://twitter.com/metalvicar @metalvicar

    Thank you both v much for v kind comments 😀

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