In 1999, the inclusion of a single word in the Methodist Church’s new Worship Book produced remarkable controversy. Those of us who are familiar with this collection of Methodist liturgies, and use it most weeks, find it hard to imagine it as a controversial text. Yet when it was first published it attracted media attention from a whole range of media outlets, from GMTV to the BBC World Service. The word that caused all this interest and discussion appeared on one page, in one prayer, in one liturgy for the celebration of holy communion. The word was ‘mother’. The prayer reads as follows:
“God our Father and our Mother,
we give you thanks and praise
for all that you have made…”(Methodist Worship Book, 1999, 204)
The chair of the committee that produced the new Worship Book, Neil Dixon, wrote later of his great surprise at all this attention. God was, after all, addressed as ‘Father’ over 400 times in the book, and as ‘Mother’ only once. As he noted, though, “some critics of the address argued that one occurrence is one too many”! (Wonder, Love and Praise: A Companion to the Methodist Worship Book – Neil Dixon, Peterborough: Epworth Press, 2003)
He went on to argue that this single use of the term mother was long overdue. For many years, people had criticised previous liturgies for presenting God with predominantly masculine imagery, focussing on lordship and omnipotence, and failing adequately to portray God as fundamentally loving, gracious and self-emptying. “There was far too much about power and kingship, glory and lordship. There was far too little that reflected the suffering, self-giving God revealed in Jesus.” (16–17)
There is, in fact, nothing new about using feminine, and especially maternal, imagery to describe God, as Neil Dixon points out. We find examples throughout our Bible. In Deuteronomy, the writer poetically describes God as a mother eagle guarding her young:
like an eagle that stirs up its nest
and hovers over its young,
that spreads its wings to catch them
and carries them aloft. (Deut. 32:11; NIV)
Even more graphically, the prophet Hosea speaks of how God will protect Israel from its foes:
I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs,
and will tear open the covering of their heart;
there I will devour them like a lion,
as a wild animal would mangle them. (Hosea 13:8)
Not very maternal you might say! But so many mothers throughout history – and in our world today – have to show that same bravery and fierce love to protect their children. What a wonderful image for the God who risks all for our sakes.
More straightforwardly, we might think of the prophet Isaiah’s beautiful promise:
As a mother comforts her child,
so I will comfort you;
you shall be comforted in Jerusalem. (Isaiah 66:13)
Which leads us very nicely to our reading this morning from Luke’s gospel, where Jesus weeps over the city of Jerusalem:
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wing (Luke 11:34)
If Jesus is truly divine then would we say that this makes God ‘broody’? Of course not? Jesus speaks of his sincere desire to protect and care for all God’s creation. I am quite convinced that he would wish to do the same for Ukraine today.
In turn, this maternal imagery has long appeared in Christian writing and hymnody, such as the 17th century hymn we sang at the start of today’s service, ‘Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation!’. Its third verse proudly states of God:
then to thy need he like a mother doth speed,
spreading the wings of grace o’er thee.
25 years after the publication of this book, this may seem rather abstruse and irrelevant. The same controversy sadly still remains, though, and the debate reminds us very forcefully that, “what we say to, and about, the God we worship must reflect and express our theological understanding.” (Neil Dixon, 19) In other words, the language we use matters.
Language – as we all know only well – can be used as a weapon, and it can both include and actively exclude. By focussing so heavily on paternal images of God – and being so reticent about maternal ones – I believe that Christians have arguably committed two grave errors.
First, we have made God too small. If God is God, then God transcends all human boundaries of gender, sexuality, ethnicity and so on. God is eternal, transcendent and beyond all human comprehension. We have forgotten those words from the very beginning of our scriptures:
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)
In God, therefore, we find maleness and femaleness, mother and father, parent and child. All that we see in ourselves and in the great variety of humanity that populates our globe, we must ultimately find in God. To deny the motherhood of God, is to reject part of God and God’s creation.
Think of our second lesson, from the letter to the Colossians, where the author exhorts his readers:
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. (Col. 3:12)
Now, if I had to press you, would you say that “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” are feminine or masculine qualities? I would say that they are characteristics we often associate with women and, if we are honest, they have sometimes been used as weapons against women. Women should be humble and meek, i.e. they should know their place! But the writer of Colossians clearly believed that they were divine qualities; they were characteristics of God. Those who claim to be his disciples, therefore, should exhibit them, as well: male and female.
We see this all so clearly in Jesus. Christ repeatedly demonstrated those qualities of bravery, determination, and courage that we have so often identified as masculine. Yet he repeatedly broke contemporary taboos about engaging with women, and actively included them in his ministry. We also absolutely associate him with those qualities identified by the writer of Colossians – compassion, kindness, meekness, etc. – that we too often identify as feminine ones. In Jesus, we undeniably, I would suggest, see God embodying the values and characteristics of both father and mother.
The second error that this failure to recognise the fullness of God leads us into is the active exclusion of others through the words we use. This is something of which the writers of our revised liturgies were acutely aware. As a minister, I have lost count of the number of people I have encountered who have struggled with Christianity, at least in part, because of that image of God as father. For too many people, the language that evokes power, fear and even punishment speaks far too powerfully into their own experience of fathers who have failed to live up to the standard expected of them. Sadly, I know of at least one person who simply cannot overcome this fundamental objection to engaging with scripture or the Christian faith. Words matter. By refusing to engage with these issues, I fear that we have not only diminished God but often placed a terrible, “stumbling-block before one of these little ones” (Matthew 18:6).
I would never wish to deny the importance of the language or concept of God as Father. It has an incredible pedigree and great biblical authority. In a few minutes, we will say “Our father, who art in heaven…” together, as Christians have done for the last 2,000 years. If that language allows you to draw close to God, and to hear God speak into your own hearts, then all well and good. But we should never use tradition as an excuse to deny the fullness of God or to exclude others. We must always be mindful that, in Jesus Christ the Word became flesh; it did not become merely a word.
This Mothering Sunday then, may I encourage you, in the words of the hymn writer, to “stretch out your hands, enlarge your minds” (‘Come, all who look to Christ today’, StF 678). Take time really to reflect on the language we use about God and how we understand God. Have we put God in a mental box and made him in our own image? Have we made God so much smaller than God truly is? The truth is that in God we find father, mother, brother, sister, friend, helper, comforter, and infinitely more. We find our beginnings and our endings. We find our inspiration and our fulfilment. We find all we have hoped for, and so much more. This day, let us open our hearts and minds to the wonderful fullness of God our Father and our Mother. Amen.