17 April 2018

Discovering a feminine Godde

“And the Lord said…” preached the priest at the parish I was attending, and suddenly, everything changed.

“Why does it have to be “the lord”?” I thought. “We know God is above and beyond gender, but I only ever hear God referred to using male pronouns and male terms. Can God be Mother as well as Father? Can God be … Lady?” That thought was the beginning of the seismic shift in my theology, my practice, and my life.

Until that moment, I had lived my faith in a conventional (but hopefully courageous) way. I studied English Literature and Religious Studies in my BA, and then went on to complete a Bachelor of Ministries degree from the-then Bible College of New Zealand, with a focus on spiritual formation. During my time at BCNZ, I returned to my Anglican roots, and was Confirmed as an Anglican not long after I married my husband in 2001.  

I joined the Third Order Franciscans not long after we married, and I transferred my vows to a Benedictine community a few years later, as I found the Benedictine vows of stability, conversion of life, and obedience to God a much easier fit for a married woman than poverty, chastity and obedience! Our daughter, then aged 4, assisted me at my vows by vesting me in the Benedictine habit – she has grown up with a mother who works fulltime, is married and a nun, and is quite happy with all of that, as is my husband who is my strongest supporter!

Fast-forward five years. My small family were attending a small Anglican church and living our lives as a youngish couple with a small child. Everything was seemingly normal. I was reading voraciously, as is my lifelong habit, and one of the books I read around that time was Sue Monk Kidd’s The Dance of the Dissident Daughter. And then, from left field, comes this thought: why do I never hear God addressed by female names? And following on from that, what is wrong with being female, that (according to Augustine and other male early church leaders) means women cannot be seen as imago Dei, fully created in the image of God as women?

St Augustine said that,

“Woman does not possess the image of God in herself but only when taken together with the male who is her head, so that the whole substance is one image. But when she is assigned the role as helpmate, a function that pertains to her alone, then she is not the image of God. But as far as the man is concerned, he is by himself alone the image of God just as fully and completely as when he and the woman are joined together into one.”

I dived into the most serious theological and historical study I had ever done (including the six years I spent doing my degrees) – certainly the most fraught. This felt like a life-or-death situation – the life or death of my ability to respect myself as a woman, the life or death of my ability to connect with the divine.
Is there historical and theological support for calling God by female names?

To my great delight (and relief), there is ample biblical, theological and historical evidence for addressing the Most Holy by female names. I discovered that the translations made of the Bible had frequently changed female names for people, as well as mistranslating female terms and names for the divine. For example, the ancient Hebrew “El Shaddai” is usually translated “The Almighty”, assuming that the term derives from shadad, burly or powerful, or shadah, “mountains”. However, many Hebrew scholars now understand that El Shaddai derives from Shad meaning breast – El Shaddai therefore translates as the Many-Breasted One. The ancient habit of translating the Tetragrammaton, the four-letter name for God, as “LORD”, further reinforced the incorrect assumption that only male language was acceptable to name the Most High.

The usage of “Father/abba” to relate to the Holiest is only used 4 times in Mark, 15 in Luke, 49 in Matthew, and 109 times in John (the Gospels were written in that order, from around 60-120AD) - surely a sign of a growing community usage, rather than Jesus’ actual words. Given the Gospels had earlier sources now lost to us, it is possible that the term “father” was used infrequently by Jesus, and was then latched onto by his followers as a quiet and subconscious way of reinforcing the Graeco-Roman worldview of men as pater familias, the head of the household, and its use encouraged and strengthened through the years by those reinforcing male leadership and power.

I came to understand that, if we only use male names for God, then that subtly implies that only men are made in God’s image. When we use only male terminology for God and for people in our liturgy, worship, preaching and teaching, we subtly reinforce this incorrect, outdated understanding of God and imply that maleness is “normal” and somehow being female means we are less.

Theologically, we understand that God is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient, and as omnipotent and all-powerful, God will not be limited by gender, and nor should our language for God put God’s power and presence in a box of limited male terms. St Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) called God Mother in her sermons; so too did Julian of Norwich (c1342-1416). Yet despite extensive biblical, historical and theological evidence, including discussions within our own Anglican tradition in New Zealand and overseas over the last 50 years or more, we still continue to primarily name God by male names.

I began to look closely at the liturgy and Bible translations we use. I translated the entire Benedictine daily prayer cycle into gender neutral and expansive terms (where female and male names are used equally) for my own use as a Lenten devotion in 2014. I then tackled A New Zealand Prayer Book/He Karakia Mihinare o Aotearoa. I wrote a version of the Eucharistic liturgy p.404 that removed all male terms for God, replacing them with female or gender-neutral terms. Not being a priest, I was not able to use this, but it was an exercise in trying to find out what it might feel like to be in a liturgy where God was addressed openly as Sophia, Mother, Lady, She. I began to look for versions of the Bible where the names for God were not changed, and discovered both The Inclusive Bible, and even more powerful, The Divine Feminine Version of the New Testament, and began to experience the scriptures with a new voice.
I found that I could not keep silent about the explosion of love that I had felt since I had openly embraced calling God by female names – my favourites being She Who Is, following Elizabeth Johnson’s book of the same name that was the beginning of the strong theological backbone I needed, Sophia (the Greek translation of Hokhmah or Wisdom), and Mother or Lady. I began to think about Jesus as the incarnation of Holy Sophia in the continuation of the Wisdom tradition, which a lot of scholars had identified, and reflected that the Holy Child could be thought of as the Child of the Mother. I began to discuss my discovery of She Who Is with others.

And that’s where things got complicated.

There was a lot of support, often from older Christian friends that had gone through the second wave of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s, several of whom had been closely involved with the Anglican Church and the Prayer Book Commission. There was also stonewalling, accusations of heresy, and refusal to engage with the theology and history, particularly from some male priests who clung to patriarchy like a ragged, worn-out old blanket that they wouldn’t, or couldn’t, let go of.

I tried everything. I spoke, with love, to friends and acquaintances at churches – my own and others. I spoke with my husband and daughter, who have both journeyed with me on this discovery of She Who Is Godde (the term I now prefer for the divine – it is an old medieval spelling for the divine, and is completely neutral with no male connotations such as “God” has). I spoke with passion to our churchwardens and parish priests, describing my journey and trying to engage with them over the theological and historical information I had gleaned through at least five years of intensive study, prayer and reflection.

I felt unwelcome in regular church liturgy because I only ever heard Godde named by male names, and that no longer named my experience of her. I changed the words when I was singing hymns (first resigning from the church choir) and participating in liturgy, substituting she for he so I could be present in church. When I used a female name for Godde, Sophia, Holy Wisdom, when leading intercessions one Sunday in 2016, I was formally censured by my parish priest and removed from all rosters in the parish where I, and my dangerous ideas about Godde, might be expressed publicly. Patriarchy was rampant.

I did find allies – people that felt the same as me, who had sought Sophia/Wisdom and found her, as we are enjoined to do in Proverbs and Wisdom. They helped me keep up my courage. In the end, in desperation, I sought a meeting with our People’s Warden asking what I could do, as our parish priest completely refused to engage in conversation about this topic with us. The Warden recommended we put motions to our parish AGM – which we did, seeking removal of male terms when the whole of humanity was meant, and seeking education for the parish and changes in our language for Godde in church.

So how did it all turn out? Well, the parish priest would not allow the motions on the naming of Godde to even be put at the AGM (giving us no warning of this so we couldn’t even amend the motions) and refusing to allow discussion on the naming of Godde. I wasn’t even allowed to speak to the motion I was trying to put (which had been notified to the parish according to the correct protocol, three weeks before the AGM). The priest tried to undermine the motion on naming of people by putting a much weaker motion from the chair, but at least there is some intention to remove terms such as “mankind” and “man/men” when they are intended to refer to all people. The motion on educating the parish on the female names for Godde was passed, after my husband spoke with calm eloquence, identifying that his experience of the journey was that knowing Godde by male-only terms was missing so much of the richness of Godde’s nature.

And where does that leave me? I am still reading, still researching – trying to identify what it might do to the way the church treats people, the way Christians treat people, if we viewed Godde as our Mother. How might we respect her world, if we thought about it as birthed by her? How might we show love one to another, if all of our people could see and hear of Godde in terms that show that, no matter what flesh you are born into, you are fully born and bearing Godde’s image? I am still lighting candles of hope in her name, praying in the stillness of the night sky, walking the beach and hearing the water crash on the shore, filling her footprints left there by some other person who walked before me and carries her name.

I am calling out her name in the world, and naming patriarchy and misuse of male power wherever I see it.

I cannot un-see or un-know what I now know, the experiences of her love I have had. My image of Godde is forever changed – much bigger, wider, deeper, more beautiful, richer. I am a different person since I encountered Godde the Mother, Godde the Creatrix, Godde the Incarnate Child, Godde Holy Wisdom. I have found my image was in her all along – I just couldn’t see it, because the language we use for God told me that only men were made in God’s image. Women were only mothers, not fathers – but now Godde is my Mother I can find myself in her.

19 February 2018

Storm warning

Tonight feels a little weird. Ex-tropical Cyclone Gita is bearing down on us, and we're just sitting waiting for it to arrive. It will make landfall somewhere between Westport and Wellington, although current plotting looks as though it's going to hit on the west side of Golden Bay and head across the top of the South Island - which means Wellington will get hammered as well.

It's the impending feel I find nerve-wracking.

Cyclone Gita is just emphasising other storms that I feel I am facing - the same impending feel, the same sense of waiting for the storm to break - the only difference is that I don't know what will happen afterwards with the other storm.

And then there's my sweet lovely Storm, one of our little fur-cats - my particular boy, with the loudest purr I have ever heard from a cat. Snuggles are worth facing the storm for...

16 February 2018

Skating the dark moon

I am watching the Olympic men's figure skating, one of my favourite things to see. I only get to see figure skating every 4 years, when the Winter Olympics is on. There is something so beautiful about seeing these highly-trained women and men soaring over the ice, effortlessly, forever blurring the line between ballet and skating and flight.

I guess it's that feeling of seeing someone master something, truly master it, until it looks easy. Like the speed skaters, looking so relaxed as they fly around their course faster than a car goes. It's also incredibly beautiful to watch.

I am looking for that sense of ease, of doing something until it is utterly natural and becomes normal. I am beginning to feel this sense of ease about calling the Divine by Her names. It came hard to start with because I didn't know any different, but now feels utterly normal - and I get frustrated when all of the language commonly used for the Divine is male. It's like we're only getting half the story: Godde is so much more than a male, and by cutting out female language we cut out female experience too.

Tonight is the dark moon following the January supermoon, so tonight is a night of deepness, darkness, and depth, perhaps as deep and dark as it can go. Tonight, I will see whether the depth and darkness of the night leads me somewhere with Her. Maybe I can burn with Her dark light, at ease on the ice.

15 February 2018

From dust to stardust

From dust you are, and to dust you shall return. Ash Wednesday liturgy
We have calcium in our bones
Iron in our veins
Carbon in our souls
And nitrogen in our brains.
93 percent stardust
With souls made of flames
We are all just stars
With people names. Nikita Gill

These two quotes have been circling around my head over the last couple of days. From dust to dust - 93% stardust. From dust to stardust. Stardust we are, and to stardust we shall return.

This Lent, I want to try to spend time reflecting on the journey I've come on over the last few years. It is an unashamedly feminist journey, so if you want to come too, feel free, but know what you're in for. The more I think about it, the more I believe that I am stardust with a human name, called by Godde to journey with Her, to bear witness to Merlin Stone's famous quote, "In the beginning, God was a woman," and to know the truth, that I am created imago Dei, in Godde's image as a woman in my female flesh and skin and spirit - contrary to so-called "saint" Augustine, who said,
Woman does not possess the image of God in herself but only when taken together with the male who is her head, so that the whole substance is one image. But when she is assigned the role as helpmate, a function that pertains to her alone, then she is not the image of God. But as far as the man is concerned, he is by himself alone the image of God just as fully and completely as when he and the woman are joined together into one.
Augustine, you were wrong and your misogyny has made our journey as women immeasurably harder. Until this vileness is repudiated, women's stories will continue to be lost and men continue to exercise power over women. Women will still be raped, shot, put down, ignored, passed over, and dominated, while this kind of thinking is still accepted.

I have finally come to know that from stardust I came, and to stardust I will return, made in the image of She Who Is, Godde, Wisdom, Sophia, Goddess, Great High One, Hine-nui-e-te-Po, Trinity of Mother, Child and Spirit, creatrix of all that is and is to come, originator and Prime Cause of the big bang. Maybe the big bang was her giving birth to the universe? Interesting idea.

As I said in my last post, I will not be complicit in my own subjugation. This Lent, I intend to reflect on my place in the world and where Godde touches it - and the world - and what I can do to change what I see all around me.

21 January 2017

I will not participate in my own invisibility

I saw that quote today, and I like it.

Today has been a day of me deciding that I will stand up for what matters to me. I heard about the "Women's March on Washington" in protest of the inauguration of the Orange Despot in America, and I decided that I would attend that march. Even more beautifully, my daughter (aged 10) also decided to go, in her full Girl Guide uniform, as she identified that Guides is about including everyone.

I have never marched before. I have never protested before. But now, I cannot stand by silent, as a complicit bystander, in what I see going on in the world. My friends, who are rainbow, inclusive, women, black, progressive, are frightened. I cannot be silent. So I marched, with nearly a thousand Wellingtonians.



I saw a number of placards I liked: my favourite was "Kate Shepherd sent me".

Then, this afternoon, I met with a friend from church to discuss language for God, which was really encouraging as she uses feminine names for God as well and would be happy to see them used in public worship.

And tonight, we met with the church wardens to discuss naming and language for God - for the first time I feel that someone is listening. The question will be whether there is doing as well.

I will not participate in my own invisibility. I see these three things linked: I am finally having the courage to stand up and say that this is not okay, that the silencing of some of God's most ancient names and nature is not okay, and that it is an issue of justice as well as a issue of understanding and seeing God's depth and beauty - and I finally have the courage not to be a bystander or complicit any more.

It's really tiring though....

2 January 2017

Hagia Sophia, holy Sophia, wholly God

This year promises to be an interesting one. As part of seeing the new year in, the whanau and I reflected on what our dreams were for 2017, and what the best thing was from 2016. 

For me, the dreams for this year could create an interesting time. The work dream is to find my joy in my work again as I experiment with new ways of working, particularly with contracting. 


The more interesting dream comes out of some events recently. I frequently lead the weekly intercessions at our parish, and early in Advent it was my turn again. These are the prayers I led our parish in on 11 December:


Blessed One, this day we celebrate the joy you bring us.
You came to us in an ordinary event
Of a refugee mother giving birth
In the only shelter that could be contrived.
In the joy of the face of the exhausted mother,
The joy in the face of her husband,
We see a very ordinary miracle.
We pray for ordinary miracles:
Life, peace, hope, joy, love.
Holy Wisdom, Holy Sophia,
Bring your ordinary miracles into the faces
And lives of those in pain, in places of war,
Or affected by your restless earth.
Holy Wisdom, holy Spirit, hear our prayer.

Coming One, in this Advent we remember the baby who came,
Jesus, Light of the World,
The baby born of a refugee teenager.
And we know you promise to come again
In joy and love and peace and hope.
We pray for teenage mothers, refugees,
And those for whom this season means fear and violence.
May they know your peace and hope.
­­We pray for those for whom Christmas is a reminder of loss,
And for those who have gone on that have left a hole in our hearts.
Holy Wisdom, holy Spirit, hear our prayer.

Holy Sophia, Wisdom Spirit of God,
We pray for leaders everywhere
That they would hear your voice,
Listen to your heart, and act with justice and compassion.
May they follow your star,
See your love and kindness,
And return by another way, changed.
Holy Wisdom, holy Spirit, hear our prayer.

Most Holy, may we look with your eyes,
Hear with your ears.
Help us to experience your coming
In the touch of those we love, the smells and tastes
That make this season special.
May our senses show us your ordinary miracles.
May we have the courage and kindness
To share those ordinary miracles
With those that we find it a challenge to love.
Holy Wisdom, holy Spirit, hear our prayer. Amen.

Quite simple and innocuous, I thought. Apparently I was wrong. I got a snarky email a few days later from the vicar telling me that I shouldn't have named God by her ancient name of Sophia in church, and that I wasn't to lead intercessions again until after he had "talked to me" in January, as it "wasn't appropriate" to name God by a female name in church and "someone had complained". 


I saw red. I still see red, as this is the third time he's tried to do this - he told me I couldn't edit the church magazine after I wrote an article about Sophia, and that I wasn't allowed to even submit any articles on that subject, and now he tries to remove me from the intercessions. Patriarchial oppression and censorship at its clearest and most obvious. 


I will not allow someone else's narrowminded, patriarchal, androcentric ignorance allow the knowledge of Sophia's beauty to be crushed again. The vicar seems to be of the opinion that the only person that this affects is me - well, he'd be wrong there. I asked a whole lot of people I know that this matters for to speak to him, and the next day in church (I wasn't there - I was both too angry to go, and wanting to visit a friend of mine in hospital) lovely hubby spoke during the "sharing" time at the end and identified how much discovering Sophia had meant to both him and me - and why I wasn't there, because the vicar was trying to shut me down. 


Lovely hubby also helped me make my Christmas present: he got a t-shirt printed for me that says "Hagia Sophia | Holy Sophia | Wholly God" on the front, and "Wisdom-Sophia is vindicated by all her children" on the back. I wore it to church yesterday, and intend to wear it to church every week.

So my dream for 2017 is that we see full equality in the language we use for God in church. And I am going to fight for it. I have been fairly quiet, asking nicely for this to be included especially as we combined the 9 and 10.30am services recently and changed all the liturgy, but as nothing has happened its time to get significantly less vocal - and significantly more Anglican. After all, the Fourth Mark of Mission says that we are called to "Transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation." Patriarchy is an unjust structure of society and it's time that our language for God reflects our commitment to a just society where women and men are equal in Sophia's sight and made in her image. 

6 September 2016

Back home by another way

Okay, I'm back. You may have wondered why it's been almost a year since I've blogged here. Lots of reasons: work - I was on a busy fixed-term contract and am now working fulltime in consulting again; home - getting settled into our home here on the hill; family - spending as much time as I can with those I love; and a huge amount of thinking and processing in my inner life that I couldn't write about.

But I'm back here. And I want to offer something to anyone who's still out there and is coming home by another way too.

I wrote this last night after lighting the candles on my altar again. I have been searching for an appropriate blessing for candle-lighting and couldn't find one, and last night this welled up.

Flame of love, heal us.
Fire of beauty, consume us.
Light of love, shine on us.
Warmth of hope, shelter us.
Stillness of peace, enfold us.

I have been finding my creative life is gradually returning: after a hiatus of many years, I am writing poems again. Or maybe that I'm putting myself in the way of poems, I don't know. But poems are coming. And they are coming mostly complete, which is really unusual for me.

In the time I've been away, "home by another way" has also become quite real in a way I didn't expect. I am learning to see God's face in the world she made, and hear her voice in places I closed my eyes and ears to in the past. I have found the truth of old, old stories and am learning to trust my heart and my instincts more than ever.

Home by another way. And yes, I'll be back.