“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.