Last Friday at the UCC General Synod, I attended a workshop that addressed one of the proposed resolutions: “Oppose Actions Seeking to Undermine the Status of Women in Society.” The Rev. Loey Powell, now the Executive Associate to the head of the United Church of Christ, and formerly the Executive Director of the UCC Coordinating Center for Women in Church and Society, led the discussion. Since the resolution would lead to concrete actions, Powell spoke mostly of the concrete impacts of gender bias. But amid all the practical talk, she shared a nugget of universal truth: language matters. In particular, it matters how we talk about God.
As a child, I thought of God as an all-male trio. The only language controversy was whether to capitalize the H in “He.” As an adult, I’ve been slow to adjust to gender-inclusive language. When a priest at my former church referred to the Holy Spirit as “She,” I was tickled, but also a bit scandalized. When another priest offered an alternative “inclusive language liturgy,” I was curious, but not enough to actually attend the service. I loved our traditional liturgy. I sometimes quietly substituted “God” for “He” during the worship service, but I wasn’t ready for any big changes. I didn’t see the harm in building a liturgy around male pronouns.
I discovered the harm the hard way.
When we call God “He,” we subtly connect holiness with masculinity. We project the message that men are more like God, or that God is more like men, or sometimes even that God finds women baffling. In one shopworn joke, God grants a man a single wish. The man asks for a bridge to Hawaii. God asks him to try again, and please be more practical this time. “Well then,” says the man. “I wish all men could understand our wives. I want to know how she feels inside, what she’s thinking when she gives me the silent treatment, why she cries, what she means when she says nothing’s wrong, and how I can make a woman truly happy.”
God replies, “You want two or four lanes on that bridge?”
When my former pastor told this joke in a room full of mostly women, I’m ashamed to say that I laughed. All of us did. We laughed not so much because the joke was funny, but because the most powerful person in the room had told it. To be sure, clergy may not always feel powerful. But while we are subtly communicating men’s Godliness and God’s maleness, we are doing the same thing with clergy in a hundred unsubtle ways. Clergy have special titles, wear special symbolic garments, and have special license plates. They lead our most sacred rituals, interpret our holy scriptures, and open doors (into hospitals, prisons, and private homes) that most of us can’t. We sometimes refer to clergy as men or women of God. Even their college degrees are more godlike than ours: who but a minister would hold a Master of Divinity?
All these differences, real and symbolic, give religious leaders more power, and more potential to abuse their power. When we call God “He,” we put male clergy on an even higher pedestal. We put adult and teen women, who are the primary target of wandering or predatory pastors, in even greater danger. The problem is, we are so accustomed to the power differential that we may not even notice it any more. When I joined my former church, I was a highly educated and accomplished feminist, well into my fifth decade of life. I thought I was as powerful and close to God (or as powerless and confused) as anyone. So when my charismatic head pastor invited me to see him for spiritual counseling, I didn’t even think about the power differential. I thought only about the clarity differential: I was spiritually confused and needed someone to help me clear things up. He was a brilliant preacher with a seminary education. Other than that, I thought we were equals. I could not have been more wrong. I couldn’t see the immense power that language and symbol conveyed upon my pastor. I thought I was looking to another human being for insight. Now, I can see I was dazzled by the trappings of rank and gender. I was flattered that this important minister wanted to discuss God and Life with me! His gender made him even more important in my eyes, and it set the stage for transference and harmful abuse of power.
It matters what words we use for God. We will never eliminate the clergy-laity power differential, but we can narrow the gap between men’s and women’s power in church. After my immediate crisis had passed (meaning: after the abuse, silencing, ostracism, and eating disorder were behind me), I set out to do just that. It was time to rebuild my shattered faith. My new congregation used wholly inclusive language, but many of my new friends still instinctively used “He” when they talked about God. I still found myself envisioning a masculine entity when I tried to pray. Because a male pastor had targeted me specifically as a woman, I found myself putting up walls against a God I saw as male. Eliminating “He” and “Him” wasn’t enough: I needed to come up with words and images that made me feel safe with God again.
That is why I now always think of God as “She.” I take great pleasure in praying the Psalms this way: (“She reached down from on high, she took me; she drew me out of mighty waters; she delivered me from my strong enemy.”) Artworks depicting the Creator (or even the Christ) as a woman move me to tears. I’m not under any delusion; I know that God doesn’t have breasts and a uterus any more than She has a penis. I’m not trying to say that God is a woman, or that I am closer to God because I am a woman, or that God finds men alien or second-class in any way. I’m only trying to balance the scales a little.
I have immense respect for my sisters and brothers who pray to Father God. I hope they will have the same respect when I pray to Mama God, Auntie God, or Grandmother God. I use these images not only for myself, but for all my sisters (and perhaps my brothers too) who feel disenfranchised when the church prays to a solely male God.
Dr. King had a dream, and I do too. I have a dream that one day, our prayers and hymns and Scripture translations will be judged not by the gender of their pronouns, but by their faithfulness to the living God, in whose image we are all made; the God in whom there no longer is, nor ever was, male or female. Then, and only then, will we be free.