Of all the words spoken and read, broadcast and printed, muttered to ourselves or shouted aloud, the one Americans most sought to understand in 2017 was “feminism,” according to the good wordsmiths at Merriam-Webster. “Feminism” was the word most often looked up on their online dictionary and no wonder: from “Wonder Woman” in theaters to “The Handmaid’s Tale” on Hulu, from pink hat-wearing marchers to the #MeToo hashtaggers speaking up against sexual harassment and assault, it was a year when women’s voices were heard.
I didn’t see all of that coming in the days leading up to Advent a year ago. But what I could see and feel was clear enough. Following the 2016 presidential election, one jubilant friend proclaimed that, for him, it was a “new morning in America.” Not so much in the context of my personal and pastoral life.
I was raised in the 1960s and 1970s by a single, working mother who was an educator and school administrator, an elder and the first female clerk of session at our Presbyterian church. In her own poised and graceful ways, she pushed against entrenched patriarchy. I now reside with three strong and independently-minded women: a wife and two daughters whose distinct views rarely go unexpressed.
Given all of that, the mood around me (and within me) a year ago was much more “mourning” than “morning.” So, perhaps out of more gut-centered empathy than deep theological reflection, I told my congregation on the first Sunday of Advent in 2017 that I personally would use the female pronoun for all of my references to the divine for a year. This, I told them, mandated nothing on their part except hearing.
Thus, our “year with her” began.
It was, of course, neither original nor particularly radical. Feminist, womanist and liberation theologians (among others) have for years encouraged seekers and believers to see and embrace the feminine in God. But the pall that came over many in November 2017, including our congregation, was so palpable that what started with an instinct became a pastoral act amidst those who grieved the state of the treatment of women in America.
But it was more than just pastoral. It was also personal. Deep down, I also knew I had blind spots. I am a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) where women have been in the majority for decades, in membership if not in leadership. My congregation is a progressive intersection of differences, gifts and talents across gender, race, class, sexual orientation, neighborhood and Christian background. White, straight, privileged men like me are in the minority at this church, as will be the case in the nation as a whole in time to come.
It’s not that moderately progressive theology and values were new to me. Sermons about a big God, often rooted in Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr, filled the Sundays of my youth, though preached inevitably from a male perspective. Later, seminary lectures on John Calvin and Karl Barth shaped my Christology. As for the Holy Spirit in our Triune God, she was often relegated, as we high-minded Presbyterians are prone to do. All of that left plenty of room for new learning in our “year with her.”
A congregational journey
The congregation willingly took up the journey, meeting me with an initial acknowledgment that the divine transcends language and imagery limited by the human understanding of gender. Generally, they acknowledged that “a year with her” might challenge us all in some expected and unexpected ways.
Some offered immediate encouragement. Others wondered whether I would really stick with it. What began as “Did he really just refer to God as ‘her’ for a whole sermon?” moved on to “I guess he’s still doing it,” perhaps with an eye roll, perhaps without.
Through the seasons, she became more and more the God we worshipped. In Advent, she guided us through the experiences of Mary and Elizabeth a little more deeply than in prior years. In Lent, she called us to reflect and repent more urgently. On Easter morning, we ran to the tomb ahead of the men to see what she had done. Through Eastertide, she helped us see the gift of new life in resurrection ever more clearly. In Ordinary Time, she opened our eyes to the daily inequality and oppression women faced in Jesus’ time and in ours.
Opinions of the journey varied.
“I’ve always had a visceral reaction to the constant reference to God as ‘he’,” offered one member. “For me, when we open up our mind to the vastness of the divine, we come a little closer to possibly understanding the divine’s presence in our lives.”
A lifelong Presbyterian added: “Using the feminine for God extends the idea of the Reformed tradition as one that engages questions, differing thoughts and ideas. It’s an example of how our faith is anything but fixed, staid or certain. Instead, our tradition can be strong and supple enough for modern challenges.”
Two former Roman Catholics weighed in with their own perspectives. For one, the experience took her back to her time in a Jesuit congregation and her love for that tradition’s inclusivity. Said the other: “My Catholic faith tradition is deeply seeded in the patriarchal and masculine view of God. So when I first noticed you using the she pronoun, I was honestly taken aback. … However, I can see the nurturing and comfort the use of ‘she’ can provide. The Triune God should be a reality for all. Male or female versions of God is ultimately a matter of preference. Do I see many feminine qualities in God? Yes.”
Two other members referred to the book and movie “The Shack,” which uses female characters for the parts of the Godhead and the Holy Spirit. “As a former Baptist and how I grew up hearing about God as a male, hearing the feminine of God hit my ears hard at first,” said one, adding that it became comfortable and healing.
Another fan of “The Shack” added: “Many people might have never had a true relationship with their father, so speaking about God as a female might open doors for some people to want to get to know God. I think it goes the same way for people who haven’t had a relationship with their mother.”
Several members wrestled with how gender-specific language influences faith and its practice.
“Calling God ‘he,’ ‘him,’ etc., might endow God, in our minds, with attributes of masculinity, however ‘masculinity’ is perceived and constructed by each of us individually and socially,” wrote one member. “And that seems like a problem, especially insofar as it is to the exclusion of feminine attributes.”
Another member good-naturedly acknowledged the exhausting theological gymnastics required at times. “I’m comfortable with your use of the feminine reference to the deity,” he wrote to me. “God is God, neither male nor female (though God made us that way). God is probably neither or both, but I’m starting to confuse myself — so I’ll stop.”
Newcomers said consistent references to God only as “she” and “her” refreshed their faith, communicated our church as a safe place and provoked new thinking about justice and equality. Other newcomers may never have returned specifically because of my language for the divine, but none indicated that was the case. So it goes with those who never come back — we are left wondering why.
Not everyone approved, however.
“I’ve always tried to see both sides,” said a member whose views I’ve always sought. Noting he had variously been a registered Republican, Democrat and independent and is now politically unaffiliated, he said: “I thought your feminine references came out clunky and somewhat confusing. It seemed patronizing and mostly for show, as if to make a point rather than just doing things in the regular flow. Dogma has been around for thousands of years. Changing language isn’t going to change things. Instead, we should be working for women’s rights and lifting up stories in the Bible about women.”
Perspectives and opinions varied even among church staff, including our two seminary-trained worship leaders, both women of color. One, whose powerful, traditional sermons and booming voice electrify our Sundays, embraces all of our members, and she and I have deep mutual respect and affection.
But when I explained what I would be doing, she responded with a wink and a friendly grin but also with a firm, clear voice. “Well, you can do that, but I won’t be,” she said. And so she has not. Her colleague, our other worship leader who is a female Cameroonian-American, has used both genders throughout the year, in fitting with her own expansive ideas of the divine.
So it has gone across our diversity, each person coming from their personal understanding and journey with the divine, making room for others’, sometimes changing in their views, sometimes not, but all seeking to expand their faith.
An African-American male member offered: “From childhood through early adulthood, I was guided for the most part by very spiritual women. There was the very embodiment of the Spirit of God. Later on, grasping the concept of the Trinity opened my eyes to the very fact that God is in all and is all. If I say that ‘his ways are my ways,’ then any woman should be able to say the same thing.”
As for our LGBTQ members, the experience confirmed other aspects of life together in our intersectional church — that there is always diversity amid diversity.
“As a Christian, I don’t think this has had much impact, if any, on me,” noted a white, gay man who is an elder and member. “I simply can’t grasp the mightiness of God and don’t think of it in terms of man or woman or human. I just know that it IS. As a gay man I love it. … I am sick of straight white men ruling everything on earth and I think the feminine reference suggests otherwise. As a feminist, I can just say ‘right on.’”
A pastoral and a personal experience
In the end, our “year with her” was both a pastoral and personal experience.
Pastorally, it seems we have gained far more than we have lost as a congregation. Focusing on a female facet of God, even exclusively for a time, doesn’t balance out the millennia in which most of Christianity has used only the masculine.
But none of us is left the same. We’ve all grown, even if it meant being pushed, to consider how God works out her will through the fullness of time. Perhaps, our church is more and more a safe place for women in times when other places in the world seem reinvested in their regression. Perhaps, on the other hand, our “year with her” has provided a lens through which we can see the feminine aspect of God more readily as both tender and strong, merciful and mighty.
Even more, perhaps our minds are stretched and more prepared to find comfort and hope in a God who is, at once, as familiar as a parent, female or male, yet can never be captured in a single gender, word or image. Perhaps, in these times when we so desperately need the capacity to see through the eyes of the other, whoever the other may be, we are more able to do so, that we might be “one in Christ.”
For as the apostle Paul said in his letter to the Galatians: “For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
John Cleghorn is pastor at Caldwell Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.