Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Gender in the Church

Paul and I heard about this book on NPR one night, and Paul knew he had to read it. It's called Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith, written by Barbara Brown Taylor. The author is a former Episcopal priest and wrote of her decision to become a priest and of her decision to leave the priesthood. Paul read it and now I am more than half way through it, thanks to a homeschool Amtrak trip to Seattle. While Hibi and Zac played games with other kids on the train, I had the chance to read, without interruption (or sleepiness, which happens when I read after they go to bed) for maybe 1 1/2 hours. I am enjoying it immensely and I recommend it to anyone who would like to understand some of the issues of ministering to a flock. One thing that really struck me was that the reason she decided to leave the priesthood was not that things were going badly, but just the opposite. Things were going so well, in fact, that she went from having one service on Sunday morning to having four in a pretty short amount of time. There was real ministry going on. And because of that, she was sucked into the life of the church in a way that didn't leave much room for her own self. She talked about having to remind herself of what month it was, what *season* it was, because she'd go so long without being aware of her surroundings, being so caught up in the work of really being *with* other people.

This book reminds me of the reasons why the very best of the ministers in our churches (I'd imagine in other religions as well) are the ones who leave, for one reason or another. Because they are genuine people, the very thing that makes them such good ministers is the very thing that drains them so of being their own person.

One line in this book actually brought tears to my eyes, and it was because of something mentioned in passing. "The Holy Spirit had spread her wings, and all the babies had settled down underneath them." The author was describing a day when she had decided to baptize a whole bunch of babies all together, and it started out chaotic, with all the babies crying, and ended up with mystical silence. Barbara Brown Taylor did not address inclusive language at all in this book, but when she referenced the Holy Spirit as "she" something broke in my spirit.

A few years ago when we lived at St. Nicholas Ranch, I attended a women's group that met once a month, on a Saturday morning at the Newman Center in Fresno. (Though Fresno is certainly not known for it's progressive thought, it did have some pockets--this was one.) It was an Ecumenical progressive group, and we discussed faith in a way that I never heard in Sunday school or sitting in the pew listening to a sermon. The female essence of God was discussed here, and I began to realize that I already had identified with the belief that God is not male or female, but rather created both, but I had not internalized this belief. Had not made it my own. Had not let God out of God's male box.

One of the presentations I heard there was on gender-inclusive language in church. We heard from one woman who had been deeply hurt by the male-based language of the church, and had been told outright that males were the highest priority on God's list, with females being a distant second. The other woman who spoke said she always knew that she was included in the male-based language but wanted it to change so that all women knew this.

I thought it was an interesting presentation, but after all, I figured I'd always known that it all applied to the women and girls as well as the men and boys. But I could see that using this kind of language has obviously given some people some ammunition for shooting women down.

So I decided to do something radical. Since we were at St. Nicholas Ranch, and our church services were quite small unless there was a retreat, I often got the chance to read the Epistle. In fact, I was the default Epistle reader, along with Hibi and The Other Elizabeth (our neighbor). When I got up to read that Sunday, I just changed the male-based language to gender neutral language. And something quite remarkable happened.

Brothers and Sisters, have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of a human.

The last word, "human", I changed from the word "man" (as well as Brethren to Brothers and Sisters.) Suddenly I was struck with the fact that God had become *human*, not just a man. God had decided to be like me, not only like men. Perhaps it was the contrast between what the text said and what I changed it to, but it felt....different. I almost teared up right there while reading to the people there to worship. It felt so....personal. Like, as a woman, I was worth Jesus becoming one of us, including me as "one of us."

Skip now to the present. This past Sunday our church adopted the Official Greek Orthodox Archdiocese translation of the Nicene Creed. (For those unfamiliar with the Creed, it is the statement we recite in church every liturgy, that explains our beliefs in a nutshell.) At first I thought, oh, it's about time we had a standardized version! The Episcopal church has it standardized, the Antiochian Orthodox church does, the Metropolis of Boston has since before we lived there. But when I read it for the first time, my heart sank. It states:

And in one Lord Jesus Christ....
Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man.
(For the full text click here.)

We had been using a version that said "Who for us and for our salvation..." and I can't see what's wrong with that. I have scribbled out the word "men" in my choir book and will continue to say it the other way. Hello! We're not all men!

Some might protest and say that of course, by "men" we mean "men and women." Aside from the fact that if that's what we mean, why don't we just say that? I have some problems with this. First, Paul says that in Greek, you really can say anthropos and mean men and women. But, as he says, do you call your wife, your daughter, your mother, "man"? Madaleine L'Engle says that "mankind" may have originally meant the same as "humankind" but that it is probably irreparable as a good word for all of us, since it has *not* been used to mean that for centuries.

Back to the ecumenical women's group I attended: one thing that was stated there is that there is already enough misogyny inherant in the scriptures because of the times in which it was written. We don't need to borrow from the English language's misogyny to make even more.

I am considering writing to the Archdiocese to request that they take a look at this issue. Perhaps the all-male hierarchy has blinded them to this issue, but I believe it to be one that needs attention. We don't really believe that women are second-class citizens. Do we?


monica said...

so interesting that you posted about this, as i was thinking about similar things the other day. i have some protestant girlfriends who have been wrestling with this issue of gender and the church. the book that has been passed around is Sue Monk Kidds Dance of the Dissident Daughter. i read it and really appreciated the journey she went on, but i didnt feel like i struggle with the same feelings as her, so it was hard for me to relate. I think i have always imagined God (Yaweh) as beyond genders, but as Christ as certainly male. In my own personal relationship to God i can see that at times i have related to him/her as a father and other times as a mother, depending on what the situation was. But the thought that came to me the other day was that at times, when i am struggling with a real mom moment (like screaming kids, late dinner, neverending laundry) i can't easily imagine what Jesus would do in the situation, and it is hard for me to pray to him for guidance. but i get immense comfort and inspiration as imagine the Theotokos and pray for a bit of her wisdom and grace to be in me. And it makes me wonder if my protestant friends (who probably have a pretty protestant view of Mary) are really searching for the Theotokos as they struggle with all the issues surrounding God, gender, church and language. I have not read much on this at all, and i am just now at the point in my Orthodox journey where i feel close to the Theotokos. Just my rambling thoughts, kind of related to your post.

Heather said...

Oh Elizabeth!

We were just talking about this last night in my women's prayer group. I went through a period where I used exclusively female language for the Divine, figuring that we needed some balance after thousands of years of patriarchy. Since I became a Quaker, however, that has fallen away, and I've recently noticed that the exclusively male language used in Meeting is affecting me.

"Great Mother Goddess" has a decidedly different feel than "God the Father" or "our Lord Jesus Christ." I felt better about myself as a woman when I visualized God in female form. I feel more connected with the Divine when I imagine her as a great archetypal mother.

A dear Friend of mine recommended the book A God Who Looks Like Me: Discovering a Woman-Affirming Spirituality by Patricia Lyn Reilly.

At least among Quakers, we have a lovely gender-neutral way to refer to one another. "Friend" is already nicely gender-neutral, and I love the custom of addressing other Quakers as "Friends."

christopher3rd said...

SCOBA had actually dropped "man" from the place in the Creed you mentioned and there was a huge uproar in all jurisdictions because it specifically did not translate a word in the Greek original - anthropos - thus doing the reverse of what Rome had done: they took out rather than added to the Creed. I, for one, think that us implies human. I just find it odd that they would prefer to keep the language pretty and 'flowing' rather than add the exact translation of the Greek word: humans.

While the reaction is real, is it an appropriate reaction that requires that we change the way we do the services? Protestants, as I was, are offended by all the Mary and saint talk; Jehovah's Witnesses and Muslims by the Trinity. There are all sorts of things in the Church that our fallen nature does not want to accept, is not able to 'naturally' understand, and so many things that we must learn (or relearn) about what Christianity is - why should this modern focus on gender (man vs. human vs. "he created man, male and female he created them") not require catechizing, too?

Elizabeth said...

You know, I read about half of Dance of the Dissident Daughter, and really found it meaningful. It was one of those rare books that I really wanted to savor, getting each bit. But apparently I was savoring it too much and totally lost the flavor, as it's been about four years since I was reading it and never finished it. I'll have to go back and finish.

Thing about the Theotokos (the Greek term for the Virgin Mary--literally the God Bearer) is that she's not God. I do receive comfort and understanding from her in a way similar to the way you do, Monica. But she's not God and therefore can't really see and know what God sees and knows. I do love the image of the Holy Spirit as a mother, comforting her children. And Holy Wisdom has, from ancient times, been thought of as a female deity. There is precedent for this in Orthodoxy, even from before Christian times.

Heather, it actually kind of surprises me to hear that male-dominated language also is the language of the Quakers. I would have thought the Quakers would be some of the leaders in this. And I definitely agree that it feels different to think of God as a mother. I think we do all go through phases like what you've described, which I think could explain Monica's feelings about the subject, and others. "The Other Elizabeth" whom I referenced in the blog post told me that she'd done all that in college, and she was done with worrying about God being female. I'd like to think that we could all be helpful to each other on our journeys and understand that we all need different things at different times.

Christopher3rd, I am having trouble figuring out exactly what side you're on--for gender-inclusive language or not? But here's some reflection on your comments. I don't think that we can always translate exactly what one language says to another. Some things are not translate-able, and we can only translate the feeling, the jist. This doesn't mean we shouldn't try. But I agree with you (I think this is what you're saying) that "for us" certainly means the same as "for us humans." And, I also think that it's much more poetic to say "for us." I think the flow *does* matter, but not as much as other things.

I'm not going to attempt to answer what you wrote in your second paragraph, because I can't figure out what point you're trying to make. Can you explain what you mean?

christopher3rd said...

The last section was meant to convey the fact that the faith and its expression in liturgy and prayer cannot be held to the mercy of those who might 'misunderstand' something that is said. The Liturgy and the Creed is something that is more than simply contemporary and should reach back to Christ, the Apostles and the great chain of saints up to today.

The difficulty is that we are dealing with translating Orthodoxy into a culture that does not, in the main, have a living linkage from generation to generation back to the Apostles - as do the Greeks. We have to 'translate' the faith without changing the faith. Trial and error will occur. Sts Cyril and Methodius, when they translated the Greek of the Bible and the services for the Slavs, actually created a language that no one actually used but which was generally intelligible to all the different Slavs of that time. the Greek was often transliterated and the Greek word order was followed rather than normal Slavonic word order. This brings into question the way we Westerners tend to want to fully incarnate the faith into a new culture rather than the culture into the faith. I would be interested in understanding how the great Russian missionaries to Siberia and Alaska translated into the local dialects - whether they followed the Cyrillian methodology or one that is more like what Western missiologists do.

"For we humans..." doesn't sound too bad, or "For us, humanity, and our salvation...".

Then, again, I became Orthodox because I prefer a more measured view of change and growth in the Church - I find it to be more in keeping with what we see in the Bible, pre- and post-Nicene Christianity, and subsequent Orthodox history than the great changes that Western Christianity has been undergoing since the Reformation and especially in the 20th Century till now.

Magpie Ima said...

One of the reasons I belong to a Reconstructionst (Jewish) congregation has to do with language. Because of my studies and my profession I am very tuned in to language and I simply could not worship in a place where G-d is male by default. Traditional Jewish liturgy is as male-focused as any other religion, but there has always been recognition of The Shechina, the female side of G-d. Most of the non-Othodox Jewish movements have moved towards gender neutral language but Reconstructionist Judaism, being relatively young, has always operated from an assumption of gender equality both in liturgy and in ritual. It makes for some rather awkward English sometimes, but I'll take that over the male centered for of Judaism any old time.

Huw Raphael said...

Sad, really, to compare women and their discomfort with sexist language with non-Orthodox and with non-believers.

Joel said...

what a wonderful discussion this has started!! so interesting. i couldnt get this out of my head as i was going about my usual stuff today. I think a good (although limited) analogy for how i see language related to God is a child calling for one of his/her parents. Gender stereotypes aside, there are usually some things that one parent takes care of and other things the other parent takes care of. Like in our house, i can make a soup that will knock your socks off, but Joel is the pancake expert. Maybe what we call God, mother or father, depends on what our heart cry is. I kept thinking of when Christ looks at Jerusalem and says how he longs to gather her to himself as a mother hen gathers her chicks. that is feminine, mothering language that Christ (who was a man) was using for himself. But he couldnt have said he longed to gather Jerusalem as a rooster because roosters just dont do that. at least i dont think they do, you will have to clarify that, elizabeth as the resident poultry expert :). but anyway, maybe we should have gender inclusive language in the church to reflect the multifaceted character of God. I love how Orthodox Christianity says "ok God is this and this and this, but he/she is more than what we can name." that is how i feel the language issue is. God is father, God is mother, Call out to Him when you need a father. Call out to Her when you need a mother. But I think it was Moltmann that said even the words "father" and "mother" are human terms we have put on God but they dont encapsulate him. They give us glimpses, but God is more than any words can contain.
as for Mary, i think the reason i can look to her is the very point you made Elizabeth- she isnt/wasnt God. She was confronted with all the weaknesses, temptations, and emotions i face daily and yet she is the model for me of my relationship with Christ. She carried him around in her body and followed him faithfully through everything. I think the fact that she was mother has lately made her especially dear to me. Probably has nothing to do with the issue of gender language in the church, just one of those random connections i made in my head.
ok, another blathering comment from me. its your fault, you got me thinking. oh, this is going to post as joel, but it is really me, monica

Elizabeth said...

Is that what's he's saying, Huw? I still can't figure it out. Thanks for linking this post on your blog, by the way!

Ima, I guess this is the kind of thing I have to deal with when I signed up for an ancient religion. I'd be interested in hearing more about the particular benefits and disadvantages of starting up a new branch of an ancient religion. (Not that I'm thinking of doing that!)

Monica! I'm glad to hear from you again, though I thought at first, wow! I even brought Joel to discuss this issue. ;-) I agree with everything you said...thanks for "blathering"!

Huw Raphael said...

My pleasure to link in! It's a very important issue: one that I've heard other Orthodox women raise.

I'm not sure if that's what Christopher intended to say... it is, however, how I read it! I could easily be wrong.

christopher3rd said...

The example of women, non-Orthodox, and non-believers is meant to point out that our 'comfort' should not be our measure since we are all sinners and therefore 'uncomfortable' with holiness, God, orthodox/Orthodox doctrine, etc. We do not live according to nature, we live contrary to nature since the fall.

There are all sorts of language and actions in the Church that bring up discomfort to me - and did, as one who came to the Church as an adult. I can take these discomforts as either a call to change the Church, or as the call and need to change myself. The same is true for any relationship. We can either point to our spouse, parent, friend as the cause of our anger, impatience, lust, etc., OR we can ask whether the cause of our less than positive reaction is in ourselves - which is usually the case with me, personally.

The same can be true of religious language. "We don't reform Church, Church reforms us" as a late Archbishop said to Fr. Hopko. With all of this, I am simply saying that our first reaction to discomfort should be to critique and/or reform ourselves, and not to question and attempt to reform the Church, Her language and services, etc. Discomfort over gender language may be valid, it may also be a flag pointing us to ways in which we as post-Sexual Revolution, post-Christian moderns have fallen away from aspects of the Apostolic Faith. So, I am not arguing for an 'answer' to how far gender neutral language should be used or not, if at all. I am arguing for deference to tradition and context, and what has been my personal experience in projecting my own failings and preoccupations on other people and issues.

Thanks for the discussion on this topic, though, it is often either ignored, whispered, mocked or unquestioningly declared (by both sides of the issue).

chiron's pupil said...

i realise this post is several years old at this point... i've been disturbed by the translation of "anthropos" and "homo/ hominem" as "man" instead of "human" and "enanthropisanta" as "became man" instead of "became human". i regularly refer to the Holy Spirit as "she" and often speak of the holy Trinity that way as well. For me, God the Father refers specifically to the first person of the Trinity, and in relation, specifically, to the begetting of the Word. (To call the first person of the Trinity "Mother" would imply a gestation and then a birth of the Word, which is rather incompatible with a view that the Word always existed in perfection.)

to add a slightly different view to the discussion about paternal and maternal traits in the divine, or in the Divinity, i wonder what children of same-sex couples would have to say on this matter? do we need to think of God having a paternal and maternal side because we had both a mother and a father? and what if one of those parents was horrible? would all the "bad" stuff that happens in the world be attributed to that aspect of God? i guess for me, as a queer man, the issue of gendered language is first a theological one, and if theological than by necessity also an issue of social justice (or perhaps one could reverse the relation of those two: all social justice for me is of necessity theological); the need for viewing God as having gender is vaguely disorienting and too much involved with the sort of identity politics i seek refuge from when i pray. ultimately, i prefer st isaac of nineveh's emphasis on describing God as a mystery of which we cannot speak, and his focus on silence and asking that God grant us a tongue of silence to praise that Mystery.

i would also note that the feminine in jewish theology isn't simply the exiled shekhinah, but also binah, and neither of them is entirely well spoken of in the zohar, binah even being considered a source of evil, of the "sitra ahra" or "other side". (of course, this then implies the source of evil stems from within the internal life of the divine world.) but perhaps this is my own leaning towards orthodox judaism's stricter theological analyses as opposed to reconstructionist theology.