#Reaffirm5?

For those of you inside or near the Church of England bubble, you’ll have been aware of some media furore over the last week about the incoming bishop of Sheffield, +Philip North.

In brief: Colin Podmore of the Society of St Wilfrid and Hilda (a conservative doesn’t-approve-of-women-priests society) has lamented (in laypeople’s terms), “How do we know who’s an acceptable priest now that WOMEN BISHOPS are a thing? These priests might have been ordained by a woman, or have been ordained by a bishops who has ordained women — therefore the are not ‘real priests’ and we ‘cannot accept’ their ministry. Perhaps we should have some kind of identification system so we know who’s OK and who’s not.”

In response to this, Martyn Percy, a priest and currently the Dean of Christ Church in Oxford, has called for +Philip North, who helps to lead the Society of S Wilfrid and Hilda (hereafter, SSWSH) to either radically distance himself from this group, or to not take up his post as Bishop of Sheffield.

Much opinionating has followed. As always.

The Church of England currently recognises 5 ‘Guiding Principles’ regarding this ongoing conflict between traditionalists and progressives, which point to a goal of ‘mutual flourishing’ for all. At their heart these principles are about inclusion and tolerance — not values, notably, that all in the CofE prioritise highly (especially not those opposed to women priests). In the course of this debate, a Twitter hashtag has sprung up in support of +Philip’s appointment to Sheffield: #reaffirm5. The argument there is that there church will never not be diverse and will always require the laying aside of differences for the sake of the kingdom; that Philip’s work especially promoting the causes of the least privileged make him a great bishop and a focus of unity, even though he doesn’t believe that 1/3 of the clergy in the Diocese of Sheffield are ‘really’ priests, because of their sex.

I have stayed fairly quiet during this debate, partially because hey, there’s a passel of fascists running the USA and so I’ve been preoccupied with that more than church politics. But also because, deep inside, I’ve never been certain that the 5 guiding principles can mean anything of value to anyone outside the church: the very people whom the church (should be) seeking to serve, love, and point Christward.

‘Mutual flourishing’, as Percy points out, cannot really be ‘mutual’ if one side is still denied full humanity before God. I do not doubt that +Philip has much compassion for those experiencing poverty, for the north of the the UK, and that he is a wise person who, many tell me, is a good, pastoral overseer. However, he is also a key player in the SSWSH which does two harmful things. Firstly, it believes that women cannot exercise priestly or episcopal (or in some extreme cases, diaconal) ministry, therefore denying the ultimate equality of women and men before God. Secondly, it promotes a system of ‘alternative episcopal oversight’ whereby those who do not agree with their local bishop can seek a bishop they do agree with, usually over the issue of women’s ordination. This, which a few of my colleagues refer to as ‘Tesco bishop-ing’ (in that you go to the bishops and just pick one off the shelf you like the best), undermines the collegial and ecclesiological fabric of English Anglicanism, furthering sectarianism of many kinds. So this ‘mutual flourishing’ at its heart is actually about preserving a corner of the church where it’s OK to reject women’s ministry, on either traditional or biblical grounds.

The leaders of the SSWSH have condemned a theology of ‘taint’ whereby their members refuse to be ordained by a female bishop, a male bishop that has ordained women, or where members might refuse to concelebrate with male priests who’ve worked with women or concelebrated with women, trained female curates, ever dressed in drag, etc. The reality is, however, that such a theology is alive and well amongst traditionalists on the catholic and evangelical ends of the Anglican spectrum, whether it is acknowledged or not. (If I may be permitted the innuendo: a taint by any other name would smell as sour.)

Of course the great beauty of Anglicanism is its breadth and, in theory at least, its lack of a ‘thought police’ (though it sometimes seems to be moving in this policed direction). People and priests are free to have their private beliefs so long as they show up, worship God the Holy Trinity, engage with the historic creeds and the 39 articles, and worship using the approved forms of the Church of England.

Naturally, this freedom means that sometimes people are going to pick up a bible or a bit of the historical church doctrine and see ‘Women are subhuman, women should be silent, I do not permit a woman to teach,’ etc., and decide to take these things uncritically. The bible is a beautiful, inspired book, but it was penned (mostly) by men in a thoroughly patriarchal society which didn’t have a lot of time for women. It’s a patriarchally-infused, often outright sexist, book. As are many of the writings of the church fathers, from which the earliest notions of priesthood in the western and eastern churches were drawn and developed in later centuries.

I write ‘decide to take these things uncritically’ because that is what a rejection of women’s full humanity, women’s ordination to all holy orders, is: a decision. It is not a moment of submission to a text (though it might be couched as such); nor is it a moment of seeing through to the ‘true textual meaning’. It is a decision to privilege the patriarchal content of the text as the full content of the text, rather than engaging with the text as a living document reflecting both the culture in which it was produced, and the cultures (still quite patriarchal) in which it is today read.

Naturally, as a woman in holy orders my approach to the text and the tradition are different.

And yet, I do thoroughly value a church where people are allowed to differ in opinion, allowed to doubt and challenge and change. In my life I have been a person who wasn’t OK with women’s leadership in church, much less women’s ordination; I have been someone who used the bible to excuse my own homophobia; I have been someone who could not see the grace of God for the legalism in which I bound myself. And yet, I found churches that let me exist there, let me encounter a God of grace and love who broke me — slowly, painfully — out of these places, and many others.

So, do I think there’s a place in the church for people who refuse to accept the sacramental ministry and leadership of women? Yes. Because I was once one of them.

However, do I think the Church of England should be ringfencing un-collegial, ecclesiologically unsound, sexist and donatist arrangements with the 5 guiding principles? I admit, I do not. I currently affirm them because my church — the one who trained, ordained, and supports me — requires me to affirm them, to respect my brothers and sisters who differ from me in their views. But I think this is an insufficient solution, one that is promoted by the SSWSH whose agendas and practices I find quite shocking. The SSWSH uses the language of ‘ministry we can receive with confidence.’ They reject the notion of will, of choosing to receive women’s ministry, instead suggesting that ‘there they stand, they can do no other.’ (An interesting sentiment from an often highly Reformation-skeptic group.)  I myself am highly suspicious of this passive language, as it removes the agency from the members and seeks to put it elsewhere — the church? Christ? The Godhead? Who knows. It is a triumph of the passive in English language and culture. But, as those who study grammar know, the passive does not connote inaction, or lack of will on the part of a subject. It simply is a linguistic convention designed to speak around something, for the comfort of the speaker, the listeners, the whole society. The language of ‘cannot receive’ is just an encoded language of ‘will not receive’; such resistance to the teaching of one’s church used to be called heresy, apostasy, or at the very least, canonical disobedience. These days it is given special protection.

If +Philip North cannot distance himself from this group which promotes this unjust canonical disobedience and seeks special protection for it, I have trouble seeing how any flourishing for women and men he can (or will) promote would be truly ‘mutual’. And what’s more important, I don’t know how the church of England, if it promotes sexism (even in God’s name), can speak with integrity to people and societies worldwide that are slowly but surely coming to recognise the full humanity of women as a lynchpin for human justice.

__

note:  Until very recently my own diocesan bishop has been +Richard Chartres, who took a similar line to +Philip: he was a diocesan bishop who would ordain women deacon but not priest, and he would never concelebrate with anyone, to avoid that debate altogether. Luckily I’ve had a brilliant suffragan bishop who is totally supportive of my ministry, but I would be lying if I did not say that the Bishop of London’s refusal to make women priests did not (a) hurt personally and (b) exacerbate unhelpful and sexist politics in the diocese.

 

Advertisements

the duchess be with you

Amidst what is quickly becoming one of the scariest and least stable years I can remember, this week news broke of some incredibly minor shenanigans at the college where I did my theological training, Westcott House. Some students organised an evensong in polari, a language that’s been developed and used by gay subcultures in the past few decades. Articles about the college’s ‘apology’ and ‘repentance’ over this service showed up in the Grauniad, the Torygraph, and the Beeb. Even NPR picked the story up, so I’m told.

I don’t really want to get into the internal politics of the situation here — though let it be known that I am entirely in support of the students who planned the service and think that they have been rather awfully thrown under the bus by some of their peers and their supervisors. What I want to muse about is *what is so offensive* about the language that was used, what is so terrifying to the religious establishment.

Complaints were made that a ‘polari bible translation’ was used. This translation uses the word Gloria in place of Godthe Duchess in place of the Lord, Josie in place of Jesus, and the Fairy fantabulosa  in place of the Holy Spirit — amongst many other substitutions. These choices and others were seen by some to undermine the historic doctrine of the church, as well as make an unhelpful contribution to the currently very-hot-indeed issues around sexuality in the Church of England. This same week, the C of E bishops issued a statement which confirmed no change in some traditional teachings around sex and marriage (not surprising, but still sad). This statement urged churches, where necessary, to repent of their homophobia and to ‘change the tone’ of their engagement around issues of (particularly queer) sexuality. I could write multiple posts about the bishops’ statement; right now I want simply to note the synchronicity of these two events.

So — back to the ‘polari bible‘ and its paraphrase of scripture, particularly its use of female God-language. Those who know me will know how dear to my heart this issue is; how incredibly important I believe it is that people of faith are enabled to see how patriarchy & phallocentrism is harmful, especially in the way we speak about God.  The God of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures refers to Herself in female terms, metaphors, and pronouns as well as male. [1]  Many reasonable theologians and biblical scholars accept this. However, it is one thing to accept the concept that ‘God is neither male nor female but both and, more importantly, beyond’. (Not all Christians accept this! If I had a nickel for the number of times I’d sat across a table from a Christian, usually a man, and been told that ‘God is not a man, but God is male!’ well, I’d probably be able to buy a coffee at Starbucks.)

It is one thing to accept this concept and quite another thing to put it into practice. Still, today, the feminine, and especially the female (see footnote for disambiguation) tends to make churchy people incredibly squeamish. [2] Even churchy people with a high regard for Mary or female saints. [3]  Why is this? I think it comes down to the famous dictum of radical feminist Mary Daly: ‘If God is male, then male is God.’ If people’s overwhelming linguistic means for describing, praising, and speaking to God is male or masculine — if we project onto God a man’s face, stereotypical properties, even genitals — then it is not long before they, before we, project what we perceive to be Godly attributes onto the males of the species, and those who display more culturally ‘masculine’ attributes.

By tightly orthodox Christian standards, polari is an intentionally irreverent, transgressive, thoroughly ‘indecent’ language  — I am reminded of Marcella Althaus-Reid’s ‘indecent theology’. The ‘polari bible’ was produced by the queer activist group the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. They’re an activist group, not a religious order. But it’s funny how the lines between activism and religion blur and swerve: how many nuns one finds on protest lines, how much space the church has made, perhaps quite unintentionally over the years, for (often closeted) gay men.

God as Gloria – Jesus as Josie – the Holy Spirit as the fantabulosa Fairy. What is it that offends people here? I ask about offence, not theology, right now. Why do these titles make people physically and mentally cringe, even before they marshal theological arguments? Changing the address ‘Lord’ to ‘Duchess’…aside from the variation in gentry rank [4], what is the problem? How are they different?

They are different, of course, because of gender. Christians are so accustomed to God as Zeus, or the Trinity as ‘two men and a bird’. We imbibe the patriarchy of the earlier centuries and millennia which produced our holy texts, and we continue imbibing the patriarchy of today which denigrates the female, and the feminine, and finds them nauseating. We perpetuate this.

To protect ourselves from realising how much of this debate is about offence and internalised, institutionalised misogyny (and homophobia), we marshal theological arguments: ‘If God were female, then God would have been incarnate as a woman, surely’; in short, ‘because Jesus was male, God cannot be at all female’. Such an argument willingly ignores St Paul’s writings on people of all genders, ethnicities, and classes as literally the body of Christ, spiritualising the bible’s words beyond all significant meaning (a heresy which is usually referred to as Gnosticism).

Alternatively, even if we can admit that God might be, somehow, in some way, female as well as male, or beyond gender, we stick to the safety of male God-language. Perhaps we stick in a bit of language around God’s ‘midwifery’ or ‘nurturing love’, but do we make that leap to God as Her, She, Mother, or Sister? Do we address God as such in the depths of our beings? I am convinced that until we learn to do so, it is very difficult to nail the last nail in the coffin of our culture’s, and our religion’s, debts to patriarchy.

The polari bible is not meant as a serious biblical translation. I don’t know for sure, but I’d reckon that no biblical scholars were consulted in its production. Raise all the questions you want about the wisdom of using that bible in a theological college evensong. The fact remains that the move in that service towards female God language, though in jest, is primarily what scares the significantly male-dominated global religious establishment — not just a branch of the Church of England. The fear felt by the establishment is the reaction to the removal of privilege: in this case, the privilege that comes particularly to men when God is imaged exclusively as male.

Such fear so often becomes hatred. Whether we call it homophobia or misogyny or not, that is what it is. No amount of card shuffling, of attempting to shift the debate back onto ‘real theological issues’ can detract from the fact that the church has demonstrated once again its deep unease, distrust, and ultimate rejection of the female, and with the queer. And believe me, those of us who are female and/or queer and love Jesus feel this rejection sharply, like swords piercing the soul.

 

__

[1] An accessible book on this topic is ‘Is it Okay to Call God Mother?’ by Paul Smith.

[2] I draw a distinction between ‘the feminine’ and ‘female’ because, it seems apparent to me, that while people are born male, female, or intersex; they are also born with brains, bodies, and personalities that miraculously mix and combine traits which various cultures assign (variously!) as more ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’.

[3]  I do think, as I have argued elsewhere, that part of the reason for the strength of the cult of Mary and of female saints is the lack of space that many Christians find in their God-images, and God-language, for anything female.

[4] The Sister of Perpetual Indulgence are an American group. We Americans don’t really do gentry titles. We find them quite queer.

 

Images of Mary Magdalene in art history

So, all you need to know today is that it’s the feast day for Mary of Magdala AKA Mary Magdalene AKA the first apostle or the ‘apostle to the apostles’ if you’re being picky.

With the demise of The Toast, sadly there is no one regularly providing snarky commentary on artwork. I feel that Mary Mag would have greatly enjoyed such snark, and so as my act of devotion for her feast day, I offer you the following.

m1

This Mary has clearly been up all night looking after some dudebros — I mean disciples — who are upset about Jesus. She’s breaking out one of those squeeze stress-balls that pharmaceutical companies give away.

m2

 

DOUBLE MARY TIME. Here we’ve got Big Mary (Jesus’ mum) holding little Mary (Magdalene).

Big Mary: ‘How cool is it that we share a name?’

Little Mary: ‘Like, so cool. It’s a name strong ladies have.’

Big Mary: ‘I know, right? I mean NOBODY in the future will ever get us confused, or any of the other Marys.’

Little Mary: ‘Nobody. I think we should both keep wearing red all the time. That’s not confusing.’

m3

This Mary has realistic hair. Ain’t nobody wearing a headscarf without flyaways, I tell you.

m4

This Mary is my spirit animal because of her enviable Resting Bitchface.

m5

According to the title of this painting, here Mary is ‘penitent’. She’s also clutching a skull and rolling her eyes. I leave this to you to decide whether or not that is something a penitent person would do.

m6

This Mary: ‘Jesus Christ! You’re alive!’

Jesus: ‘Can’t touch this.’

m7

This Mary: ‘Sorry dudes fighting about women being priests, I’m just over here, looking fine and praying for you. Peace out.’

m8

This Mary is having a day where staying in pyjamas and pondering the meaning of the universe (also watching Netflix) is all that’s gonna happen.

m9

This Mary: ‘Looketh at my face. Is this the bothered face thou seest before thee?’

m10

This Mary’s so awesome she went and got herself a suit of hair.

m10b

This Mary’s hirsute hair suit is better than hers ^^. Damn right.

m11

This Mary moonlights as a vampire hunter.

m12

This Mary was totally just having a topless nap in the forest, again with skulls and books. Nothing to see here.

 

In Them we live and move and have our being: sexual and gender non-binaries and the pronouns of God

1.

Today (March 7th) is the feast day for Saints Perpetua and Felicity. For those of you who didn’t manage to hear their vitae read out today: they were a noblewoman and a slave woman killed for their Christian faith in Carthage. It was gory, as these stories tend to be. Of the enduring Christian meditations on their martyrdom are a number of difficult elements, particularly with regards to gender. In the early ‘Martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas’, before going into the arena, Perpetua becomes ‘suddenly a man’.*

Augustine of Hippo’s later takes up this theme in his later reflection, in which Perpetua and Felicity’s martyrdom allows them to be stripped of their [female] sex by the holy sacrifice of martyrdom. So Augustine:

their faithful zeal…that according to the inner self they are found to be neither male nor female; so that even as regards the femininity of the body, the sex of the flesh is concealed by the virtue of the mind, and one is reluctant to think about a condition in their members that never showed in their deeds. (Augustine, Sermons)

Eric Gill’s etching ‘The Triumph of St Perpetua’ follows this idea of martyrdom as the stripping of physical sex. Gill adds a racial element to his illustration: the prostrate Perpetua is black, a north African; the triumphant Perpetua is white and appears to be male, and is reaching for a branch-reward with male genital imagery.

The Triumph of St Perpetual (Tate Britain)
The Triumph of St Perpetua, 1928 (Tate Britain)

I have preached before on the extremely problematic message that the writer of Perpetua’s ‘prison diary’, Augustine, and Gill put out regarding the femininity of the body versus the masculinity of the soul, and how this typically patriarchal reflection lends support to negative things like body-shaming, association of higher or virtuous or spiritual things with men, the forbidding of holy orders to women, and so on, not to mention Gill’s apparent racial gloss on these themes which would seem to assocaite the risen, triumphant Perpetua with white masculinity.

Of course this is not the only way to read Gill’s work (though I find it difficult to read Augustine differently, given his other writings). One could screw up one’s eyes, give another glance at his etching, and see an intersex triumphant body rather than a male body. For now I will leave extended reflections on intersex conditions and theology to Susanna Cornwall, whose work in this area is extensive and impressive. Cornwall takes as her starting place the physical, theological reality that about 1% of human beings show discernible intersex attributes, which of course does not take into account all genetic/hormonal variation which may not present itself genitally or at birth. Cornwall is rightfully concerned for what this reality says to a (natural) theology of sexual binaries: namely, that such a binary understanding of sex, let alone gender, is not sufficient, and that Christians need to be thinking and acting in new, non-binary, ways regarding sex (and also gender).

Perhaps Gill’s intersex Perpetua is the artist’s interpretation of the well-worn passage from Galatians 3:28: ‘For there is no longer Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’. Surely a difficult passage to interpret visually, but perhaps this is what Gill is doing? This would be a charitable reading, to be sure, and one that takes into account contemporary research into intersex which Gill may not have had available to him in the 1920s.

But giving this reading, offering Gill the benefit of the doubt, plays into the problem: the silencing of women. Gill can only depict of an intersex body (soul?) because Perpetua has already been killed in a violent fashion. Her sex has essentially been mauled out of her by — if you believe the traditional vita — ‘wild animals’ as well as soldiers in the arena. Having never seen a body mauled by wild animals with my own eyes, I am willing to grant that a body can only withstand so much violence before it appears to be a sexless, bloodied lump of flesh. But this is hardly the point. Or is it?

Worldwide, the factor most likely to increase an individual’s poverty, ill health, and likelihood of violent harm is…sex. That is, women are more likely than men to be poor, ill, to die sooner, and to experience physical and sexual violence.** These things are not the same as being mauled by wild animals, but they are, in a sense, the wholesale mauling of the female sex for nothing more than her femininity. Not every massacred, devout woman will have Eric Gill canonising her in a wood engraving, suggesting that she has transcended sex by her violent death.

But what about the men??’ I hear you clamour. Won’t they have to die to transcend their sex as well? Why am I so hard on them? First of all, I’m fairly certain men can man up and deal with this critique. Second of all, a vision of a boundary-less Christian community (no Jew, Gentile, slave, free, male, or female) which requires death flies in the face of a Christian theology in which Christ’s life, death and resurrection repudiate sacrifice one and for all. The Girardian critique is obvious and important here: Christian communities are no less susceptible than other communities (in fact, they may be more susceptible) to myths of redemptive violence. The Epistle does not read, ‘all will be one in Christ Jesus after they die, and women are especially lucky because this means they can transcend their female weakness.’ It reads, ‘all are one in Christ Jesus.’ This is the ‘now’ part of the ‘now-and-not-yet’ of the kingdom of God. This is not about some mystical communion of saints, some of whom have transcended sex and some of whom are stuck here on earth with our inconvenient urges, fluids, and wobbly bits. The epistle is talking about being baptised into Christ in the here and now, which practice openly puts an end to the dualisms we humans are so good at setting up, including those of sex.

2.

Those who know me or have read my writing in the past will be unsurprised that I am particularly passionate about the use of female language for talking about God. It is only through experiencing God’s, and indeed Jesus’, femaleness, that I am able to continue to go on in my Christian faith. I am a cisgender woman: that is, I was assigned female at birth and I feel at home, if not always completely comfortable, with that sex and its varied expressions. For me, meeting with the God whose trinitarian nature I am deeply in love with and also baffled by, and knowing deep in my guts that that God can inhabit and transcend gender, is vital. I need to meet with God’s female-ness in order to feel I can, sometimes, call God ‘father’ — although I disagree greatly with Sarah Coakley’s take on this practice.***

I am not willing to give up my constant arguments about whether or not it is right or helpful to address God as Mother, Sister and Holy Wisdom.† But if there is one thing that I have learned, it is that an emphasis on God’s femininity over and against God’s masculinity can have an unfortunate effect: it can reinforce the same sexual dualism against which I wrote above: God becomes either ‘male’, ‘female’ or ‘neither’. God’s pronouns are either ‘he/him’ or ‘she/her’.

In the past year, a number of dictionaries and other publications have made the news for officially adopting ‘they’ as a third person singular pronoun. (For example: ‘I was talking to Bernard and they said to me, “Let’s get a pizza.”‘) These moves were heralded as ‘bold’ by some and as ‘capitulation to the transgender agenda put forward by the media’ by others (presumably those who [a] cannot tell the difference between non-binary and transgender and [b] think that there’s such thing as a simplistic ‘transgender agenda’).

What is worth mentioning is that humans have been using ‘they’ as a third person singular pronoun for  a long time. I use it when I need to talk to someone about a sensitive situation but don’t want to be indiscreet and give away the person I am talking about. I use it when she/he or him/her is just getting annoying or clunky in long pieces of writing. Importantly, however, I also use it when talking about people who ask me to use ‘they/their’ about themselves, because they are gender non-binary, that is, they feel that neither masculine nor feminine pronouns exhaust who they are. Gender non-binary-ness is not the same as intersex, just as gender isn’t the same as sex. Nor are intersex and cisgender opposite ends of the spectrum — the clue is in the suffixes of those words (see previous sentence).

What does this all have to do with God, though? We do not have an insight as to whether or not Jesus was intersex — though if we did, it would be an interesting thing indeed. All we have is the claim of orthodoxy:  that God is beyond our notions of sex and gender (which of course scuppers any arguments against women’s priesthood or leadership based on their sex, p.s.), and also that God became incarnate in what appears to be a male body. The old argument that ‘God saw it good enough to reveal Himself using masculine pronouns and in a male body, so those pronouns are good enough for me’ is bandied about regularly, clobbering those who would commune with their sister, Jesus, and the counsellor, Her spirit. Another argument goes, ‘Well, if you really want to say that God is beyond gender, then you should just avoid all gendered language about God. Just say “God’s” instead of His or Her, or “Godself” instead of “Himself” or “Herself”.’

There is precious little scripture evidence for priesthood except for the priesthood of all believers, and yet I part of a church which ordains people to three orders of ministry. There is precious little scriptural evidence for sacramental practices being open only to ordained persons and yet…the church. Therefore, I suggest: there is actually quite a lot††  of scriptural evidence for female language about and towards God, and yet the church willingly ignores it. Why should this be? And what, I ask, should we do instead?

3.

We could use ‘they’ as the third person singular pronoun for God, perhaps. But God as ‘they’ is going to be confusing, aren’t they? Not least because Christians must find a weird balance between God’s one-ness and three-ness, unity and trinity, perichoretic cynosure, chaos in stability. We get a bit clumsy with language of God’s trinity because we are deathly afraid of all forms of heresy which appear to make reference to ‘three gods’. (And oh, these heresies are many. Most Trinity Sunday sermons employ at least one of them.) The truth is, language is difficult, especially English. Talking about God as ‘they’ is going to freak people out, just as referring to one person as ‘they’ does. ‘We pray that God, with their mighty and and their outstretched arm, might deliver us…’  Does that make you squirm, and why? It did me. I didn’t want to encapsulate in one word what most collects try to say in two or three phrases just before the ‘amen’: the oddness of trinity.

Using the pronouns they/their for God isn’t going to take away God’s strangeness; if anything, this practice will add to it. God who is a comforting, white-haired grandfather (or grandmother)? Gone. God who is a first century Galilean carpenter? Hiding. But I wager that Christians should get better at de-familiarising ourselves with our images of God in order to meet Them again, anew, in all Their creativity. This doesn’t mean our old images of God have no value, no precedent, and that we may never use those images again. It just means playing around a bit, letting go those things we thought were salvific about God (God’s gender) in order to be with what/who is actually salvific: God Themselves.

A note:

I realise that this practice will not be possible, or desirable, for many Christians, for various reasons. Another alternative would be to alternative between  masculine and feminine pronouns (or even masculine, feminine, and neutral pronouns). If done carefully, this constant switching has the possibility to encourage a fluidity to God’s gender which is actually quite a common practice amongst Christian spiritual writers. (On which topic, see for example Caroline Walker Bynum, Jesus our Mother: studies in the spirituality of the High Middle Ages; or Tim Bulkily, Not only a Father.)

Another note:

I cannot stress enough how important it is to disentangle intersex-ness and non-binary-ness of gender. Just don’t confuse the two!

__

* Virginia Woolf, eat your heart out.

**  Statistics of violence against intersex people are difficult to measure but there is general consensus that this violence comes in numerous forms and occurs and numerous times during people’s lives as different intersex characteristics come to light.

*** Coakley, in God, Sexuality and the Self, suggests that feminists, above all others, must pray to God as Father because it is only in their submission to this practice, and indeed to God, that they can transform all the sinful patriarchy that god’s fatherhood has stood for in the past.

† Take me for a cup of tea sometime; I will harangue you at your leisure.

†† El Shaddai = God, the many-breasted one; also in the Old Testament God is referred to as midwife, rock (a female noun and Hebrew slang for wife or midwife), presence/shekinah (female), nurturer, (female) teacher, and Wisdom/hokmah. And these are not limited to the OT. In the NT for example, God is pictured as a mother hen and a woman looking for a lost coin.