COVER

Is GOD A WOMAN?

Women of all faiths are searching for the feminineface of God

MARCI MCDONALD April 8 1996
COVER

Is GOD A WOMAN?

Women of all faiths are searching for the feminineface of God

MARCI MCDONALD April 8 1996

i found god in myself. . .& i loved her fiercely

— playwright Ntozake Shange

It was in the midst of a Sunday morning mass on a visit back to her native Dublin last year that Mary Malone realized she could not go on. Rising for the recitation of the creed, she could no longer say the words she had once chanted with girlhood passion—words that had swept her to her vows 33 years earlier as a sister of the Faithful Companions of Jesus. All around her, others repeated the age-old refrain, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son....” But Mary Malone, who had left the convent in 1974 and gone on to become a noted Canadian Catholic theologian, stood silent. At 57, she suddenly found herself unable to make the fundamental profession of faith to a God cast in a masculine image. “For me, it was clear: I can no longer worship or pray,” she says, “because of the language, and because it seemed so essential as the core of the tradition that God be male.”

Malone would have preferred to keep that bitter epiphany private. But she knew she had served as a reassurance to other women anguished by the Vatican’s recent stands: its “definitive” 1994 veto of female ordination and more gender-neutral language in the catechism. “In the circles I moved, I represented something: somebody who could be a feminist and also Roman Catholic,” she says. “But I really felt a fraud.” Before resuming her teaching job at St. Jerome’s College, an independent liberal arts university federated with the University of Waterloo, in Kitchener, Ont., Malone knew what she must do. Phoning a friend from The Tablet, a British Catholic bulletin, she made public her decision to leave not only the church, but Christianity as well. This spring, when that news hit diocesan newsstands back home, it sent shock waves through many in this country’s 12.5-million-member Roman Catholic community. “For a lot of women, you could stay in the church because Mary had stayed,” says Louise Slobodian of the Toronto-based Catholic New Times. “Now, you really have to think about that.” But for others, Malone’s announcement was merely the latest tremor in a seismic upheaval that is far larger and more unsettling: the emergence of a new women’s spirituality movement that is making itself felt around the world in a dizzying variety of manifestations, both sacred and profane.

For if many women like Malone have fled mainstream religions—some flocking to the exuberant rites of goddess circles sprouting across the country—others have chosen to stay, pushing the envelope of spiritual possibilities from within. In churches, synagogues and even the continent’s Buddhist zendos, women are demanding a revolution in tradition that reflects their historic role and their ongoing stake in the divine. Those battles have been acrid and polarizing, often won in doctrinal pronouncements but not in the private sanctums of the heart. A year after the Church of England gave its contentious 1992 blessing to the ordination of women priests—a move embraced almost two decades earlier by the Anglican Church of Canada—a British vicar made a point of fuming to the media that he would “burn the bloody bitches.” Insisted Rev. Anthony Kennedy: “A woman can’t represent Christ Men and women are totally different—that’s not my fault—and Jesus chose men for his disciples.”

But now, with women ordained in all but the most conservative Protestant churches and synagogues, a new Jordan looms—a gender divide so profound that religious scholars have likened its magnitude to Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation. “The awakening of spirituality in women is the biggest single thing that is happening in contemporary religion,” says Tom Harpur, a former Anglican priest and theologian who ponders the phenomenon in his newly published book Would You Believe? “That is the movement that has the biggest potential for change, not only in liturgy, but in the changes it will bring in understanding the nature of God.”

Already, in virtually every tradition, that movement has prompted a rewrite of the language of worship. And this week as millions of Canadians celebrate Easter and Passover, the fruits of those labors will be on display. In previews of the new United Church hymnal, due out next month, worshippers can sing the praises not only of God the Father, but also “God the All-Holy, Maker and Mother.” Similarly, at seder dinners to commemorate the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt, some revised Haggadahs, the Passover prayer books, will hail God not only as “He” but also as “She Who Dwells Within.” Whether provoking delight or dismay, those changes are no mere nips and tucks to the ritual vocabulary. They strike at the heart of Judeo-Christian doctrine—the very character of divinity—to pose a once-unthinkable question: can God be a woman?

Perhaps the best measure of the emotions at stake in that question came last month when the director of Britain’s six-century-old York Mystery Plays announced that this year God would be played by a woman—local antique dealer Ruth Ford. The Archdeacon of York, George Austin, promptly denounced it as “paganism. We are made in God’s image,” he declared, “and not the other way around.”

In the peach-marbled living-room of an upscale Toronto neighborhood, an impromptu altar has been laid. On a small, round end table, a pot of red tulips blooms in a thicket of candles. Around them, small treasures have been tucked: painted Easter eggs, childhood treasures and, in pride of place, a small stone reproduction of a primitive neolithic goddess figurine decked out in a jaunty miniature necklace. Outside, beyond the window, snowflakes are falling. But inside, two chic and successful Toronto businesswomen are celebrating the spring equinox.

Lin Berry Fines, a senior manager at a leading Canadian financial institution, lights the candles. Then Orietta Minatel, a sales executive with a major publishing firm, invokes the four directions and elements according to the handbook at her side. For the next two hours, they join in a ritual improvised from assorted workbooks and workshops they have discovered as both have struggled, in different ways, to find an expression of the sacred in their lives.

For Berry Fines, that has meant returning to the United Church after 22 years, where she has jointed a women’s circle; for Minatel, finding a way to replace the ritual she lost when she left the Catholic Church three years ago. Having forged a bond at the bedside of a friend dying with cancer, they decided to observe the first anniversary of her death with a private memorial of their own making. “Quite frankly,” admits Berry Fines, “I was nervous. I mean, I’d seen The Exorcist. And I was quite clear: I’m very Christian.”

But she found the process oddly comforting. And since then they have regularly marked the passages in their lives with rituals they are learning to devise. Neither can remember the identity of the bejewelled goddess figure looking on from the sidelines, nor do they care. “For me, this is not about invoking the goddess,” says Berry Fines. “It’s really about acknowledging the Holy Spirit that has existed in many guises over thousands of years.”

Now, she and Minatel find themselves part of a vast groundswell of women across the continent searching for new language and rites to reflect what they call the feminine face of God. In fact, in his study of social trends in Canada last year, University of Lethbridge sociologist Reginald Bibby found that, although women’s church attendance has more than halved over the past four decades—with only 25 per cent now reporting regular attendance at services—60 per cent still expressed spiritual needs. “This whole quest for a woman-affirming spirituality is very big,” confirms Juliet Huntly, consultant for women’s programs in the United Church, the country’s largest Protestant denomination. “It’s a search for a spirituality that is unique to women’s experience.”

If the brisk byways of commerce are any gauge of the impulses of the spirit, that quest is both massive and mainstream. In January, Publishers Weekly, the New York City-based bible of the book trade, hailed women’s spirituality as one of the fastest-growing categories in the business. And at Sounds True Inc., a distributor of inspirational audiotapes based in Boulder, Colo., founder Tami Simon reports that 60 percent of her customers are women.

But the difficulty of taking the movement’s measure is that it is not in fact an organized movement at all. Indeed, most women seem to want to keep it that way— low-key and grassroots, shifting with their lives. Conducting a recent survey of church women’s groups, Huntly found them protesting, “We basically want to be left alone. We don’t want to be categorized or institutionalized.” Agrees Orietta Minatel: “In a way, I don’t want women’s spirituality to become mainstream because then you get ‘shoulds’ and ‘don’ts.’ ”

Some scholars see the feminist spiritual renaissance as the last gasp of the women’s movement, whose obituary has been penned repeatedly over the past decade. But San Francisco psychoanalyst Jean Shinoda Bolen, one of its most thoughtful voices, dubs it the “third wave.” As she sees it, “There was the wave that came out of political and economic unfairness. And the wave that dealt with relationship inequality. Now, we’re defining who we are and what matters to us.”

Some, like Berry Fines, are continuing that quest from within their churches and synagogues, while others, like Minatel, have abandoned hope of finding their spiritual hungers met within institutional walls. But most find themselves straddling the uneasy middle ground where doubt and belief often dance. Says Shinoda Bolen: “I now call myself an Episcopagan.”

Still, in candlelit living-rooms and public conference halls, increasing numbers are quietly gathering to mark the seasons or the phases of the moon—reviving updated neo-pagan rites that link them to nature and their own bodily cycles. Many have drifted to women’s circles from the environmental movement or yoga. But scavenging from a grab bag of myth and even psychotherapy techniques, they are cobbling together their own postmodern rituals at women’s spirituality weekends mushrooming from coast to coast.

Some are drumming or dancing, as they did in a weaving ritual that opened a conference at the Vancouver School of Theology in February. Others are retelling Bible stories—this time from the female bit players’ point of view. At an ecumenical gathering of women called Finders/Keepers last spring in London, Ont., Sister Elaine Weisgerber, a retired Ursuline nun from Regina, led what she called a “false-naming” ritual, handing out apples and inviting the crowd to bite deeply “to defy the Garden of Eden story. We don’t buy into this myth that Eve caused the downfall of humanity.”

Earlier, Manitoba poet Di Brandt, a two-time Governor General’s Award nominee, recounted how she healed the scars from her break with the Mennonite community at a Winnipeg aboriginal moon ceremony. ‘Women are crossing all the lines,” said Shelley Finson, a professor at the Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax, who is one of the pioneers of the Christian feminism movement in Canada. “And why shouldn’t we? We’ve always lived double lives.”

Meanwhile, in Victoria, Sue Berrín has been attempting to craft new rituals within the confines of the conservative Jewish tradition. A rabbi’s wife, she has helped revive an obscure holiday for women called Rosh Chodesh, which falls on the new moon. And she has just published a book of proposed rituals. Growing up, Berrín was furious to realize her voice was not being heard in her faith. “But I could never have left Judaism,” she says. “So what I did with my anger was to try to turn it into something more positive. I don’t want my daughters to feel disenfranchised.”

A new generation of Catholic feminist scholars is also reclaiming women’s roles in early church history. In the process, they have launched an unlikely recording superstar: Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th-century German abbess, composer and visionary, whose compositions have been immortalized on a half-dozen compact discs. Another medieval mystic enjoying a more modest comeback is Julian of Norwich, a 14th-century British prioress, whose writings are slated to appear in the upcoming Anglican hymnal, complete with her salute to “Christ our Mother.” Says Mary Malone: “It’s part of the hidden history of Christianity that women historians are suddenly discovering.”

In a darkened cave on the Greek island of Crete last October, novelist Susan Swan found herself a reluctant pilgrim. Having heard about the latest rage in spiritual tourism—pilgrimages to ancient goddess shrines—she signed on for one led by Carol Christ, a former professor at the Harvard Divinity School. For Swan, who was skeptical about the booming goddess revival, it was strictly a research trip for her next novel.

Not that she could escape evidence of its appeal. From bumper stickers (“Back off: I’m a goddess”) to the plump silver and terracotta figures dangling from stylish necks, goddesses have become big business. In many New Age bookstores, they even rate their own sections, where The Once and Future Goddess perches next to The Goddess in the Office. A California quarterly, Sage Woman, boasts of “celebrating the Goddess in Everywoman.” And in Toronto, a bookstore called WonderWorks, run by Mary Anderson, a former public housing counsellor, devotes itself to goddess ware, including cheeky buttons: “My Goddess gave birth to your God.”

Studding Anderson’s shelves are tiny clay and stone reproductions of deities, from Egypt’s Isis to the pot-bellied Venus of Willendorf, which is 10,000 to 30,000 years old. Many owe their celebrity to Goddess Remembered, a 1989 video documentary produced by Montreal film-maker Donna Read for the National Film Board. In lyrical images backed by a haunting sound track lt; from Loreena McKennitt, Read chronicled the finds of a Lithuanian-born archeologist named Marija Gimbutas and others, who argued that, long before there was a male Hebrew God, there were goddesses who presided over flourishing, peaceable cultures.

Like Gimbutas, Read promptly found herself under attack from scholars who argued there was no evidence for that conclusion. “I just think it’s drivel,” says Gillian Gillison, a University of Toronto anthropology professor. “There is no evidence at all that when you worship female figures, it translates into anything.” Even York University professor emerita Johanna Stuckey, who is the country’s leading expert on goddess culture, accuses Gimbutas of “going off the deep end.” Says Stuckey: “None of us can prove anything about prehistory.” Still she argues that, whether true or not the myth of a goddess culture is a useful one. “There’s a sense of empowerment” she says.

To her own astonishment Susan Swan would agree. Having dismissed goddess worship as “middle-aged women doing spacey things in baggy gowns,” Swan stood at a Minoan shrine and found herself “struck by how powerful the female images of God were to me.” She had sneered at the rituals Carol Christ had planned at each site. But in a darkened cave, she joined a circle of women in a rite where each called out the name of her mother and grandmothers down her maternal ancestral line as far as she could recall. “And then,” she says, “I began to weep.”

Now Swan talks with difficulty about how her life has changed. For the first time in decades, she has begun to pray. “I do pray to a goddesslike presence,” she says hesitantly. “But I don’t know whether she’s a metaphor for my inner self or whether there’s some spiritual force beyond the individual person.”

In the beginning, there was the word. And, according to more than two millennia of male interpretation, that word was “He.” Indeed at the third annual feminist seder in Calgary this month, known as Miriam’s Tapestry, many women will find themselves telling a story they have never told before: the story not just of Moses’ heroics leading the Jewish people out of Egypt, but also of the role of his older sister Miriam, who hid him in the bullrushes. But, for some traditionalists, reclaiming that untold history is already daring enough. They are not prepared to take the next step, praising God, not only as the traditional Hebrew masculine Adonai, but also as the Shechinah—a concept borrowed from the texts of the mystical Kabbalah—which means “She who dwells within.” Even for Rabbi Elyse Goldstein of Kolel, a liberal yeshiva outside Toronto, that attempt to redress epochs of male monopoly on divinity is still not entirely satisfactory. “I think God has all characteristics,” she told a Jewish women’s spirituality conference last February. “I mean, I don’t think God has genitalia. But if you tell me God is a man, that is a bottom line I can’t accept” In fact, the notion of the Shechinah, which feminists seized on to counter their feelings of exclusion, has turned out to have its own baggage. “I used to do all my prayers to Shechinah,” Goldstein admitted, “until I learned a lot more about Her. She’s passive and receptive and the helper. It’s almost like you’re saying ‘Godella.’ ” Now Goldstein is currently trying to forge a gender-neutral word for God. But it is not an easy task. As she points out, Hebrew is a gendered language, “and I have a lot of trouble praying to God as an ‘It’.”

Similarly, the editors of the new United Church hymnal are braced for an uproar over their handiwork. Not only have they switched references from “mankind” to “humankind,” but they have added the ultimate challenge in what liturgical circles call inclusive language: lyrics by Catholic theologian Miriam Therese Winter which begin, “Mother and God, to you we sing/wide is your womb, warm is your wing.” Already, the reaction from tradition-minded ministers like Rev. Donald Faris of North Lonsdale United Church in Vancouver has not been enthusiastic. “Some hymns are entirely objectionable,” Faris says. “Some hymns we will not sing.” In fact, he has not yet ordered the new hymnal, which he sees as a sop for “a radical feminist minority in the church.”

The Presbyterian and Anglican churches of Canada will follow suit with their new hymnals over the next year, both with more modest attempts to address the feminine face of God. The new Presbyterian Book of Praise is slated to appear this fall after an unprecedented and stormy four years of test marketing. “Lots of people are angry,” acknowledges Diane Strickland, who has overseen that process, first at church headquarters, now as a private consultant. “But the prepublication sales have shattered all expectations. They’re going to have to up the print run.” To Strickland’s shock, the opposition has come from women as well as men. ‘They say we’re obsessed with being politically correct,” she protests. “But it isn’t about that at all. Language is profoundly important it’s about power—about who is included and who is not.”

At Anglican Church House, the final texts will not go to press until next year. But after nearly a decade of congregational consultation, protests still pepper the monthly Anglican Journal. And Paul Gibson, the church’s liturgical officer, makes no secret of his wariness to discuss the 10 hymns out of 654 that are scheduled to wrap God in maternal metaphors. “Every time I have used examples of inclusive language,” he worries, “it causes terrible grief.”

Indeed, as those involved in that delicate task of negotiating change know, there is more at stake than verbiage. Faris argues that meddling with God’s gender undercuts the very foundations of Christian doctrine. “The issue is whether we can rename God and invent our own religion,” he says, “or whether Christianity is a revealed religion where God has disclosed Himself to us.” Even those who welcome the changes agree. As Ron Graham, author of God’s Dominion, a 1990 study of religion in Canada, points out: “Once you start questioning language and definitions of God, then everything else starts to fall.” Already, theologians are predicting that, having altered the metaphors for God, an even more explosive debate is waiting in the wings on the nature of Christ. “Christology is the next area that's going to get hot,” says the United Church’s Juliet Huntly. “Everything has changed. The whole theology has to be rethunk.”

In fact, two decades ago, Mary Daly, a rambunctious feminist theologian at Boston College, had warned of the perils of language tinkering. Having made her mark by arguing that the “feminist revolution is essentially a spiritual revolution,” she had gone on to anger the Vatican by charging that sexism lay at the very heart of church doctrine. Still, Daly did so with impeccable credentials: in the 1960s, when U.S. Catholic women were still barred from studying theology, she had gone to Switzerland to earn her PhD at the University of Freibourg—in Latin. By 1973, however, she had concluded in Beyond God the Father that feminists could not stay Christians. Then Daly left the church with the pronouncement: “As long as we believe God is male, then the male thinks he is God.”

More than two decades later, as a renaissance in women’s spirituality shakes up the foundation of theology, Daly has suddenly found herself in fashion again. Once more, women are asking whether their spiritual needs can be met within the church, or if they will be obliged to turn elsewhere—breathing new life into old goddess images and reconstructing their ritual lives from an eclectic stew.

In fact, a measure of Daly’s newfound trendiness came last fall when she received a call from TV sitcom star Roseanne Barr, who announced that Daly’s books had once changed her life. Barr invited her to write for the controversial women’s issue of The New Yorker. And as it appeared last February, Daly regaled a packed hall at Hamilton’s McMaster University with tales of her foray to Hollywood, pondering theological verities in a roomful of movie stars and New Yorker editors at Roseanne’s palm-fringed mansion. The title of her chronicle: Sin Big.

But for conservative Christians across the continent, the magnitude of women’s transgressions against tradition has already been quite big enough. And, in their view, nowhere was that more clearly on display than in Minneapolis three years ago. There, 2,200 delegates from 27 countries showed up to mark the midpoint of the Ecumenical Decade in Solidarity with Women declared by the World Council of Churches. And among them was a group of 80 from the United Church of Canada, which included former moderator Lois Wilson. Christened RE-imagining, the conference set out to rethink Christianity in ways that celebrate women. Instead, it crystallized fundamental fears about the changes wrought to language, liturgy and doctrine by women’s demands to assume their place as equals in the House of God.

“This was an event that was very much in the Christian tradition,” says Juliet Huntly, who also attended. ‘There was nothing wild and way-out about it.” But not everyone agreed. Conservatives were scandalized by reports of a closing Sunday ritual where, to gospel choruses and drums, the entire assembly danced through the hotel ballroom in homage to Sophia, a concept based on the transliteration of the Greek word for wisdom, found in the Book of Proverbs. Like the Hebrew notion of the Shechinah, Sophia has been seized on by theologians as a way to portray the feminine aspects of God. But during the RE-imagining ritual, Sophia acquired aspects that were decidedly too female for some tastes: the prayer, complete with a ceremony of milk and honey, referred to “warm bodily fluids” and “nectar between our thighs.”

To Ted Byfield, founder of Western Report, the message was clear. In an editorial, he denounced the exercise as reminiscent of the very pagan rites to fertility goddesses “that the Jews considered it their first duty to overcome.” Protested Byfield: “You change the image, and you change the message, and that changes the religion.”

The controversy over whether RE-imagining had gone pagan raged for months, erupting on Ted Koppel’s Nightline and finally costing Mary Anne Lundy, one of the organizers, her job at U.S. Presbyterian headquarters. So high were emotions that when Nancy Cocks, a professor at the Vancouver School of Theology—who was not even at the conference—was quoted in The Globe and Mail on the tradition of Sophia, a colleague challenged her credentials as a teacher. As Cocks points out, naming God is not an affair to be undertaken lightly. “For some people this is an extremely sensitive area,” she says. ‘To them it’s setting up another God.”

As that debate continues to rage on, a few optimists believe that, in fact, a new concept of divinity is trying to manifest itself in the world. “There’s something trying to be born that has elements of Mother Earth and transcendence,” says Ron Graham. “People are searching for a new articulation of the eternal questions. And I think that new articulation will have more of a feminine quality.” But, he cautions, “It’s going to take hundreds of years for the transition to go through.”

Whether Graham is right or not, many Canadians will come to worship over the next weeks in a vocabulary and a theology already in flux. For some, that may be unsettling—yet another uncertainty in a disquietingly uncertain world. But for others, it may in fact open the way to a period of historic transformation when the answers to the question “Is God a woman?” will not be yes or no, but neither. Until that time, men and women alike must negotiate their arrangements with the Unknowable in the privacy of their own hearts.