Lucy Winkett is Rector of St James’s Piccadilly. Until 2010 she was Canon Precentor at St Paul’s Cathedral. She is the author of the best selling “Our Sound is our Wound” (Continuum 2010) which was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book and is a regular contributor to Radio 4’s “Thought for the Day”. A columnist in Third Way magazine, she broadcasts regularly and writes on a range of issues relating religious practice and belief to contemporary culture and society. She chairs the governors of an innovative Church of England Academy in North London and is a founding advisor to the public theology think tank “Theos”. She was a judge for the 2011 Archbishop Ramsay Theology Prize at the Hay on Wye Festival and has recently become Chair of Trustees of the Amos Trust, an NGO supporting projects in South Africa, Nicaragua, Palestine and India.
Recorded at Greenbelt 2012: Centaur, 24 Aug 2012, 5.00pm
Recorded at Greenbelt 2012: Big Top, 25 Aug 2012, 10.30am
Recorded at Greenbelt 2012: GTV, 25 Aug 2012, 7.00pm
Recorded at Greenbelt 2010: 18.00 Friday, Hebron
Is God a woman? Obviously, no.
A more interesting question perhaps is, is God a man? Obviously, no.
But try calling God “she” during a service in church and just see what happens.
One of the most immutable, static, unchangeable things about our faith is our language about God, and it’s really hard to release ourselves from that. We must speak, says one contemporary theologian, we must speak, yet we cannot speak without stammering. Language about God stalks the border land of the limits of language, using speech to define speech, speaking in riddles, calling us to humble silence in the presence of mystery. Before asking the question ‘Is God a woman’, we have to look at all the ways we speak about God – Father, Lord, King – and our clumsy attempts often, to be inclusive, become distancing – ‘God our Parent’ – we hardly ever refer to human beings that way.
Christianity is an incarnational religion. Human beings are made in God’s image, and Jesus embodied the presence of God in the world, as no one has done before, or since. Jesus of Nazareth was a man, so is God intrinsically male? No.
There’s a really terrible joke about Jesus of Nazareth not being a man, but actually secretly being a woman, and how do we know this? Because he was surrounded by men who didn’t get it, because he had to feed large numbers of people at no notice, and even when he was dead he had to get up because there was more for him to do.
[Laughter, then applause]
How do we – it’s a joke in bad taste but you get what I’m saying. How do we get over the immutable static language that we use about God which releases God from gender at all, while at the same time reminding us that we, male and female, are made in God’s image, and not to lose that particularity – it’s really hard.
One of the ways is that we can rediscover what’s already there, in the biblical tradition and in the spiritual traditions. There is a wise, authoritative feminine presence in the divine. Where to we find this? In the character of Holy Wisdom. Holy Wisdom is, at creation we’re told, with God, holds and binds all together, makes human beings friends with God we’re told.
In Proverbs 8, Holy Wisdom stands at the crossroads and calls for justice. This isn’t a separate God or a separate Goddess. This is an authoritative, divine, feminine presence, at creation, and throughout the history of the world, and Jesus of Nazareth is the inheritor of the wisdom tradition. We can find it also in the character, the form, the person of the Holy Spirit – the third person of the Trinity – not that dismissive description of the Trinity that’s sometimes used – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – two blokes and a bird – no, not that, but the Holy Spirit in Genesis is described as Ruach in Hebrew, a feminine noun. The Spirit that broods over the waters at creation. In the New Testament, that word used to describe Spirit becomes neuter – Pneuma in Greek. So we move from Ruach, feminine, to Pneuma, neuter. That is then translated into Latin – the language of the historical church – Spiritus, and then that’s translated into English – He.
Ruach, Pneuma, Spiritus, He.
The Holy Spirit is a deep and rich vein of tradition that we can mine, to discover the feminine in God, and it’s beautiful. Because of society’s trends, and because of the historical dominance of patriarchal social systems in the countries in which christianity flourished – in Rome, in Greece, in the Mediterranean – and then in countries to which christianity was exported, mistakes have been made in interpreting who God is and what God does, and how we interpret God in our contemporary society. The feminine in God, the biblical tradition, has been buried under a pile of narrowing and confining assumptions.
The Roman household codes you will know, clearly had an educated male at the top of the pyramid, an educated female quite close by but further down the pyramid, and the large part of the pyramid at the bottom were uneducated slaves – male and female. So to rediscover and release God from the gendered language that we use about God is not only good for women, it’s good for men, because it’s only the top male patriarchal figure that benefits from this language. And so if we think about Holy Wisdom in the Old Testament, if we think about the Holy Spirit in the Old and New Testament, we come closer to challenging ourselves about what we think the nature of God is.
Jesus of course referred to himself – “Jerusalem, how long have I longed to gather you as a mother gathers her children”. Jesus of Nazareth – of course a man and no-one is ever going to contest that – Jesus of Nazareth used images and languages about himself, which broke open those patriarchal assumptions, and its church history and society’s assumptions since then that have tried to confine it and close it down.
And Luke’s parable – the beautiful parable Jesus tells of the lost coin – a woman is sweeping her house, a parallel story with the shepherd looking for the lost sheep. Jesus of Nazareth – poetic, charismatic teacher as ever – tells this beautiful story. God is a woman who is searching for you. Not a remote monarch, but an energetic, ungovernable, female energy, who searches for you, even now, and longs to find you.
“So what” you might say. It’s not just about the words and about the language that we use. It’s about breaking open our imagination, and not making things up, but finding what’s already there, and has been sidelined over the centuries. It’s a fight against a reductionist tendency, always to want to explain and analyse, to reduce to something that we understand and feel comfortable with. Imagine God as a woman who is searching for you, as in Luke’s gospel, and see what it does, because it will set us free.
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