On 1 June 2015 the BBC was promoting the views of a female clergyman in the Church of England, the Chaplain of Trinity College, Oxford. She was arguing for God to be called "she". This was on the PM programme. Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Bishop of Rochester, opposed this suggestion.
Such a discussion was yet another example of an extremely dangerous phenomenon in both the Church and the wider society. That is because, both in Church synods and in the wider society's electronic media (not least in the BBC), the discussion of very serious issues is too often not responsible reflection and dialogue. Rather, to quote Philip Turner: "what parades as reflection and dialogue on the whole is no more than impassioned repetition, within a politically controlled space, of hardened positions."
The Feminization of God
To further the discussion, it needs to be noted that the suggested feminization of God has already been under way in the BBC. I myself heard last year in a broadcast religious service the Rev Ernie Rea, the BBC's former Head of Religion and Ethics, failing to use the traditional blessing but adopting a gender-free blessing. So instead of praying that the "blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, be among you and remain with you always", there was the "blessing of God Almighty, creator, redeemer and sanctifier", thus avoiding any masculine names. But this is no longer trinitarian but modalist ("modalism" is the heresy where there is no Trinity of one God in three persons but one God with three different modes of working).
However, now a campaigning feminist group in the Church of England, having secured women bishops, have a new strapline "just getting started"; and they are claiming that women bishops will make a difference "only if God is she as often as she is he – because this is such a formative aspect of our church life, and a real bastion of sexism." Interestingly, Sheldon Vanauken, the inventor of the word "sexism" (in December 1968), would disagree. In later life he argued that the pendulum for women's rights had swung too far. So he opposed "priestesses" and the Feminists Bible, especially its "my loving parent" for "Abba, Father"!
So what precisely is theological feminization? To understand its seriousness we need to start with defining terms. If "sex" refers to what the body is, namely male or female, the different "genders", namely masculine or feminine, refer to everything else that is not limited to the body – such as the complex of behaviour, mental qualities and personality characteristics. So to quote one definition from Leon Podles, The Church Impotent – the feminization of Christianity, "maleness is a physical quality, masculinity a cultural and spiritual one, although one that is connected with the physical realities of being male." The same goes for "femaleness" and "femininity". However, "masculinity" and "femininity", being cultural realities tied to physical realities are not entirely cultural constructs. So they will involve a natural and instinctive aspect. But also there will be a need for learning what is considered good or bad in terms of masculinity and femininity. It is obvious that girls, for example, brought up by prostitutes and boys by gangsters will be different to those brought up by good Christian mothers and good Christian fathers.
Biblical Teaching on God and Masculinity
But what does the Bible teach about any of this? Certainly masculinity is a key concern of the Old Testament. That is why some feminists (male and female) want to cut out references to God as masculine in translations of the Bible and in Christian liturgies, as Ernie Reay did, or balance them with feminine references, as the chaplain of Trinity College, Oxford, wants. But as Leon Podles says:
"these translators confuse maleness and masculinity, a crucial distinction of which the Scriptures are well aware. Maleness is a bodily given, but God does not have a body; maleness is sexual, but Yahweh [Jehovah] is not a sexual being. As [the Old Testament scholar] Gerhard von Rad says, 'any thought of sex in him, or of his acting in creation by means of sex, was completely alien to Israel.' There is a distinctly male god prominent in the Hebrew Scriptures: his name is Baal. He was the principle of male fertility."
As Old Testament readers will know, sexual activity was all part of Baal worship with its temple prostitutes. But this was totally absent from Jewish worship. However, God is always masculine in the Bible and with the following consequences. To quote Podles again:
"He transcends creation: it is not part of him, nor did it come out of him – he spoke, and it was. God is, therefore, utterly separate from creation; that is, he is holy … though God transcends his creation, he loves it and is involved with it. A transcendent God is a masculine God; a feminine or bisexual God is an immanent God, one who is part of creation or the creation is part of him-her. Such an immanent deity is not holy (separate), and does not demand holiness, that is separation from the standards of the natural world. A god who was one with creation would not be Yahweh."
Fundamentally, this separation of the creature from the masculine Creator is at the root of "liberty" for it entails the granting of human freedom. But such liberty allows for disobedience to God. However, such a masculine God who is separate from his creatures can love them with the love seen in the Old Testament. That is, God loves absolutely freely. For it is not an inevitable just response to good deeds, since the God of the Bible loves sinners. Nor is it the love of a goddess giving birth to its creatures, where there is instinct at work rather than freedom. However, the love of the God of the Bible is truly unmerited love.
Genesis 1-3 has a lot to say about this grant of freedom and the "man" and the "woman". The distinction between the un-fallen man and woman is real and good. But this freedom allows them to disobey God, and they did so. Eve listened to the tempter and was deceived; Adam, then, allowed himself to be ruled by Eve. That was disastrous. For Adam should have rebuked Eve and obeyed God.
Furthermore, the Old Testament idea of divine masculinity is related to patriarchy. In the Bible this does not mean exploitation and domination but a system in which fathers care for their families and find emotional satisfaction in their families. Patriarchy has been called "one of the greatest achievements of any religion". It is the counter to "the male tendency to promiscuity and alienation from children and the women who bore them." That is because it takes a short time for a male to impregnate a female. She then is bound to that developing child not only for nine months but much longer. If fathers are to be involved in the nurture period and beyond, there needs to be a culture of involvement. The Jewish faith was in a God who, unlike the irresponsible gods of Israel's pagan neighbours, did not abandon his own people but cared for them. This then provided the pattern for Jewish patriarchy. Also, with the family being at the very heart of the Jewish way of life, sexual and marital ethics, not surprisingly, is a key concern of the Bible.
The New Testament and Christianity, of course, are fulfilling the Old Testament. The masculinity and the patriarchy that it produced were fulfilled in the revelation of our Trinitarian God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. All human beings, male and female alike, are invited by faith to share in the inner life of God, receive the Spirit and be conformed to the Son (not the Daughter). And Leon Podles adds this:
"The God and Father of Jesus Christ is the same God as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Although Gnosticism [one of the first heresies] has enjoyed a rebirth in the attempts to oppose an androgynous Jesus to the patriarchal Jehovah, such an interpretation must be ruled out at the start. From the very beginning, Christianity distinguished itself from Gnosticism; the God of the Old Testament is not the devil of the New Testament. The Jesus who walked the roads of Galilee is the same person as the risen Lord and Christ. His male body is risen from the dead; the masculinity of the Son reveals the Father [and] the First Person [of the Trinity] is called Father by the only one who truly knows him, Jesus. The First Person is Father. Indeed, Father specifies what he is, because he eternally begets the Son. Paul rejects the idea that the Father is a religious projection of patriarchal social structures. The reverse is true. The Father is the model, and created fatherhood is the image. So Paul says, "I pray, kneeling before the Father, from whom every fatherhood in heaven and earth takes its name'" (Ephesians 3.15 - NJB).
Finally, we must listen to Jesus himself, who said: "When you pray, say: 'Father, hallowed be your name'" (Luke 11.2 - ESV). So to call God, "Mother" instead of "Father", or to refer to "him" as "her" is surely the opposite of "hallowing" God's name of Father. If so, it is both blasphemous and idolatrous.