This is the seventh post in a ten-week series on reading Sarah Coakley’s Powers and Submissions with my friend and mentor, Pastor Jason Byassee.
I appreciate your candor about the courage it takes to know when and how to mix gendered metaphors in worship. I pick this theme up again partly because I found Coakley’s chapter on the ‘Social’ Doctrine of the Trinity overwhelming and partly because I found my commitments to feminist language questioned when preaching a sermon for the very first time in church this past Sunday.
I wasn’t going to change the language of the text itself. I read from Isaiah 56:1-8, one of the Scripture readings in the Catholic liturgy, and preached on the need to play all parts in the Christian narrative. To play all parts isn’t to erase all identifying markers of gender such as the persistent “he’s” and “him’s” peppered throughout our text. But the calling to find ourselves in union with God alone, a creator who is neither male or female as you pointed out last week, is to ultimately acknowledge the transience or fluidity of our gendered identities and the parts we play in them.
Rush was leading the worship music in what I jokingly called a good ol’ husband and wife variety hour. I had to tread carefully in my critiques. I left the masculine pronouns but was a bit more picky about the title of ‘Father’. Would you call Father and Son titles? names? metaphors? I sense their orthodox use throughout history has you committed to their continuing utility for our post-modern era. Coakley even points out Gregory of Nyssa’s belief that these words were authoritatively given in revelation.
But there are other titles, names, metaphors like Master and Servant that we’ve used more sparingly in recent years and and in certain communities for the connotations they have with slavery. I wonder if Father and Son haven’t lost some of their radically intimate natures and become tainted by their sexist connotations. Do we keep the words and insist on different meanings or do we keep the intentions and insist on different words? Even Gregory acknowledges “father” and “mother” have the same meaning. Was God then simply giving people a revelation – one that included masculine titles – because God, like us preachers, was worried about what they could stomach? In the end, I only changed a paltry Father to Maker in one song, and Father Almighty to God Almighty in the creed we spoke.
Of course, my sermon itself provided the greatest space for creative use of language. And as much as I wanted to sprinkle the blessings of “she” for God’s personhood, I neutered it, every last gendered marker available. As a guest preacher, I measured the effectiveness my words would have on an audience I barely knew and one with whom I’d have little ongoing opportunity for conversation.
Does neutering or mentioning no gender for God really go towards Coakley’s vision of the abolition of the “sex class system”? Or does it simply fall into the trap Coakley lays out in her seventh chapter that the neutral person often stands as a substitute for the normative male? But if she reads Gregory correctly, that human transformation is “unthinkable without profound, even alarming, shifts in our gender perceptions,” then who are we to not usher people along in these shifts by any – radical – means possible?
Thinking, thinking, thinking,