A u c k l a n d A o t e a r o a N e w Z e a l a n d
a n g l i c a n c h u r c h
In Memory of Mary
July 23, 2006
Feast of St Mary Magdalene Micah 6:8-12 Matt 25:31-45
In England I was accused of being a heretic. Considering those who have been so labelled in the past I took it as a compliment. I did however point out to my accuser that he was assuming there was a continuum between orthodoxy and heresy, whereas I believe there are a number of authentic Christian views that may be in tension with each other. So instead of there being one right way of thinking, say about the resurrection, there are a number of right ways to think.
There was however two things in England that irritated me, and the more I scratched at them the more irritated I got. Firstly, I was annoyed when people were put down either by being patronized, ignored, or excluded. Three examples are women in ministry, divorcees, and gay couples. Evidence of this was particularly strong in church publications.
Secondly, and related to this, is the captivity of God within the masculine gender. Peppered throughout the liturgies, papers and press statements were constant references to God as 'Father', 'Lord', or 'He'. They gave out the undeniable message that God is a male. To not recognise, name and address irritants such as these comes closer to what I might call heresy.
Now, please don't misunderstand me. I'm not talking about an Oxfordshire rash in the Benefice of Finstock, Ramsden and Leafield. You could not find a nicer eclectic group of generous people who engaged with me no matter how challenging they found what I was saying.
Rather I'm talking about an insidious infection, manifesting itself in many corners, committees, and communications of the Church of England. Indeed it is not restricted to the English Church but is of international pandemic proportions and long ago infiltrated these antipodean islands.
God can't be contained. When a religious system creates boundaries around God, invariably God jumps the fence side. When a fundamentalist preacher proclaims, 'Come tonight and God will heal you', that impish God who refuses to be in anyone's pocket smiles and says, 'Maybe, maybe not.' When a pope, archbishop, synod, or academic says that God is on our side blessing the way we play and condemning our opponents, then God chuckles and says, 'I'm not on anyone's team.'
God however is not an open slate upon which any group or individual can write their own meaning. Each culture, time, and tradition has its controls on the story of God. Each say, 'God is mostly like this.' When the faithful adherents however leave out the 'mostly', they begin that slide into certainty and the condemnation of those who think differently.
The second of the Ten Commandments reads: “Do not make for yourselves images of anything in heaven or on earth, or in the waters under the earth. Do not bow down to any idol or worship it.” [Exodus 20:4-5a]
The Commandment is saying that God can't be contained by our art or by our words. God can only be pointed to. Theology, doctrine, and metaphors are at best pointers. When we enshrine them as absolutes we commit idolatry.
The classic example of the ancient Hebrews disobeying this commandment was in the construction and worship of the Golden Calf. In their desire to have a personal God, one that was present and accessible, they made a beautiful object and imbued it with meaning.
I believe the Church has done something similar with the metaphor of Father. We have taken this paternal image, given it form, and painted it into some of the greatest church buildings in the world.
As one metaphor amongst many there is nothing wrong with it. It tells us that part of the infinite nature of God is a desire to be personal, loving, and to nurture and protect. Its use in prayer has a long history, not least in the Lord's Prayer. Yet common usage doesn't cease to make it a metaphor.
Wherever one goes in the Anglican world it seems that the God who is prayed to is always male. God is not just like a father God is a father. God is not just like a male God is a male. In our desire to make God relevant, to bring God near, to have a personal God, we have constructed a new Golden Calf called Father. We have broken the second commandment.
I do not want to change all the male references to God to female references. I am not proposing we lock God into another gender. That won't solve anything. It will just replace one idol with another. Rather in our liturgies, prayers, and language we need to use a number of metaphors and names for God in order that no one metaphor becomes dominant and absolute. Sometimes these names will contradict each other, for example 'comforter' and 'challenger', or 'mother' and 'father' yet in their contradiction they will point to the larger truth that God is bigger than any name or language.
I know the alleged maleness and anthropomorphic nature of the Divine is very important for a number of people. I also know that others enjoy the poetic nature of some older liturgies so much they are prepared to tolerate words they no longer believe. So for 20 years or so as a priest I have said and led liturgies where this male God is dominant. I have done this because the discomfort of some inappropriate language does not destroy for me the total experience of worship.
However in recent years I have become increasingly aware that God is constantly being reduced to maleness, exclusively so, and there is little liturgically that is countering such idolatry. The spiritual life of Christians is suffering and will continue to suffer if the infinite omnipresent God is only thought of in a male guise. God has been domesticated.
This also has social and political ramifications. The old slogan that 'if God is male then the male is God' contains some truth. There is a link between a church that worships a male God and a church that will only promote men to the upper echelons of its leadership. We need to soberingly recognise that most of the Christian world only have men as priests, and that England, New Zealand, Australia, and most of Africa have no women bishops. Yet it is quite clear that in the early years of Christianity women held significant positions of leadership – not least Mary Magdalene whom we honour today.
There is also linkage between an exclusively male God and the patronizing and prejudicial practices meted out to women in ministry, divorcees, and gay couples. To build an inclusive Christian community where all are not only welcome but also have the opportunity to exercise and develop their gifts, including leadership, we must denounce every attempt to fetter God, to make God in our own image, to chain and lock God into one form. In our language, art and practices we must use other metaphors and images, especially feminine ones, in order to honour and acknowledge the breadth, height and depth of Godness.
Mary Magdalene was a wealthy woman from whom Jesus expelled seven so-called demons. Despite Pope Gregory's reprehensible attempt six centuries later to label her a prostitute, Mary was a key leader in the Jesus movement and stayed loyal to him when almost everyone else fled. In the Eastern Church she is called “Equal to the Apostles”. She was an apostle.
After the Ascension Mary allegedly journeyed to Rome where she was admitted to the court of Tiberias Caesar because of her high social standing. After dissing Pilate, she told Caesar that Jesus had risen from the dead. To help explain his resurrection she picked up an egg from the dinner table. Caesar responded that a human being could no more rise from the dead than the egg in her hand turn red. Which it promptly did! This is why red eggs have been exchanged at Easter for centuries in the Byzantine East.
In Paris recently I heard of villages settling conflict with the symbol of an egg. When a dispute had lasted long enough for there to be significant damage to individuals and the community, the feuding parties were invited to come to a meeting holding an egg. The eggs are put together to form a nest. The idea was that the nest [community well-being] needed to be mended. The conflict had escalated to such a degree that children weren't being feed and the marketplace wasn't working.
The eggs also represented fragility – they need to be carefully handled, just like people. And they represented, like other fertility symbols, the possibility of new hope - that a desire for the good of all might triumph over damaged egos and vested interests.
Mary, apostle of the Church, brave holder of the egg, bring your healing magic to our divided world and church, that new life and hope may be born anew. Amen.