The debate about "Thee and Thou" was not unimportant because it was saying something about the nature of God and the belief in the intimacy and the familiarity of our relationship to that God. The language with which we address God is, in a sense, both credal and formative of our beliefs. It is right, therefore, that care should be taken in the language we choose, because what we believe about the nature of God can have a profound effect on our values and behaviour. If we believe in a punitive or vengeful God, then it is but a short step to acting punitively or vengefully in his name. Much of the shameful part of the history of the Church has sprung from the prevailing understanding of the nature of God. Would men have ever embarked upon the Crusades if their overriding image of God had been of a mother caring for her young?
I was once asked by a ward sister to speak to a woman who was desperately ill. There was no hope for her and the ward sister said that she needed the release of death but was hanging on to life in fear of dying. She had attended church all her life and yet she was terrified of meeting God in death. Perhaps if she had heard God regularly addressed as "God our Mother" the story might have been different.
If the debate about "Thee and Thou" has long been resolved there is now another which parallels it. What now seems to be causing concern to some Christians is the idea that we can address God as "Our Mother". The issue has surfaced in the response in certain quarters to the Methodist Church's new liturgy book, the first substantial revision for 24 years, which comes into use on Easter Day and which will authorise for the first time in that church, prayers which address God as Mother. The grounds on which the argument about "Thee and Thou" was settled make the current debate more problematical. For Jesus taught us to address God with a word that could not be more clearly masculine, "Abba"!
However, for a book written almost entirely by men, the Bible is not altogether lacking in allusion to the motherly characteristics of God's nature and Jesus claims for himself motherly feelings when he says, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem . . . how often have I desired to gather your children as a hen gathers her brood under her wings." But there is a more telling point.
Tomorrow churches throughout the land on Mothering Sunday will be celebrating the role of motherhood and the distinctive part mothers have to play in the lives of most of us. Perhaps in our day the role is not quite as distinctive as it once was. There are many fathers who carry out the tasks that were once the traditional role of the mother. Women do not necessarily fulfil the tasks of caring for children better than men, but I suspect that for the most part they do, perhaps because their feminine nature enhances their caring. The same piece of music played on different instruments can be equally beautiful but it will be significantly different. At the end of the day, only a woman can give birth and only a mother can enjoy the bond with her offspring that comes from having carried the child in her womb and having suffered the travail of birth.
It is a biblical assertion that male and female were made in the image of God. Are those distinctive qualities of motherhood not part of that image? If they are then we are doing God a disservice in not recognising the fact in our corporate devotion, for arguably the qualities of the stereotypical mother match those of the God of the Gospels much more than those of the archetypal male.
The fact that Jesus used some other form of address ought not to discourage us from augmenting the vocabulary with which we address God, thereby enriching our understanding of the nature of the divine. Over the centuries God has been given a good number of titles which Jesus did not use. I have little doubt that before long "God our Mother" will be commonplace. For it reflects what we are learning about the nature of God. Perhaps the use of it will alter that perception further and, over time, help us foster in our society the values of caring and compassion which we associate with the most feminine of virtues.
Bruce Deakin is a Method- ist minister in Haydock, MerseysideReuse content