- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 24, 2001

One hymn calls the Almighty "Mother God."
Another alludes to the universe as the "womb of life."
A third refers to the Holy Spirit as "She [who] Comes Sailing on the Wind."
And yet another is a hymn to Mother Earth.
The book that contains these chorales is not some New Age tome, but a new Methodist hymnal supplement, "The Faith We Sing."
Granted, most of the hymns in this 128-page book are traditional Christian paeans to God, but it's the exceptions that rile people like Mark Tooley. He is the executive director of the United Methodist committee of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and something of a watchdog on trends in the 8.4-million-member denomination.
"The whole point of Christian hymnals is to worship the God of the Bible," he says. "The problem with worshipping a 'Mother God' or feminine deity is that it is not the God of the Bible."
The IRD, an ecumenical alliance of Christians based in Washington, claims that the recently published United Methodist hymnal supplement subtly introduces feminist theology into hymns that inaccurately depict God.
It cites "Womb of Life," which refers to God as "Mother" and "Holy Partner." Another song, "Mothering God, You Gave Me Birth," refers to a "Mothering God," "Mothering Christ" and "Mothering Spirit."
The group also criticizes the song "Bring Many Names," whose lyrics refer to an "old, aching God" and a "young, growing God." These deny the timeless nature of God, it says.
And "I am your Mother," a hymn that depicts the Earth as a mother crying not to be neglected, is theologically unsound because, Mr. Tooley says, the Bible never refers to the Earth as a mother.
Mr. Tooley says that some of the theology behind the hymns has been influenced by the "Re-Imagining Community," a Minneapolis group that organized a controversial 1993 World Council of Churches conference. There, participants replaced traditional communion services with a milk-and-honey ritual and worshipped Sophia, the goddess of wisdom. Thus, the IRD is encouraging churches to insert a "theological disclaimer" in the supplements and to investigate the book before buying it.
Furthermore, Mr. Tooley asked the United Methodist Publishing House in Nashville, Tenn., to republish the supplements without the questionable hymns. But the Rev. Judy Smith, executive director of publishing, declined to follow his advice.
"The hymnal has been designed to meet the needs of a variety of people," she said. "The more ways you give people to think about how God is, the richer the experience they have."
Jean Janzen, author of the song "Mothering God" and a poetry professor at Fresno Pacific University, says the hymn, based on the writings of Julian of Norwich, a 14th-century Christian mystic, is an attempt to balance the warrior image of God with a more nurturing one.
"There are many metaphors used all the time in Christianity that are not necessarily used directly in the Bible," Mrs. Janzen said. The stance that certain metaphors are inappropriate for God "doesn't really carry forward with any reason."
"It shows an inability to extend oneself to understand the imagination beyond the factual, reasonable kind of way of thinking," she said.
Insisting her music is inclusive, but not feminist, she added that her hymn has been "overwhelmingly loved" by women who appreciate that there are finally some hymns that speak to women and their sensitivities.
"Anybody who works in the arts is very prone to getting away from dogma that is too narrow and tight," she said. "I am drawn to unity and inclusion. God is too large to close her or him in."
Mr. Tooley said it is important to distinguish between the use of metaphors and similes in theological language.
"Metaphors are fine in terms of relating," he said, adding that "the Scriptures never refer to God directly as a woman." Members of the first- and second-century church intentionally did not refer to God as "mother" and thus modern Christians are obligated to respect their example.
Ruth Duck, the author of the song "Womb of Life," says the images in her song are fully scriptural.
"I think they know that they're distorting," she says of the IRD. "They're taking things out of context. What they do is try to take the most extreme forms of feminism and then take smaller movements and make associations that do not exist."
A professor of worship at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Chicago, Ill., she is a member of the Re-Imagining Community.
"Sometimes if people see new images, they think we're trying to replace the old," she said. "My hymn actually is trying to make the Trinity more understandable to contemporary people and to help people relate. It brings together new images with traditional images."
Ken Medema, a blind songwriter and performer from San Francisco who has been part of the Christian music scene for about 30 years, has a number of songs in the supplement. One of his songs refers to God as "our nurturing breast."
"The people who are part of these watchdog groups now don't realize that the theology they have now is not the same as it has always been," he says. "The whole idea is to explore new ideas and trust that the community of faith will sort out the good from the bad."
But Parker Williamson, executive editor of the Presbyterian Layman, says trends in feminist theology make religion a "cafeteria experience" because people end up picking and choosing the theology they want to believe.
"In essence what they're trying to do is change the image of God that Scripture itself affirms," he said. "God becomes an impersonal force instead of the personal force that reaches out to you and me."
And George Mims, director of music and organist at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Houston and the editor of a 1980 music supplement to the 1979 Episcopal Church hymnal, also objects to using words that alter the biblical nature of God.
"I am opposed to changing the poetry and texts of dead authors," he said. "They cannot defend their choice of words nor agree with our modifications.
"We do not change Shakespeare to be politically correct. When you are out there in the trenches of life, you want to draw on the memory of inspiring words whose recall is instant, unlike some trendy update that changes every decade. Disagreement with old texts should inspire authors to write completely new ones."

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