Mothering Sunday 2013

Mothering Sunday is an opportunity to think about what we mean when we speak of the Church as ‘Mother’. I suspect many no longer think or speak in those terms at all, or do so, more often than not, with self-conscious embarrassment. The Church is such a male-dominated organization, it is difficult to think of any very feminine characteristics. In English we can call the Church ‘it’ and avoid all the consequences of having to think of the Church and motherhood together. If we do, I think we lose something important.

First of all, there is that sense of personal connectedness. Sometimes people rage and rant about ‘the Church’ as though they had no part in her. The Church is then always something other, something to be resented, objectified, frankly treated with a kind of contempt. I can understand a secularist wanting to do that, but not a Christian. That stubborn female pronoun, that awkward designation as mother, is no mere accident of language. It reminds us that we are reborn in the waters of baptism which the Church administers, are nourished by the Word and Sacraments of which she is dispenser and guardian, and are finally led into the Kingdom through her prayers. Our salvation is personal. God doesn’t redeem abstractions— he redeems us.

The essential characteristic of the Church is that she is always feminine in relation to God. Every one of us, male or female, is feminine before God, a fact we often ignore because of our very human concerns about power and authority. Ultimately, each one of us will stand before God, utterly unable to help ourselves and reliant on grace mediated through the Church. Julian of Norwich saw in that moment the necessity of God’s being our Mother, as he is also our Father; and the connection between them is itself to be found in the Church*. That is not at all the same as some of the gendered theological reflection of recent decades, which has sometimes stretched orthodoxy to breaking-point. It is precisely because the Church is the locus in which we encounter God and experience grace that our thinking about her matters so much and needs to remain true to Christian tradition. It is also, incidentally, the reason why we celebrate the Church with such love and joy today — a love and joy which has spilled over into a celebration of all our mothers, living and dead.

Let us give thanks for this gift of motherhood, both natural and divine.

* I wrote about this more fully last year, here.


9 thoughts on “Mothering Sunday 2013”

  1. This is a very puzzling post for me and I feel very unsympathetic towards it. Feelings however count for little and more understanding is required on my part. How?/Does this relate to the Bride of Christ imagery? And the bridal imagery of monastic profession of both men and women? Sorry to be so full of questions; my only real entry into this is through the Piero della Francesca painting of the small figures huddled and protected under the cloak of the madonna/church or perhaps the Gospel image of the chicks sheltering beneath the mother hen. All this seems a million miles from the baskets of tulips being carted around the supermarket yesterday.

    • Excellent! I’d be disappointed if you weren’t puzzled, and the fact that you feel unsympathetic is even better because I know you will tug away at the meaning. Art, poetry and music often ‘explain’ better than any attempts at argument, so stick with Piero della Francesca.

      I’ve actually packed quite a lot of theology into this little post, and the chances are that while struggling to be brief I have become unintelligible or even laid myself open to the charge of heresy (there are a lot of heresy hunters around at the moment). I know it’s asking a good deal from my readers. It’s not just a question of pondering the bridal/spousal imagery of the Old and New Covenants but taking a plunge into patristics as well, eg. Augustine’s tracts on virginity and widowhood (De Virginitate, De Bono Viduatatis, etc.). Many problems of ecumenism, for example, boil down to problems of ecclesiology which is why the Church’s self-understanding is so central to how we are in the world. I’m not here touching on any particular part of the Church (e.g. monks and nuns) but thinking about the Church as a whole. I’ll return to the subject again but at the moment I’m having to share my thoughts with you in the form of jottings rather than a fully developed argument.

      The conflation of the American Mothers’ Day with our old Mothering Sunday may not help, but it does ensure there are some nice flowers for Mum about, doesn’t it?

  2. Sister, are we really all feminine before God?

    I thought that our souls were gender less when presented to God at the time of our judgement.

  3. Oh dear, I should have realised how I would confuse people. I apologize. I am becoming confused myself!

    St Paul is a good place to start for the Church as Bride of Christ idea while St Augustine has some helpful things to say about the whole Church being virginal by virtue of the integrity of her faith, hope and charity.

    A theological meaning can be illumined by a literal example, but is not itself meant to be taken literally. In saying that the Church is feminine before God, for example, I am using the language of gender not sex: it’s not biology but theology I am attempting. Thus, the soul has no sex, although the word anima has a feminine gender in Latin which has allowed the Fathers of the Church to make great play with the Church/Bride/Virgin/soul idea.

  4. I’ll try. Gender is primarily a grammatical term. In languages such as Latin, Greek, Russian, and German, each of the classes (typically masculine, feminine, common, neuter) of nouns and pronouns is distinguished by different inflections/words syntactically associated with them.

    Grammatical gender is only very loosely associated with natural or biological distinctions of sex, e.g. the word ‘table’ is feminine in French: it has gender, but no sex.

    Sex is primarily a biological term, referring to the two main categories, male and female, into which most living creatures are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions.

    Thus, I speak of the Church as feminine, but not as female.

    Lots of people use the word ‘gender’ in English when they mean ‘sex’ — perhaps out of a sense of false modesty(?)

  5. “That is not at all the same as some of the gendered theological reflection of recent decades, which has sometimes stretched orthodoxy to breaking-point.”

    I’m not entirely sure whether you’re referring to the feminist theology crowd or the theology of the body / emphasis on nuptuality crowd, but suspect that it applies to both! In any case, well said, and much food for reflection in the rest of the post too!

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