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.