Our Mother who art in heaven

Is it OK for Christians to address God as 'Mother'? My short answer is 'yes' because the Bible uses many female metaphors for God.

Similarly it is OK to address God as 'Father' because the Bible uses many male images for God.

My longer answer is: it's complicated! It's complicated because God is neither woman nor man. God is Spirit. That is the witness of the Bible and of the tradition of the Church. We cannot know God except through revelation by God, who is neither male nor female (biological sex) and neither feminine nor masculine (gender - a cultural construct).

It is further complicated by traditional expectations of how Christians should address God in worship.

I am not saying we should stop praying to God as 'Our Father in heaven'. That is an important image of God as Father that Jesus gives us in his pattern prayer ('The Lord's Prayer). That 'father' image is also there in the Old Testament. It is memorably amplified in Jesus' parable of the 'Prodigal Son' in Luke 15: 11 - 32.

I am saying that there are times when it is good to pray to God as Mother. I do this occasionally in private prayer, but so far have lacked the courage to be so direct in leading public prayer, although I have used expressions like 'Mothering God'.

This post is prompted by some of the sillier headlines and misleading articles I have seen over the last few days about women as priests and bishops wanting to ditch the masculine in favour of feminine terms in worship. One of the most helpful recent responses in a blog post on this topic is by Ian Paul 'Can we address God as she?'  I recommend reading it.

He concludes:
"Christianity uses metaphors because it makes the unique claim that God is both beyond human comprehension and yet somehow makes himself comprehendible. Using specific, historically conditioned metaphors is a central part of that, and we tinker with them at our peril."

Yes, I agree that we cannot nor should not ditch those metaphors given to us in Scripture and church tradition. We have to wrestle to understand them and use them, difficult though that can be in a different culture and time. What I want to see encouraged much more, because it has so often been sidelined is the use of those female (and feminine) images of God given to us by God and which the early Church Fathers (and Mothers) were not afraid to use.

If we consistently avoid using female images for God I think we limit the range of Biblical images that can help us understand God's nature. I would like to see more free use of them within Church of England liturgies. Common Worship has gone some way to redress the balance (particularly in using inclusive language for the people of God), but I think there is more work that could be done relating to the ways we address and speak of God. Yes, we (men and women) have a long way to go. 

Here are some Biblical metaphors of God as a biological mother:

  • Crying, gasping and panting like a woman in labour (Isaiah 42: 14)
  • not forgetting the child of her womb that she suckles (Isaiah 49: 14 - 15)
  • comforting her child (Isaiah 66: 13)
  • birthing, carrying and saving her people (Isaiah 46: 3 - 4)
  • giving birth to Israel (Deuteronomy 32: 18 as in e.g. NRSV - is also translated 'fathered you' in some translations)
  • calling, teaching, holding, healing and feeding her young (Hosea 11: 1 - 4)
  • birthing the sea, the ice and the hoar frost (Job 38: 8, 29)
  • birthing 'Wisdom' (Proverbs 8: 22 - 25)
  • providing pure spiritual milk (1 Peter 2: 2 - 3)
  • being the environment in which we live, move and have our being (Acts 17: 28 - reminds me of a womb-like, protective, nurturing space)

Here are some Biblical feminine (cultural/gender)metaphors of God:

  • a midwife at a birth (Psalm 22: 9 - 10, 71: 6, Isaiah 66:9)
  • a woman making bread (Luke 13: 18 - 21)
  • a woman searching for a lost coin (Luke 15: 8 -1)
  • an eagle bearing her fledglings on her wings and supporting and encouraging the weak (Deuteronomy 32: 11 - 12, Exodus 19: 4. I'm told female eagles are stronger than the male so undertake more of this than the male)
  • a mother hen (Matthew 23: 37, Luke 13:34 cf. Ruth 2:12)
  • a fierce mother bear (Hosea 13: 8)

Another interesting Biblical study would be to search for references to the Holy Spirit of God, particularly because the word for God's Spirit is feminine in Hebrew (original language of Old Testament. (The word is neuter in ancient Greek (original language of the New Testament). Many Biblical references to the Holy Spirit use images associated with female and feminine e.g.labour and birth, comforting and caring.

I like to keep my posts short - so over to you. What do you think? Does it matter what pronouns or images we use in how we talk about God or speak to God?

Meanwhile, if you are not familiar with this hymn, based on words from the 14th Century, you might like to listen to it. One of my favourites. (I also like many hymns about God as Father).

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons


  1. I can't see why we should restrict references to God as masculine or feminine because as you have pointed out, God is spirit, therefore doesn't have a gender in terms that we can understand. I have noted that my Vicar has already subtly amended BCP language, particularly where the term 'men' is used to make it gender neutral. Some people mutter a little about it, but still come to BCP services (twice a week) because they're 'Prayerbook' Angicans - and will markedly use the traditional words, exactly as written in the 1662 version, no matter what words are used by the celebrant. I have to admit, when I first encountered the image of God as female, I found it a little strange, as my whole psyche was oriented to the way that I'd been raised (as a Catholic) so it took a little while to adjust, As I've gained confidence, I now am happy to hear those descriptions and ideas of God, particularly when someone says 'She' instead of 'He'. I tried praying the Lord's Prayer as Our Mother in Heaven - and found that I rather liked it. So, perhaps a convert who is flexible about these matters, and doesn't see any doctrinal reason to do otherwise. Love your list of female references. We discussed this among a disparate group at a Christian Cafe social coffee morning yesterday morning. The Anglicans among us didn't have any difficulty with the concept. But the sole Baptist argued strongly to the contrary - so the culture change might take some time to filter across to those churches who have a different perspective on God and his/her identity.

    1. I wouldn't tamper with the Lord's Prayer - definitely a step too far for me, in spite of the title I chose for this post. We have a huge problem when using the English language for talking about God as we have no singular personal pronouns other than 'he' or 'she', 'his' and 'her'. We cannot refer to God as 'it' if we believe God is personal. Neither can we use 'they' if we believe in only one God. When preaching I sometimes tie myself in knots trying to avoid the sex/gender specific pronouns when referring to God, but I don't like 'Godself' which some people use - maybe if it became common English usage I'd feel more comfortable with that. I think the issue of gender-inclusive language for people is a very different one and actually much easier to address. Common Worship services were constructed with sensitivity to that issue. I do find BCP services a problem. When I have to lead one I do use exactly what is written almost all the time, loving the ancient language while at the same time wondering what on earth we are doing still using such incomprehensible (for most people) text. I do like your Vicar make occasional subtle amendments e.g. 'If any one sin...' instead of 'if any man sin...' and reduce 'Dearly beloved brethren...' to 'dearly beloved...' or change it to 'dearly beloved brothers and sisters'.


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