Monday, June 26, 2006

Mother Jesus

Episcopal Presiding Bishop-elect Katherine Jefferts Schori has ... brass. Only days after her election, the London Times reports,

Dr Schori signalled her feminist credentials in a sermon that drew on the writings of the 14th-century Julian of Norwich. She said: “Mother Jesus gives birth to a new creation — and you and I are His children. If we’re going to keep on growing into Christ images for the world around us, we’re going to have to give up fear.”

The General Convention has been a parlous affair, its every painful moment reported in the international media, and she in now one of the very few female Anglican primates in a communion that still has great reservations about women priests. You might have thought her sermon would have been something straightforward and unexceptionable, on the order of "Jesus loves me, this I know /For the Bible tells me so." In the ears of many traditionalists, "Mother Jesus" is decidedly exceptionable language.

But should it be?

The Times adds:

Liberals in Britain and America defended her sermon as being in a long tradition of writings by women theologians that use the metaphor of Jesus as mother.

Certainly true -- and Dame Julian is certainly common coin in modern Anglican circles. But the maternal Jesus is not merely the province of female theologians. The same image is used often in medieval writing by men, especially Cistercian monks, and most especially St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Bernard is of such importance to the history of theology that he is sometimes called "the Last of the Fathers." There's a classic essay on how he used "Mother" as a term both for Jesus and for himself as abbot, by
Caroline Walker Bynum.

Nor did the tradition die with Bernard. The same images -- of Jesus and the parish pastor as "Mothers" -- were used repeatedly by John Donne, the Dean of St Paul's and a key figure in conservative, high-church Anglicanism of the 17th century. (There is a chapter on this in my STM thesis, available for publication if anybody is interested . . . ).

I saw Bishop Schori bashed a little (okay, a lot) for using this image on a blog today. Even when somebody pointed out the Biblical use of maternal imagery for God, the blogger just kept going. But I suspect he was a Baptist, and may have lacked a keen sense of tradition. Bishop Schori, as an Anglican, is expected to preach with the whole cloud of witnesses around her -- and in this case, she evidently did.

No comments: