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I am a member of a pressure group promoting the ministry of women in the Church of England called WATCH. They sell T-towels and sweatshirts which read: “A woman’s place is in the house.....of bishops!” Along with many others I was delighted earlier this year when the general synod voted in favour of women becoming bishops in the CofE. We now have to wait for the law to be changed before it actually starts happening. I am in favour of this change partly because I believe in the unity of the threefold ministry (deacons, priests and bishops); partly because it is a matter of justice and equality; partly because society around us cannot understand our inequality; but mainly because of what I believe about God – that there is a feminine side to God. Ministry is about reflecting the nature of God through human service and leadership in Church and society. A male dominated ministry preserves a masculine emphasis on the nature of God and is therefore lopsided. It is time for us to get balanced again and one way to do that is to ponder what Mary means on a day like today when we think of her role in our faith.

In the days before DVD screens in cars, families kept children occupied with verbal games. One of them in our family was “The Vicar’s Cat” in which each person uses an adjective in alphabetical order to describe what the vicar’s cat is like. The vicar’s cat is an artful cat, the vicar’s cat is beautiful and so on. I always remember my father exclaiming with glee when it came to “M”: The Vicar’s cat is a magnificat! Mary’s song of celebration known by its Latin first word is an important part of Christian worship. Mary celebrates God’s looking with favour on the lowliness of his handmaiden. It celebrates the simple faith of generations and recognises the way God turned the tables on the high and mighty by choosing Mary to be the mother of our Lord. Reading it again I notice that it is not triumphalist in the sense of wanting to trample the high and mighty underfoot or taking revenge on the powerful. Rather it rejoices in God’s gracious recognition of the humble and poor. What has not been recognised before is valued and celebrated. The Church today, especially with the wisdom and knowledge of psychology and sociology, is beginning to look with favour on the former lowliness of the feminine in the Church and in God. It is more a re-discovery or recovery of the feminine rather than a first time discovery because it has always been there. From time to time the Church has valued and allowed the feminine to play a significant part in its consciousness. Julian of Norwich is an example.

Hindu Beliefs
Another recent decision, local, which I am pleased about is the Church Council’s decision to promote interfaith understanding. It’s something that the Well at Willen is concerned for. We have decided from next summer to organise meetings at which Christians can learn from visiting members of other faiths. I am glad about this because it helps us understand not only other world faiths but our own. We see more clearly what exactly our faith is about in the light of other faiths.

Hinduism has a long-established tradition of worshipping the goddess. Local villages often have a goddess of their own. The main avatars, or manifestations of God, in Hinduism have their consorts: for example øiva has Pàrvatã and Ràma has Sãtà. Then there is a feminine side to Bhagavan, the god above all. She is known as Bhagavatã. Now, it is easy for Christians to be dismissive of Hinduism, labelling it as idol worship or a kind of ignorant paganism. But that is disrespective of Hindu traditions which are far older and deeply held than Christian. What’s more Hinduism has resisted centuries of Christian mission trying to convert the whole of India. These days in dialogue we respect and learn from each other. So, as Christians, what can we learn from the goddess tradition in Hinduism?

Recovering the Feminine in God
Today we are thinking of Mary and her role in salvation. Mary was human, in fact one theologian has said that she is the only human whom Christians have to keep repeating that she is not divine. Therefore, at the outset, Hinduism helps us clarify that when we consider The Blessed Virgin Mary we are not talking about a divine being whom we worship. Some Christians find her extremely helpful in their spirituality and worship, but that is different from her being the actual focus or worship. So, Mary is not a goddess.

But in Mary we can rediscover or appreciate more deeply the importance of the feminine in God and in our Christian spirituality and belief. There are many ways in which this can be thought of, but I would like to focus on one, which is particularly relevant at this time of the Christian year when we think about the birth of Jesus.

One of the aspects of the Hindu ideas about the goddess is øakti or power. This is the power of the feminine not about dominance or winning prowess, but about inner strength, stamina, life-force. It is the females of most species that have the power to conceive and bring to birth. This is the power that is life. So Mary’s “yes” to God is using her power. She conceives and bears Jesus. The Magnificat is a celebration of life, especially the miracle of life in the form of Elizabeth and Mary’s miracle babies. In the light of that you would think that Christians would celebrate life much more centrally than we do. But that is not necessarily the case.

Our focus is usually on mortality not natality – on death rather than the fact that we are creatures who are born and live. Our focus is on death because we celebrate the death of Jesus on the cross. We take bread and wine to be a sacrament of shed blood and a killed body broken on the cross. We focus on that by saying that it brings us life and nourishes our faith – but first we have to deal with the starting point we perceive: that of Christ’s death. We are also focussed on mortality when we think of our faith in terms of believing and being saved so that when we die we go to heaven. We tend to think of what we must do to gain life beyond death rather than before it.

Mary’s song of celebration is about bringing the Son of God to birth. Our faith is also about the power of life, about flourishing in the here and now, of having life in all its fullness. We celebrate birth through the baptism of babies, but then leave it there. We don’t focus so much on the fact that God brings us through birth into life – that is what is meant by natality. If we focussed more on natality, we would also value God as our mother. God is our mother in that she nurtures and sustains us. She helps us grow and thrive in this life, knowing we are loved and that each human life is precious and unique. So with Mary we rejoice and exclaim:

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour
For he has looked with favour
on the lowliness of his servant...
He has filled the hungry with good things.
From now on all generations will call me blessed!”

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith




Eternal God,
as Mary waited for the birth of your Son,
so we wait for his coming in glory;
bring us through the birth pangs of this present age
to see, with her, our great salvation
in Jesus Christ our Lord.