How a San Francisco Church is Changing The Sex Of Christianity
May 15, 2008
By Rachel Tennenbaum
It’s 10:30 on a beautiful Sunday morning in San Francisco, and the herchurch parking lot is near empty. The church is glowing in the morning light, a pale purple building, square and solid with purple flowers lining its perimeter. A banner hangs on the side of the building: “Welcome to herchurch!” Located on the west side of San Francisco, the building affords beautiful views of trees and houses, of towers and of the city below. But still, the spots are empty, the white lines many and lonely.
Inside, the light has leaked in through the windows and a group of about 30 worshippers are seated in a circle, basking in the honey glow of the sanctuary. Above them, a large silver cross hangs serenely on the wall. Below it, a portrait of a woman and a ruby red heart. A lone woman in a white alb, a long white robe and a woven stole is preparing to lead her weekly Sunday sermon. Just as she is about to begin, a little girl in pink comes squealing in, followed by a second girl, and a fast-moving Chihuahua.
Welcome to herchurch – a Lutheran church that is taking the meaning of God and stretching it to its linguistic limits. God becomes God/dess. Jesus Christ becomes Christ-Sophia.
It may not have many congregants, but the small church is full of distinctiveness. A brief look at the liturgy booklet reveals that this is a bit different than a typical Sunday service. First it reads, “all who seek God/dess are welcome at the Holy Communion meal.” A little further down the page, “When the Tibetan Bowl rings a third time please stand.”
It may have been Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” that brought the ideas of the sacred feminine to mainstream light, but for many, that philosophy stays contained within pages of pseudo-religious thrillers and documentaries on the History Channel.
But for Pastor Stacy Boorn, and the congregants of herchurch, the feminization of “the holy other” is a linguistic endeavor that is enriching the spiritual lives of many. This primarily centers around referring to God as “God/dess” or “She” and Jesus Christ as “Christ-Sophia,” and bringing gender equality to the forefront of Christian ideology.
“I began to think about our language and our metaphors and our teaching of the holy others,” Boorn said. “Can language create who we are? And if it creates who we are, can it also hinder who we mean to be?”
The morning’s service has been over for about an hour, and Boorn and a handful of members are sitting around a table in the back of the church, discussing various projects. The topic turns to personal belief and the theological gender switch that members have made.
“In my mind, the question arises, Does God have a penis? Does God have to have a penis?” said Jim Smithson, a herchurch member for two years. His questions prompts giggles in the group, but Smithson is quite serious. “The answer is no. And I don’t think anybody that has thought about it would ever say that absolutely, God has to have a penis, or else.”
He pauses thoughtfully for a moment, and then continues. “And if God doesn’t have to have a penis, God can easily be Goddess as well.”
For Boorn, God/dess is a partnership between the male and feminine. She explains that she does not wish to replace one gender with another, but that for her and other herchurch members, the word “God” has come to signify a male deity image, and has led to a patriarchal structure that many herchurch members found alienating in the religions of their youth.
“The lifting up of the female imagery is not to do away with one and become another domination structure,” Boorn said. “It’s not the opposite of patriarchy, but rather a partnership model of egalitarian nature.”
Members feel that in addition to breaking down a patriarchal structure, the feminization of a deity creates a more nurturing atmosphere.
“I think this path supports justice towards all and a peaceful setting,” says Kathryn Wagner, a six-year herchurch veteran. “Everything we do is more about a loving atmosphere, empowerment, inclusiveness. Everyone is welcome here.”
The creation and theology of herchurch is constantly under construction. Boorn and congregants are always reading voraciously, discovering different feminists texts and teachings. It is works of feminist theologians such as Reverend Doctor Jann Aldredge-Clanton that spurn herchurch forward. It was Aldredge-Clanton’s writings that prompted herchurch to employ the term “Christ-Sophia” in their services.
“I might claim to be the first to put those two together,” Aldredge-Clanton said. She had been studying the connection between Jesus and his alternative name “Hokmah,” a feminine Hebrew word for Wisdom. Aldredge-Clanton then replaced “Hokmah” with Sophia, the Greek word for wisdom.
“So that the feminine is explicit, I chose to use Sophia instead of just Christ-wisdom,” she said. With the two titles combined, the spiritual embodiment of this figure becomes both male and female.
Aldredge-Clanton is a Baptist feminine theologian, born in Louisiana and now residing in Texas. Her voice is unmistakably Southern, with a thick twang that highlights the passion she has for her research.
In her opinion, herchurch’s work has wide-reaching societal implications, and is part of a worldwide movement of feminization in major religions. It also comes at a crucial time.
“When you have an exclusively masculine theology, you have a foundation for demeaning, devaluing and abusing women,” Aldredge-Clanton said. “If our sacred symbols are not equal, what about our values?”
Aldredge-Clanton, citing a list of distressing statistics, said that a woman is battered every seven seconds, one in three women in the U.S. alone will experience some kind abuse in her lifetime and that one in four girls are sexually assaulted by the age of 18.
She said that “divine feminine images can contribute to bringing down patriarchal structures.”
But, she added, the effects of these movements do not stop at women’s rights.
“I think that there is a deep hunger for the healing of the world, for bringing back this balance,” Aldredge-Clanton said. “Now I think it’s crucial to have the divine feminine in the forefront for saving of the world. To nurture instead of blowing it up.”
For the time being, Boorn and Aldredge-Clanton reject a complete de-gendering of “the holy other,” explaining that Christianity is as of now too unbalanced to accept a totally gender-neutral spirit.
“Calling God ‘she’ questions us from an automatic ‘he,’” Aldredge-Clanton said. “Because the divine continues to be associated so much with the masculine, until you bring the feminine, women will still be seen in some secondary kind of way.”
Pastor Boorn agrees. For those who argue that God is gender-neutral, she counters, “if you cannot also say God/dess then you can’t believe that God is both or neither [gender].”
Boorn was born and raised in upstate New York, and her no-nonsense attitude reflects her East Coast roots. She landed in Berkeley as a young adult to finish seminary, and showed up at Ebenezer Lutheran, as the church was then called, as an interim minister, later becoming its permanent minister. During this time, Boorn also began to discover texts discussing the sacred feminine within Christianity, and worked quickly to incorporate her knowledge into her belief system.
By the time Boorn became Ebenezer Church’s full-time pastor, she and some congregants had begun to lay the foundation for herchurch. Equipped with fresh beliefs and strong convictions, the pastor did not hesitate to shake things up. She replaced the chapel with an art gallery, where a series of photographs, paintings and other objects sit quietly, crafted by both church and non-church members. Icons in the church are now gone, replaced with only a simple “Alleluia” sign decorated with fake flowers. Her latest project is removing all of the pews and replacing them with a circle of chairs.
Of course, not all of Ebenezer’s congregants took to the idea of herchurch. And although a handful of members remain, most of the members of herchurch are new.
Retired Police Officer Randy Randall is one of the crossover members from Ebenezer Lutheran Church. He has been part of the church since 1982, when he joined as a groundskeeper. He still takes care of the grounds and runs various side projects. His office, also located in the back of the church, is filled with relics, photographs, and memories – in a way it is an active museum of the church’s history. His dog Benji sits resting in the corner.
“This church was all Danish and Swedish when I joined,” Randall says. He motions to a picture hanging on the wall, where seven Caucasian men in white albs and red stoles are lined up, smiling from ear to ear. He points to the wall again, this time to a series of plaques.
“You see this ‘my city my world?’” he asks. “We used to have 80-some kids here, and each one of those [plaques] you see with my name on them is from a year that we did [the ‘my city my world’ camp].” The camp has not run for a few years.
When Randall brings out some photo albums, it is clear he’s proud of his memorabilia. The albums, pages yellow and brittle with age, show picture upon picture of a crowded church; of Sunday school; of senior trips. The scene is quite different from the service earlier that morning. Randall is quiet on the matter, but from the pictures in his album and on the wall, it’s clear that there was a large change in the demographic of the congregation.
Boorn argues that Ebenezer Church’s congregation was already in decline when she joined as interim pastor. It was her job, before she was made permanent, to see how the church could essentially save itself. And the congregation liked her, eventually hiring her. At the same time, Boorn was discovering feminist theology, and found her own way to save the church. For as many people who left, there are people who arrived and seem quite pleased with what they have in front of them.
For the most part, the Evangelical Lutheran Churches of America (ELCA), the Lutheran division of which Ebenezer/herchurch is a part, supports the church’s feminist agenda. But, while members of the LGTB community are allowed to be ministers within Lutheran churches, they must remain celibate, unlike other ministers.
Jim Lapp is the pastor of Santa Cruz’s St. Stephen Lutheran church, which is also part of the ELCA. He is familiar with Boorn’s work.
“I understand what she is trying to do,” he said. “I find references to God as neutral. But the fact is people don’t; people anthropomorphize God into a male image, and that’s of course very limiting of what God is, and what we understand God to be.”
While Pastor Lapp supports Boorn’s work, he says that he is not about to employ similar tactics. In a congregation that is white, upper-middle class, he says that the divine feminine is not top on the congregation’s priority list. He has, however, worked to include a more balanced perspective in the deity figure, directing language towards focusing on God as a parent, rather than a father.
“At the church we have to constantly be looking at the language we’re using so that it speaks to people and doesn’t stay anchored in medieval times,” he said. “This is one of the reasons the church is dying – we are not responding to the changes that are happening so quickly.”
He also noted that Martin Luther was the first reformer of the church, and that such vigilance and commitment to reform follows in a 500-year-old tradition.
“Martin Luther was the first reformer of the Christian church and ever since then we’ve being trying to look at things in light of the context that we live in,” Lapp said. “He did that back in the 1500s and we’ve been doing the same thing ever since.”
Herchurch’s Smithson feels that this reform is exactly what herchurch is accomplishing with its feminization efforts.
“It just really felt like everything, the ritual, the hierarchy, was being deconstructed,” Smithson said. “That’s really where I’ve come to realize that having God as a Masculine image isn’t a fundamental.”
Of course, some accept this more than others. The church is shared with two other churches, a Chinese church and a Korean church. The Korean service takes place at 12:30, right after the herchurch service. And on her way out, Pastor Boorn points out that the minister has set up a screen for his service. Although there is no projector in sight, the screen covers the female icon below the cross. Boorn looks quizzical for a moment, a look that contains both a half smile and half sigh, and then moves on.