Review: Women, Ritual, and Power: Placing Female Imagery of God in Christian Worship

Women, Ritual, and Power: Placing Female Imagery of God in Christian Worship by Elizabeth Ursic. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 2014. 247 pages. ISBN: 978-1-4384-5285-2

What power would be required to eradicate sexism from Christianity? For decades feminists have argued that ritual language that conceptualize God as male, such as “Lord” or “Father,” perpetuates the subordination of women. Yet the work of reimagining liturgical language for gender justice has had limited success. Elizabeth Ursic’s new book, Women, Ritual, and Power: Placing Female Imagery of God in Christian Worship, uses feminist liturgical reform as a lens to explore and analyze power dynamics related to gender. In this study, Elizabeth Ursic presents four Christian communities in established denominations where ordained or vowed leadership lift up female images of God as part of a central worship service. Thus, she offers new understandings of opportunities to control public expression, imagery, and ritual. As she writes: “… ritual making is a highly political and contested act” (20). Ursic argues that it is one thing to use female names for the divine in private devotion; it is quite another to use them in a primary congregational worship service. Ursic invites expansive conversations about ways to balance male terminology for the divine with language presenting God-as-She in church worship services.

Ursic documents a movement that is often ignored or actively suppressed. She introduces readers to four different communities whose stories illustrate the complex nature of this struggle. Readers learn about a group of Roman Catholic sisters, Daughters of Wisdom, in Connecticut whose religious life is part of a three hundred year old tradition including honoring Wisdom Sophia. Additionally, Ursic explores the United Methodist controversy in Pennsylvania centered around Susan Cady and Hal Taussig who were both charged with heresy during the 1980’s because of their robust Sophia theology and worship. Then Ursic tells the story of a similar controversy in the Church of Scotland sparked when Anne Hepburn offered a prayer at a 1982 General Assembly addressed to “God our Mother.” The fourth case presents Pastor Stacy Boorn (ELCA) and her ministry in a parish “herchurch” in San Francisco known for their “Faith and Feminism” conferences. Ursic demonstrates the deeply entrenched protection of patriarchy in Christian churches through reactions detailed in these cases. At the same time, these stories are evidence of the courageous acts of resistance that may become more prevalent in the future.

The popularity of feminist theology and spirituality is increasing. Ursic documents a growing desire for more specifically female imagery in Christian worship. Yet, even after decades of attempts to further gender equity by reimaging the Spirit, it is rare to find congregations who include female images of God in their central worship services. Through carefully constructed scholarship, Ursic raises serious questions for persons interested in ethics, liturgical reform, and church leadership. Religious studies and seminary faculty would benefit from this timely and important study, but pastors and church leaders should take heed as well. Anyone interested in advancing gender equity in the world or integrity in faith communities will find tools for dismantling male privilege in Ursic’s book.

Kathleen D. McCallie Ph.D.

Phillips Theological Seminary