Changing Church: Deborah Hall, Christian Laywoman, Founder of Sophia Sisters, Chandler, Arizona

Deborah Hall

Patriarchy not only creates hierarchies, but at the same time attempts to consolidate and oppose difference and diversity. As feminists we need to embrace diversity…in nature, in each other and in our beliefs. We can see a prime example with the current political scene. There is so much debate on who is a true Republican or Democrat and “who tows the party line.” There is so much energy and money wasted. What would happen if more time was devoted to celebrating the uniqueness of each individual as a divine child of Christ-Sophia? I think of a mother who has two children…and says, “I love both of you just the same.” A mother knows that her children are very different from one another; however, she can love them both equally. This image of Mother God nurtures my soul!

This is an excerpt from Deborah Hall’s inspiring “Meditation on Diversity,” which she delivered at a combined worship service of Sophia Sisters and Sophia Sisters Roundtable.

Desiring to explore the Divine Feminine, Deborah began Sophia Sisters in September of 2011. This group first studied the book Learning a New Language: Speech about Women and God, by Beverly Jane Phillips. Beverly and Deborah co-led this book study for some women in Deborah’s church. Deborah describes how the group moved from the church to her home and changed to include worship: “Interestingly, when I approached church leadership about doing the book group, the book had to be ‘reviewed’ by the pastor, and I was cautioned that this group should not be a ‘male-bashing’ group. After we finished the book study, we wanted to continue meeting, so we now meet in my home. Others have joined us, and we now include a worship time with our book study. I yearned for worship using feminine pronouns and imagery for God, so I plan and lead the worship portion for our group. Our worship is based on the season of the year or what we are discussing from our book study and includes responsive readings, inclusive hymns, prayer, guided meditation, and communion.”

Here is an excerpt from “Wisdom Celebration,” a Sophia Sisters worship service Deborah created (with adaptations from A God Who Looks Like Me: Discovering a Woman-Affirming Spirituality, by Patricia Lynn Reilly):

CALL TO COMMUNION

Leader:  Beautiful and wise women, sisters in Christ-Sophia, we commune together this evening remembering The Wise Old Woman, our Grandmother, who becomes a healing image of the divine within us. She rises in us each time we choose our wholeness. Her aging body is renewed in us as we speak about our fears and reclaim each chapter of our history, every beautiful part of our bodies, and the wisdom of our lives. As we eat this bread and drink this cup, may we be restored to wholeness and to a loving relationship with ourselves.

ACTS OF COMMUNION

Each one takes a piece of bread. “Take, eat the bread of new
life.” As the wine is passed around, dip the bread in the cup. “Drink the cup of the risen Christ-Sophia.” 
 
Leader:  Through this communion ritual, Wisdom offers us gifts of new life, which
brings healing as we reclaim the images of a time when God looked like us.
 

Growing up in church, Deborah came to believe that “God the Father” was in charge of her life and the entire world. “I believed if I prayed to God, ‘He’ would answer my prayer because I was a faithful believer,” she explains. “This belief began to unravel when my mother died when I was 23. She suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and was scheduled for joint replacement surgery that we prayed would help her walk again. Instead, she died of complications from the surgery. I struggled with the notion that the ‘God in charge’ would allow my mother to die.”

Eight years later, Deborah suffered another tragic loss that also challenged her belief system. “Our infant son died a few days after his birth. Again, we had cried out to God to save our infant son. Where was God in all of this? As I searched for answers, my spiritual understanding deepened, leading to a “revisioning” of God as “One Who is With Us in Our Suffering”—a nurturing God who suffers along with us.”

Deborah returned to college and took courses in communication studies and religious studies, including critical inquiry and gender inequity. She earned two degrees from Arizona State University: a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication Studies and a Master of Counseling degree. Currently, she serves as outpatient therapist at Mountain Health and Wellness in Apache Junction, Arizona.

Through her studies, Deborah became aware of how women are “oppressed in the church and society” and the impact of this oppression on her. “As a result of continued study and reading of works by feminist theologians, I realized that my lifelong struggle with low self-esteem stemmed from being raised in the church where men’s stories were the ones written about in scripture and men were given leadership roles in the church. Connecting with the Divine Feminine allowed me to go deep within where I discovered my original goodness and unconditional love for myself.”

As her spirituality continued to expand, Deborah dialogued with others about imagining the Divine as both female and male. “People would agree with me that God is not solely male; however, when I would suggest that we use feminine words such as ‘her’ and ‘she’ in addition to male pronouns for God, they would say: ‘Well, it isn’t right to use male or female pronouns for God because God is really ‘spirit.’“

Deborah also spoke with her pastor about including female words for the Divine. She says that while he agreed that there is “feminine as well as masculine imagery for God in the Bible,” he preached only one or two sermons a year with this feminine imagery. And the songs used in worship services “overwhelmingly contained masculine terms for God, including ‘he,’ ‘his,’ and ‘him’ as well as words such as ‘king’ and ‘ruler,’ traditionally male terms.”

Finally, Deborah left her local church and has not found another local church with inclusive worship. “Currently, I am not affiliated with a church locally. Although I tried to bring change to my local church, I grew weary of the patriarchal structure and language which permeates the church culture. I loved singing in the church choir; however, the language used in so many of the songs was patriarchal, and it became painful for me to sing them.”

Now Deborah is one of the long-distance members of Ebenezer/herchurch Lutheran in San Francisco (www.herchurch.org; See also my blog story on the pastor of herchurch, Stacy Boorn: http://jannaldredgeclanton.com/blog/?p=78.) Deborah says she joined Ebenezer/herchurch because of their emphasis on the Divine Feminine in worship. “When I worship there, I experience healing as the community offers ‘a witness of holy nurture and inclusive justice.’”

Deborah elaborates on the importance of including the Divine Feminine in worship: “The language and symbolism we use for God, or the Divine, defines for us who can be God-like or who can represent the Divine or divinity to others. When I was growing up, only men could do ‘great things’ for God, i.e. become pastors or hold an office in the church. If we speak of God using exclusively male imagery, females cannot identify this divine experience as belonging to us. As Mary Daly stated, ‘If God is male, then male is God. The divine patriarch castrates women as long as he is allowed to live on in the human imagination.’”

Including female divine names and images in worship, Deborah asserts, will bring beneficial change to the church and the wider culture. “Using Feminine Divine names and images in worship brings a more balanced view of God. No longer are we limited to the all-powerful, omnipotent, conquering and punishing God, but we can now appreciate other attributes for God such as nurturer, One who gathers, searches, includes and accepts. My hope is that as the church changes how we speak about God, society can incorporate a more caring approach to how we deal with human need and conflict in the world. When we imagine God as Mother, for example, I believe we will be less inclined to send our young people off to war. In fact, we may be more inclined to dialogue ways to bring peace and understanding among people and nations.”

Deborah believes that inclusive divine language and imagery will empower all people to “use their unique gifts to work for justice in society instead of being restricted by what is traditionally ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine.’” Including female divine imagery will also give our children the message “that females have abilities to lead and to be ‘God-like,’ and it is acceptable for males to support women in leadership.”

It was risky for Deborah to leave her local church and start the Sophia Sisters group. “It also seems risky to share my story with others as I fear being rejected,” she comments. “Many people I meet are so entrenched in patriarchy that in the beginning it is more about introducing the idea of the Divine Feminine and then inviting them to our group. When I take the approach of dialoguing about inclusive symbolism, people are open to discussion; however, some do not come when invited.”

At times Deborah becomes discouraged by the slowness of the education and “awakening” process. “I feel strongly, however, that there are many women who, like me, feel as though they do not ‘fit’ in the traditional church and are looking for something else. This convinces me that I must continue.”

Deborah has found resources to meet the resistance and challenges that she faces as she transforms the language and symbolism of Christianity. “Spending time in meditation and prayer brings me inspiration and strength. I find that lighting candles and listening to music helps me connect to the Divine Feminine. My Sophia Sisters give me strength and encouragement through the struggle. Each time we meet I feel inspired to carry on. One of my gifts is being able to create and pull together worship based on a theme or topic of the week. Certain hymns, prayers, and scriptures come to mind that culminate in our celebration time. In December, Sophia Sisters had a Croning Ceremony, led by another member of the group. We shared stories about women who touched our lives as mentors, guides, mothers. It was a time of celebrating ourselves, our experiences and what we can look forward to in our futures.”

Also rewarding to Deborah is that members from another group, called “Sophia Sisters Roundtable,” join Sophia Sisters for a combined worship service every three months. “Many of the women have been hurt by patriarchy and have given up on organized church,” Deborah continues. “Our time together brings healing and a renewed sense of empowerment ‘to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.’”

Deborah articulates her vision of the transformation the Divine Feminine will bring to the church. “My vision for the future of the Divine Feminine within the church is that it will be a diverse community where love, in the form of acceptance and understanding, is emphasized. When the institutional church was established some 400 years after Christ’s death, creeds and dogmas were established as a way to unify and consolidate beliefs. My hope is that this movement is one in which the uniqueness of each person and their experience will be valued and celebrated.”

Deborah Hall continues to use her creative, prophetic gifts to make this inclusive, expansive vision a reality. Here is another powerful excerpt from her “Meditation on Diversity.”

Hildegard of Bingen, an 11th century Benedictine nun, wrote these inspiring words: “The all-powerful and ineffable God, who was before all ages but herself had no beginning nor will she cease to exist after the end of the ages—it is she who formed every creature in a marvelous way by her own will.” Hildegard continues: “God has arranged all things in the world in consideration of everything else. Everything that is in the heavens, on the earth and under the earth, is penetrated with connectedness, is penetrated with relatedness.” Matthew Fox exhorts in Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen these inspirational words: “No wonder angels and humans can join so readily in a common choir—what does this say about race, religion, culture? What does this say about learning to sing with others? Hildegard says that ecumenism is a law of the universe, a way of wisdom, a return to our origins. Truly, the entire cosmos is invited into this living song. We are all marvels of creation, royal persons called to ‘sing justice’ back into creation.

 

 

 

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3 Comments

  1. Posted January 10, 2013 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

    Thank you so much for sharing! I have been feeling very lonely in my own search for the Feminine God; her story is just the boost I needed!

  2. Mark Mattison
    Posted January 10, 2013 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

    Jann, what a great article. Thanks for all that you do in highlighting the work and ministry of those who seek to recover the Divine Feminine within the church. Too often we feel isolated in our spiritual quests and it’s so important that we encourage one another!

  3. Sue Henderson
    Posted January 11, 2013 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    I am a friend of Deborah Hall and am very aware of her excellent work and passion for bringing the Divine Feminine to others. . She has done incredible things leading this group of women. She is very talented, gifted and beautiful. I commend you for writing about her in this blog.

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