Changing Church: Rev. Beverly Jane Phillips, Presbyterian Minister and Author

Rev. Beverly Jane Phillips

Being able to speak of God with feminine names can have long-term benefits not only for women but for children and men and all of creation. It is true for us as it has been for all people of all ages that how we refer to God sets the standard for our behavior. The standard that is set by using masculine names exclusively for God sets up a hierarchy in which men are more privileged than women, because when God is always “he” men are seen as more Godlike. In this hierarchy, women, children and nature are subject to men and all the rest of creation is subject to men. This arrangement needs to be changed if people and creation are to live in peace and wholeness.

This excerpt comes from the first chapter of Beverly Jane Phillips’ compelling book Learning a New Language: Speech About Women and God. This book makes academic feminist theology accessible to laypeople. Rev. Phillips states that her purpose for writing this book was “to bring theology inclusive of the Divine Feminine to the church and to the wider culture.” In the second chapter she comments on the book’s title:

Thinking and speaking of God using inclusive words and metaphors is akin to learning a new language. New words must be learned and used. Old words must be used in new ways. This is an emotional as well as an intellectual activity. Learning and using these new words is difficult even for people who believe it is high time we acknowledge that the flourishing of women, and thereby the flourishing of men, children and creation, depends upon the inclusion of women in the naming of God and in all other ways as equal in value with men.

Beverly describes her spiritual background as “rich and open.” She grew up in First Presbyterian Church of Hastings, Nebraska. Two years after the Presbyterian Church decided to ordain women, Beverly told her pastor that God had called her to the ministry. He responded, “If God has called you to the ministry, far be it from me to stand in your way.” This pastor, her dad, and two youth pastors were strong supporters as she followed her call to ministry.

Beverly found this same openness at Hastings College, a Christian liberal arts school with a Presbyterian heritage, and at San Francisco Theological Seminary. She was the only woman in her class in seminary and was one of the first women at the seminary to receive a Bachelor of Divinity degree. Beverly was also one of the first women in the Presbyterian Church (USA) to receive this degree. Several years after her graduation in 1961, this same course of study came to be called a Master of Divinity degree. She recalls that at first most of the men in her seminary class were “a little amused” by her presence there, but they soon learned that she “meant business.”

In September of 1961, Beverly married Norm Phillips, whom she had met in seminary and who is now a retired Presbyterian pastor. She celebrates that Norm has become one of her strongest supporters “in using feminine images for God and for calling God ‘She.’”

After graduating from seminary, Beverly could not be ordained because she did not have a call to a church position. So she served as the minister’s wife in churches Norm pastored in Nebraska and Kansas. It was not until twenty-eight years after she graduated from seminary that Beverly was ordained as a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA) to be the Hunger Action Enabler for the Presbytery of Chicago. An activist on issues of hunger and poverty, Rev. Phillips later served in the position of regional organizer for Bread for the World for Illinois, Indiana, and Missouri.

Norm and Beverly have a son, a daughter, and a granddaughter. “The years of raising our two adopted children enriched my spiritual journey not only because they were a gift of God to us, but also because of their chronic diseases,” Beverly recalls. “We discovered Jim’s asthma when he was two years old, and Nancy’s type 1 diabetes manifested when she was eight. As my prayers to God for their healing went unanswered, I began to write daily in a prayer journal. My second published book, From Heaven to My Heart, God’s Journey With Me, not only contains prayers from almost forty years of daily journaling but also shows the movement of my faith experience. It is an experience that illustrates how a woman who fell to her knees to beg a male God for favors changed to a woman who feels the very presence of Sophia God in her heart.”

This dramatic change began in 1997 when Rev. Phillips discovered Elizabeth Johnson’s She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse in the Cokesbury Bookstore at the Churchwide Gathering of Presbyterian Women. She had been reading feminist theologians and Bible scholars like Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Phyllis Trible, Sallie McFague, Rita Nakashima Brock, Mary Daly, Joan Chittister and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott. Beverly comments on her experience of reading She Who Is by Elizabeth Johnson: “My very spirit was transformed by her theology of the Divine Feminine. As I was reading the thought kept coming to me that all women whom I had led in retreats and classes needed to think about these truths.

So Rev. Phillips decided to make She Who Is more accessible to laypeople. “I wrote to Elizabeth Johnson and asked if she would give me permission to write a paraphrase of her book. She was delighted! She said there is a desperate need for interpreters between academia and people in the pews. She gave me permission to write a book about her book. I soon discovered that paraphrase was not only unworkable, but not helpful.

In Learning a New Language, Beverly includes the main ideas in each chapter of She Who Is, along with her own insights and experiences. Beverly begins each chapter of Learning a New Language with a story from her life. She summarizes some of the main points in her book: “It emphasizes the fact that the names we call God not only convey the kind of God we worship but in turn define how we act. I not only define feminist theology but describe the theology that has made an idol of maleness. Any names we use for God are metaphors. Human beings can never find or create a word that describes God in Her wholeness. Scripture and classical theology can be legitimately understood as descriptive of a feminine God as much as a male God. God does not cause our suffering for some reason unknown to us, but She suffers through our hard times with us.

The study of Learning a New Language led to the formation of two Sophia Sisters groups in Arizona—one in Phoenix and one in Chandler. The Phoenix group has met for eight years, continuing to discuss feminist theology books. The Chandler group was formed in the fall of 2011 by Deborah Hall to study Learning a New Language. Beverly also participates in this group. “When we finished the study of my book, we were so bonded by Sophia that we continue to meet monthly. We discuss a chapter of a book, and our discussion leads into the worship services that Deb Hall writes.” The Phoenix and Chandler Sophia Sisters groups have met together for worship and plan to continue these joint worship services.

Beverly’s book From Heaven to My Heart, God’s Journey With Me draws from her daily prayer journals. In these journals she has written many poems and prayers with expansive language for the Divine, such as these:

Dear Lord our God Sophia and Precious Mother, Christ Sophia, Spirit Sophia, you
     are so great! How great You are and Your greatness is unsearchable!
               You are love. You are love shared!
                                 Love connecting!
                                       Love growing!
                                                        Love creating!
                                                                 Love amazing!
                                                                                   Love blessing!
                Love elating!
                         Love discovering!
                                          Love unending!
                                                     Love abounding!
                                                                       Love prevailing!

Christ-Sophia, Nowhere I go does anyone talk feminist theology. Everyone is trying to put forth ideas that will save the church and save the world, but none of them are feminist ideas….When I see starving children I regret that I am no longer doing anything to help them. And then I think that You are calling me to preach and proclaim that Your nature is male and female. I believe that is the way the church and the world will be saved.

Rev. Phillips further expresses her strong belief that the church must learn a new language that includes female names for the Divine. “Language and symbolism are important enough to go to all the effort to change two thousand years of church tradition because the world and all its peoples and creatures and natural beauties would be treated better if our language about God affirmed the fact that God cannot be named by masculine names alone. Whatever religion we adhere to, naming God is the most important activity we engage in. However we name God, that name affects our behavior. Thus, when God is always and only masculine, we treat all things masculine as superior not only to women but to all of nature as well. That gives males power to subordinate women and all things to their own will. When God is seen as feminine the playing field is evened out and abuse of women, children and nature is lessened.”

Including female divine images will make a big difference for women, men, and all creation, Beverly believes. “If feminine images as well as male can be used for God, all of creation would flourish in ways that are not possible when God is only male. Regarding God exclusively as male sets up a hierarchy of importance and power. Mary Daly said it best, ‘If God is male, then the male is God.’ That very concept makes it legitimate for men to rule with an iron fist over women, children and all creation. What the god-like male deems right is what is right, from denying women the right to choice about their bodies to clear cutting of trees in order to mine precious metals, from using children as laborers to polluting the air and water of the whole earth. Using feminine divine images would make God’s good creation flourish.”

Rev. Phillips articulates an expansive, hope-filled vision of the transformation that will come through the balance of female and male images of the Divine in worship. “Worshipping God in God’s fullness as masculine and feminine would transform the world into a place where no one is at the top and no one is at the bottom because the idea and practice of hierarchy would not exist; women would rule, study, work with men in equity because the value of each would be recognized; each child would be treated like the angel spirit she is because Mother God cherishes each one of her children; there would be no wars because Mother God would send belligerent children to their rooms to talk it over before they hurt each other and innocents; there would be no hunger because Mother/Father God would insist that all the food be shared equally; there would be no prisons because She would see each person as an individual and provide for their spiritual needs; there would be no guns because no one would need to take anything away from anyone else; women’s reproductive health would take precedence over rigid theological beliefs; mentally challenged people would be cherished; there would be no rape and abuse of women and children; the beautiful places in nature would be preserved and treated as sacred. These results all come from the heart of a loving Mother. Over the generations people have had visions of Utopias and tried to build them. None of them worked for very long at least partly because they were designed with a male God image in mind. My Utopia would succeed because the values and actions would center on a Divine Parent, Mother/Father whose only concern would be to have a healthy, happy, thriving family.

Through her writing and teaching and advocacy, Rev. Phillips works diligently to make this vision reality. “I am always on the lookout for women and men who will study Learning a New Language together and discuss the ideas in it,” she says. “They are hard to find, but I know there are women especially who have a longing in their spirit for the Divine Feminine. I think most of them don’t even know such a thing is possible.” Rev. Phillips also brings inclusive language into her leadership of Bible studies and worship services for Presbyterian Women in her congregation and in the Presbytery of Grand Canyon. And she was successful in encouraging her pastor to address prayers to “Mother/Father God” in worship services.

Beverly acknowledges that changes in the church are often “so subtle” that they’re hard to see. “From my experience in my own church family the biggest change I see is that people are aware of the possibility that one can call God by feminine names and pronouns. For instance, in an adult class a man who is very conservative in every way was talking about God’s work referring to God as ‘He.’  After a few seconds he interrupted himself and said, ‘He . . .or She, if that’s how you see God.’”

In writing and promoting Learning a New Language, Rev. Phillips has taken risks. At Christian conferences some people want to argue with her, she says, but “most ignore me and my book.” She finds inspiration and strength for the challenges through her practice of daily prayer. “If I were an artist I would repaint the picture of Christ standing in the garden knocking at the door of the heart. It would depict me standing, knocking at the door of my heart. I need to be let into the place in my heart where Sophia already dwells and has always dwelt. I look forward with excitement and some holy fear as to where She is calling me.”

Rev. Phillips closes Learning a New Language with this powerful challenge:

Nothing we can say about God will ever be adequate to describe the burning mystery which is the Divine. But opening up our vocabulary to include feminine names and pronouns will bring a dimension to our understanding of God which has been tragically neglected. The idea of SHE WHO IS brings to bear all the loving, care-giving, wisdom-supplying richness of the female created in God’s image. The feminine in God is a reality we must accept if justice for all is to prevail in the world. We must learn a new language.”

For more of Beverly Jane Phillips’ prophetic work, see:




Leave a Reply

Scroll to top