The service began with a story. It told the saga of Elisabeth, a woman of the Bible who for many years could not have children because of what was described as her own infertility.
That inspired a sermon by the Rev. Nita Hooper-Todd, pastor of Dominguez United Methodist Church. "This is typical of male translation," she said of the Bible passage under study. In those days they didn't talk much about low sperm count."
Thus began a recent worship service in Long Beach of Justice for Women, an organization dedicated to the controversial proposition that God has a feminine side. It was formed by a group of local women--several of them ordained ministers of various denominations--who feel left out of traditional worship services. Their mission: to promote broader participation of women in church life and to encourage the revision of church services, both in language and in concept, to include feminine interpretations of God and theology.
"This nourishes and strengthens me so that I can go out and nourish others," said Caroline Roper-Deyo, who attended the recent service with her 3-year-old daughter, Darwyyn, named after the Celtic goddess of courage and friendship.
Said Joan Daniels, another worshiper: "I sense something here that is rare in the regular church."
What that is, organizers say, is a concept of God that includes women, expressed in a worship service that reflects God's feminine aspect. More precisely, an appreciation of the Holy Spirit as feminine as well as masculine, and the church as an institution fully accessible to women.
It is an idea that has evoked strong objections in some quarters. And it is one that has become a major cause among the small cadre of local women dedicated to its dissemination.
For too long, they say, most mainstream Christian churches nationwide have spoken of God in exclusively male terms; God is routinely referred to, and understood to be, a "He" rather than a "She." Most Christian liturgies, hymns and stories are presented with masculine pronouns and male imagery. And though most major denominations now allow women to be ordained as ministers, those women still tend to play supportive rather than major leadership roles, especially on the regional and national levels, they said.
"Women are involved in the church," said Peg Beissert, a Presbyterian minister who helped found the group, "but mainly they're involved in the kitchens of the church."
To begin changing that, Justice for Women holds monthly female-oriented interdenominational worship services attended by as many as 25 people at Long Beach's First Church of the Brethren. That is headquarters for the South Coast Ecumenical Council, an organization devoted to promoting local religious harmony, that sponsors the women's group.
"God has many faces, both male and female," said Roper-Deyo. "We have damaged ourselves and our children by being in institutions that perpetuate the idea that God is masculine."
Said Daniels: "I've had a difficult time connecting with the male imagery of God. This has been a healing time; I've been able to progress in my spiritual journey without being blocked by the (those) images."
Reaction among mainstream churches has ranged from open support to staunch disagreement.
"The Scriptures evolved out of a male-dominated society in which women were mere possessions, so most of the imagery of God we have is male dominated," said George McClaren, rector of St. Gregory Episcopal Church. While he personally endorses the aims of the women's group and has even hired a full-time female priest to help realize them in his church, McClaren said, many Episcopalians oppose rewriting church liturgy. That makes it difficult for him to consistently use non-sexist language in his services.
"God to me is beyond being understood as exclusively male or female," McClaren said. "The witness we have of having women fully involved at every level (of the church) is a very powerful witness."
Jerry Giles, on the other hand, takes a different tack entirely. "Jesus was a man and Jesus was God," said Giles, an associate pastor at the 1,200-member Grace Brethren Church. "Jesus said 'I am the father' and that's what God intended."
Based on his denomination's reading of the Bible, Giles said, women are not allowed to become pastors nor even to assume any major decision-making positions in the church. Nor does the denomination favor any revision of the male-oriented Scripture or liturgy. "There's an old saying that the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world," Giles said. "(Women) have tremendous input into the lives of children who then grow up to be the leaders."