NASHVILLE -- Assigned to produce a hymnal that embraces as many Methodists as possible, the United Methodist Church's controversial hymnal committee has agreed to include two songs that refer to God as "Mother."
But the 25 committee members balked at making a place for the strongest "Mother God" hymn facing them until they can get permission from the author to rearrange the stanzas in order to bury the maternal reference.
"I think this is a gift we can give to the church even if it's not a pleasant surprise," said the Rev. Beryl Ingram-Ward. "One of these days it will be far more acceptable to think of God as Father and Mother. I know that sounds strange to many of us now."
After two days of sharp discussion, the committee voted Sept. 25 to include "How Can We Name a Love" and "Wonder of Wonders" in a proposed hymnal that will have 625 hymns, all of which refer to God in masculine or genderless terms such as "Lord," "Father" or "Creator." Both of the newly approved hymns were written by British poet Brian Wren, who is on the cutting edge of a trend that uses feminine imagery for God in hymns.
A few members voted against the hymns. "I don't think we have the option of calling God 'Mother,' " said Randy Smith of Houston. "We don't have the option to decide what we will call God," he added, pointing out that the Bible nowhere refers to God as Mother.
The third stanza of "Wonder of Wonders" reads: "Lord of creation, dying and living/ Father and Mother, Partner and Friend/ Lover of children, lift all our loving/ Into your kingdom. World without end."
But another Wren hymn, "Strong Mother God," made the group hesitate. Its first verse reads: "Strong mother God, working night and day/ Planning all the wonders of creation/ Setting each equation, genius at play:/ Hail and hosanna, strong mother God!"
Several committee members thought it essential that "mother" not be capitalized in the stanza. The reason, explained the Rev. Charles Smith of Goldsboro, N.C., that small type suggests that "mother" is simply an attribute or description of some of God's qualities. To capitalize the word, he said, would be to make the statement that God is a mother. Smith said he "could not abide" such a statement.
The group voted to move the fifth verse ahead of the "mother God" verse so that "Strong Mother God" would not be the title of the hymn. The fifth verse opens with the words, "Great, living God, never fully known/ Joyful darkness, far beyond our seeing."
"What Wren is saying is, 'Don't be literal about any of this language,' " said Larry Stookey of Rockville. "We have to have language about God, but don't take any of it too seriously."
The committee will consider "Strong Mother God" at its final meeting Oct. 12-14 in Nashville.
Members in the three-day session that ended Sept. 25 whittled a list of 850 songs down to 625. After its October meeting, the committee's work will go to the United Methodist Publishing House, which will publish a prototype of the hymnal for delegates to the denomination's General Conference, which meets in St. Louis next April. The hymnal must meet approval of the delegates.