True and untrue images of God in the church

Further extracts from The Christlike God by John V. Taylor, retired bishop of Winchester, published in 1992 by SCM Press, together with my commentary.

“What we make of prayer, however, or what prayer makes of us, does depend upon the truth or untruth of the image of God that we have in mind.”

Prayer is a two-way process. We are making something of the Mystery of God in our prayer and prayer is making something of the Mystery of God in us. At least, this is what can happen when it is ‘true prayer’, remembering Ken Leech’s phrase, prayer that is truly open and radical, taking risks, allowing the Mystery we call God to impact us, our preconceptions and prejudices, our emotions and energies.

The question of whether our image of God is true or untrue is an open question. It has to be, but I rarely if ever hear this possibility raised or the question asked in today’s church.

I hear a church, both in her leadership and her presence at parish level, living with assumptions I am unable to make –that the community holds ideas about God, Jesus and the Bible that are unerringly true. I don’t hear the church talking about God in a way that is true for me, true to the essence of Mystery I encounter in the gospels, to the teaching of Jesus and at the heart of our lived experience. There is a difference between this teaching and the teachings of Paul and the followers and disciples of Jesus. They interpreted through their own lens of experience the teachings transmitted in the oral tradition, trusting that the essence of Jesus, embodying the Mystery, was and is to be found there. I do not unquestioningly trust the truth that is to be found in the documents produced by the Councils of the Church who were responding to the task set them by the Emperor Constantine that they should resolve the disputes over the various teachings labelled as heresies.

“If we wish to discern truth from falsehood in the world’s values and assumptions we need to escape from the popular images of God himself.”

I might amend what John V. Taylor, retired bishop of Winchester, wrote – how do we discern truth from falsehood in the values and assumptions of the church and Christian teaching so that we can escape from popular images of God? Taylor implies that at least some popular images of God are false images. My list of false images would include God as partisan, patriarchal, punitive, gendered, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, prejudiced, a being in control, having favourites, condemning anyone or anything to punishment or annihilation.

Throughout my life from my teenage years to the past three decades campaigning for LGBTI+ equality in the church I have encountered the demons of a false God who I have repeatedly been told did not create me like this and does not love me and my LGBTI+ brothers and sisters unconditionally. This fake God is alive and active in the church and in the work of the Living in Love and Faith project.

“As a corrective to the almost irresistible habit of ‘placing’ and personifying God it is liberating to dwell sometimes upon a totally amorphous image for one’s meditation and prayer.”

Taylor’s naming of the human conflict between the almost irresistible habit of ‘placing’ and personifying God and the practice of dwelling in meditation on a truly amorphous image is, for me, the most critical truth the church is avoiding today. My impression is that nearly all conversations in church circles, in the House and College of Bishops, at General Synod, in Living in Love and Faith, and in parish sermons, discussion groups and Alpha courses, baptism and confirmation preparation, is that ideas of God are ‘placed’ and personified. God is talked about as if God exists in a familiar form and is freely available, listening to and reacting to our familiar prayers and petitions.

To dwell in rich, ‘amorphous’ images of God as the Mystery of unconditional, infinite, intimate, seamless love, woven through evolution and experienced by our human consciousness, bodies, emotions, energies, is to experience, for me, daily enrichment of my whole being. My spiritual life and practice was enhanced by my training as a psychotherapist in a centre specialising in body and energy work, where my capacity for intuition, inner awareness and courage were developed.

“The in-othered God enables the one who prays to grasp a little more of the inwardness of the other, not so much through conscious analysis as by intuition. God does release within those who are open to his presence the powers of self healing, renewal, and wholeness which are implanted in every person but so often inhibited and unrealised.”