The Guardian reports that the Church of England are looking at moves towards gender neutral language for God. It’s worth noting a couple of things before digging into the substance of the matter. First, that commissioning a report has a bit of the feel of kicking things into the long grass, don’t expect firm action anytime soon. Indeed, any action is likely to take the form of a typical Anglican fudge. What I mean by this is that you are unlikely to see the Church of England officially changing its doctrinal position and so churches that have referred to the Father and the Son will keep doing so. They are not going to be forced to adopt new language. Furthermore, I suspect that those who prefer gender neutral language are already using it. However, whilst they may not change the doctrinal position formally, allowing for different ways of referring to God are still in effect a doctrinal change because liturgy (whether formal or informal) reflects what a church believes.
What is at stake if a major denomination changes its ways of talking about God? It is first helpful to be alert to the arguments being used for doing so. I think there are three that we need to consider. The first is that we are free to name, define and describe God as he chooses. This arises out of a liberal view of Scripture. If the Bible is nothing more than a collection of human writings then it is speculative. We do not have to follow it because the attempts to name God as Father and use the pronoun “He” were made by fallible human beings and they could well have got that wrong. From this perspective, gendered language for God has been shaped and conditioned by the male dominated cultures in which Scripture was first written and then passed down for many centuries. If we were starting from scratch in our culture would we assume that masculine language should be used for God?
I think this is the weakest argument. You see, there are many good reasons for trusting the authority and reliability of Scripture. I’m not going to go into the apologetic ones here but plenty of people have done the ground work on this. However, theologically, if we lose the infallibility of God’s Word then we pretty much kick away the foundations of everything we believe. The primary reason we talk about the truthfulness and reliability of God’s Word is because it reflects his character. We can trust his word because we can trust him. God does not change and God does not lie. God does not make mistakes. We trust his word because we know that God is love and so we trust him to act lovingly towards us through speaking truthfully. Of course, if we don’t believe that Scripture is true, then we really cannot say anything for certain about God. We know that God is eternal, infinite, good, loving, just, holy etc because the Bible tells us. Even the old children’s hymn “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so” becomes pretty meaningless. We cannot really say anything about God at all.
This is a crucial point. You see, one of the ways that we show respect and love for others is when we listen to them when they tell us about themselves. If I were to tell you that I was called Dave and was a Bradford City supporter but you insisted on calling me Kevin and you bought me tickets to see Leeds United, it would suggest that you didn’t much care for me! We get this when it comes to gender pronouns because the expectation today is that we should respect and use the pronouns others ask us to. It seems that God is the only one who isn’t allowed to tell us the pronouns he wants to be known by.
Secondly, it is argued that gender pronouns limit God because Godis spirit, he is therefore neither male nor female and transcends gender. This is true and in fact something that we want to affirm. However, it does not mean that we can therefore throw away gendered language for God. This is particularly important when we think about Jesus’ instruction that we pray “Our Father” addressing God just as he did in prayer. It’s important to recognise that if we stop calling God Father, or we add things to it then we risk losing something. For example, some have suggested that we name the Trinity as Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. This does two things, first it robs God of personality, he becomes known instead by function. Secondly it drifts into modalism as we envisage these three modes appearing at different times in salvation history.
It is important to note that whilst Scripture does show this transcendence of gender and use feminine similes and metaphors (like a mother hen, like a mother in labour), it always names God as he. God may be likened to a mother in particular ways but he is always named as Father. We need to recognise that there is a purpose to this. It reveals something important about who God is. I would further suggest that when we go gender neutral, we don’t so much present God as transcending gender as imply that he belongs to a third category of gender again and/or we make God less than gender, not more than as we intend.
Thirdly and finally, the primary concern regarding language is to do with human equality. We need to pay careful attention to this and recognise where gender, class and race have been wrongly used to suppress and control others. Removing gendered language from God is seen as a way of showing our commitment to equal rights. If women only hear masculine names and pronouns used to describe God then will they feel that there is no place for them in the church?
I believe that this misses something wonderfully special and important about God’s purposes and indeed our identity. In pagan religions, you often find that there are female goddesses. These are the consorts of the gods, there to help them but when things go wrong, sometimes to rival them. The ancient Israelites would have been familiar with such beliefs and often attracted to them because this often was associated with fertility (both for producing crops and offspring).
Yet Scripture presents something entirely different. There isn’t a goddess acting as the consort/spouse/helper of God. Instead, God has chosen a people for himself, Israel in the OT, the church in the NT to be his bride. That’s the high status that God bestows on women and on his redeemed people. This valuing of humanity and women is something unique to Scripture’s revelation.
Whatever some sub-committee of the CofE determine, we would do better to listen to God through his word if we want to know how to speak of him and to him.
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