I preach in an Anglican church almost every week, and begin my homily either with, “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit”, or “In the name of the One and Triune God”. It makes no difference at all to what I say, nobody seems to mind, and so far no lightning bolt has struck me down.
According to the British press, however, that might all be about to change.
It’s been widely reported that this week’s general synod of the Church of England is considering the use of gender-neutral terms to describe God. Inevitably the Daily Mail ran with screaming front-page hysteria. It went on to say, “Our non-gendered parent who art in heaven: Priests could stop using male pronouns ‘He’ and ‘Him’ when referring to God in prayers and drop phrase ‘our Father’ from the Lord’s Prayer.”
You will probably not be surprised to learn that this isn’t true, that the issue is far more complex and profound, and that the Church of England – along with many other churches – has been considering it for decades. There are no plans to change current services – it’s an ongoing discussion. And as a church spokesperson said: “Christians have recognised since ancient times that God is neither male nor female. Yet the variety of ways of addressing and describing God found in scripture has not always been reflected in our worship.”
That’s an entirely reasonable comment. The reality for Christians, and for other people of faith, is that God is far beyond and far greater than simple gender. It’s very limiting and reductive to describe whom we regard as the creator of the entire universe and the object of our love and worship as a mere man.
In fact, scripture itself doesn’t really do this. The terms used are often without any gender at all, and God is described in far less tangible and fleshy forms. The deity, after all, isn’t human. But discourse is challenging, and pronouns can be clumsy. Also, Hebrew only uses two genders – masculine and feminine – and that has shaped much of the language of the Christian conversation. Jesus spoke Aramaic, the New Testament was written in Greek, and the gender of Jesus and his use of “Father” is beyond question. But that doesn’t in any way mean that an understanding of God cannot be deepened and broadened by moving beyond traditional terms.
Of course, this isn’t really about an in-house theological chat, but the wider argument over binary and non-binary, trans rights, and an evolving view of gender in general. It’s just that some people like to see revolution around every corner, and who better to go after than a bunch of lefty vicars.
But this trend is not left wing, not dangerous, and entirely in keeping with orthodox Christianity. We’ve long thought of the Holy Spirit as feminine and – tabloids take note – she’s part of the Trinity. Oh man!
[See also: No, LSE hasn’t “erased” Lent]