The Church of England considers gender-neutral terms to refer to God
“Christians have recognized since ancient times that God is neither male nor female,” the Church of England said in an emailed statement. “Yet the variety of ways of approaching and describing God found in Scripture has not always been reflected in our worship.”
The church – and theologians – say it’s nothing new and part of a wider drive to adapt the language it uses to contemporary times. Any decision to change the language used to refer to or address God would also require the approval of the church’s legislative body – and there is no consensus yet on the best language to use.
Members of that body, the General Synod, met in London this week to debate and vote on major issues affecting the church, including a proposal to allow Anglican clergy to bless same-sex couples, while maintaining the official church position that marriage “is between one man and one woman for life.
Amid heated debate over the issue, a vicar in southern England on Monday asked the vice-chairman of the church’s liturgical commission, the Reverend Michael Ipgrave, if he could “take stock of the steps taken to develop more inclusive language…to provide more options for those who wish to use the authorized liturgy and speak of God in a gender-neutral manner, particularly in authorized absolutions where many prayers offered for use do reference to God using masculine pronouns.
Ipsgrave responded that the Liturgical Commission “has been exploring the use of gendered language in relation to God for several years in conjunction with the Faith and Order Commission” and announced the initiative to study it further.
The British press, which had followed the synod’s discussion of the proposal to allow priests to bless same-sex couples, quickly picked up the comments. Some commentators have presented it as a political decision near the church – with an anonymous priest telling The Times of London that some people ‘think we’re a bit awake’.
Yet “gendering God has always been a matter of metaphor, since we are unable to say anything that effectively encapsulates divinity in human language,” said Reverend Diarmaid MacCulloch, professor emeritus. in Church History at the University of Oxford. in an email. “It is therefore natural that we explore more how we might speak of God in the liturgy, given the vast changes in the understanding of gender and sexuality that are progressing in society.”
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In 2018, the Archbishop of Canterbury, head of the Church of England, said any description of God must be “to some extent metaphorical” because “God is neither male nor female. God is not not definable.
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The Church of England relies on two main liturgical sources in services: the Book of Common Prayer, texts which were written in England in the 16th century; and Common Worship, a more contemporary series of books.
“Until about 50 years ago there was relatively little flexibility allowed with liturgical language in Anglican churches, which would have given the impression of an unchanging view of a male God,” Frances Knight, associate professor of history of modern Christianity at the University. of Nottingham, said by email. “But all that has changed now, with an emphasis on making the language of worship clear, current, meaningful and worthy.”
In 2014, the Liturgical Commission, which prepares authorized services for the church, began “regularly reviewing” which language could be updated and modernized, the church said in its statement. As part of its plan for the next five years, the commission “has asked another Church of England body, the Faith and Order Commission – which advises on theology – to work with it to examine “how God is described and addressed in the Church of England. services.
There is no timeline for this process, and any conclusion it reaches will not automatically lead to policy change. “There are absolutely no plans to abolish or substantially revise the currently authorized liturgies and no such change could be made without extensive legislation,” the church said.
Because the Church of England allows its clergy some latitude to interpret and adapt official texts, some are already adopting gender-neutral language on their own initiative.
Reverend Anderson Jeremiah, an ordained Anglican priest and associate dean for equality, diversity, inclusion and people at Lancaster University, who also sits on the Faith and Order Commission, is one of them. . “When I refer to Jesus, Jesus is a man, and I will refer to him that way,” he said. However, he said he prefers to use neutral metaphors when referring to God because God is described in the Bible as both father and mother.
David Thompson, emeritus professor of modern church history at the University of Cambridge, said by email that he believed the key question was not whether the church’s language around God should be made more inclusive, but rather how.
“Like all things, inclusive language renderings can be done right or wrong. Bad examples are usually easy to spot and avoid,” he said. “It’s a lot easier to do once you get into it and stop arguing about whether to do it or not.”