The terms for God, in the poetic language of the prayers written for centuries, have almost always been male: Father. King. Lord.
And in the Episcopal Church, the language of prayer matters. The Book of Common Prayer, the text used in every Episcopal congregation, is cherished as a core element of Episcopal identity.
This week, the church is debating whether to overhaul that prayer book — in large part to make clear that God doesn’t have a gender.
“As long as ‘men’ and ‘God’ are in the same category, our work toward equity will not just be incomplete. I honestly think it won’t matter in some ways,” said the Rev. Wil Gafney, a professor of the Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School in Texas who is on the committee recommending a change to the gendered language in the prayer book.
Gafney says that when she preaches, she sometimes changes the words of the Book of Common Prayer, even though Episcopal priests aren’t formally allowed to do so. Sometime she switches a word like “King” to a gender-neutral term like “Ruler” or “Creator.” Sometimes she uses “She” instead of “He.” Sometimes, she sticks with the masculine tradition. ” ‘Our Father,’ I won’t fiddle with that,” she said, invoking the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer that Jesus taught his disciples to say in the book of Matthew.
Gafney and many other Episcopal priests don’t want to skirt the rules when they make changes like that — they want the prayer book to conform to a theology of God as bigger than gender.
The leaders of the Episcopal Church, the American denomination that descended from the Church of England but has long been separate from its British mother church, will consider two dueling resolutions at their triennial convention, which begins Tuesday in Austin and runs through next week.
One resolution calls for a major overhaul of the Book of Common Prayer, which was last revised in 1979. A wholesale revision would take years, the church says, meaning a new prayer book wouldn’t be in use until 2030.
Switching to gender-neutral language is the most commonly mentioned reason to make the change, but many stakeholders in the church want other revisions. There are advocates for adding language about a Christian’s duty to conserve the Earth; for adding a liturgical ceremony to celebrate a transgender person’s adoption of a new name; for adding same-sex marriage ceremonies to the liturgy, since the church has been performing such weddings for years; for updating the calendar of saints to include important figures named as saints since 1979.
The competing resolution says that the church should not update the Book of Common Prayer now, and should instead spend the next three years intensively studying the existing book, which has its roots in the first Anglican prayer book, published under the same title in 1549.
That’s what Chicago Bishop Jeffrey Lee advocates. The Book of Common Prayer, he said, “really constitutes the Episcopal church in significant ways. Our theology is what we pray.” Lee is a member of the committee that will consider the two resolutions and will put forward one of them — or an alternate revised proposal — to the larger legislative bodies at the convention.
Although he thinks that the church should focus more on mining what is in the 1979 book instead of revising it now, he said current events have shown him the importance of listening to women’s demands for gender-neutral language. “In the culture, the whole #MeToo movement, I think, has really raised in sharp relief how much we do need to examine our assumptions about language and particularly the way we imagine God,” he said. “If a language for God is exclusively male and a certain kind of image of what power means, it’s certainly an incomplete picture of God. … We can’t define God. We can say something profoundly true about God, but the mystery we dare to call God is always bigger than anything we can imagine.”
That includes gender, he said — even if one of the three components of the Trinity is depicted as Jesus’ “Father” God, that God is bigger than male or female.
In the decades since the 1979 prayer book, the Episcopal church has published numerous authorized alternative texts, which bishops can choose to let priests in their dioceses use alongside the Book of Common Prayer. Lee and other advocates of keeping the current prayer book say that these alternate service materials are sufficient, for now, for priests who want the option of gender-neutral texts.
If the wholesale revision of the prayer book does not pass at the convention, some feminist priests said they would push to at least grant broader authorization for priests to use the alternate texts — for instance, letting any priest use the newer texts, even without a bishop’s approval.
“I have no doubt there are many, many, many other priests who are clutching pearls and collars in horror and would never change a word,” Gafney said. But she argued that not changing the words of the Book of Common Prayer is harmful. That’s the only book found in many Episcopal churches, and the book that a believer is likely to have at home for his or her personal spiritual resource. “As long as a masculine God remains at the top of the pyramid, nothing else we do matters. We construct a theological framework in which we talk about gender equality … then we say that which is most holy in the universe is only and exclusively male. That just undoes some of the key theology that says we are equal in God’s sight, we are fully created in God’s image.”
The Very Rev. Samuel Candler, who chairs the committee that will have the task of sending the prayer book resolution onto the larger legislative body or not, said he is personally in favor of revision, largely because of the need for non-gendered language. “It stands for something. It’s a symbol of our common faith,” he said. “The words in our prayer book do matter.”
Other mainline Protestant denominations, including the United Methodist Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, have similarly debated the use of gendered language for God; the Reform Jewish movement updated its God language to gender-neutral terms when it replaced its 1975 prayer book with a new edition in 2007.
Kelly Brown Douglas, the canon theologian at Washington National Cathedral in the District and dean of Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary, served on the committee recommending a change to gender-neutral language. She said that a revised Book of Common Prayer wouldn’t just replace all the “Lord” with “Sovereign.”
“God as Creator, Liberator, Sustainer. God as the one who loves. We use descriptive words for God, so that we can begin to imagine who God is in our world. That, to me, is the theological challenge, to get away from the static nouns that don’t tell us anything anyway,” she said. “The God that I can see in the least of these. The God that I can see in the face of a Renisha McBride or a Trayvon Martin — that tells me something about God.”
The Bible, she said, includes more varied descriptors of God than the current Book of Common Prayer uses. “What about the God who heard? I’m talking about the God who heard the cries of the Israelites as they found themselves in bondage, the God who heard the oppressed. … The God whose voice comes through the whirlwind. Wow! Who is that God? That frees God from these very limited, finite images of God in which we are creating God in our own image instead of trying to live and reach into the image that is God.”
This post has been updated.