LONDON — The Church of England is exploring whether to use gender-neutral language instead of referring to God solely with masculine pronouns, such as “He” or “Our Father” — which would be a major change after millennia of prayer and teachings.
“Christians have recognised 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 addressing and describing God found in scripture has not always been reflected in our worship.”
The church — and theologians — say this is nothing new, and is part of a broader push to adapt the language it uses to contemporary times. Any decision to change the language used to refer to, or address, God would also need the approval of the church’s legislative body — and there is no consensus so far on the best language to use.
Members of that body, the General Synod, convened 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 church’s official position that marriage “is between one man and one woman for life.”
Amid heated debate on this issue, a vicar from southern England on Monday asked the vice chairman of the church’s Liturgical Commission, the Rev. Michael Ipgrave, whether he could “provide an update on the steps being taken to develop more inclusive language … to provide more options for those who wish to use authorized liturgy and speak of God in a non-gendered way, particularly in authorized absolutions where many of the prayers offered for use refer to God using male pronouns.”
Ipsgrave answered that the Liturgical Commission has “been exploring the use of gendered language in relation to God for several years, in collaboration with the Faith and Order Commission” and announced the initiative to study it further.
The British press, which had been following the synod’s discussion over the proposal to allow priests to bless same-sex couples, quickly picked up the comments. Some commentators framed it as a political decision by the church — with one unnamed priest telling the Times of London that some people “think we’re being a bit woke.”
Wednesday's Mail: Now Even God Could Be Going Gender Neutral #TomorrowsPapersToday #DailyMail #Mail pic.twitter.com/LFIaJJTZtf— Tomorrows Papers Today (@TmorrowsPapers) February 7, 2023
Yet “assigning a gender to God has always been a matter of metaphor, since we are incapable of saying anything that encapsulates divinity effectively in human language,” the Rev. Diarmaid MacCulloch, emeritus professor of the history of the church at Oxford University, said in an email. “It’s therefore only natural that we should explore further how we might speak of God in the liturgy, given the vast shifts in understanding gender and sexuality that are going forward in society.”
In 2018, the archbishop of Canterbury, the Church of England’s most senior bishop, said that any description of God must be “to some degree metaphorical,” because “God is not male or female. God is not definable.”
The Church of England relies on two main liturgical sources in services: the Book of Common Prayer, texts that 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 permitted with liturgical language in Anglican churches, which would have given the impression of some unchanging vision of a male God,” Frances Knight, associate professor in the history of modern Christianity at the University of Nottingham, said via email. “But that has all changed now, with an emphasis on the language of worship being clear, current, meaningful and dignified.”
In 2014, the Liturgical Commission, which prepares authorized services for the church, began “regularly considering” what language could be updated and modernized, the church said in its statement. As part of its agenda for the next five years, the commission “asked another Church of England body, the Faith and Order Commission — which advises on theology — to work with it on looking at” how God is described and addressed in Church of England services.
There is no timeline on that process, and any conclusion it reaches would not automatically lead to policy change. “There are absolutely no plans to abolish or substantially revise currently authorized liturgies and no such changes could be made without extensive legislation,” the church said.
Because the Church of England allows its clergy some leeway to interpret and adapt official texts, some already adopt gender-neutral language of their own initiative.
The Rev. 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 make reference to Jesus, Jesus is a man, and I will be referring 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 a father and a mother.
David Thompson, emeritus professor of modern church history at Cambridge University, said via email that he believes the key question isn’t whether the church’s language around God should be made more inclusive, but rather how.
“Like all things, inclusive language renderings may be done well or badly. The bad examples are usually easy to spot and to avoid,” he said. “It is much easier to do once one gets down to it, and stops arguing about whether to do it or not.”