In a written query to the Liturgical Commission from the General Synod, the Church of England’s legislative body said it’s considering a gender-neutral God.
The gender of God has been a topic of discussion within the Church for many years. Many have advocated for the abandonment of the masculine pronouns He and Him as well as references to Our Father in favor of gender-neutral or female equivalents.
Bishops will now begin a project “on gendered language” referring to God in church services later this year, breaking with centuries of precedent.
Conservatives have criticized the decision and cautioned that “male and female imagery is not interchangeable.” Liberal Christians, on the other hand, have applauded it and asserted that “a theological misreading of God as exclusively male is a driver of much-continuing discrimination and sexism against women.”
Details of the plans were revealed in a written query to the Liturgical Commission from the General Synod, the Church’s legislative body, which is meeting this week. The Liturgical Commission creates and supports forms of service and religious worship in the Church.
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The Synod would need to approve any long-term revisions or rewriting of scriptures that include gendered language at a later assembly.
‘Develop more inclusive language’
The Rev. Joanna Stobart of the Diocese of Bath and Wells inquired about efforts being made to provide congregations with alternatives to using male pronouns to refer to God and whether there had been any progress in creating “more inclusive language in our authorized liturgy.”
In addition, she requested bishops “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.”
As vice-chairman of the Liturgical Commission, the Bishop of Lichfield, the Rt Rev Michael Ipgrave, responded, saying: “We have been exploring the use of gendered language in relation to God for several years, in collaboration with the Faith and Order Commission.
“After some dialogue between the two commissions in this area, a new joint project on gendered language will begin this spring.”
Dr. Ipgrave declined to provide any other information regarding the project, therefore its specifics are still unclear.
Gendered language and God are topics that have been debated for many years, if not centuries, according to Prof. Helen King, vice-chairman of the Synod’s gender and sexuality group. Despite this, these issues continue to elicit strong feelings.
Prof Helen King, the vice-chairman of the Synod’s gender and sexuality group said: “Questions around gendered language and God have been around for decades, if not centuries, but still have the power to bring out strong reactions.
The decision “to look at the development of more inclusive language in our authorized liturgy” was also welcomed by a representative of Women and the Church, a national organization that campaigns for gender equality in the Church of England.
‘God is not sexed, unlike humanity’
The Rev. Ian Paul, a member of the Church of England’s General Synod and Archbishops’ Council, cautioned against deviating from the original text of the Bible, stating that: “The use of male pronouns for God should not be understood as implying that God is male – which is a heresy. God is not sexed, unlike humanity.
“The Bible uses feminine imagery and metaphors of God, but primarily identifies God using masculine pronouns, names, and imagery. Male and female imagery is not interchangeable.
“The fact that God is called ‘Father’ can’t be substituted by ‘Mother’ without changing meaning, nor can it be gender-neutralized to ‘Parent’ without loss of meaning. Fathers and mothers are not interchangeable but relate to their offspring in different ways.
“If the Liturgical Commission seeks to change this, then in an important way they will be moving the doctrine of the Church away from being grounded in the Scriptures.”
“This is nothing new,” a Church of England spokeswoman remarked. Christians have understood that God is neither male nor female from the beginning of time, but our worship has not always reflected the range of ways that God is addressed and described in the Bible.
“There has been greater interest in exploring new languages since the introduction of our current forms of service in contemporary language more than 20 years ago.
“As part of its regular program of work for the next five years, the Liturgical Commission has asked the Faith and Order Commission to work with it on looking at these questions. There are absolutely no plans to abolish or substantially revise currently authorized liturgies, and no such changes could be made without extensive legislation.”
Last year an announcement was made by the State Department stating that the US will issue gender-neutral passports with a third ‘X’ gender on Transgender Day of Visibility.
As the Synod is ready to cast a historic vote on blessings for same-sex couples later this week, there are tensions within the Church of England around the news.