Why the Church is right to de-gender God

if God can be all things, why not a woman?


LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 28: Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, listens a speech during the Lord Mayor's Banquet at The Guildhall on November 28, 2022 in London, United Kingdom. This follows Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's speech at the CBI conference last week in which the PM put himself at odds with the lobbying group chief Tony Danker in terms of post-Brexit immigration policy. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

February 08, 2023 12:18

Veterans of the Stanmore Shul children’s service in the 1990s will recall that God, whether listening out for Jonah from the depths of the whale, receiving Moses on Sinai, or dealing with errant donkeys for Bilaam, was invariably described as a woman.

The service was led by my father, a man with four daughters and an admirable determination that we should not assume any job – not even creator of the universe – was out of bounds. Thus today’s report that priests in the Church of England are considering a move away from using male pronouns in liturgy strikes me as an eminently sensible step.

Indeed, why on earth have so many assumed for so long that God was a bloke? It seems pretty obvious that if someone was going to be able to create the world in six days and only sit down once all the heavy lifting was done, it would be a woman. A man would have surely needed a nap after merely inventing the fish.

Jokes aside, I understand that this is no simple shift for the church, which, like most religions or large institutions with embedded traditions, doesn’t tend to find change comfortable. Speaking to the Mail, synod member Rev Dr Ian Paul said that while Christians do not believe that God has a specific gender ‘the fact that God is called 'Father' can't be substituted by 'Mother' without changing meaning… Male and female imagery is not interchangeable’.

More broadly, I am sure there are some lay congregants out there who spluttered out their breakfast tea reading these reports, seeing this as yet another front being opened in the so-called culture wars; another attack on traditional values by the 'woke mob'. Gender, after all, is hardly an uncontroversial topic these days.

But this isn’t an issue of woke, even if in making the change the church might be attempting to connect with a younger generation for whom gender equality is a priority. If you’re a religious leader, you’re asking your flock to suspend disbelief and question science every day. You’re asking those who follow the faith to believe in something intangible as the primary force in the universe; a deity that, certainly, does great good - enabling a newborn to be pulled from earthquake rubble in Syria, say - but is also somehow behind heartbreaking and frequent scenes of devastation, tragedy and death. God being female is hardly a stretch.

To my mind, the point of religious faith is that it’s an acceptance of something bigger than us, bigger than our human comprehension. We sing in the toddler’s service that 'God is everywhere'. It's a children's tune, but it sums up belief. God - whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim or otherwise - is supposed to be all things, more, greater, beyond the constraints we humans must live by. That belief gives me and many others comfort, and it's a vital part of our social fabric. 

We anthropomorphise God because it helps us conceive of what faith offers. I’d imagine few of us, even those with steadfast belief, genuinely see God as a bearded man sitting on a cloud. But just like Superman manifests in the form of a nerdy-but-handsome journalist, rather than as a green-legged alien from Krypton, there is reassurance in talking about God in language that we can engage with.

How can we trust and love something we cannot imagine?

This is not a theological argument, and there are Jewish scholars out there who will have far more to say on the terms we use to denote God and why. But it’s about how we, everyday worshippers of a religion, talk about what sits behind it.

Ultimately, using male or female pronouns seems to be missing the point. The focus of religion should be what our faith inspires us to do and how it shapes the way we live our lives - not whether them upstairs is she/her or he/him or even – heaven forbid- - they/them.

February 08, 2023 12:18

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