For decades, the gender of God has prompted debate within the Church, with many calling for male pronouns He and Him, as well as reference to Our Father, to be scrapped in favour of either gender neutral or female alternatives.
Now, in what would mark a departure from centuries of tradition, bishops are to launch a project “on gendered language” referencing God in church services later this year.
The move has been criticised by conservatives, who have warned that “male and female imagery is not interchangeable”. Liberal Christians welcomed it, claiming that “a theological misreading of God as exclusively male is a driver of much continuing discrimination and sexism against women”.
Details of the plans emerged in a written question to the Liturgical Commission, which prepares and promotes forms of service and religious worship in the Church, at General Synod, the Church’s lawmaking body, which is sitting this week.
Any permanent changes or rewriting of scriptures with gendered language would have to be agreed by a future meeting of Synod.
‘Develop more inclusive language’
The Rev Joanna Stobart, from the Diocese of Bath and Wells, asked what steps were being taken to offer congregants alternatives to referring to God with male pronouns and if there was any update “to develop more inclusive language in our authorised liturgy”.
She also asked bishops “to provide more options for those who wish to use authorised liturgy and speak of God in a non-gendered way, particularly in authorised absolutions where many of the prayers offered for use refer to God using male pronouns”.
In response, the Bishop of Lichfield, the Rt Rev Dr Michael Ipgrave OBE, replying as vice-chairman of the Liturgical Commission, said: “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.”
The precise details of the project remain unknown, with the Bishop of Lichfield declining to comment further.
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.
“For some, God as father is helpful because of their own positive experiences of a loving parent. For others, God as father may reinforce a bad experience of a strict disciplinarian as their father. If we dig deeper, clearly God is not gendered, so why do we restrict our language for God in gendered ways?”
A spokesman for Women and the Church, a national campaign group for gender equality in the Church of England, also welcomed the move “to look at the development of more inclusive language in our authorised liturgy”.
‘God is not sexed, unlike humanity’
However, Rev Dr Ian Paul, a member of the General Synod and the Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England, warned against any departure from the original scriptures, saying: “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-neutralised 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.”
A spokesman for the Church of England said: “This is nothing new. Christians have recognised since ancient times that God is neither male nor female, yet the variety of ways of addressing and describing God found in scripture has not always been reflected in our worship.
“There has been greater interest in exploring new language since the introduction of our current forms of service in contemporary language more than 20 years ago.
“As part of its regular programme of work for the next five years, the Litrugical 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 authorised liturgies, and no such changes could be made without extensive legislation.”
The news comes amid tensions within the Church of England as the Synod prepares for a historic vote on blessings for same-sex couples later this week.
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