As Church of England seeks an un-gendered God, there are words that must be protected

In the coming months the Church of England is planning to debate the adoption of non-gendered language when referring to God, after some clergy have asked to use more inclusive language in services. This latest debate has arisen at an obvious cultural moment, when our use of language is under scrutiny as never before.

The ‘gender of God’ debate will be challenging, but is nothing new in Christian theology. At the most fundamental level God has no gender, so assignment of any kind is largely a matter of linguistic preference rather than a preoccupation with veracity. However, the patriarchal nature of the Christian faith, and its Western world centricity, has determined that for centuries God has been referred to using male pronouns. The complex trinitarian inter-relationship between ‘God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ also hasn’t helped but to underscore the implied masculinity of all aspects of the Christian doctrine.

For the vast majority of Christians, the very thought that the salutation “Our Father” might co-exist with “Our Mother” will be enanthema. Over the years, various attempts at creating more acceptable, neutral references to the concept of God have proven futile. Catholics will be familiar and comfortable with ‘the Almighty’, ‘the Most High’, ‘The Eternal’, ‘the Creator’ etc – though these are more descriptors than identifiers. And of course this God/gender problem is by no means unique to Christianity.

Unfortunately much of the masculinisation of God has to do with ancient languages that are intrinsically gendered, so dissecting religious terminology will be no easy task, and the problem will only be exacerbated rather than resolved by the proposed optional use of feminine pronouns and references.

(Ironically, the early Christian Church was far more attuned than we are to a feminine dimension of God. In particular the feminine concept of Sancta Sapientia (Holy Wisdom) was identified with God the Son from the third of fourth century onwards – the Hebrew word for ‘spirit’ is ruakh, which is grammatically feminine. Even in the Middle Ages, pre-eminent Christian writers such as Hildergard of Bingen, and Julian of Norwich in the 12th Century, were exploring and writing implicitly about the feminine aspects of God.)

Attempting to give God both male and female pronouns – as has been suggested by some Church of England authorities – only emphasises a gender-based identity that’s entirely contradictory to the fundamental concept of God, who is far above such temporal definitions. As human beings at this particular stage of our moral and intellectual evolution, it’s inevitable that we’ll want to relate to God in ‘parental’ terms, given the caring and protective qualities we generally expect from God. Finding acceptable, un-gendered names for The Almighty, and for describing our relationship with the Divinity has so far proven impossible. It will be particularly difficult for Catholic theologians – we’ve long since blurred the boundaries by referring to God as ‘Our Father’, and Mary as ‘Our Mother’, to the extent that, for many Catholics, Mary has become their primary divinity. More than once recently, Pope Francis has been obliged to remind Catholics that Mary is not a co-redemptrix with Christ, a title which some theological movements have tried to assign to the ‘Mother of God’. The notion of Mary as “co-redemptrix” harks way back to the Middle Ages, and the idea of declaring it as a Church dogma was even discussed – though firmly rejected – at the Second Vatican Council. During a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica in honour of Our Lady of Guadalupe as recently as 2019 Pope Francis called the idea of Mary being co-redemptrix “foolishness” – a view that was shared also by his predecessor, the late Pope emeritus Benedict XVI.

Whilst it’s entirely appropriate to refer to Our Blessed Lady as ‘our Mother’, (and maybe even to consider the adoption of the human Christ as ‘Our Father’?), a removal of gender references when refering to God might actually do something to clarify the present confusion. But I’m fairly confident this isn’t going to happen in my lifetime. When I hear the current, empassioned debates about gender definition, and the emergence of endless new terms to describe aspects of human sexuality, I’m reminded strongly of Genesis 2 and 3. Adam and Eve were created but “they felt no shame, (2:25) and held a unique and direct communion with God, but the prime consequence of the Fall was an awareness of their gender: “they realised they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves” (3:7).

It seems to me that much of our suffering since has been a consequence of our un-natural and obsessive preoccupation with sexual behaviour and identity. I’d like to think – nay, hope –  that the emergence of recent personal identifiers such as demigenderpangendergender-fluidXenogender etc are the first raw murmerings of our eventual return to Eden, rather than our imminent arrival at Sodom and Gomorrah. But sadly it’s only a very vague hope.

No doubt many of us are feeling challenged at present by the fixation with words, and with endless definitions and self-dividing nuances, to describe and delineate the human condition. Sadly, it’s long been a preoccupation for those who wish to stake their place in an ever-changing society – from schools of painters, to genres of musicians, to styles of fashion and political and social outlooks. Vanity it may be, but words do have importance, and consequences.

A good few years ago I had the great privilege of sharing a conversation with the late Lord Jonathan Sacks, the orthodox Chief Rabbi and eminent Jewish theologian. Our conversation turned to journalism and I mentioned how, in the aggressively-tabloid 1980s, the word ‘holocaust’ passed into general usage, and would have been used by sub-editors to describe any major, catastrophic event. Thus a multi-vehicle pile-up and fire on the M40 might be a tag-lined ‘Holocaust in the fog!”. Lord Sacks was typically eloquent in his response, which left me with a profoundly better understanding of why the Jewish community had to ‘reclaim’ the word ‘Holocaust’, and why such things really do matter.

I was reminded of that conversation again this week, when I heard that the Church of England had also voted in favour of allowing its priests to bless civil marriages of same sex couples, whilst upholding the ban on same-sex church weddings. Perhaps this decision fell into the category of ‘just a little step at a time in the right (or wrong) direction’, but the hypocrisy and contradiction was obvious to all and the bumbling directive looks set to cleave the Church of England in two.

In truth, the debate over the protection of the word ‘marriage’ was lost a long time ago, as civil liberties and other lobby groups over-ran it and changed UK legislation on the matter forever. As with the misappropriation of ‘holocaust’, the term marriage has moved from the religious to the public sphere, and now defines absolutely any kind of joining ceremony between any number of people, objects or ideas.

What IS left is the term ‘Sacramental Marriage’, and that needs to be protected – both theologically and legally – with every energy that the Churches have at their disposal.

In a similar vein, the controversy this week over launch of Dublin’s St Patrick’s Day 2023 event demonstrates vividly how ‘appropriation’ can reduce meaning to a nonsense. Even the most devout Catholic would acknowledge that the fourth or fifth century Patrick didn’t wander Ireland in medieval clerical robes, brandishing a bishop’s mitre and swathed in gold and green, but the popular Catholic representation of St Patrick is a symbolic reference to a real person, and a real national inheritance of Christian faith. In the modern secular world, a line-up of cowboys, drag queens, weird beasts in horned headdresses and girls in Spanish costumes may well be reflective of modern Ireland (though frankly as an Irishman myself I don’t think it is). What is certain is that it doesn’t bear any connect with St Patrick, so wheeling out this montage of modern diversity culture is a blatant appropriation of Christian heritage and iconography – that point needs to be made and the sanctity and symbolism of St Patrick defended.

The Dublin launch attracted a fair share of press and controversy, much as it intended to do. But there’s a deeper and more damaging sub-script at play here in the intentional overpainting of Christian terminology and cherished practices. We’ve already lost Advent, Christmas and Easter to secular iconography – three words that – like ‘Holocaust’ – really ought to be reclaimed for Christianity, as you don’t see this blatant appropriation of festivals, rituals and terminology happening to other faiths.

In secular society people without faith are welcome to celebrate whatever they want, but events of profound religious importance are just that, and – amongst the multitude of modern opinions and outlooks we’re all being called upon to respect – a reciprocity for our profound Christian beliefs is surely not unreasonable? And as to the Church of England finding a new name for God? Well, the best of luck with that!

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer and theologian