God:

YHWH, “I am who I am”: ruach (Heb, f), sophia (Gk, f), logos (Gk, m), abba (Aramaic, m):

“Let us make humankind in our own image”.

Who would have predicted that one phrase in a three-minute speech would create such a fervent discussion about God? During the Westminster Faith Debate I said that having women as bishops will only make a difference if, amongst a list of other things ‘God is she as often as she is he’. To be clear, WATCH did not court any publicity for this topic, nor expect it: the phrase simply expresses one of the areas we want to explore with people under our ‘Just getting started’ agenda.

A week on, what seems to have happened? Lots of very interesting and valuable contributions have been made, on websites, blogs and social media as well as in the press. Three of the themes that I have seen emerge are:

  1. This is an old story – it’s been around for 2000 years and we last debated it in the 1980s. The General Synod report ‘Making women visible’ seems to be the Church of England’s conclusion from that time, produced soon after the publication of the Alternative Service Book that persisted with ‘he/him’ language for men and women.
  1. There is no easy replacement in English for the pronoun ‘He’ for God that encompasses what the Church holds – that God is not male.
  1. Many, many comments have included phrases such as, ‘personally..’, ‘in my experience…’, ‘privately I find that…’. This is a subject that touches on deep feelings around identity and our precious personal relating with God. Many people recognise a disconnect between what they know to be true about God and what happens when they attend to God in prayer: and this can be very uncomfortable.

On the first theme, my comment is that, yes, this is an old story for Christian feminists of the 1980s, for most clergy, and for others who have done some theological studies. However, most laypeople do not fall into those categories. For us, our experience of Common Worship on a Sunday is likely to be a wholly male God (apart from the reference to a mother chicken in one of the optional Eucharistic prayers). Unless those leading services alter these words, or actively speak of God as other than male in prayers or preaching, laypeople may well think that speaking of God as she is still taboo.

On the second theme, yes, this is a real difficulty. Perhaps this is partly why this debate generates a certain amount of embarrassment amongst clergy (‘Yes, I know I should change the language occasionally but ….”). It may also be one reason why Common Worship disappointingly persisted in male language for God in the mainstream liturgies - there are gender-neutral texts, but you have to search for them. Incidentally, this points up an important discussion to be had about gender-neutral vs gender-inclusive language, and I hope we can find a way of continuing that elsewhere.

On the third theme, if the Church of England found a way of affirming people’s experimentation with female language for God then we might be less anxious or coy about it. Those who find addressing God as female unpalatable or disturbing (ie most of us), may be just the people whom God is nudging to do so. It raises questions for some women about their imaging of God (what difference would it make if I truly believed I am an icon of God?) and reveals for some men their unconscious (important to note) assumption of male superiority (God is like me and so everything not male is at some level lesser).

Let us continue our discussions. WATCH will post resources of gender-inclusive prayers etc on our website, and of references to female images and language about God in Scripture and the Early Teachers. Please let us know your own and your church’s experience.

Perhaps the well-used Anglican phrase that is appropriate about using female language for God at this time is,

‘All may, none must, some should’.

Hilary Cotton
6th June 2015