God, Gender and Language - a male perspective

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John Schofield

John Schofield is a former Chair of St Mark’s CRC, and past Principal of an Anglican Ministry Training Scheme.

This article will attempt to examine the impact of the excessively male language which the church has traditionally used when talking to or about God. It is a contribution to the conversation from a male, who is also a priest, who has been struggling with this issue for a quite a long time.

This exploration was really kickstarted by an incident in 1988. Along with others, I had been gently trying to inclusify the language of the Alternative Service Book – substituting people for men is an obvious example. The startling moment came during a service for the local uniformed organisations at which we sang a hymn which was very popular with them at the time, partly because it rollicked along to a highly singable tune. But it had a chorus which went

            Light of the world you have helped us to see

            That all men are brothers and all men one day will be free.

I was suddenly aware that our self-supporting deacon, who had recently joined our ministry team, was standing next to me in stony silence.

This highlighted two issues: the first, the obvious alienation of women from words which addressed them as men. At the time there was still a lot of ‘but we all know that man and men are inclusive nouns in English’ defence being offered. But the very strong reaction brought home the fact that this was not how it felt for someone who was still suffering the discrimination of not being allowed to exercise her vocation to the full. The second issue was, and remains, that of how easy it is for elements of worship to be good and engaging in one respect and yet utterly out of tune with the contemporary scene and need in others.

These issues have not gone away in the thirty years since that evening in Luton. It should be apparent to anyone writing liturgy, songs, prayers or hymns that using exclusive language is no longer acceptable, even when that exclusive language is about God. There was an attempt to get ordinands to use gender neutral language for God; however this was very short lived. And Common Worship, though in many respects an advance on the ASB, still falls woefully short in this area.

This is in a sense a systemic problem. Christianity has been using this overwhelmingly male language about God for two millennia (with a few shining exceptions).

One of the ways of tackling it, starting closest to home, is in the way someone says the Daily Office, alternating he and she, his and hers; even to use only the female forms in addressing God. This has an initial and useful shock value for many. But it may sometimes sound ridiculous when reading texts that are two and a half thousand years old in the twenty first century.

Something that works better for many is turning the word God into a pronoun, despite the obvious disadvantage that God is still often associated with maleness in the general perception, and despite a reflexive kick back against doing this (not dissimilar to the problems associated with using they and them as a singular, notwithstanding the fact that Merriam-Webster has now accepted this usage). However, continual use of God as pronoun as well as noun tends to militate against this, to build a different experience.

On the other hand, as a former Chair of Women and the Church has pointed out very forcibly, in public worship it is probably necessary to allow, even encourage, the shock of addressing God as female in order to counter the domination system that is patriarchy.

Certainly, using the pronoun she consistently for a while serves to draw out different meanings and attributes. Yet these may be significantly skewed by the norms, preunderstandings and inheritances of a fairly traditionally brought up male. It can lead to a greater sense of the nurturing by God, and a subversion of the warlike imagery associated with and used of God - this latter despite the likes of Jael, Judith and even Joan of Arc. Yet the words Pat Barker puts into the mouth of psychologist William Rivers in Regeneration are a powerful warning: ‘He distrusted the implication that nurturing, even when done by a man, remains female’. 1.

There is also a cultural/historical problem in more traditional English worship, especially with regard to well-loved hymns and prayers; sometimes these are easy to adapt, but at other times this is simply impossible. Many of us can live with this, loving the skill and artifice that went into the writing in the first place, and accepting that these are products of a different age with different cultural norms and practices. But that may not cut the mustard for everyone.

An approach that can be very helpful is to apply the insights of second naiveté 2. to the question of liturgical language. It is odd that many people don't seem able to extend the way they approach and understand the bible into liturgy, but display instead a strange and slightly intolerant literalism when it comes to liturgy. There is both irony and sadness in this inability to afford post-critical affirmation to liturgy. For it is in the light cast by second naïveté that many of can allow ourselves to be bathed and immersed in the words and actions of liturgy, experiencing something multidimensional and wholly engaging, without having to believe it is all literal, factual.

However, there is a problem with second naïveté: it can be difficult to live with and apply. It’s something you need to think about, and not necessarily something that easily becomes second nature. You have to have gone through the critical processes to get to it, and that simply doesn’t work for someone (of whatever gender) coming new or anew to church who meets a wall of masculinity - especially if that person has been damaged by patriarchy already.

One of the complications of the male-dominated God-language is that it gives rise to the unconscious privileging of men. Because this has been the predominant Judaeo-Christian mode of address, men – even men struggling with the issue – find themselves as a group living with inherited and apparently God-sanctioned privilege. If God is always addressed as male, if Jesus was male – and Jesus is head of his body, the church – then being male is automatically and unthinkingly privileged. This results in bad behaviour and bad theology. And because it is so rampant, so much in the un- or sub- conscious, it is too easy for many women to collude with it – apparent in the past, and still persistent in parts of the church today. It will take more than one generation to put this record straight.

The problem is exacerbated by the biblical record in which Jesus is not just the Son of Man but increasingly the Son of God; and by how Jesus speaks to God, and about God, as Father. Reading Mysteries of Faith, Mark McIntosh’s ‘glorious primer on theology' 3. (see the article by Janet Williams on Apophatic Spirituality) is illuminating especially in his use of word, speech and conversation as lenses for interpretation and understanding God. But it is also intensely challenging in its continual emphasis on the Son/Father relationship at the heart of his apologetics. It is, of course, strictly orthodox; and it presents a real interpretative and linguistic conundrum to those who struggle with the excess of maleness in God talk, and recognise that God is beyond gender.

There is an tactic which tries to downplay the significance of the Son of God language, noting that in the beginning it was partially an adaptation and adoption by the early Christians of language their contemporaries were familiar with - idioms which used the terminology of son of god in respect of the emperors; with this comes the concomitant suggestion that we should therefore sit lightly to this. But that is to ignore, almost to put aside, the development of the Christian tradition over the centuries.

And yet in might be possible to reframe some of this. In Common Worship we are allowed to use an alternative form of the Gloria that goes:

Glory to God, source of all being, Eternal Word and Holy Spirit

As it was in the beginning, is now, and shall be for ever. Amen.

What if we were to switch more to using the terminology of Eternal Word in respect of Jesus? Would this counteract the tendency that less metaphorically minded ages than the first Christian centuries have of interpreting the Father/Son relationship as though it were a straightforward biological relationship, just like any human biology. Surely that is not the essence of the Incarnation, of Jesus’ (theological) sonship. It might also be helpful to think in terms of Jesus as the Instantiation of the Eternal Word rather than as the Incarnate One. Of course, this nomenclature could have a good knock on in helping us reframe how we look on scripture as the word of God, as a counter to the bibliolatry that has crept in these last 150 years. As C S Lewis commented in a letter: ‘It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true Word of God’. Jesus, the Eternal Word, as a more normative starting point has all sorts of advantages. 4.

There are images of or associated with God in the bible and the tradition other than male ones. Julian of Norwich, for instance, is feted for talking of God and Jesus as our mother (thought she continues to use male pronouns when talking in this way!). These instances can come in unexpected places. The nineteenth century black visionary and shaker eldress, Rebecca Cox Johnson, said:

I received word of understanding how the Spirit of Wisdom was the Mother of children. . . . I was in the spirit speaking these words to the glory of God: “I know Thee by revelation, Oh Thou Mother, Thou Spirit of Wisdom, I was begotten in Thee and brought forth, though I knew Thee not. They that have revelation must live it, that they may see the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Oh, how I love thee, my Mother!” 5.

There have been attempts to integrate the feminine into God by feminising the Holy Spirit, but while it is true that ruach in Hebrew is a female noun, and while there are languages in which the Spirit it female, it remains the case that Jesus called the Paraclete ‘he’, and the Greek for the Spirit pneuma is neuter. This may ultimately be something of a blind alley.

But perhaps we should go beyond the use of feminine/female imagery for God (or the Spirit), and try to work out in practice what is means to speak of God as Genderful. This is a word which has certainly been around in some theological circles since the 1990s, even if it hasn’t made it into dictionaries yet. Sadly, though it has always appealed to this author, it hasn’t gained much currency generally. Which is a pity, as thinking of God, positively rather than just abstractly, as containing, encompassing, being all genders prevents us from falling into yet a another binary (and Christianity’s too fond and full of binaries) or even monistic trap.

And there is sound biblical support for this. The first Genesis creation myth tells us ‘male and female created he them’; so the image and likeness is not just male, despite the male pronoun. And of course, one of the main words for God in the Old Testament – and the one used throughout Genesis chapter 1 – is a plural. All of which suggests, does it not?, what we would nowadays call inclusivity.

The struggle continues…


[1] Regeneration, p145

[2] A sacred text can be listened to at three different levels. The first is naïve listening. But sooner or later a day comes along when we tend to make one of two choices: either to turn our backs on these naïve hearings, or to barricade ourselves behind those hearings. Then we must undertake listening on a second level through critical listening—listening that doesn’t trash the stories, but probes them to discern the criteria by which they can be more deeply heard, scrutinizing, interpreting, reflecting, reconstructing. This can be disorienting and sometimes disruptive. There is, however, as much danger of getting stuck in critical hearings of sacred stories as there is of getting trapped in naïve hearings of them. We can, however, take our cue from Paul Ricoeur, and listen to the stories in a third way, that is with what he calls second naiveté. This is not a regression to uncritical childish acceptance, but a re-entry into sacred stories with an interplay of adult critical attention and childlike awe. (From the article Approaches to the Bible).

[3] Mysteries of Faith, Mark McIntosh, Cowley Publications, 2000

[4] The collected letters of C S Lewis, vol 3

[5] Rebecca Cox Jackson, 1795-1871, Gifts of Power: The Writings of Rebecca Jackson, Black Visionary, Shaker Eldress, ed. Jean McMahon Humez (University of Massachusetts Press: 1981), 174-5. Black American mystic and Shaker




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