February 3, 2013

God and Gender/Sex

So-called inclusive language has long been an issue within The Episcopal Church. Although it is a topic of indifference to many, others are passionately devoted or opposed to purging liturgical material of “unnecessary” gender references.

The issue of inclusive language is really two issues. The less incendiary matter is the one raised by twentieth-century feminists about language generally. No longer is a sentence like “Everyone ate his meal” socially acceptable when the diners may be either male or female. Non-inclusive liturgical references of this sort are disappearing, but only gradually. What many would consider sexist references are not to be found in the Rite II Holy Eucharist in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Nevertheless, the phrase “all men” appears in the Rite I versions of Daily Morning and Evening Prayer, occurs three times in the Rite I Holy Eucharist, and appears in the Form Two version of The Reconciliation of a Penitent. (It also occurs in the Historical Documents section of the prayer book, but those occurrences are, well, historical.) I suspect that such occurrences will not make it into the next prayer book whenever it makes its appearance.

A good deal of effort went into scrubbing The Hymnal 1982 of sexist language, but the effort was less than thoroughgoing, and the results are mixed. For example “Rise up, O men of God!” has become “Rise up, ye saints of God!” (#551). This works at one level, though I’m sure some consider the revised hymn wimpier than the original. Other changes are a less likely to be lamented. In “Stand up, stand up, for Jesus” (#561),  “ye that are men now serve him” has become “ye that are his now serve him,” which actually makes more sense. “God rest you merry, Gentlemen” (#105) was, sensibly, left alone. (Do read the Wikipedia entry for this popular carol, which provides useful clarification of the song’s first line.) But, inexplicably, “He who would valiant be” (# 565) is unchanged from The Hymnal of 1940. (Actually, if one substitutes feminine for masculine pronouns and substitutes “they” for “men,” the hymn becomes a kind of muscular feminist Christian hymn. Making the text gender-inclusive, however, might be hard.)

The inclusive-language crowd is well on its way to winning the battle to assure that men and women are treated as having equal standing in liturgical materials of The Episcopal Church. This is the direction in which the language is going, and the church is hardly in a position to buck the trend, even if Episcopalians wanted to do so.

The second type of inclusive language—the term doesn’t really fit well—has to do with the persons of the Trinity. This is where people can get very worked up, particularly conservatives, who seldom like any departure from the traditional. This area is a minefield, even for those who are neither far-right conservatives nor radical feminists.

Most Christians are probably willing to concede that God is not, in any usual sense, either male or female, that is, God does not really have a sex. Yet we traditionally refer to God as Father—as did Jesus—and refer to God as “him.” (Even the traditional usage is problematic when we think deeply about it. God has a son, but who is that son’s mother? If the Son and Father always existed, maybe “Son” is an unhelpful designation. I have more to say about this below.) If we take the sexless thing seriously, then, following the usual linguistic rules, we should refer to God as “It.” That’s never going to catch on, however, as it is too impersonal to capture our conception of God.

Liberal Episcopalians reluctant to attribute maleness to God, frequently make personal substitutions in the liturgy, saying, for instance, “It is right to give God thanks and praise” instead of “It is right to give him thanks and praise.” Coming in response to the celebrant’s “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God,” the repetition of “God” seems stilted. When the substitution appears in a printed liturgy, it is, as I read the canons, anyway, a canonical violation, and the sort of thing that encourages other local liturgy changes, which undermines the very notion of common prayer. These sorts of “problems” are already being eliminated from newer liturgies. For example, Enriching Our Worship 1, published in 1997, in many cases renders the aforementioned line as “It is right to give our thanks and praise,” which is a rather clever dodge. Cleverness takes us only so far. In fact, this post was inspired by what I read on a blog today: “God is working God’s purpose out.” This is not only not idiomatic, but the strange locution even suggests that the second “God” has a different referent than the first.

Conservatives are not just upset over pronouns. They resist all but the traditional characterizations of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (or Ghost). Referring to the Trinity as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer drives some people crazy, though I personally don’t understand why. Maintenance of  traditional language was one of the issues cited in Resolution 1, passed in Pittsburgh in 2002, that declared to the General Convention what the diocese would not tolerate. Traditional understanding of the Trinity—the original wording decried “[l]iturgies that substitute gender-neutral titles for the persons of the Holy Trinity”—got equal billing with the blessing of same-sex unions. (You can read the ENS story on Resolution 1 here and the complete resolution here.) Presumably, conservatives get hot under the collar when the Holy Spirit is referred to as “she,” which has become commonplace in some circles.

In the end, I am dubious about the prospects for or the usefulness of “inclusive language” respecting the Trinity. The nominal maleness of God has thousands of years of tradition behind it. Even “god”—in contrast to “goddess”—is construed as male, as are “Lord” and “Father.” I have heard God referred to as “Mother” or “Parent,” but both seem forced and inconsistent with God’s apparent relationship to Jesus.

Interestingly, there seems not to have been any movement to challenge the maleness of Jesus. But if the Son is an eternal member of the Trinity, does it make any more sense to construe that Son as male than it does to so construe God? Is the Son truly male, or did the Son, as Jesus, take on a male body as a temporary expedient? There is less tradition providing ammunition in the fight over the “sex” of the Holy Spirit, but, as in the case of God, sex or gender simply seem to be inappropriate categories.

The reality is that much of our language about God is metaphor, and, if we understand that—if we understand that our metaphor labels an underlying reality without truly explicating it—then the words we use are merely a convenience. It is helpful if our metaphors exhibit as much consistency as possible, but only to spare ourselves unnecessary cognitive dissonance. Liberals need to exhibit greater humility, and conservatives need exhibit greater tolerance regarding the way we speak about God. Honest conversation, rather than holy warfare might increase the wisdom and understanding of all concerned.

Update, 2/5/2013: I have corrected several typographical errors in the above essay. Also, I discovered, contrary to what I wrote, that the version of Resolution 1 originally submitted for consideration at the 2003 diocesan convention did not use the phrase “inclusive language.” Instead, it spoke of “gender-neutral titles.” I have corrected the reference and added a link to that original submission. Initially, the resolution was referred to as the “South Carolina Resolution,” as it was adapted from a resolution the Diocese of South Carolina adopted at its convention earlier that same year.


  1. I find what is currently called, "inclusive" language in describing the Trinity uncomfortable. And yet, wasn't Jesus using functional language when he described God as his daddy, and the comforter?

    When someone says, "creator, redeemer, converter" instead of "Father, Son and Holy Spirit," they may be standing in that tradition - using functional language. In fact, I think that is the intention of at least some.

    Jesus called "the Creator," "Daddy," and the "Holy Spirit" "Comforter. Implicit in those descriptives are particular relationships. When at least some folks choose, the Creator Redeemer, Converter, they may be telling us something about their relationships or ideal relationships with God.

    I find the argument that the tradition is not functional s are the newer addresses specious. I think functionality in the context of relational assumptions circa 30 CE or perhaps 75 CE to be precisely what Jesus, James, Paul, John Mark, and Luke had in mind. None-the-less, my 66 years of experience say that the Trinity is Father Son and Holy Spirit even if, like almost everyone else I am not sure what that may mean.

    Just my thoughts engendered by your excellent post. Thanks for it.

  2. This is a very thoughtful post on a difficult subject. I resonate with much of it. While I don't mind occasional "Creator, Redeemer Sustainer" language for the Trinity -- which can be helpful for theological definition -- there are two primary reasons that I value traditional Father-Son language.
    The first is that when I was learning the Bible as a teen, the teachers I had spent a lot of time on historical and archaeological background. One of the subjects they talked about was what it meant to adopt a son in the ancient Roman world. There were specific meanings that don't necessarily carry over to our modern study of adoption. So there are some scriptural passages where I think it's useful to remember that I am an "adopted son" for theological purposes. Apart from such passages, I much prefer "children" or "brothers and sisters," both of which are usually more accurate than "sons" or "brothers."
    My broader concern about our cultural discomfort with Father language is that it's coming at a time when fewer and fewer children know what it is to have a father. I know so many people who had absent fathers or bad fathers, and it means so much to them to discover God as an eternally loving Father. I think we avoid such language at our own peril. For those whose difficulty is with an absent or bad mother, perhaps its important to recall that the church from ancient times put forth the Blessed Mother as someone to take our troubles to. Although we Protestants tend to be very uncomfortable with such titles for Mary, I'd rather emphasize her than de-emphasize God as Father.


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