December 22, 2014

How Should We Refer to God?

Yesterday’s sermon at my church referred to God a lot. Although the word “God” was frequently mentioned, no masculine pronoun was used to refer to the Christian deity. This was frankly annoying. A sentence like “God loves God’s people” sounds foreign to a native speaker of English. Moreover, the construction suggests to a “normal” person that two distinct entities, not one, are being talked about.

No masculine pronouns
The reluctance to use masculine pronouns to refer to God is feminist political correctness run amuck. It is part of a program to eliminate “sexist” language, not only in sermons and theological discussion, but even in the prayer book liturgy. Doubtless, many avoid the use of masculine pronouns for God with self-righteous satisfaction, but one does have to wonder if they’ve thought this affectation through.

The most obvious reason to use pronouns idiomatically, rather than repeating forms of “God,” is that the latter practice sounds very odd. A major innovation of the Reformation was the recitation of the liturgy in the vernacular. Avoiding pronouns where they would normally be expected runs counter to the objective of making liturgy accessible. Instead, it just sounds goofy. Linguistic conventions do change over time, and even liturgy must adapt to change, but using language that no one uses in ordinary speech isn’t helpful or welcoming.

For Episcopalians, there is a more significant matter at issue. Our prayer book is supposed to be a book of common prayer. When large numbers of people in a congregation regularly make a substitution like “God’s” for “his” (as in “And blessed be his kingdom, now and for ever,” on p. 355), it can be jarring to others. Some, particularly visitors, may feel like they didn’t get the secret memo. Others may feel that the congregation is violating the social contract that fixes the liturgy until such time as the church’s General Convention, through its laborious revision process, decides to change it. We have a set liturgy to avoid unnecessary fights between prayer book revisions. We should take advantage of the fact.

It is bad enough when individual members of a congregation substitute “God’s” for “his.” It is a more serious offense when, in a printed service, the church itself makes such a substitution, as my own church is wont to do.

One of the joys of The Episcopal Church is the ability to visit any congregation and feel at home with the familiar liturgy. Unexpected and unauthorized variation can be exceedingly off-putting. An experience is burned in my memory of visiting what was clearly a conservative, evangelical Episcopal church. The sermon was not to my liking, but I felt comfortable with the overall service. Then came the dismissal, to which the congregation responded with one voice (though without mine) “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” What followed “God” is hardly objectionable in the abstract—it comes from 1 Corinthians 15:57—but, not being in the prayer book, it was supremely alienating. I suddenly felt like an unwelcome intruder in the congregation. I can hardly complain about evangelical Episcopalians straying from the reservation, however, if liberals engage in similar practices.

Of course, the feminists would be right in arguing that God has no sex, in the human sense. And they even have a point in arguing that the portrayal of God as masculine is part and parcel of society’s patriarchal bias that regularly slights half the human species. The notion of God as father is deeply ingrained in the Bible, though, and it is difficult to ignore Jesus’ use of “my father.” The feminists are bucking a very strong trend.

The substitution of, say, “God’s” for “his,” hardly achieves gender neutrality. “God” naturally seems masculine, since there exists another word for a feminine analogue, namely “goddess.” A bit of modern theological education might lead one to think of God as sexless, but the reality is that the English language does not contain a specific word for a sexless deity. If “God” suggests masculinity in one’s mind, eschewing masculine pronouns and repeating forms of “God” really doesn’t accomplish much.

I’m not an anthropologist, but, for what it’s worth, my impression is that nearly all cultures attribute gender to their deities. That, too, seems deeply ingrained.

I really don’t see much of a solution to the feminist “problem.” If God is neither male nor female (or even male and female) and we want to acknowledge that in our speech, three not-completely-satisfactory approaches come to mind. It does seem to be true that masculine pronouns used with the word “God” tend to emphasize the maleness of the deity. One alternative would be to use feminine pronouns (“And blessed be her kingdom, now and for ever.”) This, perhaps, bends over backward a bit too far and seems slightly schizophrenic.

A second alternative would be use grammatically grating plural pronouns (“And blessed be their kingdom, now and for ever.”) This is akin to the use of the plural in cases where sex cannot be determined, as in “A pilot is in charge of their plane.” (Personally, I don’t like this construction, but saying “his or her” or “him or her” all the time is tiresome.) The doctrine of the Trinity both justifies this locution and operates against it. If we want to refer only to the first person of the Trinity, use of a plural pronoun is confusing.

Finally, there is the logical solution—use neuter pronouns (“And blessed be its kingdom, now and for ever.”) This makes sense at one level, but people—and not just feminists—will argue that it depersonalizes God. The point is well taken.

As I said earlier, I don’t see a fully satisfactory solution to the feminist “problem.” It may be a matter best left to the theologians and liturgists, however.


  1. I'm seeing a serious lack of empathy from you, Lionel. Very disappointing.

    I'm not saying every feminist solution is satisfactory, in every situation. I *am* saying masculine-normative God-language IS A PROBLEM, and needs every effort to fix. (That's PROBLEM, not "feminist 'problem.'”)

    Me personally? As a layperson, what I say is normally heard only by me ("It is bad enough when individual members of a congregation substitute “God’s” for “his.”: SRSLY?). I say what sounds right to my own ears: sometimes "God's", sometimes "They/Their", sometimes "Who" (as in the Nicene Creed: "Who, with the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. Who has spoken through the Prophets.")

    I hate to state the obvious, but I will: to male ears, hearing God called He/His/Him, exclusively, just isn't as excruciating as it is to female ears. Weigh that pain, against "sounds very odd" "sounds goofy" "can be jarring" (contrasted w/ "feel at home with the familiar"). What's the fairness of that exchange again?

    "The feminists are bucking a very strong trend": a very strong trend? SIN always is! All the more reason to repent of it, ASAP. "Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church."

    Finally, what I've been saying for over 10 years: BCP revision NOW, before "the '79" gets reified (fetishized), as "the '28" was. It's been well over a generation already! >:-/

    1. Well, that was a lot to think about. I should say at the outset that I am liberal socially, politically, and theologically. I am fairly conservative linguistically. When people try to change language too fast, communication, particularly between generations, suffers—not a good thing.

      The impulse to change all male references to gender-neutral or female ones on general principle is a radical and destructive notion. What is the theology behind this? We need consensus on that before we go willy-nilly disregarding the current text of the BCP.

      I am strongly ambivalent about revising the BCP. I became an Episcopalian soon after the ’79 book was adopted, and I don’t regret not having gone through the transition period. I have often said that I hope the prayer book is revised only after I’m dead.

      That said, I would like to see a BCP without the filioque clause and with a single marriage rite that works for couples of whatever sex. I would like language for God and for the Trinity that makes everyone happy, but I have no idea what that would look like. I would like to see Rite I gone and the traditional version of the Lord’s Prayer gone. I would like to see an expanded calendar, but one that is still tractable.

      Perhaps we should begin experimenting with possible prayer book changes without having a concrete calendar for seeing the revision process to its conclusion. We should not commit too early.


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