Divine pronouns? Let God decide

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The Church of England has been asked to respond to requests from clergy to use gender-neutral pronouns for God. The question has been referred to the Church of England’s Liturgical Commission. This would be a major variation from the Book of Common Prayer, a foundational text for Anglicanism.

In fact, Anglican churches have been moving towards using more inclusive language for decades. A Prayer Book for Australia, published in 1995, replaced ‘he became man’ in the Nicene Creed with ‘he became truly human’; and in the Gloria in Excelsis in the same publicationthe phrase ‘peace to His people’ was replaced by ‘peace to God’s people’. The Australian Hymn Book, first published in 1977 and used by many denominations, has systematically removed the use of male pronouns for generic reference to people. For example, John Bunyan’s muscular lyric ‘He who would valiant be’ was rewritten as ‘Who would true valour see’. These changes did not extend to removing references to God as Father or Jesus as the Son of God.

The recent requests coming from the United Kingdom are more radical. Some clergy are asking for leave to change references to God in their church services to ‘she’ or ‘they’, or perhaps ‘Mother’ alongside ‘Father’, or just ‘Parent’. This is implied in the Reverend Joanna Stobart’s request to the Commission to allow referring to God in a ‘non-gendered way’.

Since the earliest times, Christian theologians and Jewish scholars alike have considered the God of the Bible to be sexless: neither male nor female. This contrasts with Greek and Roman deities who had active sex lives, mating with humans and each other, and having offspring.

In some languages, such as Persian and Indonesian, the need to choose a gendered pronoun doesn’t arise because pronouns do not distinguish male from female. In contrast, the languages in which the Bible is written – Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic – compel their speakers to use gendered pronouns, and God is referred to as ‘he’ rather than ‘she’. Nevertheless, this usage is not considered to be evidence that God is actually male.

Read it all in The Spectator.

Mark Durie is the founding director of the Institute for Spiritual Awareness, a Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a Senior Research Fellow of the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at the Melbourne School of Theology.