Priests in England are pushing for the introduction of gender-neutral terms when referring to God in prayers and hymns. The word “father” was, according to the King James Bible, good enough for Jesus—and so has it been for the countless millions of Christians who, through the ages, have uttered The Lord’s Prayer. (Even the watered-down, contemporary version of this prayer refers to “Our Father.”) But an increasing number of bishops believe “non-gendered” terms would better suit the Almighty.
A report in The Times suggests that “many” Church of England officials hope to see such a change enacted, with a new commission on the matter being launched this spring. Any change, including, for example, altering The Lord’s Prayer to read “Our Father and Mother,” would have to be approved by the Synod, the Church’s parliament. The Reverend Joanna Stobart, who sits on the Synod, asked what steps are “being taken to develop more inclusive language in our authorised liturgy” for those who wish to “speak of God in a non-gendered way.” The Right Reverend Dr. Michael Ipgrave, who is vice chair of the commission responsible for the matter, responded that the Church has been considering gender-neutral terms “for several years.”
With the debate over how Christians should refer to God stretching way back, Church leaders appear keen to stress that the issue’s latest revival is not related to the newfound wider cultural interest in gender. One priest told The Times it was wrong to “think we’re being a bit woke.” Liverpool priest the Reverend Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, who supports tilting the “balance” of gendered terms for God, added, however, that such a change could have a “knock-on effect on all our debates about gender and sexuality and women.”
The Reverend Ian Paul argued that, regardless of the context in which this week’s debate has sprung, the terminology surrounding God “is not interchangeable.” He told The Daily Telegraph:
The use of male pronouns for God should not be understood as implying that God is male—which is a heresy. God is not sexed, unlike humanity.
The Bible uses feminine imagery and metaphors of God, but primarily identifies God using masculine pronouns, names, and imagery. Male and female imagery is not interchangeable. The fact that God is called ‘Father’ can’t be substituted by ‘Mother’ without changing meaning, nor can it be gender-neutralised to ‘Parent’ without loss of meaning. Fathers and mothers are not interchangeable but relate to their offspring in different ways.
If the Liturgical Commission seeks to change this, then in an important way they will be moving the doctrine of the Church away from being grounded in the Scriptures.
Any decision by the Church of England to move towards gender-neutral terminology in prayers and other such acts of worship would undoubtedly prompt criticism from the international Christian community. Relations are already being strained by ongoing debates over gay marriage, with the head of the Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches, which represents institutions on every continent, describing recent concessions in England as “farcical.”