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Degenderising God's Word

God could be referred to in non-gendered terms during Church of England services as bishops in the UK launch a major project on gendered language in the spring, thereby breaking with centuries of tradition. If successful, priests could stop using the male pronouns 'He' and 'Him' when referring to God in prayers. They would also be able to remove 'our Father' from the commencement of the Lord's Prayer. The Liturgical Commission – the body which prepares forms of service – has been considering this on a regular basis for the past eight years, having asked the Faith and Order Commission (which advises on theology) to work with it on this matter. Perhaps they need reminding that in 2 Corinthians 11:13-15 such people are “false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ. And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works.”

One of these false apostles is the Reverend Joanna Stobart (a vicar in the diocese of Guildford in Surrey) who confirmed that many clergy wish to refer to God in non-gendered terms – particularly in prayers of forgiveness for sins. She asked: “Please could the Liturgical Commission provide an update on the steps being taken to develop more inclusive language in our authorised liturgy and to provide more options for those who wish to use authorised liturgy and speak of God in a non-gendered way, particularly in authorised absolutions where many of the prayers offered refer to God using male pronouns?” In response the Rt. Reverend Michael Ipgrave (the Bishop of Lichfield) said: “We have been exploring the use of gendered language in relation to God for several years, in collaboration with the Faith and Order Commission.” The proposal was welcomed by another group that's been campaigning for 'gender justice' in the Church of England, although such a radical rewriting would have to be sanctioned by all in the church's governing body and would undoubtedly be fiercely resisted by traditionalists who believe that no words or passages in the Bible should be altered in any way whatsoever.

Women and the Church (WATCH) who campaign for gender justice, equality and inclusion in the Church of England has welcomed the commencement of a project that examines more inclusive language in the church's authorised liturgy. It believes that a theological misreading of God as exclusively male is a driver of much continuing discrimination and sexism against women, but Synod member Rev. Dr. Ian Paul countered this by saying: “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 one that's grounded in the Scriptures.”

Scottish denominations have already moved away from referring to God as 'He'. A spokesman for the Scottish Episcopal Church – a branch of the Anglican Communion – said: “The Scottish Episcopal Church has been in a gradual process of change in its liturgies over a number of years, as it moves towards less gender-specific language about both people and God.” The Church of Scotland, which is Presbyterian, added: “An undertaking was given to the General Assembly in 1986 – and again in 1988 – to use inclusive language wherever possible in relation to God, though not to the extent of altering Scripture or changing classical texts. To that end, we have theological freedom in regard to how we refer to God. Ministers are free to use the language they wish: God has no gender and many choose to use gender-neutral language for God.”

However, some traditionalists say this goes too far and fear that the proposed introduction of gender-neutral language is yet another example of the church attempting to boost dwindling congregations as young people increasingly stay away. Marcus Walker, rector of the historic St. Bartholomew The Great Church in London said: “I don’t think we should be misgendering God. He’s made perfectly clear what his preferred pronouns should be – especially in His incarnation – so perhaps we should just use them.” Canon Dr. Chris Sugden, chairman of Anglican Mainstream, agreed: “The key point for the Church of England is the authority of Scripture. Jesus told us that when we pray the Lord's Prayer “pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven” (Matthew 6:9).

These two statements remind us that we should remember the words in Proverbs 3:5-6 which say: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not unto your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths.” In Psalm 118:8 (the verse in the very centre of the Bible) it says that “It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man.” Particularly in these times of deception, it is important to focus on the unchanging Word of God to see how God refers to Himself rather than trust the ever-changing opinion of man. What is clear is that God has chosen to reveal Himself to His creation in predominantly male terms and we should not deviate from that.

Those who believe it is appropriate to describe God in feminine terms offer refer to passages that use female or maternal imagery. For instance: a woman in labour (Isaiah 42:14); a nursing mother (Isaiah 49:15); a comforting mother (Isaiah 66:13); or a mother bear (Hosea 13:8). These passages are not there to direct people as to God’s gender but are simply there to communicate truths to us about God’s character through that imagery. You see, sometimes figurative language is used in Scripture and assigns human characteristics to God in order to make it possible for us to understand God. This assignment of human characteristics to describe God is called “anthropomorphism”. Anthropomorphism is simply a means for God (a spiritual being) to communicate truth about His nature to humanity (physical beings). Since humanity is physical, we are limited in our understanding of those things beyond the physical realm. Therefore, anthropomorphism in Scripture helps us to understand who God is.

While the Church of England is distracted with this issue, perhaps they have forgotten that many sinners are passing into a Christless eternity. Rather than committing time, money and energy to such a ridiculous issue, they should be fulfilling the great commission, preaching repentance and salvation to the lost. After all, the Redeemer came as a Man, didn’t He?

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