Adrian Pearce questions the need for gender-neutral language
Of late I have been asked by a number of people about a proposal requesting that God should be addressed by worshippers only in gender-neutral terms. I well understand the desire for Christianity to be inclusive. That God’s love should be there for everyone, no matter what creed, colour or gender we might be, is surely a ‘given’ for, as St John makes it clear about the Almighty’s nature, ‘God is love, and those who live in love live in God and God lives in them’. God’s love is unconditional and unlimited; freely given to all, and will live in all who receive it.
To be lovers of God we must necessarily receive this indwelling of the Holy Spirit to which St John alludes. It is obedience of the spirit of the Law to which Jesus calls us to walk in, for that Spirit is the very life of the Church.
Jesus was, is, and ever shall be, God. The Law now speaks, and divine law is heard through the human lips of the Word who took upon himself our nature. We can trust Jesus’ word, for it is the word of God. As Christians, in faith, we must be guided by, and be obedient to, the one in whose name we are anointed at our baptism; Jesus, the Christ. He calls us to prayer, and to be obedient to him in that life of prayer.
When Jesus’ disciples asked him how they should pray, he gave to them, and he gave to the whole world, the most famous prayer of all; one which is known by Christian and non-Christian alike, by children and by adults, by those celebrating life and by those on their death-beds, and prayed in every tongue of every nation. It begins like this: ‘Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name’.
Jesus addresses God as his Father and asks us to ‘hallow’, that is to make ‘holy’, that title of address. Now if Jesus is God, and as Christians we may hold no other view about him than that, then the question must be asked, ‘upon whose authority is it that we might decide to change the way in which our Saviour has asked us to address the Almighty?’ The only influence to call for such a change comes, not from the Holy Spirit, who mandates us through tradition and scripture, but from the secular world.
Arguments about gender equality arise from an undoubted sincerity; a best-intentioned desire to see that the masculine and the feminine in society are understood to be of equal value in the eyes of God. However, addressing God as ‘Father’ is a matter of a received Church doctrine. This is the acknowledged teaching of the Church as it was received from Almighty God, and entrusted by God himself to the twelve apostles, who were the original leaders of the Church. The ‘twelve’ were our first bishops.
Such contentions over God’s title arise from the erroneous conflation of the gift of human choosing with that of the grace of divine calling. The Christian’s call is to choose to follow God. If I address God as ‘mother’ or ‘them’, in the latter case allowing for the belief of those who would have God as being defined as ‘gender-fluid’, then what I am doing is telling Jesus that he got it wrong! If we believe that Jesus was mistaken about that which is a received doctrine through him to the Church, then what we are proclaiming may be defined as heretical.
We are made in the image of God. We are not called to make God in our image.
Clearly, the nature of God transcends gender. In addressing him as ‘Father’ we are using a metaphor in order to describe his relationship with us; one as of a loving father for the children of his family; the Church, just as the Blessed Virgin Mary is every Christian’s mother, as the ‘Mother of the Church’.
In the language of these relationships we can see the complementarity that is borne in male and female, between God and his bride; the Church. The use of such gender-based language is about the complementarity that nature has sprung between a man and a woman and which Almighty God has revealed between humanity and his Church.
Jesus’ teaching about himself is always delivered in the masculine gender. He says ‘The Father and I are one’ and again, ‘He who has seen me has seen the Father’. Christianity’s understanding of God as ‘Father’ is sanctioned no less than by God himself in Jesus.
Perhaps even more importantly, if we address God in a gender-neutral language, we further deny the Church’s traditional teaching in a most serious way. God, the Holy Trinity, has been revealed in scripture to be ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’; a Trinitarian expression of God which is made explicit by Jesus himself.
The secular world may struggle with the theology of God as Trinity as well as with the idea of God being addressed as Father. It may not find its model for life reflected in the teaching of the Church, but that is because although the Church may be ‘in the world’, that world has fallen from grace through sin, and so the Church is not ‘of the world’, for it exists in the kingdom of God where sin has no place.
God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit has come to us as Jesus, the Father’s only Son, of whom his Father spoke from the cloud saying ‘This is my Son, the beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’
The Revd Adrian Pearce SSC is the Vicar of St Ambrose, Bournemouth.