Diocese’s call for ‘expansive language for God’ sparks debate on gender-neutral Episcopal liturgies

By David Paulsen
Posted Feb 7, 2018
Washington convention

The Diocese of Washington holds its 123rd diocesan convention Jan. 27 at Washington National Cathedral. Photo: Diocese of Washington, via Facebook

[Episcopal News Service] The Diocese of Washington is calling on the Episcopal Church’s General Convention to consider expanding the use of gender-neutral language for God in the Book of Common Prayer, if and when the prayer book is slated for a revision.

He? She? Those pronouns aren’t preferred, the diocese says in a resolution it passed Jan. 27 at its convention, held at Washington National Cathedral in the nation’s capital city. Instead, the resolution recommends using “expansive language for God from the rich sources of feminine, masculine, and non-binary imagery for God found in Scripture and tradition.”

The diocese’s convention passed two other resolutions, voicing support for immigrants and the transgender community. But it was the call for more inclusive language in the prayer book that drew national attention, especially from conservative-leaning critics.

“What I see is a church that embraces literally any fashionable left-wing cause,” Tucker Carlson, host of “Tucker Carlson Tonight” on Fox News, said in a segment Feb. 5 in which he interviewed the Rev. Alex Dyer, one of the resolution’s sponsors.

The Daily Caller, a news website founded by Carlson, reported on the resolution last week, as did Breitbart and The Blaze. Some of the reaction has been “vitriolic,” Washington Bishop Mariann Budde told Episcopal News Service in describing three negative emails she has received. All three emails were written in a similar tone, she said, describing her diocese alternately as aligned with Satan and at war with God.

“It’s clear they didn’t read the resolution,” Budde said.

The resolution’s push for more gender-inclusive language grew out of conversations in congregations around the diocese where topics of gender and transgender equality have resonated among the parishioners, Budde said. She sees it as a spiritual matter, not a cultural or political issue.

That view was shared by Dyer, priest-in-charge at St. Thomas’ Parish in Washington, D.C. He responded in the TV interview that the diocese had based its decision on prayer and discernment, not politics – and a belief in “a Jesus who calls us to reach out to people on the margins and to reach out to everyone.”

The resolution is worded to influence future revisions of the prayer book, understanding God as a higher being who transcends gender. It doesn’t mandate the elimination of gender-specific references to God, Budde said, despite what some reports suggest.

“I don’t believe that the way we understand gender is applicable when we imagine who created Heaven and Earth,” Budde said. At the same time, the diocese’s emphasis is on expanding the church’s liturgies rather than eliminating masculine descriptions of God, such as God the father.

“I’m all for expanding our understanding of God and how we pray to God, but I feel no need to take anything away,” she said.

The difficulty in describing God may reside in language itself.

“No language can adequately contain the complexity of the divine, and yet it is all we have to try to explain God,” the diocese said in an explanation of the resolution contained in the convention materials. “By expanding our language for God, we will expand our image of God and the nature of God.”

The Episcopal Church is not the only Christian denomination grappling with the inadequacy of language to explain God. The Roman Catholic Church’s Catechism, for example, discusses references to God as “Father” while also noting that the image of motherhood is also appropriate.

“We ought therefore to recall that God transcends the human distinction between the sexes. He is neither man nor woman: he is God,” the Catechism says.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America addresses the question of gendered language in a 2013 liturgical resource: “Because language is created and used by humans, it reflects the imperfections and limitations of humanness. Therefore, no use of language can ever totally describe or represent God.”

Under “Language Describing God,” the document cites some examples – “eagle,” “rock,” “light,” among others – before offering a caution about pronoun use: “Assigning male pronouns to human occupations (such as judge, teacher, potter, guard) or to objects (fortress, rock, shield) should be avoided when they are used as metaphors for God.”

More recently, the (Lutheran) Church of Sweden announced last year that it would update its liturgical handbook with “more inclusive” gender language. That move sparked some complaints that the church was eliminating masculine references to God, a reaction similar to what the Diocese of Washington now faces.

“We are not going to give up our tradition,” Church of Sweden Archbishop Antje Jackelén told “PBS NewsHour.” “God is beyond our human categories of gender. … We need help to remind us of that, because due to the restrictions of our brains, we tend to think of God in very human categories. We are not worshiping political correctness. We are worshiping God, the creator of the universe.”

The Episcopal Church, too, has a history of emphasizing inclusiveness.

“This is a conversation that we have been having internally in the Episcopal Church for decades,” the Rev. Emily Wachner, a lecturer in practical theology at General Theological Seminary in New York, told ENS.

Examples of the church’s evolution on gender and power dynamics include the approval of ordination of women in 1976, but it didn’t start or end there, Wachner said. She noted the creation of “Voices Found,” a 2003 supplement to the Hymnal 1982 that featured all women composers.

The Diocese of Washington is following directly in the footsteps of the Diocese of Connecticut, which approved its own resolution on gendered language last year. That resolution called on the General Convention’s Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music “to amend, as far as is practicable, all gendered references to God” in the Book of Common Prayer, “replacing them with gender expansive language.”

“I’ve never had a parishioner leave or join the church for concern about gendered language for God,” Wachner said. “At the same time, this entire conversion around God and gender is so important.” In some ways it parallels the secular conversations now underway on gender issues in society, such as sexual harassment and the #MeToo movement, she said.

Of all the work the church could be doing for gender equity – Wachner mentioned disparity in clergy pay as one example – re-examining descriptions of God in Episcopal liturgies may be just one small step. Wachner is particularly supportive of the first half of the Diocese of Washington resolution, calling for “expansive language.”

She was less impressed by the second half of the resolution, which called on prayer book revisions that, “when possible,” would “avoid the use of gendered pronouns for God.” Limiting language seems counter to the intent of the resolution, she said.

“I believe the real conversation we should be having is around the vitality of the church itself,” Wachner said. “I’m not sure God’s pronouns are a vital part of that conversation.”

The Diocese of Washington also has received attention for its resolution on immigration, which committed it to “becoming a sanctuary diocese” and “offering sacred welcome to immigrants.” Certain congregations in the diocese already have offered sanctuary to immigrants facing deportation, Budde said, and this was a chance for the diocese to show its support for those efforts.

The same was true of the third resolution, “on inclusion of transgendered people.” Budde said the diocese wanted to stand with congregations that have been at the forefront of welcoming transgender people and fighting violence and hatred against them.

The resolution regarding gendered language for God was approved by a hand vote, with a solid majority in favor, though it was not unanimous, Budde said.

“There was very little debate in the convention itself, and I don’t think it’s because they didn’t want to have the conversation,” she said. If Episcopalians didn’t feel comfortable debating the question on the convention floor, she would welcome such conversations in other settings.

She also underscored the imperfection of language and the ways that our understanding of language can change over time. “Mankind” once was an accepted catchall term for men and women. “There wasn’t really much debate about that, until there was a lot of debate about that,” she said, and now it is more common to hear inclusive terms like “humankind.”

Her hope is that someday the church will be so confident in welcoming all people that such debates will no longer be necessary. Episcopalians may each see the world differently, she said, but they share a spiritual common ground, “that we’re part of a family trying to be true to the Gospel imperative to love your neighbor.”

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.


Comments (58)

  1. Jon Spangler says:

    Hebrew–which could arguably be called the “original” language of our dialogue with The Almighty–has a personal, gender-free, and thus more inclusive personal pronoun that is used to address the Creator of the Universe. English possesses only masculine and feminine singular personal pronouns and simply does not have an inclusive beyond-gender equivalent
    available. And we are the poorer for it because our language constricts our vision of The Holy One.

    I applaud my church for attempting to overcome the linguistic shortcomings of English in this regard: using both the feminine and masculine pronouns when referring to the Creator of All is only the beginning of the process of transcending the limitations of our native language and better comprehend the nature of God, Who is Beyond All Knowing.

  2. Nick Lines says:

    When God took the form of a human God chose to do so as a male. While taking the form of a mortal Christ taught us to pray to “Our Father.” This seems like a pretty clear self-identification by God with the male gender. We need to respect the self-identification of all people, divine or mortal. We should not impose our emotions or preconceived notions of what a person, much less our God, is or should be.

  3. Talmage Bandy says:

    Even with calling God “Father,” I have never seen God as a he or she. I used to say that God was a creative force which I believe and as my friend Gail Epes says: “God IS.” We do not have the ability to define God other than God is love.

  4. Charles B. Allen II says:

    Exactly how do you propose to change the Lord’s Prayer?

  5. The Rev. Darren Miner says:

    In response to Jon Spangler’s comment: Hebrew does not, in fact, have a gender-neutral personal pronoun for God. The Hebrew Bible regularly uses the male forms of the second- and third-person pronouns when referring to God, “attah” and “hu”.

  6. Jim Newman says:

    The very act of asking to invoke gender-neutral language is the very reason that the CHURCH is losing its audience. Identity politics will not replace faith. Rather than providing a nurturing environment for people of faith, the CHURCH is creating an environment that will lead to a secular society as it did in Europe.

  7. Jim Newman says:

    The very act of asking to invoke gender-neutral language is the very reason that the CHURCH is losing its audience. Identity politics will not replace faith. Rather than providing a nurturing environment for people of faith, the CHURCH is creating an environment that will lead to a secular society as it did in Europe.

  8. The Rev. D F Lindstrom says:

    Fr. Milner is correct! We need to stop trying to be politically correct and be Biblically and theologically correct.

  9. Peggy Goldsmith says:

    After reading comment by Nick Lines, I’m trying to imagine how Jesus would have carried out his mission if he had chosen to be born a poor female in that place and time. I can’t picture “her” turning over the tables of the money-changers, etc. Doubtful “she” would have lived to see her 30th birthday.

  10. rev. carol carlson says:

    I haven’t read the resolution either, but it sounds sensible to me. The fact that Fox News, Breitbart and the various other ‘vitriolic’ commentators hate it seems like a strong recommendation in its favor…..

  11. Steve Lusk says:

    While it is true that “When God took the form of a human God chose to do so as a male,” the Hebrew Bible and Apocrypha’s nearest analogue to the Word which was made flesh is Lady Wisdom. Given that the Father and the Son are of one substance, they must be both male and female, and neither (not to mention also being singular and yet plural). So “he,” “she,” “it,” and “they” are neither entirely appropriate nor wildly inappropriate words with which to refer to God. And, as English has dropped the once nearly universal understanding that masculine was the default grammatical gender when referring to beings (other than ships) larger than house cats, it’s high time the liturgy caught up with the language.

  12. I have led conversations in some parishes on the topic of theological language and its impact. I agree with those who say that this is not a matter of political correctness, a trap that demands too much conformity and paralyzes creativity, if not hospitality. To me the matter is theological. We cannot harm the great Mystery some of us call God, but we surely can damage the image of divinity with our limiting words. Some people have left the church because those “blessed” gendered pronouns cause them pain. Jesus was a male person, but the Christ rises above gender. I know it’s hard but we, like our biblical ancestors, do hard things for the sake of God, don’t we?

  13. Steven Giovangelo says:

    Here we go again, time for another language ‘war’ in the Episcopal Church; I remember the similar ‘language wars’ of ‘you’ and ‘thee/ thou’ when the 1979 BCP was ratified, Rite One versus Rite Two. I agree with Jim Newman and also with Fr. Milner: we are creating (as Jim Newman aptly described) an environment that will indeed hasten (if it has not already begun) the advent of a totally secular [American] society as Europe is now; and I would submit, such non-essentials as trying to twist ourselves and the liturgy into being gender-neutral, we are simply re-arranging the deck chairs on the ecclesiastical Titanic. Can we get beyond this please?

  14. James Koenig says:

    My stumbling block with “gender-neutral” efforts is the lack of sophistication in the understanding the function of “gender” linguistically. Gender in language is not a sorting out of “boy words” from “girl words” or “neither” words. Gender in language is not verbal genitalia. Let’s emphasize that scripture is full of male persons and female persons– mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, strong, weak. Yes, yes, yes we should make every effort for inclusion of female images of God. They abound. And of course we should be sensitive sensitive to the inclusion of early Christian figures like Lydia, Hannah, Elizabeth. But linguistically it seems a bit silly to have “committee action against words like mankind. Almost as silly as not liking the word human because it has man in it. Man is a collective noun that already includes all forms of humans– male and female and variations of the same. That being said– I love the images of Christ “butching it up” and overturning the money changers tables at the temple, and then comparing himself to “a mother hen gathering her chicks.” In fact I’ve written a hymn called Christ our mother hen. Scripture is full of female images of God– a she-bear fighting for her young, for instance. But there is nothing more off-putting that taking beautiful language and dumbing it down or sending it to the committee laundromat to make it sexless and sometimes senseless. How about we emphasize how Christ radically responded to societal gender roles with a new equality. But surely we can maintain the beauty of language in the liturgy without diluting either male or female images. Let’s keep a balanced approach– remembering all the while the words of Gustav Mahler “Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.”

  15. Mary Naumann says:

    Thank you James.

  16. Larry Waters says:

    Wonderful, lucid, insightful comments by many folks. No wonder, some years ago, someone wrote, paraphrasing, “Is the Episcopal Church relevant?” If this gender garbage is all the EC can worry about, then I suggest that the EC get out of the “spiritual business” before virtually all communicants leave. The EC is trying to be all things to all people. We should return to our old conservative standards and start being a relevant Protestant religion rather than acquiescing to every liberal who would forget to breathe if his or HER body didn’t do it for them!

  17. Jim Newman says:

    I applaud the remarks of Larry Waters above. With so much amiss in the world, why does the CHURCH seek only to address the cosmetic? There are other more important dragons to slay rather than focus on the latest fashion.

  18. Susan Russell says:

    I’m imagining future generations (assuming we don’t flat out kill the planet and there are none) looking back at these discussions with as much bemusement as we do looking back at our forebears who threw Galileo under the bus.”Imagine thinking that just because the Bible only used binary language gender fluidity isn’t a thing!” they will say — shaking their heads in disbelief. “That’s as bad as thinking that just because the Bible says the sun revolves around
    the Earth Copernicus was crazy and Galileo was a heretic!”

  19. Dixie Dugan White says:

    In my many years as a community organizer and caseworker, I heard from many women who were stuck in their healing process by the word “Father,” which kept them from participating in church, AA, AlAnon, NA, NarAnon & other venues that extensively use the Lord’s Prayer. These were women who had been physically, sexually and/or emotionally abused by their father, another male relative, or a male authority figure. I encouraged them to substitute “Creator” for “Father” in the Lord’s Prayer. I encouraged them to continue using male pronouns for Jesus, a historical male figure. This seemed to work for the majority of women I worked with, and gave them renewed strength as they worked to continue their recovery. In this day when so many women have come forth to talk about sexual abuse, this seems like a simple and honest linguistic change.
    This seems like a pretty important “dragon” which affects vast numbers of both men and women who have experienced abuse.

  20. The Rev. Canon E. T. Malone, Jr. says:

    Any idiot knows that the “Great Architect of the Universe” is neither male nor female. However, the day that General Convention mandates that I should no longer pray to God the Father is the day that I turn in my collar and go to join the Anglicans.

  21. James H. Graham, Jr. says:

    AMEN, Rev. Canon Malone! I, and no doubt many others will join you. These folks don’t know when to stop. It is a pernicious obsession, and will probably deal a death-blow to TEC. What do they think they are doing? Whom do they think they are helping? It seems they are Hell-bent on destroying what is left of our church.

  22. mike geibel says:

    The Resolution advocates the revision of the BCP should “avoid the use of gendered pronouns for God.”

    I guess that means that Bishop Budde wants to now refer to God as “it.”

  23. Doris Kurzius says:

    Many insightful comments. Why, oh why, is our beloved Episcopal Church always looking for some thing to nit pick about? Is she not happy unless people are sparring? With so much beauty in our liturgy why can’t we focus on that? The Church needs to do something because here on LI we are floundering.

  24. The Rev. Dr. John Day says:

    I’m trying to sort out in my own mind if gender inclusive language must be gender exclusive. After 26 years of ordained ministry I fear that in the face of declining membership we are having the wrong conversations. I have to work in retirement because my pension is not what I was told it would be and there are many positions open to part-time employment in declining congregations. I find it interesting that the voices arguing against gender inclusive language are predominantly male.

  25. Mary Barrett says:

    The Bible is written by men who of course are going to have a male God. It works well to control females with threatened hell and damnation to question such a thing! At least Episcopal Churches have women priests. The best thing to happen to Roman Catholics would be for women to go on strike–no more Catholic babies, no more alter societies, no more participation–until they have organized church power.

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