Thinking Anglicans

God – he or she?

Updated

How to refer to God – male, female, both or neither – has become a hot topic in the media in the last few days, as the long list below testifies. It appears to have started with this article (behind the paywall) by Nicholas Hellen, the Social Affairs Editor of the Sunday Times: Women clergy pray God gets a feminine touch. John Bingham and others then took it up.

Bingham and others refer to a public call by the Transformations Steering Group to the bishops to encourage more “expansive language and imagery about God”. The phrase comes from this document, issued in 2011 and presented to the bishops in 2012.

John Bingham Telegraph Calls to refer to God as a woman as female bishops take up posts

Ian Johnston Independent Female clergy propose referring to God as ‘She’ to counter idea only men are made in his image

Amelia Butterly BBC God is neither ‘she’ nor ‘he’ say Anglican priests

Nadia Khomami The Guardian Let God be a ‘she’, says Church of England women’s group

Ruth Gledhill Christian Today ‘Jesa Christa’: God is female too, say Church of England campaigners

Claire Elliot Daily Mail Our Mother who art in heaven: Group of Church women want to refer to God as a ‘She’ to combat sexism

Archdruid Eileen Should God be referred to as a Woman?

Kate Bottley The Guardian Is God a woman? To ask the question is to miss the point

Sally Hitchiner Telegraph Is God a man or a woman?

Jemima Thackray Telegraph Imagining God as a woman? That’s like farting against thunder

Telegraph leader Of course God is a woman

Carey Lodge Christian Today Is it wrong to refer to God in the female?

The Guardian Pass Notes Praise her, praise her: should we refer to God as a woman?

Damian Thompson Daily Mail No, God ISN’T male. But calling Him a ‘She’ is unholy twaddle

Updates

The media interest was prompted by remarks made at last week’s Westminster Faith Debate on Women Bishops – what difference does it make? including Hilary Cotton’s address at Westminster Faith Debate on gender justice and the church.

Andrew Lightbown Gender, Jesus and Identity; some ‘what ifs….’

Ian Paul Can we address God as ‘She’?

Daily Mail If God were a woman: As Church feminists say God is a ‘She’, some of our wittiest and wisest writers imagine the world with a higher female power at the helm

Archbishop Cranmer Against heresy: if Jesus called God ‘Father’, who are we to conflate him with Mary?

Jonathan Clatworthy God’s genitalia

Emma Percy answers questions from Premier Christianity: Why I believe God should be referred to as ‘she’.

Madeleine Davies Church Times WATCH reignites debate on gender language and God

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Benedict
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Benedict

As Our Saviour has taught us so we pray: Our Father…. No more need be said!

Richard Ashby
Guest
Richard Ashby

Poor Julian of Norwich now condemned as a dangerous radical.

Pam
Guest
Pam

Labels are important. Otherwise I’d make some very big mistakes in the kitchen.

After being offered a lot of choice of articles by TA, I decided to read only a few and, of those, Kate Bottley’s was articulate and had the added bonus of mentioning the very nutritious, and lean, kangaroo meat. Thanks Kate. I’ll throw another kangaroo steak on the barbie!

Mark Bennet
Guest
Mark Bennet

Just for the record, it is my understanding that Jesus didn’t speak English and never taught anyone to pray “Our Father …”

Cynthia
Guest
Cynthia

Genesis 1:26-27 26 Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ 27 So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. So female is clearly included as being created by God in the image of God. Yup. No more need be… Read more »

DBD
Guest

Ah yes, Benedict, as it always has been, so must it ever be. What an excellent argument.

‘Tis not G*d we in the CofE worship but the Almighty Status Quo.

Rod Gillis
Guest
Rod Gillis

Those who find controversy in the use of female imagery and metaphors in addressing The Divine are rather late to the party, the articles listed here above notwithstanding. Janet Morley, for example, published All Desires Known: Prayers Uniting Faith and Feminism, in 1988.

“All you works of God, bless your creator,
praise her and glorify her forever.”

(Benedicite from All Desires known

Peter Edwards
Guest
Peter Edwards

Personally, I have no problem with the particular orthodoxy of attributing male pronouns to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, but English – unlike many other languages – does not denote gender in the definite article. It is worth remembering that Proverbs (where Wisdom is female) was written in Hebrew which does classify nouns in this way; as does Spanish, where the Most Holy Trinity is grammatically female: La Santisima Trinidad. I haven’t done any polling but I can only imagine that some Spanish women think that’s good enough for them. I don’t think anyone is attributing genitals… Read more »

Nathaniel Brown
Guest
Nathaniel Brown

Benedict: He alsoo told us to render to Caesar; there being no more Caesar, I assume your view would be that it is no longer necessary to pay taxes? Or did Jesus speak in the language and idiom of His time?

Father David
Guest
Father David

A new religion is born – CHRISTA-INSANITY.

JCF
Guest
JCF

All it takes is to most politely, in faintest voice, raise a *question* of gendered theological language, and misogynists come out of the woodwork in DROVES. [“infestation”: one of the least offensive descriptions for women by Torygraph commenters] Mercy…

Lorenzo Fernandez-Vicente
Guest
Lorenzo Fernandez-Vicente

Am I the only one getting worried about the now frequent and unexamined assumption that the first chapter of Genesis is a clear indication that neither gender on its own is the image of God? I am utterly unable to put any orthodox construction on it and it is ever so frequently alleged among evangelicals and RC conservatives. Where does it come from? It’s not patristic. It’s never been defined by any council. It’s the hub of so many an anti-gay arguments, like Gagnon’s, Ian Paul’s, More Issues etc…

Jon
Guest
Jon

Benedict, so Jesus spoke English did he? Or should we restrict our statements of belief to only use koine Greek and Hebrew?

Lorenzo Fernandez-Vicente
Guest
Lorenzo Fernandez-Vicente

It’d flatly contradict the RC Catechism, for instance, cf. article 1701. The image of God is fully present in every human, albeit defaced.

SImon R
Guest
SImon R

There seems to have been quite shift between the 2011 document and what has emerged from the Piccadilly event. First, the 2011 event was addressed by more recognised professional theologians. The Piccadilly event (with the exception of Linda Woodhead who is, arguably, a sociologist of religion) had no professional theologians. That puts the whole forum at a distinct disadvantage. When Sarah Coakley spoke in 2011 about the ‘deep suppurating wound’ of theological incoherence surrounding the ministry of women, this seems to have been compounded by the Piccadilly event, precisely because the lack of professional theological insight seems to have fuelled… Read more »

Charles Read
Guest
Charles Read

Simon R: Where to start? 1. We have a successor to the doctrine commission, chaired by + Chris Cocksworth who has a PhD in liturgical theology. 2. WATCH works with many theologians and Emma Percy is currently a committee member. However, others of us involved in WATCH are full time teachers of theology. 3. The original Transformations event at Lambeth in 2011 had plenary addresses by Sarah Coakley, Paula Gooder and Mary Gray-Reeves. All these were very good but none really addressed language for God as I recall. 4. The seminar on liturgy and gender, from which this current debate… Read more »

Colin Graham
Guest
Colin Graham

First “Reformation and Renewal” and now “Transformation”. Both seem to me to lack any coherent grounding. The “Transformation” steering group is in real danger of appearing like a frustrated rump who need to remind the Church that they’re still here because a younger generation of women, who have different priorities and visions, is overtaking them and becoming more influential. Yes, of course, women have had to fight for equality of ordination (of sorts… we’re not anywhere near it yet); but let’s stop beating up the younger generation who haven’t had to fight previous battles – and don’t need to be… Read more »

Ian Paul
Guest

Simon R, I think you highlight an important issue, relevant not just to this issue.

If there is no serving bishop competent to chair, what happened to our theological leadership?

I would, however, also agree with the complementary point which is made well by Kate Bottley. In the past the theology might have been more sound, but the communication to the man and woman on the proverbial Clapham omnibus has still failed.

David Marshall
Guest
David Marshall

Whatever else may be said, this Faith Debate has been impressively effective. To get the national secular press talking about what God is like must rate as a major achievement. The gender issue has turned out to be exactly the kind of hook popular journalism could latch onto and do some theology. Not the church version that some here seem to be arguing for – Christian imagery, language and symbolism are alien religious artifacts for most of us – but trying to make sense of God in contemporary non-church mindsets. If campaigning on any issue raises the profile of this… Read more »

John
Guest
John

I think there are two very strong God as female references in the NT (not listed by Ian Paul or the scholar he references): (1) 1 Peter (not by Peter) 2.2-3 ‘like newborn babes, desire the undeceptive milk of the word, if indeed you have tasted (maintaining milk metaphor) that the Lord is good’. Here the milk is Jesus (and the word ‘chrestos’ puns on ‘Christos’), whose ‘mother’ is God, and ‘Lord’ is both God and Jesus. (2) James (possibly even Jesus’ brother) 1.15-18 ‘then desire [feminine] when it has conceived [female] gives birth to [tikto can be used of… Read more »

Benedict
Guest
Benedict

Mark Bennett, would you like to find me one reference in the Bible that does describe God as “her” or “she” in English, Hebrew, Greek or indeed in any other language.Jesus does refer to God as His Father. For that, there are any number of references.

Tobias Haller
Guest
Tobias Haller

It is fascinating to me that many who are able to accept images of God as various as she-bear, mother hen, mountain, fortress, slave-master, king, rock, volcano, and so on seem to balk at Mother. Of course, this is a case of what the New Yorker magazine used to call “Block that Metaphor.” All of these images are meant to tell us something about God and the nature of God, and none of them are meant to be pressed into literality. But the other odd thing is that some of the same folks who want to press the marital imagery… Read more »

Peter Denis
Guest
Peter Denis

Strange discussion. We have had women bishops in Canada for more than 20 years, but this doesn’t seem to be an issue. Indeed two women are nominated for the election on Saturday of a successor to the Bishop of Montreal but neither has suggested a change in gender for God, thank goodness(or God)!

Simon Butler
Guest
Simon Butler

It seems to me that this discussion falls into a trap of assuming that ‘Father’ is a metaphor among metaphors. Unfortunately, it is not that simple, because the God Christians worship is not just ‘God’ but ‘the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’. This is in fact the Name of God. It seems to me that, as much as non masculine metaphors of God can and should be used liturgically (Prayer G h/t Charles Read), faithfulness requires us to hold to the ‘F’ word. Maternal metaphors are fine, but not adequate.

James Barnett
Guest
James Barnett

Julian of Norwich wrote “Jesus Christ therefore, who himself overcame evil with good, is our true Mother.” It is rather old hat (as they say). Moreover to confine God to one sex or the other would be to restrict that same God who would not longer be God.

Father David
Guest
Father David

Good point well made, Simon Butler, reminding us that the Almighty is “God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ” NOT His mother. No one seems yet to have mentioned the essential role played by the Blessed Virgin Mary, Theotokos, Mother of God. What a highly complex and complicated DNA the supreme deity undoubtedly has.

Tobias Haller
Guest
Tobias Haller

I would demur from saying that “Father” is the “name of God.” “Father” is a title or form of address, and is used as a placeholder (in the genitive) in such phrases as “in the Name of the Father….” and (in the vocative) “Our Father.” I think that only in the North is “Our” applied to a proper name, and though Galilee is to the north of Jerusalem, I have some difficulty hearing our Lord with a Yorkshire accent. (Though my ancestors hailed from there and I love the sound of it!) I don’t mean to be frivolous, but this… Read more »

Anne
Guest
Anne

Simon Butler: Thank you for putting it so clearly. “Maternal metaphors are fine, but not adequate.” Isn’t that exactly the point? Paternal metaphors are fine, but they too are not adequate. We are ALL made in the image of God. God is male AND female, Father AND Mother. It is the paucity of our gendered language which creates the dilemma for us.

Rod Gillis
Guest
Rod Gillis

@ Simon butler, something of a circular argument. All Language about God is analogous.

Mark Bennet
Guest
Mark Bennet

Benedict – the main point is that there is a hermeneutical distance. The word “father” has a different domain of meaning in English from the meanings of the different words it translates. Part of this relates to other words or expressions which may exist in the language to express similar relationships – daddy, dad, papa, old man, baby father etc etc. Another part relates to the different social context of fatherhood. St Paul has the idea that we are adopted, and St John says we are children of God but not by human agency (John 1, John 3 – where… Read more »

stephen morgan
Guest
stephen morgan

I seem to remember this argument from more than thirty years ago. The idea that God, (being ‘God’) is exclusively male, is obviously preposterous; as is the idea that she is exclusively female! God is God. Simples!

peterpi - Peter Gross
Guest
peterpi - Peter Gross

Thank you Cynthia on Tuesday, 2 June 2015 at 10:57pm BST! I don’t know whether the Hebrew of Genesis 1:27 is a compound sentence or three short sentences, but the logic is absolutely straight-line and inescapable. Women are made in God’s image. Period. It’s my favorite passage on the subject of God’s gender AND the fundamental equality of men and women. God is both and neither male and/or female. Both male and female, because God cannot create that which God is incapable of knowing. Just as one simply can’t walk up to a computer and tell it “play a game… Read more »

Rod Gillis
Guest
Rod Gillis

@ Benedict, “Jesus does refer to God as His Father.” Father is a title. Titles, whether for God or for Jesus, have a degree of cultural and historical context. Such titles often function, not so much to express abstract essence, but rather to make claims that are comparative or relational. Interestingly, the titles King, savior, and shepherd are applied in scripture to both the God of Israel and Jesus. Ezekiel, for instance, describes God as the gold standard for the shepherd king of Israel in a way that the monarchy of the day was not presumably. The lord (God) is… Read more »

Susannah Clark
Guest

I strongly commend Elizabeth Johnson’s ‘She Who Is’. Personally, I believe that Godde transcends gender, but expresses, feels, and understands everything it is to be female, and everything it is to be male. I am equally relaxed about referring to Godde as ‘He’ or ‘She’ though my favourite nomenclature tries to express that essence that drives right down the middle between ‘God’ and ‘Goddess’ and transcends both. Godde is sort of there in the middle of the two words, with their traditional gender suggestions. I also like it because of its sound of something from ancient times in our language.… Read more »

Jo
Guest
Jo

@Simon Butler: I would say that both maternal and paternal metaphors are necessary, but neither is sufficient. God uses maternal imagery, speaking through Isaiah: “as a mother comforts her child so will I myself comfort you”.

Mark Bennet
Guest
Mark Bennet

There was a fair amount of interest in “The Shack” by William P Young a few years ago – anyone remember that?

To Simon Butler – “the” name of God? How about the name revealed to Moses, or the trinitarian name of God. The commandment against images of God is a potential warning against over-identifying the reality of God with who we imagine God to be (in our fallen human nature). The commandments enjoin care in the use of “the” name of God. So your comment on naming ought, perhaps, to come with a warning.

SImon R
Guest
SImon R

My unease with Kate Bottley’s point (@ Ian Paul) and the constant clamour for ‘accessibility’ of language, especially when we’re talking about God, is the obvious danger of reducing mystery to the prosaic. Surely, we can all think of episodes of Christian history (and religious history generally) where a primary concern with ease of comprehension has fuelled fundamentalist tendencies, and (as Schleiermacher famously remarked) leads to tighter definition and greater certainty with the proscription of the mysterious. Liberals are as prone to this as anyone else. The fundamental task of theology, surely, is not to constantly simplify and provide fodder… Read more »

Fr William
Guest

The reaction of some of my flock to this debate has been to drive them even more strongly towards the (catholic) flying bishops. ‘The faith as we have received it …’ It would be interesting to know how many parishes are signing up under the new arrangements. And how many will sign up for oversight by the Bishop of Maidstone.

Erika Baker
Guest
Erika Baker

Simon R
I find your comment fascinating! For me, the insistence that God is male and must be addressed as He, is more likely to reduce the mystery to the prosaic.
Sometimes, we can be so comfortable with the way we express things that we no longer think deeply about the underlying meaning.

The simple suggestion that God might occasionally be referred to as she has resulted in a fascinating debate about the nature of God. That alone has helped to highlight the mystery of it all.

Will Richards
Guest
Will Richards

With all due respect to @Charles Read, ‘Full time teachers of Theology’ (of which there seem to be many on various courses and schemes these days) are not the same as those who hold a chair of theology in a mainstream university. Until this debate is lead and given appropriate weight and authority by those who are recognised as authoritative by the academy, rather than sections of the Church (as, say, Ramsey, Habgood, Williams, Coakley, Rowell & co), I fear the Piccadilly Westminster Debate will be seen as little more than another movement of disaffection.

David Marshall
Guest
David Marshall

@Simon R: Isn’t the fundamental task of theology to make sense? I agree God is not an object, but neither is God divorced from human reality. God in Christian tradition is never less than the creator/first cause of all that is. As such the mystery associated with God is not that different to gravity and causation in general. Focusing on uniquely human attributes attached to God through stories (like the biblical narratives) artificially creates distance from everyday reality. It prevents what can be known about God making sense. Yes, gravity is mysterious but I don’t think we struggle much with… Read more »

Charles Read
Guest
Charles Read

Will: well we are back to another debate! I am very supportive of university theology and have two theology degrees from a good university (soon I hope a third to complete the set!) They have been a good grounding for Christian ministry but also for much else. However, there are other equally good ways of approaching theology which work with ‘the academy’ approach. We are not lacking in university theologians writing about the issues at hand. My shelves are full of their stuff. Indeed, as others have noted, this in no new debate, even if the Daily Mail thinks it… Read more »

Father Ron Smith
Guest

I guess one of the problems for those who crave an exclusive masculine nature for God, is that they see the male as the Boss. In today’s society, when this is not necessarily so; can we not just envisage a God who is All things to All people.

Surely Mother Julian was not wrong to address the Deity as Father/Mother God ?

And what about Jesus, saying that He would be like a mother hen looking after her chicks?

Surely, in the divine there must be the possibility of fusion? God, after all, is ONE.

John
Guest
John

As both a ‘hard’ and a ‘soft’ liberal (‘soft’ in wanting everybody reasonable to be happy within the C of E and everybody reasonable to be given due representation), I’m disturbed by Fr William’s comment. On the one hand, everybody has a right to discuss what they like and say what they think (and, from a historical perspective, even a ‘now’ perspective, women more than most). On the other hand, immediate mass communication now ratchets things up. On the other hand again, we should all say (if we can say it) that these discussions don’t affect fundamentals and nobody should… Read more »

Simon R
Guest
Simon R

@David Marshall raises some helpful points. I’m not sure that I suggested mystery is divorced from human reality (we speak of the incarnation as a mystery, for example, precisely because we cannot claim to know everything there is to know about it). I would never want to say that mystery and reality are mutually exclusive (heretical, surely?). This is why sacramental theology has a key role in this debate because we are attempting to say how the raw realities of human flesh and blood stand in relation to the eternal nature and identity of God and God’s disclosure in –… Read more »

Michael Mulhern
Guest
Michael Mulhern

Picking up on Mark Bennett’s point about idolatry (3rd June 9.41pm), I was reminded of a point made by the Jewish theologian Lionel Kochan (Beyond the Graven Image: A Jewish View, 1997, p97) that ‘what constitutes an idol depends on no inherent attribute, solely on its context and relationship.’ Surely worth noting in this debate?

David Marshall
Guest
David Marshall

@Simon R: A traditionally orthodox perspective does hold its mysteries to be realities. That’s the essential assertion of sacramental theology. Traditional metaphors have become sacred and original context and limits on applicability have been superceded by dogmatic attachment. Anything beyond what can be known and understood is personal experience – no less real, but subjectively so. Whatever ontological claims are made for it, and for sacraments and incarnational theology in general, they have no non-subjective basis. That’s why they make so little sense outside the Church, and why objections to female imagery for God are so hard to understand when… Read more »

James A
Guest
James A

I’m energised by the Simon R/David Marshall conversation. It seems we have two people coming, broadly, from the ‘Protestant’ and ‘Catholic’ ends of the spectrum but not quite meeting in the middle. That, I suggest, is precisely why we need a Doctrine Commission and some more serious work done on the debate(as Gavin D’Costa might put it) about ‘sexing the Trinity.’ Of course, Sarah Coakley’s recent study of the Trinity ‘God, Sexuality and the Self’ is as good a starting point as any. However, I do take issue with David Marshall in his contention that the work of theologians is… Read more »

Susannah Clark
Guest

James (A), People have been doing the theology for ages. If we want to engage with the wider world, it would help to recognise that certain theological previously ‘untouchables’ are indeed stumbling blocks for ordinary and intelligent people in the world. Elizabeth Johnson, the Canadian Catholic theologian, has explored the whole subject of ‘gendering God’ in really intelligent and coherent manner (see ‘She Who Is’). She hasn’t had much thanks for it from the Catholic hierarchy, but that doesn’t make the work less relevant to the wider world… just the opposite. I think it is incorrect in this day and… Read more »

Cynthia
Guest
Cynthia

A ton of work has been done on feminist theology. The resistance on the part of the male hierarchy to take it seriously does not mean that it hasn’t happened! To suggest so is certainly to buy into the gazillion Facebook memes that have women uttering brilliant ideas that are only taken seriously when a man utters it as if it is his own, brilliant, idea. One might start with the Cambridge Companion to Feminist Theology. A look at the table of contents, however, show that it is not all encompassing. The Johnson book that has been mentioned, She Who… Read more »