Why use gender-inclusive language?

Submitted by Ruth on Wednesday, July 13, 2016 - 17:36

Ruth explores why it's important to use gender-inclusive language in worship, with help from Professor Adrian Thatcher.

When I was doing a placement at St Mark's Church in Mansfield, many people said that they wanted to start up a new pastoral care group. The vicar, Keith Hebden, and I had a chat about the need for more work on inclusion in the church. He posited the idea of combining the work on inclusion with the new pastoral care group, and naming it the 'Pastoral Care and Inclusion Group'. We both thought that this was a good idea, because, after all, being inclusive is doing pastoral care, isn't it? Part of the remit of the group could be to look at inclusive language in our worship. Unfortunately, as lovely as the people of St Mark's were, the inclusion of the word 'inclusion' (boom boom) was resisted by some. This is because '[a]ny issue involving sex or gender triggers visceral conservative reactions', in the words of Adrian Thatcher, Professor of Theology at Exeter University. 

Prof. Thatcher has recently written a booklet called 'Gender-Inclusive Language and Worship' for Modern Church. In it, he explains why using gender-inclusive language in worship is an 'acute and urgent' issue for churches, and resistance to anything other than male language for God has almost become 'idolatrous'. Of course, as the church struggles with expanding language about God into the feminine as well as masculine, society is two steps ahead and already questioning whether binary gender is even a thing.

In Genesis 1:27, it says, 'So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.' Despite the use of masculine pronouns for God in this passage and throughout the Bible, the implication is clear: if both men and women were created in God's image, then God is both male and female (and beyond both). The Bible is steeped in the patriarchal culture from which it emerged, but nevertheless often points us toward a bigger, more inclusive vision of God. In Isaiah, God '[cries] out like a woman in labour' (Is 42:14), Israel is 'carried from [God's] womb' (Is 46:3) and God comforts Israel '[as] a mother comforts her child' (Is 66:13). Jesus also uses this female imagery, comparing himself to a mother hen: 'How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings' (Matthew 23:37). In John's gospel, it says that 'the Word became flesh and lived among us' (John 1:14). It is important that John does not say that the Word became a man. He goes on to say 'and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son'. The word 'as' is important here, because just as the word Father when used for God is a metaphor, so the word son used for Jesus is one too.

Thatcher says that what matters is not that Jesus was a man, but that he was human. Unlike in the past, nowadays 'there is a crass literalism which does not understand the complex, subtle and symbolic meanings of deep religious language'. This is in part due to the Enlightenment, when the quest for reason and fact supposedly erased the need to understand meaning and myth, and mysticism was replaced with biblical fundamentalism. Gregory of Nyssa (4th century), for example, had no issue speaking of God as 'mother' and neither did Julian of Norwich (14th-15th century). Whereas now, says Thatcher, clergy are often afraid of using feminine language for God because they believe that 'what people hear is too often perceived as so disruptive that it becomes all they can hear'.

If Christ is God, then Christ must be beyond gender, as God is beyond gender. Jesus appeared in male form simply because he had to appear in human form, and to appear as a woman would have been unimaginable at the time. Thankfully, today 'it is both imaginable and desirable', says Thatcher. Mystics often found it helpful to pray using cataphatic theology- speaking many words for God in order to avoid being idolatrous by fixating on one. In a similar way, we must expand our language about God into female imagery and metaphor, and beyond binary gender. If we don't, then feminist theologian Mary Daly's statement 'If God is male then the male is God' will be true in our worship.