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Dear God, Shall We Address You As Sir or Madam? – Church of England Says Maybe Neither

The Creation - Michelangelo

In the opening lines of the Bible, familiar to us in the classic King James as “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” the original Hebrew refers to the Deity as Elohim, a plural noun literally meaning “gods.” Scholars have made much (and little) of the fact that though one of the names of God is plural, it yet behaves as a singular—much as one might incorrectly say, for example, “They hasn’t been there.” Grammatically it couldn’t be more wrong, but in the case of Elohim, it’s Biblically OK.

God is referred to in many other ways in scripture and liturgy, of course. And for centuries the Church of England has referred to the Almighty exclusively as a male with male pronouns—He, Our Father—but this spring, the church, after years of studying the ways in which God is referenced, has begun a project on “gendered language.”

“Christians have recognized since ancient times that God is neither male nor female,” the Church of England explained in an emailed statement. “Yet the variety of ways of addressing and describing God found in scripture has not always been reflected in our worship.”

We’ve seen Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel with its white bearded paternal God – and possibly that and similar renditions in classic art have colored our mental image of Whom we pray to, beg forgiveness from, invoke in our exasperation, ask for special favors and sometimes blame.

But as the Rev. Diarmaid MacCulloch, emeritus professor of the history of the church at Oxford University, said in an email, “assigning a gender to God has always been a matter of metaphor, since we are incapable of saying anything that encapsulates divinity effectively in human language. It’s therefore only natural that we should explore further how we might speak of God in the liturgy, given the vast shifts in understanding gender and sexuality that are going forward in society.”

Rev. MacCulloch echoed what the Archbishop of Canterbury, the church’s most senior bishop, observed in 2018, namely that any conceptualization of God is “to some degree metaphorical,” because “God is not male or female. God is not definable.”

Although it may seem a startling new idea to some, the issue and possible shift in how to perceive and address God both personally and in church worship has been going on for nearly a decade.

In 2014, the Liturgical Commission, which prepares authorized services for the church, began “regularly considering” what language could be updated and modernized, the church said in its statement. As part of its agenda for the next five years, the commission “asked another Church of England body, the Faith and Order Commission — which advises on theology — to work with it on looking at” how God is described and addressed in Church of England services.

There is no timeline on that process, and any conclusion it reaches does not automatically signal a vast rewrite of anything and everything. “There are absolutely no plans to abolish or substantially revise currently authorized liturgies and no such changes could be made without extensive legislation,” the church said.

“Until about 50 years ago, there was relatively little flexibility permitted with liturgical language in Anglican churches, which would have given the impression of some unchanging vision of a male God,” said Frances Knight, associate professor in the history of modern Christianity at the University of Nottingham. “But that has all changed now, with an emphasis on the language of worship being clear, current, meaningful and dignified.”

“Clear, current, meaningful and dignified” is without question one legitimate way of looking at what could be a paradigm shift of a modus operandi that has existed unchallenged for millennia. Another way, as observed by one unnamed priest, is that some people “think we’re being a bit woke.”

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