The most interesting thing about the recent debate on the presence (or not) of feminine pronouns in Christian liturgy and worship has been the reaction it has provoked from both Christians and the general public.
On the one hand, there is the contingent of men and women who respond with a hearty “about time too!” as though up until now the Church has truly believed and taught that God is white and male, and it took us until the 21st century to think otherwise. On the other hand, there are those who treat this ‘new’ development as though it is the first sign of the end times, and that this kind of matriarchal conspiracy – even paganism – is precisely what you can expect when you let feminists get a foot in the church door. Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile.
Both responses are lacking the context of church history. When we allow ourselves to take stock of where our discussions sit on a broader time–line, we realise that there are two issues at play. First, the Church’s ancient theological debate about the nature of God and the language best suited for describing Him, and, second, a much more recent public discussion of gender politics and the reception of women in the Church. While the two have plenty to say to each other, we must be careful not to confuse them. On the whole, Christian responses in secular media have focused firmly on the theological nuances at play, which is, I believe, the most helpful response we can give.
We are not original in being troubled by the profound difficulty of naming God. Apophatic theology, which points to the reality that none of our language (including pronouns) will ever be sufficient, appears to have heavily influenced the ‘‘He’ is not sufficient’ camp of the gender debate. Some words might get closer than others (and be more central to different Churches’ formal confessions and creeds) but closer to eternity is still an eternity away from hitting the mark. We are not only discovering this problem now, however it might be reported in the media, and so we are also unlikely to be about to solve it.
Acknowledging the history of this debate helps us to see ourselves as part of a long–running theological conversation, and move more slowly, more gently, more compassionately than we are apt. The words someone uses to refer to the Divine cannot be shrink–wrapped into e–flinging heresy accusations or calls for the end to patriarchy. I’d like an end to both heresy and the patriarchy, but I suspect that twitter will not be the primary battleground where such wars are won. When a theological debate ‘goes public’, we have a special duty to conduct ourselves in a way which positively oozes compassion and grace. I wonder how often outsiders look at the Church when we have these quarrels and declare “see, how they love each other!”
This debate is not just a matter of what we say, or how we say it, but also why we say it. I’m sure that for many people (myself included) calling God ‘Father’ and ‘Him’ is the language that comes most instinctively, and it is not a reflection of a concrete decision not to use the feminine. My use of ‘He’ is not a reflection of any lesser value I put on women, and upon discovering that for some people my lack of feminine language was a stumbling block, I have shifted my language, and will happily address the Holy Spirit as ‘She’ in reflection of certain church traditions. However, I do not use ‘She’ if I am with a Christian for whom that pronoun is problematic, or will distract them from fellowship – my weaker brother, one might say…
Churches who wish to use feminine pronouns in liturgy won’t need the internet’s blessing to go full steam ahead – as several clergy have already pointed out, some churches are already doing so. But church congregations who are not on board (many with perfectly sound theological reasons) should not have to start incorporating a pronoun that will ultimately serve as a distraction, not an aid, to worship. Nor does this mean that I believe no one should feel uncomfortable in church, or have their position challenged. But causing another discomfort must have a purpose for growth, not for point scoring – a caution with application for all of us, whichever side of this debate we fall on.
Hannah Malcolm is currently a research intern at Theos. @hannahmmalcolm