*** DEBUG END ***

Leader: God unmanned

05 June 2015

1989, our younger readers might be interested to know, is more than just the name of an album by Taylor Swift, currently at number 3 in the charts. It was the year in which the General Synod debated the Liturgical Commission's report Making Women Visible, which proposed making the language of liturgy more inclusive. The excitement generated this week by a small group that has been discussing the still largely male language used in church plunges us back through time to the year when Ms Swift was born. It was an era when the Archdeacon of York, George Austin, could talk of "deep feelings and deep hurts" on both sides of the issue, and the liturgist and future Bishop of Gloucester, Michael Perham, could remark on the peculiarity of making his "maiden" speech.

However deep the feelings, the debate was infused with common sense. The report itself had drawn the line at changing text that was "too familiar for any alteration to sound well", and acknowledged the silliness of changing popular hymns; but it noted a growing discomfort with the use of "man" as a generic term for humanity. Speaking in the debate, Jean Mayland commented: "Quite frankly, whatever we do as a Synod this morning, we cannot stop the worldwide movement of change in liturgical language in this way."

And so it has proved. The Synod took note of the report, the House of Bishops discussed it further, and the views expressed fed into the next generation of liturgy, Common Worship. This used inclusive language for texts referring to people, and attempted a "more pictorial and evocative" language in general, holding together the traditional and contemporary - what it referred to quaintly in 2000 as "the so-called 'post-modern' approach". The process of framing liturgy is a tricky one, in that it freezes in time a process that continues to evolve. As the Common Worship notes state: "Gradual change in worship is not unnatural but natural." The authorisation of a variety of liturgical texts is an acknowledgement that different parishes evolve at different speeds.

And yet the task of teaching the Church about the unknowable nature of God must go on, and liturgy is, in the main, the way the Church does this. Tinkering with personal pronouns still has the capacity to frighten the odd horse, even though this, too, feels like a decades-old debate. The passage of time means that it is possible to talk of God as mother without the self-consciousness that plagued earlier attempts; and there is a better understanding of why many people, men as well as women, find the association of God with fathers problematic. The difficulty that the English language poses, however, has not gone away. God can perhaps be better known through attributes: creator, redeemer, etc. But no alternative can be found to gendered pronouns without neutering God. As Taylor Swift sings on her album: "Now we've got problems, And I don't think we can solve 'em." But, thanks to so-called post-modernism, churchpeople are no longer hostile to different solutions for different occasions.

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Letters to the editor

Letters for publication should be sent to letters@churchtimes.co.uk.

Letters should be exclusive to the Church Times, and include a full postal address. Your name and address will appear below your letter unless requested otherwise.

Forthcoming Events

Green Church Awards

Awards Ceremony: 6 September 2024

Read more details about the awards


Festival of Preaching

15-17 September 2024

The festival moves to Cambridge along with a sparkling selection of expert speakers

tickets available


Inspiration: The Influences That Have Shaped My Life

September - November 2024

St Martin in the Fields Autumn Lecture Series 2024

tickets available



Festival of Faith and Literature

28 February - 2 March 2025

The festival programme is soon to be announced sign up to our newsletter to stay informed about all festival news.

Festival website


Visit our Events page for upcoming and past events 

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)