Leader: God unmanned

by
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.

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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.

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