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WATCH reignites debate on gender language and God

05 June 2015


Women at the top: the Queen meets the first woman bishop in the C of E, the Bishop of Stockport, the Rt Revd Libby Lane, and her husband, the Revd George Lane, at a garden party at Buckingham Palace on Thursday last week

Women at the top: the Queen meets the first woman bishop in the C of E, the Bishop of Stockport, the Rt Revd Libby Lane, and her hu...

AROUSING "deeply felt and conflicting opinions" and amusing members of the clergy who are "already doing it", the debate about using "inclusive language" will be familiar to Church Times readers, a search of the archive suggests. But the discussion was revisited in the press this week.

A journalist from The Sunday Times interviewed Hilary Cotton, who chairs WATCH (Women and the Church), after hearing her address the Westminster Faith Debates last week (News, 29 May). During her speech, she suggested that women bishops would make a difference "only if God is she as often as she is he - because this is such a formative aspect of our church life, and a real bastion of sexism". The story was picked up widely by the media.

On Monday, Ms Cotton agreed that the debate she had sparked was not new, but argued: "Now is a particularly potent time to note that almost all the language about God in the normal Church of Engand liturgy is male, and not just male but about Almighty, Father, King: all male authority figures."

The installation of women bishops "makes the dissonance rather more obvious", she said. "It feels as if it should be more of a priority now."

If the language went unchanged, she feared that "at some level, they [girls and women] don't believe that they really are made in the image of God, and the consequence of that is that they may not feel confident in their calling by God in all sorts of ways."

There was "a lot of latitude in Common Worship", she said, but she hoped for "an appendix with much more expansive imagery and language about God, including possibilites where God can be referred to as female".

The Transformations Steering Group had had, at the invitation of the Liturgical Commission, "a conversation which included thinking about inclusive language in liturgy for which the Liturgical Commission is responsible, and that was well-received as a possibilty going forward".

On Tuesday, the Bishop of Sodor & Man, the Rt Revd Robert Paterson, vice-chairman of the Liturgical Commission, confirmed that this meeting had been "very helpful. . . This is likely to be a subject that will continue to surface."

Ms Cotton expects "at least 75 per cent" of the House of Bishops to be supportive. Her conversations with clergy had suggested that it was "not an issue at all - they have had the discussions. But none of that has been made evident to lay people at all. I don't know whether it is something that clergy have been trying to protect lay people from, because it does evoke strong feelings."

In December 1988, the Church Times reported on a Liturgical Commission report, Making Women Visible, which proposed changes to the Alternative Service Book. Although the report refrained from suggesting the use of "she" and "her" to refer to God (which were deemed "inappropriate"), and a bishop noted that "many changes are already in use," it provoked "deeply felt passions" in the General Synod in July 1989. 

This week, the Revd Dr Ian Paul, Associate Minister of St Nicholas's, Nottingham, argued on his blog that "talking of God as 'he' runs the danger of making people think God is male." But he warned that this pronoun could at least make a claim to being universal. "She" could not, "and so suggests that God does have a gender, and that that gender is up for debate."

He wrote: "Christianity uses metaphors because it makes the unique claim that God is both beyond human comprehension and yet somehow makes himself comprehendible. Using specific, historically conditioned metaphors is a central part of that, and we tinker with them at our peril."

The Revd Jody Stowell, Vicar of St Michael and All Angels, Harrow, told the BBC that she was "dismayed" by the press coverage. "This is not about making God a woman. This is about creating those proper, biblical images of God," she said, speaking of the way that different parts of the Bible describe God in female terms, including as a mother bear and a nursing mother.

"I would encourage people to explore those kinds of images. . . They're wholly traditional within the Christian faith."


'God unmanned' - Leader comment 

'The mother of all headlines' - Press column 

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