*** DEBUG END ***

God has many names: a solution to the inclusive-language dilemma

17 February 2023

Maggi Dawn suggests a solution to the inclusive-language dilemma


AMONG the issues that emerged from the General Synod, one that caused some comment was the proposal that we might adopt non-gendered language in worship, with the aim of making it more inclusive.

This particular debate is by no means unique to the Church of England. Other denominations have been wrestling with it for years, adapting prayers, hymns, and liturgy in an attempt to express the worship of God in ways that is both faithful to the tradition, and welcoming to worshipers.

Adapting liturgical language is nothing new. Both liturgy and hymnody have been carefully edited over the centuries as cultural norms have shifted and language has changed in meaning. It is easy to forget — or even be oblivious — quite how much of what is considered to be “time-honoured tradition” has been changed to excise language that the passage of time has rendered unacceptable.

Cultural changes and their pastoral and political implications are important. But we also need to attend to how language works in the particular context of worship. Liturgical language has a different form and function from that of, say, a theology seminar, or the minutes from a PCC meting or synod.

It has a particular power to reinforce ideas and beliefs because it is a “performative utterance” — it not only comments on something objectively but enacts something as it is uttered, bringing into reality what is spoken or sung.

And, enhanced by rhythm, poetry, and music, it sounds the depths within us because it is employed consciously and deliberately in relationship to God and to the worshipping community.


QUESTIONS about how to employ “inclusive” language in worship were raised repeatedly during the years I was Associate Dean of Yale Divinity School. Our student body was ecumenical, international, and culturally highly diverse.

We paid close attention to the language we used, not merely to avoid offence, but to reinforce a sense of belonging for every person present. We did some good work, and we made a few mistakes. But one of the things we learned along the way was that replacing or neutralising gendered language in worship is far more complex than it first appears.

For example, reaching for female or non-gendered equivalents for the predominantly male and hierarchical names we typically use for God — such as Father, Lord, Son of God, King of Kings — can trip us up theologically.

To name God “Our Mother” overlooks the fact that “Our Father” is intended to describe God not as a heavenly Dad but as “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” — a recurring New Testament phrase that affirms the nature of Jesus as God incarnate, born of a woman, and our adoption into Christ’s relationship with the Father.

There are abundant scriptural passages that attribute feminine characteristics to God, but replacing “Father” with “Mother” in this particular context diminishes its Trinitarian sense.

Is a gender-neutral solution an improvement? “Creator-Redeemer-Sustainer” is an increasingly popular substitute for Father-Son-Spirit, but, on closer examination, it is not as Trinitarian as it appears. It implies that creation belongs to the Father alone, and redemption only to the Son, in direct contradiction to the Christian teaching that these actions properly belong to God in Unity.

Equally problematic is the way in which it describes God in terms of function rather than relationship. It is fundamental to Christian theology that God, while not a corporeal being, is not impersonal. Worship needs the language of relationship, not job descriptions.


WORSHIP needs to reflect both relationship and proper theological depth, then. But in addition, it is spoken, not written, language. Whether by a single voice, a congregation, or a choir, it is voiced from start to finish.

And while worship does not have to be high art (Isaac Watts argued that it should sound closer to everyday language), the words do need to feel comfortable in the mouth, and sound good to the ear.

It is also personal language, invested with commitments, beliefs, and feelings. As Bakhtin pointed out in his Speech Genres, language used for data collection, legal and business records may be accurate in the delivery of information, but it is utterly impersonal and contains nothing of the self.

In creating or adapting prayers and songs to satisfy the needs of inclusivity, if we focus only on political correctness, we quickly find ourselves with liturgy that does not express our humanity. I have seen prayers and hymns that neutralise gendered pronouns, or supply the genitive “God’s” for “His” — but they are almost impossible to sing, or to say aloud without stumbling, and sound like cold statements of belief, not prayers addressed to God.

Adapting and updating language to satisfy the needs of inclusivity, must attend as much to how language works to its political nuances or propositional meaning.


GIVEN these complexities, how might we introduce changes without tripping over our theological shoelaces, and without ending up with language that sounds clunky and awkward?

I have increasingly reached for “expansive” language, which, rather than reducing vocabulary to an approved range of expressions, explores the riches of multiple under-used names and metaphors for God. A wider vocabulary pushes us to discover that God is far bigger than the limits of familiar imagery — a God who may nudge us out of our comfort zones, but will also surprise, delight, comfort and inspire.

Of course, tucked away in the pages of older books, there are dated hymns and prayers that use overtly racist or sexist language, and I am by no means suggesting that we would include those in worship.

My point is that, having left behind what is clearly unacceptable, rather than reduce our vocabulary to an approved range of terms, it is better to expand our language, exploring multiple ways of naming God.


POLICING our language for political, pastoral, or personal reasons runs the risk of domesticating God, or even of making God in our own image. But the beauty of expansive language is that using multiple names rather than privileging one or two above all others draws us into a richer and more nuanced understanding or the God we worship.

We can draw on an abundance of metaphor from the pages of scripture: God is a rock, a shepherd, a lioness, a mother hen; and from the lines of poets and songwriters, such as John Donne’s “three person’d God”, or Michael Perry’s “God beyond all praising”. Together, these serve as a constant reminder that God is far bigger than any one of these names.

Walter Brueggemann encourages expanding rather than restricting our language for God, pointing out that cutting down metaphors not only leads to impoverished language but runs the risk of idolatry.

Interviewed by Krista Tippet for On Being (2011), Brueggemann commented: “The biblical defense against idolatry is plural metaphors. If you reduce the metaphors too much, you will end with an idol. So more metaphors gives more access to God.”

Rather than a fudge, or a request merely for everyone to tolerate words they dislike for the sake of others, this is an invitation to a richer imaginative world. Expansive language not only creates an environment of welcome, it pulls us out of our comfort zones, challenges our tendency to frame God according to our own preferences, and opens windows on fresh glimpses of mysteries beyond human telling.

It gives us the freedom to play with new language, and at the same time retain ancient prayers that underline the historicity and enduring quality of the faith. It takes effort, artistry, and perhaps some discomfort, but as Desmond Tutu said, we are a “rainbow people of God”, and our language needs to reflect the richness of diversity, rather than the dullness of neutralisation.

Biblical writers, along with theologians, poets, and hymnwriters have named God as: servant and friend, our helper, Lord, Word-made-flesh, a compassionate father, a mother who breastfeeds her children, a woman who knits, a tigress, a warrior, a mother hen, a shepherd, a rock and a tower, a shield and defence, a landowner, a housekeeper, a baker of bread, a mighty ruler and a powerless infant, the light that lightens the world, and the darkness that is above all light — the God who is both love and wisdom, and at the same time the God whose name, however close we try to get to it, will always elude us.

Let us take all these names and more besides, roll them around in our mouths, taste and see whether they are, in fact, good. And let us feel our way towards articulating our worship in a way that is as inclusive and respectful of one another as it is truthful, honouring, and worshipful of the God whose name, as St Paul says, is above all names.


The Revd Maggi Dawn is Professor of Theology at Durham University. She previously taught at the Universities of Cambridge and Yale. Her first career was as a songwriter. She is the author of “The Ethics of Adaptation in Songs and Hymns for Worship” in Ethics and Christian Musicking, edited by Nathan Myrick and Mark Porter (Routledge).

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

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.)