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Is God a she?

January 2016 | by Lee Gatiss

In an interview with The Guardian newspaper (24 October 2015), the new Bishop of Gloucester, Rachel Treweek, joined others who are saying that the Church of England should use both male and female pronouns when referring to God. She personally prefers, we’re told, to say neither ‘he’ nor ‘she’, but ‘God’.

‘Sometimes I lapse, but I try not to’, the bishop told The Observer. ‘In the creation narratives, we’re told that God created human beings in God’s likeness, and then it goes on to talk about male and female. If I am made in the image of God, then God is not to be seen as male. God is God’.

Feminist reinterpretations

This is a very old discussion, of course, with precursors in early church debates over Gnosticism. Julian of Norwich (a woman, despite the name!) spoke of God as our ‘Mother’. This has been commonplace in feminist reinterpretations of theology over the last 50 years.

In terms of theology proper, of course God is not ‘male’ as opposed to female. For a start, God is ‘without body, parts, or passions’, as Article 1 of the Church of England’s doctrinal basis puts it. However, Christians have always spoken of God as ‘the Father’, because this is his relation to the Son within the godhead: it is not about his relationship to us primarily, but his eternal relationship to another person in the Trinity.

God becomes our Father when we are regenerated by the grace of him who gave us the power to become children of God (John 1:12). But he is first and foremost the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:3; 2 Corinthians 1:3; 1 Peter 1:3), and always has been Father to the eternally begotten Son, as we affirm in the Nicene Creed (and Article 2 of The Thirty-nine Articles).

In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus himself told us to pray to God as ‘Our Father’. It would be a bold disciple who refused to follow the Master in this. It is true that ‘the super-eminence of the divinity exceeds the power of ordinary language’, as Peter Lombard once put it (Sentences 1.23; 2.2). But that does not mean we are free to play with the language we use with reference to God to make our own theological points.

Masculine language

In Scripture, it is true that there are female metaphors applied to God. He is like a woman in labour (Isaiah 42:14); a considerate, comforting mother (Isaiah 49:15; 66:13); and a mother eagle (Deuteronomy 32:11-12). Jesus compares himself to a mother hen (Matthew 23:37). These analogies are there and they are glorious, though, interestingly, God is not called ‘our Mother’, or referred to as ‘she’.

God chose to speak to us in what is thought by some to be irredeemably ‘patriarchal language’. Feminine language was available — many ancient cultures had goddesses — but God chose not to utilise it in his written Word when referring to himself.

Overwhelmingly, God is referred to in the Bible as Father, and by use of masculine pronouns. As the apostle John puts it: ‘Our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ’ (1 John 1:3). Jesus Christ, of course, is the Son — not daughter — of God, and is described as ‘the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature’ (Hebrews 1:3).

God’s fatherhood is not patterned after ours, as if he is using a human metaphor to grasp at a way of telling us something ineffable about himself. Rather, every fatherhood on earth is named after his fatherhood (Ephesians 3:14-15).

Who rules?

As Christians, we give up the claim to run our own life, and submit to him as our Lord. That is our relationship to him: we are creatures and disciples. We must, therefore, acknowledge his power and right to shape our views of him and his relationship to us.

In this connection, I found it noteworthy that Mrs Treweek, who is now the first female bishop in the House of Lords, originally returned the writ summoning her to the Lords. She objected to the title given to her in the writ. It referred to her as ‘Right Reverend Father in God’. Now the writ describes her simply as a bishop.

She asserts her right to be addressed as she wants to be addressed, so that even Her Majesty the Queen herself has to comply in her writs. The Queen had to rewrite the writ until Bishop Rachel was comfortable with it, otherwise it would not be accepted and obeyed. Such is the way in our constitutional monarchy, where the Queen reigns but does not rule.

Who has the power of deciding on language in our relationship with God? Who rules? Indeed, should we not extend the same courtesy to God, as Bishop Rachel insists upon for herself?

Humble reverence

As the fourth century theologian, Hilary of Poitiers (a man, despite the name!), puts it in his book De Trinitate (1.18): ‘Since then we are to discourse of the things of God, let us assume that God has full knowledge of himself, and bow with humble reverence to his words. For he whom we can only know through his own utterances is the fitting witness concerning himself’.

Rev. Dr Lee Gatiss is the Director of Church Society. This article is edited, with kind permission, from Church Society’s blog. Full article at: http://churchsociety.org/blog/entry/topical_tuesday_is_god_a_she/#sthash.r8PZ2pVk.dpuf

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