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Picture of the Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek

Topical Tuesday: Is God a She?

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Posted by Lee Gatiss, 27 Oct 2015

The new bishop of Gloucester, wants to “gently challenge” us all not to refer to God as “he.” Lee Gatiss reflects on this provocative headline grabber.

In an interview with The Guardian newspaper at the weekend, 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 are 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.”

This is a very old discussion, of course, with precursors in the early church debates with heretical gnosticism. Julian of Norwich (a woman, of course, despite the name!) spoke of God as our Mother. It has been a commonplace in feminist reinterpretations of theology over the last 50 years. As another contributor to The Guardian put it earlier this year when the latest campaign on this issue seemed to get going again, “For many of us with a theological persuasion the debate about gender-specific pronouns for the Divine is as dated as a fondue set and flares, but apparently to some normal people this is not the case.”

Others have addressed these issues before. But since it is again topical, it is worth another look. There are perhaps two main issues here, I think. One is about theology proper, about who God is. The other is about how we know about God, about the doctrine of revelation. But above them both is the issue of power.

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, a Spirit without sex as we physical mortals understand it.

However, Christians have always spoken of God as “the Father”, because this is his relation to the Son within the godhead, an eternal relationship we discover in Scripture. It is not about his relationship to us, primarily, but his eternal relationship to another person in the Trinity.

God is our Lord, creator, judge, refuge. And he 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 (who, we must assume, knew what / who he was talking about) told us to pray to God as “Our Father…” It would be a bold disciple who then refused to follow the Master in this.

It is true that “the supereminence 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. Language, says Bishop Rachel, is “very powerful in shaping people’s views and shaping our culture.” So we must be careful with it and not misuse its power.

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

For some reason, God chose to speak to us at a particular time and in particular places, and in such languages that enshrine what is thought by some to be irredeemably “patriarchal language.” Feminine language was available — many ancient cultures had goddesses — but for some reason 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 of God not the 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).

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

That is the essential message of the Ten Commandments, for example, when God tells us how we are to relate to him, and how not. We are to have no other gods but him, and we are to worship him in the way he sets out, not by way of “graven images” — methods of worship and theology originating in pictures conjured up from our own imagination or borrowed from the culture around us (such as the striking example in Exodus 32 where Aaron tried to gently challenge the Israelites to think of God as like a golden calf, much as other contemporary cultures did).

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 did so not because she did not wish to take up her place in that august body, which required the positive discrimination of special legislation to achieve. Rather, she objected to the title given to her in the writ. It referred to her as “right reverend father in God” (which officially is still the correct title for all bishops, regardless of gender, according to the Church of England and the law of the land). Now the writ describes her simply as a bishop. “There may be women who’d be happy with ‘right reverend mother in God’, she says, “but that doesn’t sit comfortably with me.”

She asserts her right to be addressed as she wants to be addressed, so that Her Majesty the Queen herself has to comply in her writs. This is power. The Queen had to re-write 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 in our relationship with God? Who rules? Who decides the nature of the relationship, and how it will be conceived of and spoken?

Should we not extend the same courtesy to God as Bishop Rachel insists upon for herself?

There is an old voluntarist tendency in theology which denies that what God reveals concerning himself in his God-breathed word (2 Timothy 3:16) has any necessary relationship to what God is as God. But as the 4th century theologian, Hilary of Poitiers (a man, despite the name, of course!) puts it in his book De Trinitate (1.18):

“For he is the best student who does not read his thoughts into the book, but lets it reveal its own; who draws from it its sense, and does not import his own into it, nor force upon its words a meaning which he had determined was the right one before he opened its pages. 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.”

Revd Dr Lee Gatiss is the Director of Church Society

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