I’ve just been interviewed by Piers Morgan for Talk TV. He was accusing the Church of England of being “woke” – his catch-all term for anything inclusive or vaguely left-wing of which he disapproves. This followed the front-page story in today’s Daily Mail, which claimed that the Church of England might be about to break with “centuries of tradition” by using gender-neutral terms for God.
Morgan said that many people would have “groaned” when seeing the story. I assured him that I had also groaned – because the Daily Mail was wildly and wilfully inaccurate.
The Church of England is having some discussions about gendered language, following a requsest from clergy who are interested in using gender-neutral language. The process could lead to an acceptance of a wider range of ways of referring to God. Given the usual speed of Church of England discussions, even this limited outcome would be likely to take a very long time and be resisted by large chuhnks of the Church.
The Church of England’s own statement on the matter said, “There are absolutely no plans to abolish or substantially revise currently authorised liturgies.”
Thus – contrary to the impression given by the front page of the Mail – there is no chance whatsoever of the Church of England abandoning all male language in relation to God – as the Daily Mail’s Martin Beckford, who wrote the story, surely knows very well.
The story was another chance for the Daily Mail and Piers Morgan to attack “woke” people and anyone who questions narrow binary approaches to gender and sex.
Many of the people who have got angry about this issue on social media today are also people who attack the rights of trans and non-binary people. They are contradicting themselves. On the one hand, such people generally insist that gender is biological and determined by genitals or chromosomes. However, they are now insisting that God is male – even though God clearly does not have any genitals or chromosomes.
There is nothing new about discussions of God’s gender or debates about referring to God in gendered or non-gendered language. Such debates have gone on for centuries. Piers Morgan seemed surprised when I told him that there are prayers from the Middle Ages that refer to God as “mother”.
Mainstream Christian theologians have never taught that God is literally male. In the past, when I have advocated the acceptance of female or gender-neutral language for God, Christians who disagreed with me nearly always accepted that God is not actually male or female. Instead, they have wanted to use only male language for God because they want to stick with precise wording found in the Bible, or because they don’t want to give into a supposed “feminist agenda” or suchlike.
What’s changed for me today is that I have encountered many people on social media arguing that God is literally male. The culture wars seem to have driven outraged right-wingers into theologically nonsensical positions that actually go against mainstream Christian teaching, which has always accepted that God is not literally male or female. I don’t often agree with Church of England media statements, but they were spot on today when telling the media, “This is nothing new. Christians have recognised since ancient times that God is neither male nor female, yet the variety of ways of addressing and describing God found in scripture has not always been reflected in our worship.”
Thus it is really the Daily Mail that is actually breaking with “centuries of tradition”.
Jesus referred to God as “Father”. I am very happy to do so too. The point of the image of “Father” does not lie in the gender associated with the word but with what it conveys of God’s love and care for us. I therefore also frequently refer to God as “Mother” and “Parent”.
According to Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus said, “Call no-one Father on Earth”. This was more radical in his time than in ours. A Father in that context was an authority figure to whom loyalty was owed. The Roman Emperor was described as the Father of the Empire. By applying the term to God alone, Jesus was challenging the authority and hierarchy found in his own society, as well as depriving the Emperor of one of his titles. By calling God Father, Jesus was making clear that it is God to whom we should be faithful – and that God regards us as a loving parent regards a child.
Jesus was not promoting binary gender. Indeed, he frequently undermined his own society’s attitudes to gender, including women among his followers and allowing women to make physical contact with him in a society that found it shocking.
Writing to Christians in Galatia in around the year 50 CE, the apostle Paul wrote, “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Later parts of the New Testament show a more negative attidues towards women, as churches compromised with the sexist and hierarhical attitudes of wider society (this includes writings that are attributed to Paul, but which most scholars believe he did not actually write, such as Ephesians and 1st Timothy).
Had the Daily Mail been around at the time of Jesus and Paul, both of them would surely have been described as “woke”.