Diocese’s call for ‘expansive language for God’ sparks debate on gender-neutral Episcopal liturgies

By David Paulsen
Posted Feb 7, 2018
Washington convention

The Diocese of Washington holds its 123rd diocesan convention Jan. 27 at Washington National Cathedral. Photo: Diocese of Washington, via Facebook

[Episcopal News Service] The Diocese of Washington is calling on the Episcopal Church’s General Convention to consider expanding the use of gender-neutral language for God in the Book of Common Prayer, if and when the prayer book is slated for a revision.

He? She? Those pronouns aren’t preferred, the diocese says in a resolution it passed Jan. 27 at its convention, held at Washington National Cathedral in the nation’s capital city. Instead, the resolution recommends using “expansive language for God from the rich sources of feminine, masculine, and non-binary imagery for God found in Scripture and tradition.”

The diocese’s convention passed two other resolutions, voicing support for immigrants and the transgender community. But it was the call for more inclusive language in the prayer book that drew national attention, especially from conservative-leaning critics.

“What I see is a church that embraces literally any fashionable left-wing cause,” Tucker Carlson, host of “Tucker Carlson Tonight” on Fox News, said in a segment Feb. 5 in which he interviewed the Rev. Alex Dyer, one of the resolution’s sponsors.

The Daily Caller, a news website founded by Carlson, reported on the resolution last week, as did Breitbart and The Blaze. Some of the reaction has been “vitriolic,” Washington Bishop Mariann Budde told Episcopal News Service in describing three negative emails she has received. All three emails were written in a similar tone, she said, describing her diocese alternately as aligned with Satan and at war with God.

“It’s clear they didn’t read the resolution,” Budde said.

The resolution’s push for more gender-inclusive language grew out of conversations in congregations around the diocese where topics of gender and transgender equality have resonated among the parishioners, Budde said. She sees it as a spiritual matter, not a cultural or political issue.

That view was shared by Dyer, priest-in-charge at St. Thomas’ Parish in Washington, D.C. He responded in the TV interview that the diocese had based its decision on prayer and discernment, not politics – and a belief in “a Jesus who calls us to reach out to people on the margins and to reach out to everyone.”

The resolution is worded to influence future revisions of the prayer book, understanding God as a higher being who transcends gender. It doesn’t mandate the elimination of gender-specific references to God, Budde said, despite what some reports suggest.

“I don’t believe that the way we understand gender is applicable when we imagine who created Heaven and Earth,” Budde said. At the same time, the diocese’s emphasis is on expanding the church’s liturgies rather than eliminating masculine descriptions of God, such as God the father.

“I’m all for expanding our understanding of God and how we pray to God, but I feel no need to take anything away,” she said.

The difficulty in describing God may reside in language itself.

“No language can adequately contain the complexity of the divine, and yet it is all we have to try to explain God,” the diocese said in an explanation of the resolution contained in the convention materials. “By expanding our language for God, we will expand our image of God and the nature of God.”

The Episcopal Church is not the only Christian denomination grappling with the inadequacy of language to explain God. The Roman Catholic Church’s Catechism, for example, discusses references to God as “Father” while also noting that the image of motherhood is also appropriate.

“We ought therefore to recall that God transcends the human distinction between the sexes. He is neither man nor woman: he is God,” the Catechism says.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America addresses the question of gendered language in a 2013 liturgical resource: “Because language is created and used by humans, it reflects the imperfections and limitations of humanness. Therefore, no use of language can ever totally describe or represent God.”

Under “Language Describing God,” the document cites some examples – “eagle,” “rock,” “light,” among others – before offering a caution about pronoun use: “Assigning male pronouns to human occupations (such as judge, teacher, potter, guard) or to objects (fortress, rock, shield) should be avoided when they are used as metaphors for God.”

More recently, the (Lutheran) Church of Sweden announced last year that it would update its liturgical handbook with “more inclusive” gender language. That move sparked some complaints that the church was eliminating masculine references to God, a reaction similar to what the Diocese of Washington now faces.

“We are not going to give up our tradition,” Church of Sweden Archbishop Antje Jackelén told “PBS NewsHour.” “God is beyond our human categories of gender. … We need help to remind us of that, because due to the restrictions of our brains, we tend to think of God in very human categories. We are not worshiping political correctness. We are worshiping God, the creator of the universe.”

The Episcopal Church, too, has a history of emphasizing inclusiveness.

“This is a conversation that we have been having internally in the Episcopal Church for decades,” the Rev. Emily Wachner, a lecturer in practical theology at General Theological Seminary in New York, told ENS.

Examples of the church’s evolution on gender and power dynamics include the approval of ordination of women in 1976, but it didn’t start or end there, Wachner said. She noted the creation of “Voices Found,” a 2003 supplement to the Hymnal 1982 that featured all women composers.

The Diocese of Washington is following directly in the footsteps of the Diocese of Connecticut, which approved its own resolution on gendered language last year. That resolution called on the General Convention’s Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music “to amend, as far as is practicable, all gendered references to God” in the Book of Common Prayer, “replacing them with gender expansive language.”

“I’ve never had a parishioner leave or join the church for concern about gendered language for God,” Wachner said. “At the same time, this entire conversion around God and gender is so important.” In some ways it parallels the secular conversations now underway on gender issues in society, such as sexual harassment and the #MeToo movement, she said.

Of all the work the church could be doing for gender equity – Wachner mentioned disparity in clergy pay as one example – re-examining descriptions of God in Episcopal liturgies may be just one small step. Wachner is particularly supportive of the first half of the Diocese of Washington resolution, calling for “expansive language.”

She was less impressed by the second half of the resolution, which called on prayer book revisions that, “when possible,” would “avoid the use of gendered pronouns for God.” Limiting language seems counter to the intent of the resolution, she said.

“I believe the real conversation we should be having is around the vitality of the church itself,” Wachner said. “I’m not sure God’s pronouns are a vital part of that conversation.”

The Diocese of Washington also has received attention for its resolution on immigration, which committed it to “becoming a sanctuary diocese” and “offering sacred welcome to immigrants.” Certain congregations in the diocese already have offered sanctuary to immigrants facing deportation, Budde said, and this was a chance for the diocese to show its support for those efforts.

The same was true of the third resolution, “on inclusion of transgendered people.” Budde said the diocese wanted to stand with congregations that have been at the forefront of welcoming transgender people and fighting violence and hatred against them.

The resolution regarding gendered language for God was approved by a hand vote, with a solid majority in favor, though it was not unanimous, Budde said.

“There was very little debate in the convention itself, and I don’t think it’s because they didn’t want to have the conversation,” she said. If Episcopalians didn’t feel comfortable debating the question on the convention floor, she would welcome such conversations in other settings.

She also underscored the imperfection of language and the ways that our understanding of language can change over time. “Mankind” once was an accepted catchall term for men and women. “There wasn’t really much debate about that, until there was a lot of debate about that,” she said, and now it is more common to hear inclusive terms like “humankind.”

Her hope is that someday the church will be so confident in welcoming all people that such debates will no longer be necessary. Episcopalians may each see the world differently, she said, but they share a spiritual common ground, “that we’re part of a family trying to be true to the Gospel imperative to love your neighbor.”

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.


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Comments (60)

  1. The Rev. Dr. John Day says:

    I’m trying to sort out in my own mind if gender inclusive language must be gender exclusive. After 26 years of ordained ministry I fear that in the face of declining membership we are having the wrong conversations. I have to work in retirement because my pension is not what I was told it would be and there are many positions open to part-time employment in declining congregations. I find it interesting that the voices arguing against gender inclusive language are predominantly male.

  2. Mary Barrett says:

    The Bible is written by men who of course are going to have a male God. It works well to control females with threatened hell and damnation to question such a thing! At least Episcopal Churches have women priests. The best thing to happen to Roman Catholics would be for women to go on strike–no more Catholic babies, no more alter societies, no more participation–until they have organized church power.

  3. Randy Marks says:

    Two decades ago, my church’s (St Mark’s Episcopal, Capitol Hill, Washington DC) worship committee discussed this issue. Our church has a strong bias in favor of inclusion so the issue was not whether to be gender neutral, but when. Our consensus was to consider whether the changing to gender neutral language was akin to changing a work of art. So that meant not changing hymns. And, though I don’t remember whether we discussed the Lord’s Prayer at the time, I have always considered it to be a work of art and thus am comfortable with “Our Father.” On the other hand, when I write Prayers of the People, I use “God, in your mercy” not “Lord, in your mercy.” Even if we all agreed on this “work of art” criterion, I assume we’d still have different judgments as to whether a piece of liturgy is “art.”

    Our worship committee just met and discussed the EDOW resolution a bit with our Rector and two of our delegates in attendance. I mentioned the “work of art” criterion and no one leaped up and disagreed.

    P.S. to Charles Allen: At St Mark’s, people often use “Creator” in place of “Father” (which doesn’t grate on me as much as the occasional “Our Father and Mother.”)

  4. Randy Marks says:

    I know many commenters have essentially asked why do we need to change the language. I offer this explanation, not in hopes of convincing you — because I get the desire for the “right way,” comfort, and stability — but rather in hopes you at least receive a respectful response to your question.

    At least some women feel excluded from church because of masculine descriptions of God. I am comfortable, as I said above, with “Our Father, who art in heaven. And sinceI’m a man, I can understand intellectually how women might feel excluded. And, being a man, I can’t get the emotional and spiritual impact on a woman.

    I am sure we have lost parishioners because of our moves towards inclusivity. I believe we have also gained members. I don’t have data to to know which is greater.

    Thanks for “listening.”

  5. Hamilton Jones says:

    I don’t think the Diocese of Washington is welcoming many people at all.
    I think I understood that if someone visited St. Thomas’ they would be one of around 75 people. I would never attend a church that had anti-Trump sign in their yard, or an anti-Obama sign. From what I have read the Diocese of Washington is in a tragic situation.

  6. Bill Louis says:

    I will NEVER change the words of the Lord’s Prayer from the way Jesus told us to pray or accept a PC version of our Book of Common Prayer regardless of what the EC church or Bishop’s “mandate”. Why do those of you who do not agree with the PC direction of the EC continue to financially contribute while they continue to destroy the EC. The EC generates no income on its own but relies on our pledges and contributions. If you want them to listen to you then STOP contributing!

  7. Art House says:

    Too often, misguided attempts at gender neutrality have resulted in such idiotic usages such as referring to Jesus of Nazareth as “she,” which I have heard slipped into more than one homily. While we certainly need to strive for inclusivity, ignoring legitimate gender references (and purging them) from scripture and liturgy only leads further down the road to the ultimate irrelevance and collapse of the church.

  8. Art House says:

    Too often, misguided attempts at gender neutrality have resulted in such idiotic usages as referring to Jesus of Nazareth as “she,” which I have heard slipped into more than one homily. While we certainly need to strive for inclusivity, ignoring legitimate gender references (and purging them) from scripture and liturgy only leads further down the road to the ultimate irrelevance and collapse of the church.

  9. The Rev'd Richard J. Simeone says:

    The simple fact is that it’s a theological issue. It’s time to stop thinking of God as if God were just the biggest best one of us, and male to boot.

  10. Miguel Rosada says:

    Well I guess this will mean…yet again , less Episcopalians! Don’t people learn?

  11. F William Thewalt says:

    I became an Episcopalian back in the ’70s before the church made its shift to embrace “liberal” causes. At that time it was a growing denomination and thought of as “the thinking church.” Since that time we have embraced a never ending list of social causes and followed the liberal path. Now we are losing membership and creating ways to alienate even more people. Perhaps it’s time to stop and re-group.

  12. Doug Desper says:

    Our Lord taught about this, but like His teaching on marriage in Matthew there are Episcopalians itching to make a god that fits them. If anyone can remember Jesus said, When you pray say ‘Our Father….’ If 1/10th of the time was spent studying this model prayer by Jesus we would not have worry about why our Sunday attendance has drilled down to about a half-million.

  13. Doug Desper says:

    …..of course let’s not also neglect to mention that the bishop of this same diocese theorized in a blog that Easter would still have meaning had Jesus h
    not been resurrected after all….something that the New Testament would have challenged and corrected had it been consulted. Why are such people taken seriously and why are they driving change in this Church??! They are dragging the rest of us along the road of absurdity.

  14. Doug Desper says:

    …..of course let’s not also neglect to mention that the bishop of this same diocese theorized in a blog that Easter would still have meaning had Jesus
    not been resurrected after all….something that the New Testament would have challenged and corrected had it been consulted. Why are such people taken seriously and why are they driving change in this Church??! They are dragging the rest of us along the road of absurdity.

  15. Richard Basta says:

    Rev Canon Malone has hit the nail on the head. This resolution strikes me as a solution in search of a problem. Alex Dyer embarrassed himself on Fox by claiming that the church is non judgmental and non political while designing and displaying banners on his church mocking the president and recruting specifically and solely for progressives. What a pathetic man. Nice and polite guy, but pathetic.

  16. Terry Francis says:

    Folks, should anyone really be surprised by this latest issue? This is after all, the EPISCOPAL CHURCH. The only Christian denomination that is virtually owned, lock stock and barrel by the progressive left. The same denomination that threatened to move general convention out of Texas if the state didn’t give men who think they are women the right to use public female restroom facilities.(All in the name of human dignity of course!) The same denomination where many of its LGBT members thought using glitter instead of ash on Ash Wednesday last year was a cool idea. The same denomination where many of its members are more comfortable with a protest sign or a bullhorn in their hand than they are with a Bible. Only a progressive would feel excluded because God is referred to as Father. Rev Dyer said this gender neutral resolution came about as a result of “prayer and discernment’. I can think of several issues that would be more important and more appropriate to have prayer and discernment over than deciding whether to consider God as a male or a female. (Or none of the above.) And by the way, this issue has nothing whatsoever to do with the MeToo movement. This is just another sad reminder that TEC will eagerly jump on the bandwagon of any left-wing cause that comes down the road.

  17. Bill Louis says:

    Why do only 25 comments show when the count says 43. Are the rest blocked? There may be some comments that warrant blocking but it seems to be happening a lot here recently. I’ve noticed some of the older (controversial) articles have all of the comments deleted. Why is there a place for comments if both sides of the issue are not welcome?

  18. Glenna Geiger says:

    Such a foofaraw over words. We cannot confine God to our presuppositions, nor should we try. Let’s expand our vocabulary, not radically prune it. Let us also let go of the idea that God the Creator could not be both male and female.

  19. Doug Desper says:

    Article 8 in the National Church Canons states that no one may be ordained without ascribing to the following statement. It is the same statement that I signed before I could serve as a member of the Vestry of our Church:

    “I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New
    Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things
    necessary to salvation; and I do solemnly engage to conform
    to the Doctrine, Discipline, and Worship of the Episcopal
    Church”.

    Comments on this thread (by both lay and clergy) have minimized these words by asserting that the Bible is written “by men”, and that we need to defer to people’s hang-ups and personal problems before we use God language (“I can understand intellectually how women might feel excluded. And, being a man, I can’t get the emotional and spiritual impact on a woman”.) I don’t ever recall God revealing the divine presence in the OT or NT in any way except to challenge the biases and blind spots of those being encountered. Moses, Abraham, Jonah, Mary, and many others weren’t asked about their comfort levels and what they could accept or agree to. Negotiation was not a part of God’s activity. Those revelations ultimately ended in the supreme incarnation by God in Jesus. Therefore one could safely rest on the words and directions of Christ for how we should regard God and pray to God — or so it was assumed.

    So, it seems some among us do not quite believe that the Holy Scriptures are the starting place and the testing ground for assertions and ideas – words should shape us instead of us seeking to shape the words to our errors and personal problems. That a diocese is so (insert your frustration verb here) as to believe that they are called to toss aside oaths, and edit and correct the Scriptural language used about and by Christ Himself shows that too many of us are Unitarians in fancy dress rather than Nicean Christians.

    More laity are speaking against this which is revealing about the clergy. They either agree or must agree to stay in favor. Regardless, it makes any talk about the “Holy Scriptures to the Word of God and contain all things necessary to salvation” nearly meaningless.

  20. I suggest we all revert to the 1662 which is still the official trans of the Church of England, with the disclaimer that it is our ancient heritage and get on with the business of being the church. As I approach retirement I shudder to think of the abject waste of time that has facilitated this type of revision over the years and has all but killed the church during my lifetime.

  21. Larry Rankin says:

    I hope those so critical of this resolution — and whose posts surely reflect “traditionalist” or “orthodox” views — realize that most who have left the Church — and many of us who remain in the Church in order to help each other lead lives as modeled by that remarkable first century man whom we call Jesus — long ago recognized that “God” is not a “sentient and sensate being” who may or may not do as we ask. Language does matter, however, and that is why I no longer pray the words of “The Lord’s Prayer”. Rather, I kneel and reflect on how, infused by the Spirit of our transcendent and immanent God, we can better “… share our daily bread with others; forgive ourselves and each other and be reconciled; resist all manner of temptation and evil; and seek justice and mercy for all people”.

  22. Jim Cutshall says:

    When is our national church going to work on bringing men and women along with our children to Christ. We spend so much time trying to make ourselves feel good. At times we sound like the Pharisees with holier and superior sanctity dictating what we are to do instead of our mission that Christ has called us to do. I see so many people cherry picking the Bible only to miss out on what the message is all about.

  23. Andrew Poland says:

    I’ve seen some great suggestions. The one I liked best was going back to the 1662 BCP. As far as I’m concerned, the point of COMMON prayer was that across the planet, we would be praying the same. The language may be different, but the forms would be the same. That’s no longer the case, and I find that sad. I really liked the idea of bringing back Thee, Thou, Thy, and Thine. If we went back to 1662, I assume that would be rolled up into it. Fact of the matter is that we’re dumbing down our church. We are expecting a level of intellectual laziness that is frankly insulting. If people are so literal that they think that the use of a pronoun so maketh the man, then maybe they should go bother the literal Baptists or Pentecostals. God is God. Maybe instead of preaching to the culture wars, our clergy should be more concerned with teaching parishioners how to think critically, read for comprehension, and present the doctrine of the church as is. All of this fooling about with the prayer book and language has done is begin a mass exodus to Rome (which involves the swallowing of certain ideals), or to ACNA. If that isn’t exclusionary, I’m not sure I know what is…

  24. Doug Desper says:

    Any parish or diocese can ask their bishop about substituting the Enriching Our Worship series of liturgical resources in place of the BCP which would accomplish what the Diocese of Washington seems to want. Those resources are “expansive” and give more biblical imagery and also uses the inclusive language that would satisfy them. Their push for a solution to change the BCP was settled already by the approval of the EOW series. However, one wonders if their petition to General Convention to alter the BCP is another move by liberal revisionists to make everyone think exactly as they do and to erase anything that would give offense to activist sensitivities. If the alternative is available then use it and leave the rest of the Church to their preferences in the BCP.

  25. BD Howes says:

    I wonder which bathroom God would use.

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