Yet again, the use of the English language is on my mind. On this occasion, it is because of a perceived inclusivity deficiency in the Church of England.
A group of clergy wishes to introduce gender-neutral hymns and prayers. God, they argue, is neither male nor female, so it is, therefore, not appropriate to use gender-specific pronouns. Not, of course, unless there is proper balance. Thus the Lord’s Prayer should begin “Our Father and Mother”, instead of “Our Father”. This idea will, they hope, be discussed by the Church of England’s ruling body, the General Synod. They hope for a ruling which will instruct the church’s Liturgical commission to authorise material for services which contains more “inclusive” language.
Whilst to some people, it seems straight forward, there are complications. A substantial number of hymns can’t be sensibly modified to bring them into line with this kind of thinking. How, for example, should “Praise, my soul, the King of heaven” be re-worded? Neither “monarch” nor “sovereign” scan, so “Praise, my soul, the Monarch …” and “Praise, my soul, the Sovereign of heaven” are both out. Should corporate terminology be used, thus “the Chair of heaven”? What on earth should be done with “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind”, the 23rd psalm, or the Magnificat? Although “They’ve got the whole world in Their hands” works. Mind you, I see no need to keep torturing primary school children, or their teachers, with that particular piece of tedium, regardless of which pronouns are used.
To be fair, these priests want this to apply to new hymns, but that could still pose a problem. Most successful changes are made gradually, not suddenly. A new liturgy and new hymns would be too much change for many. A new liturgy and old hymns could present a jarring contrast.
And how far would the changes have to go? Would the Holy Trinity need a slight re-labelling – “Parent, Son and holy Spirit”? Or would trinitarianism no longer be part of Church of England doctrine? Would it go beyond references to the Most High, and mean that a person would only ever be a godparent, never a godmother or godfather?
Many traditionalists are still upset by the use of modern translations of the Bible, and long for the splendour of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. But they understand that less complicated language might help to “spread the Word”. However, asking them to accept a new liturgy in order to accommodate current social mores, risks alienating them.
The counter to that, of course, is that change is necessary. The Church of England now allows divorcees to remarry, blesses civil unions, and ordains women. So why not allow some variation in God’s pronouns?
But does any of this really matter? After all, as we can’t know for certain whether or not God exists, it necessarily follows that we can’t know with any certainty about God’s gender. Perhaps Anglicans should accept what the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said in 2018? “All human language about God is inadequate and to some degree metaphorical. God is not a father in exactly the same way as a human being is a father. God is not male or female. God is not definable.”
So, should the Church of England accept the idea by musically and liturgically embracing the genderlessness of God? Or, given the fact that theology is already an intellectual minefield without having to try and determine how many, and which pronouns to use when referring to the Almighty, should the whole idea be quietly shelved?
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