It struck me as odd the first time we sang the Doxology with new words. Instead of the familiar Praise God from whom all blessings flow; praise him, all creatures here below; Praise him above, ye heavenly hosts, we now sing, Praise God from whom all blessings flow, praise God, all creatures here below, praise God above, ye heavenly hosts. Though the document prescribing such liturgical changes in the Diocese of Toronto, “Liturgical Standards and Resources,” was last updated in 2010, it is only in the past couple of years that these changes began taking effect in a few parishes I have visited.[1] What is happening in Toronto is not unique.

Gendered language for God has similarly been sanitized in other Canadian dioceses, such as Niagara and parts of Montreal. An FAQ from the Diocese of Niagara notes: “We still often (but not always) refer to God as ‘He’ and ‘Father’, because sadly the English language has no suitable neutral terms other than the horribly impersonal ‘it’. We are working on improvements in this area.”[2] At Christ Church Cathedral in Montreal, there is care to use inclusive language when talking about the Holy Trinity.[3]

I was confused about the changes. When I asked why all of the masculine pronouns for God were removed, I was told that it was to clarify the reality that God is not a man. What is more, I was told, there may be some victims of abuse at the hands of males, so removing the masculine pronoun was the most pastorally responsible action to take.

Of course, I appreciate the concern for those who have been traumatized, but I wonder if liturgical revision is really going to offer any healing balm.

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What concerns me further is the thought that lurking behind some of this liturgical revision is an ideology aimed at theological censorship. Might distancing God from the pronouns he has given us in his Holy Word end up squelching the voices of the saints, silencing the little lambs to whom the Father is giving the kingdom (Luke 12:32)? I fear that with these revisions there is a creeping rationalization, involving a gradual departure from Scripture and the tradition of the Church as expressed in liturgy. And with the removal of scriptural language, we face the removal of God’s Word from the hands and hearts of his people. No longer is the Word “very near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (cf. Deut. 30:14; Rom. 10:8). It has become something far away, inaccessible, or even offensive.

From the outset, I need to offer some acknowledgments: I am not a liturgical traditionalist. Liturgy evolves. This is more of a statement of fact than my opinion. The living tradition will change, expand, innovate, and return. This is fine — necessary, even — in my eyes. Simply because the liturgy can and will change does not mean we should constantly foster its alteration, and though the living tradition will continue to grow, not all growth is healthy.

With these points in mind, here are a few reasons why I oppose the liturgical revisions now taking place in Toronto.

Put simply, as I have indicated, they are departures from Scripture and received tradition. The scriptural language refers to God as he and him. True, there is feminine imagery used of Jesus in New Testament passages such as Matthew 23:37, and we have some limited examples of feminine imagery for the Lord in the Old Testatment. But these are striking in their rarity. In our liturgy, however, we praise the Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

These terms are providentially given, laden with meaning; they constitute the “name” into which all nations are to be baptized (Matt. 28:19-20), according to Jesus. That is, the language with which God reveals himself to us in Scripture was not sloppily conjured by the human authors of Scripture, nor does biblical language involve some misguided, willy-nilly nod toward the heavens by a series of redactors.

Rather, God has wrapped himself in human words, words that he has ordered to say something about his character; this is part of what it means when we talk about Scripture’s inspiration. To deny that the words of Scripture are given by God — to deny that they say something true about him — is to find oneself in a vast, uncharted plain, untethered from God, with only the ability to dream up some transcendent reality. If the human words of Scripture are not given by God, then we might as well dispense with them, and, left to our own babbling, try to build a tower to the sky. Perhaps we might reach God in that way.

We ought not sanitize and censor what has been handed down, withdrawing from all the sharp edges and possible misunderstandings. Rather, I believe when we live in the tension of this biblically orchestrated texture as it spreads itself out throughout the canon, we are given a more complete and comprehensive vision of God in the manifold and united witness of Scripture.

If the words with which God has chosen to reveal himself are not arbitrary, however we might awkwardly avoid them, the reality to which they refer has not changed. In this case, by revising liturgical texts, we are not protecting the vulnerable, but pulling the wool over their eyes and patronizing them. And what gives us the right to decide that they are unable to comprehend the truth?

Let us consider a more excellent pastoral way. We cannot deny the significant abuses committed by men. But we should call out and reform such behavior, and respond to victims pastorally, while bringing to bear careful, gentle, and nuanced theological teaching with regard to “gendered” words, rather than attempting to remove them. We might then be able to explain in what sense God is and is not masculine, and further, how men ought to live as creatures of God in ways that are peaceable. A clear and positive articulation of masculinity will allow for those who have been abused by men to separate the abuse of power from what God intends for males. And, insofar as it is possible, a clear and positive articulation of theology, our teaching about God himself, will make clear that such abuse could only ever be an unhealthy distortion of what God reveals about his own name.

Finally, removing gendered pronouns from God has a very undesirable effect: It threatens to teach our parishioners that God is not personal at all. Personal pronouns are constant reminders that, along with everything else he is, God is a person, someone, and we can relate to God in many of the ways that we relate to others. We converse with God as with another, in a sense, through prayer and Scripture reading. We can “know” God (in many senses) by entering into the mystery of his love (can agape be shared by anything that is not a person?). When we remove all gendered pronouns, God becomes an “it,” an abstract life force, without character, without speech.

And why stop at simply removing gendered pronouns? After all, our entire language has been used to violent ends; it is finite, historically derived, evolving, and culturally embedded. What makes us think the word God is any more exact? This of course is only our English way of speaking about the source of all being, the eternal Word, the Holy Spirit (these titles all have histories). Can we get beyond language? Is it better in the liturgy that we breathe a holy silence when we approach “the Name,” rather than uttering it with our sin-tainted, spittle-flinging lips?

We have only what we have been given, and we can pass on only what we have received. Our articulations may change, but to change them to better meet the molds of political niceties, or even misdirected concern for the vulnerable, will not do. Let us guard the liturgy, then, because in the liturgy we have the gospel, a treasure in an earthen vessel.

Footnotes

[1] See the section in the document on “Inclusive Language Guidelines.” Since the document is part of a handbook of sorts for clergy, many of the suggestions for “inclusive language” are implemented at the parish level at the priest’s discretion.

[2] See here.

[3] See here.

About The Author

The Rev. Cole Hartin is a PhD candidate at Wycliffe College, working on the interpretation of Scripture in the Victorian Church of England. He is also assistant curate at St. Luke’s in Saint John, New Brunswick..

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In part I share your concerns, but I wonder: the word “father” in its Biblical contexts had a particular meaning derived from the cultural contexts. Does father have the same meaning today? Rather than a “word for word” principle of translation, do we not need a “dynamic equivalence” model?

Plus, what do we do with the originating cultural patriarchy? Similarly to questions of cosmology, where the so-called three-tiered Cosmos has been replaced by a space-time continuum, how do we speak the words of Scripture in a different egalitarian context?

Cole Hartin

Charlie, Thanks for your comment. I suppose your first question in some ways is about divine providence. Has God so ordered Scripture, in all of its particularity and cultural embeddedness that even as nuances of the word “father” have changed (but I do wonder to what degree, and how significantly) can it still be a reflection of the divine Fatherhood from which it derives its meaning? In other words, has God given us the Scripture not only as something that speaks to the historical instant in which it was written, but in his foreknowledge, something that can speak to us… Read more »

Cole Hartin

Charlie, Thanks for your comment. I suppose your first question in some ways is about divine providence. Has God so ordered Scripture, in all of its particularity and cultural embeddedness that even as nuances of the word “father” have changed (but I do wonder to what degree, and how significantly) can it still be a reflection of the divine Fatherhood from which it derives its meaning? In other words, has God given us the Scripture not only as something that speaks to the historical instant in which it was written, but in his foreknowledge, something that can speak to us… Read more »

I very much agree that much is driven by “secular political ideologies.” But of course we shouldn’t engage in what is essentially an ad hominem argument and brush the issues raised away. If they have a point, we must engage it. As yours and Zach’s comments show, it takes hard work to navigate the path of engagement. I am a little more allergic to “timeless truth” than I used to be, but doesn’t there have to be a there there? It is one thing to say that all truth comes wrapped in a cultural blanket, and another thing to say… Read more »

Cole hartin

Fair enough, Charlie. I thought I engaged the point well enough in my post. Whether or not you find my argument convincing is up to you. I noted that the argument to change the liturgy is wrongheaded because it departs from Scripture, and because it is not clear that it will effect the intended outcome. In addition to this though, I do think it is prudent to question the motivations behind theological moves. This should not be a grounds for dismissing claims, or for an excuse to ignore them. However, after examining the import of the argument, I think it… Read more »

Sorry, I took a minor point and blew it up too much. I just have too often seen arguments against “political correctness” formed in a dismissive way. The history of an argument is fair game. Getting to the roots of an argument often help to see where our axioms have diverged. So to say that an argument is based on secular political thought, and show how one disagrees with the underlining secularism is all to the good. Which takes us back to a primary point: if you have placed humanity in the role of arbiter, displacing God from God’s (see… Read more »

I don’t know that truths make a *jump* from culture to culture, as if truths are disincarnated and then reincarnated. I’d aim more at a process like one stream entering and influencing another, or at using a metaphor like marriage and childrearing. Truth is handed down generationally. (Just as God made of one man all the nations on earth…?) In this sense, the particular cultural forms in which the Christian faith was first expressed remain of enduring relevance. They are the great heritage that we cannot simply throw away, anymore than we can erase the past or our connection to… Read more »

My point was not “disincarnation” but rather that somehow the Gospel moves from one enculturation to another. How that happens is highly complex. Are you suggesting that there are “timeless truths” that can live outside of an enculturalation? Likewise, when the Gospel is handed down generational lines, there is again this passing from one culture to another (and how often this is one of the toughest of all passings). But you have put your finger on the central problem: how do we protect the “great heritage” while at the same time acknowledging that there are, at least, tensions culture to… Read more »

I start with history. The suitability of ‘Father, Son, and Holy Spirit’ was, for the architects of Trinitarian doctrine (the Cappadocians), key primarily because of its use by Jesus himself, both in the baptismal formula and in other points within the Gospels (see the various treatises against Eunomius). The significance of the names or distinctions themselves came second, and they were at times willing to throw the veil over that question: i.e. let the Trinitarian relations remain mysterious, and have them do little more than point at the Triune God, rather than convey information to our minds. (I.e. *This* is… Read more »

You won’t be surprised that I like the recourse to “mysterious quality of the Trinity.”

Andrew Kuhl

Hi Cole, this is a fascinating article. While I understand the main thrust of your argument to be conserned that the language of the liturgy is shifting away from the personhood of God (which is problematic), I think you perhaps miss a key piece in the question of the gendering of God in the Holy Spirit. The grammatical gender of the Spirit (ruach) in Hebrew and Aramaic is feminine, and the grammatical gender of Spirit in Greek (pneuma) is neuter. The reflection on masculinity for the Spirit is an import from Greco-Roman thinking. They held a vertical spectrum understanding of… Read more »

Cole Hartin

Andrew, thanks for this. I wasn’t too concerned with looking specifically at the pronouns used for the Spirit in biblical languages, though I think that might be an interesting study (alas, one that I am not too well equipped for, at least with respect to working in Hebrew). I think you are right too, that when talking specifically about the person of the Holy Spirit there needs to be nuance and that perhaps there is room for fluidity, however, I do think we have the resources for this in Scripture, and in the liturgy. If we refer to the Spirit… Read more »

Thanks for your contribution, Andrew. I’ll be interested to hear what Cole has to say. For my part, I think it should be uncontroversial to say that it’s not clear what import (if any) we should draw from the different grammatical gender(s) of the Spirit in various languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, etc.), nor do I see Cole really drawing on that point in his article. Your account of gender in Greco-Roman culture is too simple; not everyone held the view you mention, though of course the account of men or women acting more “manfully” than others is a common… Read more »

Andrew: are you at St George the Martyr in Toronto? If so, is it too much for me to say I find the formulation in the About Us interesting in terms of what it omits?

“We believe in God, Creator, Life-giver, and Nurturing Parent; Jesus Christ the Son crucified and resurrected; and the Holy Spirit working through the global church and in our own lives. We live in service to God, each other, and the planet and people entrusted to our care.”

Andrew Kuhl

Hi Zachary, I do work (and worship) at St. George the Martyr, but I take no direct ownership of the theological statements produced by the community. Many of those formulations predate my involvement there and my official capacity has very little to do with my theology, and more to do with administrative work. Any theological statements here are my own and not necessarily indicative of that community. That formulation is interesting in its content (and perhaps lack of content), but most weeks we have bigger fish to fry with other concerns that are more pressing (walls and structures). More uniquely… Read more »

The post https://livingchurch.org/covenant/2016/12/05/god-speaks-my-language-a-conversation-on-bible-translation-with-andrew-atagotaaluk-and-jonas-allooloo/

provides an interesting piece in thinking about the questions of the Gospel passing from one culture to another.

Plus, I have been thinking about how Christianity is rooted in *history*. This makes the question of originating culture more determinative when we think about the processes of change.