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. 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.” At Christ Church Cathedral in Montreal, there is care to use inclusive language when talking about the Holy Trinity.
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.
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.
 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.