By Drew Keane
On July 4 in Committee 13, there was a hearing on A068. Eighteen people spoke — not the crowd that was expected. Many of those who spoke called for an immediate revision of the prayer bookto either eliminate gendered language for God or to expand language for God to include as much feminine language for God as there is masculine language. These suggestions are not new, but there was an urgency felt in this hearing as many of the testimonies connected this traditional, masculine language for God with patterns of culture that exclude, marginalize, and abuse women. Similar comments were made today in a special legislative session of the House of Deputies to consider A068.
Undoubtedly, within our tradition, we find a cluster of association between the concepts of masculinity and power. Sonja Foss explored this in a 1984 paper, “Women Priests in the Episcopal Church: A Cluster Analysis of Establishment Rhetoric,” in Religious Communication Today. Those debates helped to change an assumption embedded in our tradition, particularly in the more catholic end of our tradition, that only men can symbolize or represent Christ, particularly through presiding at Holy Communion. While a minority within our church still believe a male-only priesthood, the rhetoric with which they defend this position differs from that of an earlier era, which tended to imply that women are not equal image-bearers of God. The 1979 prayer book played a large part in facilitating that change. It advanced the conviction that women bear the image of God as fully as men do in a church in which, at the time, the majority did not accept this.
It is perhaps surprising, then, to see the 1979 prayer book depicted as an instrument of misogyny. I will certainly not dismiss the experiences of women who have felt excluded by the language of the prayer book. Some of the deputies who spoke said they have been disappointed with the 1979 prayer bookfrom the beginning, seeing in it a missed opportunity to expand the language that we use for God beyond the traditional masculine language. When they hear these prayers read, they explained, they feel excluded. Those voices must be heard. They must not be dismissed. So too must the voices of other women by whom this language is treasured and who do not feel excluded by it — women like my mother and grandmothers. In hearings in Committee 13, one woman stood up to share that her sister would leave the Episcopal Church if we took away the traditional language of Rite I. In today’s hearing, one of the deputies who stood to speak explained that she had grown up without a father, and that knowing God is her heavenly Father has been incredibly meaningful to her.
As vital as our experiences are to coming to terms with how we address God in prayer, the conversation also goes beyond the experiences of individuals and raises large questions that warrant a larger conversation than a legislative committee hearing at General Convention can facilitate. Many difficult questions arose for me in response to this hearing and the conversations that ensued in hallways and at dinner tables thereafter. I want to try to articulate some of the questions that I think should be part of the ongoing conversation about this topic.
Is the language of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer complicit in the marginalization and abuse of women? How do we approach these questions? What modes of exploration do we need to pursue? What kinds of evidence must be brought to bear?
Is it incidental or significant that the Scriptures, by a large margin, use more masculine than feminine language for God? Is this to be attributed to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit or the flawed cultures in which the Scriptures were written and the limited perceptions of human authors?
To what extent do the experiences of women throughout the history of the Church bear on this matter? To what extent is our own perception culturally limited and how should that affect decisions about revision?
As a Church which recognizes itself as part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, to what extent can we unilaterally alter the language of address for God that we have received? To what extent must we take into account ecumenical implications?
Drew Nathaniel Keane is a lecturer in the Department of Writing and Linguistics at Georgia Southern University in Satesboro. He has served on the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music for the past six years and he is the first alternate lay deputy for the Diocese of Georgia at the 79th General Convention.