God; She, He and everything in between
Jody is vicar of St Michael’ s Harrow Weald and a member of General Synod. This article first appeared in the Church of England newspaper.
The conversation regarding the gender of God has been rekindled in the last few weeks with an article published by the Telegraph which included some quotations from the Bishop of Gloucester. Unfortunately, the Bishop then received some outraged trolling on the subject. Why is the idea of using female language and images about God so controversial? Why do we have a generation of Christians who are growing up with the idea that God is male even though this is a rather novel idea?
This is why our language is so important - it is completely orthodox and traditional to say that God is both male and female and beyond gender, but the language that we use to talk about God in church is majority male - he, him, Lord, King. In the past there was a lingering understanding that God can be spoken of in both male and female terms, but this is getting lost in the mists of time and with the majority male language used it is unsurprising that churchgoers are coming away with the impression that the Christian faith has a male God.
What does it matter? Well, this means that we can lose the rich imagery of God as a loving, strong and protective mother (for example) found throughout Scripture and that our picture of God becomes narrow and not as rounded as it might be. In our churches we need to have confidence to use these feminine images, as well as masculine images, in order to reclaim a more biblical understanding of God. Sadly, because gender has been a contested issue in church, people have felt that using these images or speaking of God using female pronouns, is controversial, it is not.
It is really important for us to recover this not only because we don't want an impoverished view of God, but because it impacts the relationship between men and women - if God is seen as male then people can be forgiven for thinking that men are perhaps more important than women, for example. This then becomes part of the contemporary conversation about how women are treated in the church and in the world.
It also matters because of the current conversation regarding gender as a fluid concept. The increase of people questioning their gender in relation to their biological sex or finding themselves unable to fit binary concepts of gender that are part of the current norms in societal thinking, is rightly challenging us all to think through what gender means. What it means for us as individuals who have ‘sexed’ bodies and what it means about God. It raises the idea that we are all potentially ‘both male and female’, as it says in Genesis 1.27, in our gender even when our bodies have a biological sex; male, female or intersex. If this is the case, then the roles and stereotypes we attribute to the sexes, simply have no basis. Perhaps this is why it is so controversial? It threatens a status quo that we hold dear. Perhaps this is why the conversation regarding transgender people is one the church is struggling to have – their presence makes a nonsense of the kind of conversations we are having about LGB people. If gender is fluid, then the conversations around our sexed bodies and what we do with them, needs to be an entirely different conversation than the one which we are currently having.
As human beings made in the image of God, our collective bodies tell us something about God’s gender. And in return, as we contemplate God, perhaps we will recognise that we are all She, He and everything in between.