In the Name of the Mother, Son and Holy Ghost
In the Name of the Mother, Son and Holy Ghost: A Godlike Struggle with Gender Pronouns
God doesn’t have a gender; as a non-human cosmic ruler with no defined physical form, it is impossible for any religious organization to adequately describe the Creator in such simplistic human terms as “male” or “female.” However, simply logistically, speaking of someone in completely androgynous terms is rather difficult within the constraints of our current set of lexicons, often resulting in the stiff and unwieldy usage of “he/she,” “him/her” and “(s)he.”
This grammatical complexity, coupled with centuries of patriarchal societal standards, has led the Christian church to refer to God almost entirely in male terms, from simple usage of the pronoun “He” to less blatant, but still undoubtedly masculine, terminology such as “Our Heavenly Father”.
A group within the Anglican Church, known as Women And the Church or WATCH, has begun to take a stand against this single-gender tradition. After a long campaign during which this group finally convinced the church to ordain female bishops, their spokeswomen are now pointing out that the use of only masculine language in relation to God reinforces the concept that men are more like God than women, which could lead to female religious leaders feeling inadequate in their abilities to represent Christ in the world.
Rev. Jody Stowell, a member of WATCH, in an attempt to summarize her organization’s stance on this issue, told The Guardian: “When we only speak of God in the male form, that’s actually giving us a deficient understanding of who God is.”
WATCH is certainly not alone in their views; the use of female and androgynous pronouns in relation to God has been present among certain Christian groups since the birth of the religion. Mystical and gnostic groups in Christianity’s early days believed that God took many forms, some male and some female, and baptized their children with the following phrase: “Into the name of the unknown Father of the universe - into Truth, the mother of all things."
More recently, the 1989 translation of the King James Bible includes language that is more inclusive of both genders, replacing “man” with the more androgynous “human beings” and “mortals.” Other religions as well encompass a mixed bag of celestial rulers: Wicca celebrates both a Father God and Mother Goddess as its primary deities, and many other polytheistic religions, such as Hinduism, worship male and female gods in approximately equal amounts. Judaism as well has been making strides in a more inclusive direction by replacing the word “king” with “sovereign” and “father” with “source” in its High Holy Day prayer book—although the third major Abrahamic religion, Islam, has yet to show any indication of de-masculinizing its deity.
Altering any of the church’s official vocabulary is bound to be a long and difficult road for WATCH. Even if they manage to overcome the vast opposition they are facing from other groups within the church, they will still have to endure the lengthy process of consulting with the Liturgical Commission and gaining approval of the General Synod.
Before this process can begin, though, the group has an even more difficult task to define: what exactly is the best way to refer to God, anyway?
“It” seems inappropriate, as if God were something less than human instead of something much greater, and combining pronouns such as “He/She” seems a bit too cumbersome to be included in works of great religious significance. Perhaps a new, androgynous singular human pronoun will emerge, saving WATCH and its supporters some amount of headache (and me as well, when I scroll through my Instagram feed and see “them” and “their” used inappropriately for this purpose). Until this occurs, however, it seems to me that the most effective approach would be to alternate male and female pronouns when no neutral alternative exists, resulting potentially in God being a “He” in Genesis, a “She” in Exodus, and so on.
This certainly seems like quite a bit of hassle over a lexical technicality. But it is the symbolic implications of this movement that matter more than the actual shifts in vocabulary—the idea that women and men were both created in God’s image, and therefore are equal in His (or Her) eyes. The impact that could have in empowering female religious leaders across the globe is much vaster than a simple two-letter word.
Abby is a sophomore at NYU’s Stern School of Business studying finance and accounting with a minor in politics. She is fascinated by everything from rap music to tech startups, with a special interest in world events and how they affect the global economy and political landscape, and is always happiest when she is trying or learning something new.