Fiddling with God

The real danger is that God is being refashioned into something which we — or at least the clergy and bishops in Scotland — find more agreeable than God as previously made known. There is a word for this. It is ‘idolatry’.

It has been a long time coming, but a mainstream denomination in these islands has finally authorized the elimination from one of its liturgies gendered language referring to God.
The body in question is the Scottish Episcopal Church, and the changes, which affect its 1982 Eucharist liturgy, have been permitted by its College of Bishops, pending a complete revision currently in hand.
The list of alternatives is quite short:
“God is love and we are his children” may become, “God is love and we are God’s children”.
“We love because he loved us first” may become, “We love because God loved us first”.
“Heal and strengthen us by his Spirit” may become, “heal and strengthen us by the Holy Spirit”.
“Peace to his people on earth” may become, “peace to God’s people on earth”.
“It is right to give him thanks and praise” may become, “it is right to give God thanks and praise”.
“Give thanks to the Lord for he is gracious” may become, “Give thanks to our gracious God”.
“And his mercy endures for ever” may become, “whose mercy endures for ever.”
Moreover, references to the Father have been allowed to remain. Nevertheless, this covers every usage of gendered language for the godhead as a whole. And though the changes may seem small, we should be in no doubt as to their significance.
There will be those who would regard this as no more remarkable than the ‘de-gendering’ of language for humankind (which is also addressed by the same permissions). However, whilst undoubtedly arising for much the same reasons, the two issues ought not to be confused, for in the one case we are talking about ourselves, in the other we are talking about God.
And the differences between the two are not merely of scale, or even of theological importance. Rather, first and foremost, I would suggest they are differences of what may be known and how we may know it.
If we say something about anything we ought first to establish that we have a reason for doing so — that, in simple terms, we know what we are talking about. In this regard there is some justification for saying that we are more aware today of the equality of men and women than were previous generations, and that we seek to reflect this awareness in the language we use. (I happily concede there is room for debate, but I simply wish to establish the correlation between language and understanding.)
But on what grounds can we say that we know something about God in this regard that was not known, for example, by the compilers of Scottish liturgies way back in 1982?
Can we point to new knowledge? And if so, where, and from what source does it arise?
One of the first appeals in such cases tends to be to the Holy Spirit. Indeed, the Holy Spirit is being credited today with many innovations in the church’s understanding and practice. (I am not saying that this is what drove the findings of the Scottish bishops. Actually they seem to have gone more on what was said by their clergy in response to a questionnaire.) Yet I am unaware of any means by which the Spirit may verify that these claims are true.
Surely we are entitled to know how we can know what the Spirit is saying to the churches, most especially if it seems to differ from what the Spirit formerly said.
There are others who will say that the difference between using “his” and “God’s” is trivial. Yet if that is the case we must ask why it would then be necessary. Still others will say it reflects our greater awareness of feminine imagery used for God in Scripture. To them I would say both that this imagery is rare and that Scripture nevertheless uses unrelentingly ‘masculine’ language about God, from which we can only deviate by consciously distancing ourselves from Scriptural usage.
Above all, we must recognize the fact that the masculine language Scripture uses about God does actually say something. Indeed, the fact that language says something is surely the whole point of this innovation. What the language currently says is no longer regarded as adequate. Instead, it is felt we must be saying something else.
The problem, which scarcely seems to be recognized by the Scottish College of Bishops is that if we say something else we are either saying something more than Scripture or making a contradistinction from Scripture.
Either way, we are into fundamentally serious theological territory, and therefore we may, once again, ask how this is justified.
The real danger is that God is being refashioned into something which we — or at least the clergy and bishops in Scotland — find more agreeable than God as previously made known. There is a word for this. It is ‘idolatry’.
John P Richardson
21 August 2010

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