Gendered words for God

In the Mongolian language, ‘Tir’ means ‘she’ or ‘he’ (but not ‘it’) – so in worship, and in referring to God, it is more inclusive because ‘tir’ means ‘he or she’ so is effectively, ‘gendered person’. In English not so. Until about twenty years ago, I was quite happy with ‘he’, ‘Father’, ‘Lord’, ‘Master’ when referring to God.

Steve Shaw writes[1] about how the words we use for God can excite in us what we most need to understand about God, or need in God. God as ‘King’ emphasises that our God is the most powerful, the one in command, control, the one to whom all must bow. God as ‘warrior’ emphasises that our God is strong and can defend and protect. God ‘compassionate’ emphasises that our God is rich in kindness, gentleness, understanding. When in particular need of protection, we may choose one word, when in particular need of gentleness, we may focus on another. This is not because God has ceased to be the other things, but because our own needs lead us to focus. Understood as all those things, God is powerful, able to defend and protect, kind and gentle with us. This moves towards a fuller understanding. Each term is correct, but together they create a fuller picture. (Other examples include God the Good Shepherd, God the rescuer, God the Faithful, God our Refuge, God our Provider… ).

This gets me thinking about the gendered words we use. God as ‘she’ and ‘he’, God as ‘mother’ and ‘Father’ are all who God is, and my own focus can reflect what I most need at that time, but also help me to grow in my understanding of who God is. We associate certain traits with the feminine and with the masculine (not always correctly) and so I find I need to understand the ‘she’ of God, not only the ‘he’. I am realising that what I need is not just a word like ‘Tir’ which can mean either ‘he’ or ‘she’ (but does not mean ‘it’), but one which means ‘all’, ‘he, ‘she’, ‘intersex’, ‘non-binary’, and all the varying identities of gender, because it is not that God is male and female, it is that God is all. God is all genders, because God is complete, whole, the ultimate, and we all, in all our gender identities, are made in the image of God.

So I need in my hymns and in my bible readings and in my thinking, God the powerful ‘he’, God the powerful ‘she’, God the powerful ‘intersex’, and so on, God who is all in all.

I started an experiment several years ago, that in hymn singing (of which I do a lot as a Methodist!), I would alternate ‘he’ and ‘she’ when they referred to either creator God or the whole trinity. I don’t mind generally referring to Jesus as male, because I understand that as far as we know historically, Jesus was male (although I personally think it could easily be argued that Jesus was intersex, but that is another paper). But the Holy Spirit, has always had feminine pronouns – in Hebrew, ‘ruach’, is feminine and used to refer to God’s Spirit. Wisdom, another synonym for God in the Old Testament, is ‘Sophia’, also feminine. Hence there is Scriptural integrity in not referring to the Trinity as only masculine.

My experiment has made me think about who I am singing to (is ‘he’, to Jesus? Or is it to the Trinity of God?). It has also transformed some hymns for me and made me feel more connected and that my understanding of who God is grows as I think and worship.

I have (bravely!) suggested to some congregations that in the hymn, ‘Praise my Soul the King of Heaven’, verse 3 could be trialled with female words and pronouns. ‘Father-like he tends and spares us’… since I started singing this verse instead, the verse makes more sense to me:

‘Mother-like she tends and spares us, well our feeble frame she knows, in her arms she gently bears us, rescues us from all our foes. Praise her, praise her! Praise her, praise her! Widely as her mercy flows’.

Suddenly to me, this connects. It is not that those traits are exclusively feminine, but they easily fit with the feminine and in the desire for a more encompassing understanding of God, changing those words helps expand my vision of God.

In some of our hymns the gender language just doesn’t work for women singing it at all. My strongest example is ‘I am the bread of life’ with the chorus, ‘and I will raise him up…’. In this hymn, Jesus is the ‘I am’ in each verse. The other pronouns relate to the believer. Therefore, the fact that all the other pronouns are male needs to be adjusted so that it is clear that it not just male believers who will not hunger, never thirst, be drawn to Christ, raised up. That hymn has transformed for me now that I either alternate the gender of the pronouns or just sing ‘she’.

I am aware that for some people, this will set their eyes rolling… ‘it doesn’t matter, it means everyone’. I grew up in the 1970s. Before we were aware that the language was exclusive, my friends and I would giggle at the part in the creed where we were expected to join in saying, ‘for us men and our salvation’ – we found it hilarious to say ‘us men’ about ourselves. We weren’t being politically correct, difficult, over-sensitive or easily offended. It just felt like a silly thing for us as little girls to say.

I will never forget being a communion service for the first time when the ‘new’ Methodist Worship Book was used (1999 edition) and in the communion liturgy, I heard, ‘for our sakes (Jesus) became human’. It ‘hit me’ like a bolt, that Jesus had become like me, human. I’d been hearing the creed for more than 30 years at that point, and never felt excluded by ‘for our sake he became man’ – Jesus was, history understands, male. Nothing incorrect about that language.

I now call this language ‘passive exclusion’. It is not deliberate, not intentional, may not even raise an eyebrow when it is used. People may not bristle at it or feel actively excluded (I did not). But I now understand that I didn’t feel included either – it is passively exclusive. I heard and spoke that language in my own beloved Church, for more than 30 years, and it took until 1999 for those words in the creed to ‘hit me’, purely because of the language.

Using different words has also affected my vision of God, my understanding of God, when I sing some of the more ‘warrior like’ language with ‘she’ also. The picture in my mind of a strong male character ready to protect, defend, fight for me, be ‘in my corner’ is different than the picture in my mind of a strong female character ready to protect, defend, fight for me, be ‘in my corner’. It is not that one is better than the other, more than they complement each other and help me get a fuller picture.  

I find myself becoming irritated now with the language in hymns which state that God created us all, ‘male and female’, binary genders, as if that somehow encompasses ‘us all’. I know the hymn-writers mean well, but ‘male and female’ is not ‘us all’. ‘Us all’ is much broader than binary understandings of gender. God is much bigger than binary understandings of gender.

Yes, God made male and female in the image of God. But people who are intersex, people who are non-binary, people who are transgender, are also made in the image of God. Just as ‘God made day and night’, but also made twilight, dawn and dusk, I now understand ‘God made them, male and female’ as short-hand[2]. God made people in God’s image – in all our gender identities.

So I am changing into someone who struggles with many of the hymns and songs I used to love, and with language which used to be natural and beautiful to me. I now want to change it, make it properly all-inclusive. I want to have a word which really means us all, and a gender-word for God that includes ‘all’.

For now, I will stick with changing the words for myself, sometimes changing ‘he’ for ‘she, changing ‘male and female’ to ‘us all’ as I sing, and hoping that as living language changes and grows, we will come up with a word that really encompasses us all.

[1] Shaw, S., Dancing with your Shadow, 1995, SPCK, pp.93ff

[2] I owe the articulation of this idea to a facebook post by Asher O’Callaghan, shared in October 2018

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