Archbishop Welby’s Lent author rejects ‘lazy’ formula of God as ‘He’

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent book this year comes from an Italian academic and Benedictine monk called Luigi Gioia, who chided himself as “lazy” for not finding ways to describe God other than “He”.

The book itself, Say it to God: In search of prayer (Bloomsbury), is an insightful and thought-provoking meditation on dialogue with God, which Lord Williams, presenting it in his successor’s absence (Welby was in Switzerland), hoped would become an “instant classic of the English-speaking world”.

So far, so uncontroversial. But at the launch last Friday a prominent gay Catholic asked Gioia about his use of exclusive language such as “our Father” and “the sons of God”. A second Catholic questioner piled in, adding that it was sad to hear Anglicans using inclusive language such as “brothers and sisters” while Catholics did not.

Gioia, who is also a professor of theology at the Pontifical University of Sant’Anselmo in Rome and a researcher at Cambridge, became animated. “I think about it every time I write,” he confessed. Finding inclusive terminology in a second language is not easy, he said, but he was adamant: “I tell myself, ‘This is lazy,’ and increasingly, ‘this is unacceptable’.”

“Referring to God constantly as He doesn’t have no consequence,” he continued.

And, he said, the issue went deeper than language. It affects “whether we decide whether woman should be ordained … I don’t see why women should not be equally represented in our institutions. This is something which is an obstacle to our credibility … in a society that, thank God, is becoming increasingly sensitive to these issues.”

There are two areas of language here – the human and the divine. To make references to “brothers and sisters” and “children” instead of “brethren” and “sons” is in keeping with social changes that have – thankfully – accorded women full legal rights and ended her being referred to by her husband’s name (eg Mrs Joe Bloggs). It involves tinkering with the original, usually in the context of the Epistles.

To refer to God as mother is not without precedent, but is certainly more complicated. There are references in the Bible to God as a maternal figure, and some writers in the US and Australia have explored using “Mother God”, usually drawing disapproval from more conservative Christians concerned at pagan-sounding overtones. But to tinker here could logically include changing the words of Christ when he repeatedly refers to God as “Father” – not least in the “Our Father”.

I asked Gioia how a decision to use inclusive language would affect phrases such as “God the Father”. At this point he passed the microphone to Lord Williams, who tackled the F word head-on. With characteristic unflappableness the former archbishop concluded that the term could be used among others, and that Christians “are obliged to wring what sense we can out of that word” but not “force it on people before they are ready”.

Gioia told me afterwards that some writers try to avoid ascribing a gender to God by repeatedly referring to God as “God”. But that can get laborious stylistically. “I’d be happy to refer to God as she,” he told me, “but as soon as you do, you have to justify that.” He added, “If I were a woman I wouldn’t want to refer to God as He.” This may have been the intellectually open-minded academic speaking, but this was probably not the direction Archbishop Welby imagined the launch of his Lent book would take.

Author: Abigail Frymann Rouch

Abigail Frymann Rouch is a religious and social affairs journalist. She has written for the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Independent, and Deutsche Welle. As a commentator she has appeared on Sky News, BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service, BBC World News, and regional radio. For nine years she was foreign editor, then online editor, of The Tablet.

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