Is God Male or Gender-Neutral? Episcopal Church Begins Debate on Book of Common Prayer

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Since before the days of the early church, God has always been addressed in prayers as a male, including terms like Father, King, and Lord.

In the New Testament, Jesus taught his disciples to pray to God using a male term. In Luke 11:1-4, one of the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray. “And He said to them, “When you pray, say: ‘Father, hallowed be Your name.'” (NASV)

Now the Episcopal Church is debating about overhauling its Book of Common Prayer, which is used in Episcopal congregations worldwide.

The debate centers on making sure that prayers in the book are clear that God is not male, but doesn’t have a gender, The Washington Post reports.  

“As long as ‘men’ and ‘God’ are in the same category, our work toward equity will not just be incomplete. I honestly think it won’t matter in some ways,” the Rev. Wil Gafney, a professor of the Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School in Texas told the newspaper.

Gafney is on the committee recommending a change to the gendered language in the prayer book. Like many other Episcopal priests, he wants a prayer book that upholds that God is bigger than any gender. 

Long separated from the Church of England, the leaders of the Episcopal Church will be considering two resolutions during its convention which begins Tuesday in Austin, Texas.

One resolution asks for a modernization of the Book of Common Prayer which was last revised 39 years ago.  According to the church, a complete revision would take several years and a new prayer book would probably not be ready for use in congregations until 2030.

Besides adding gender-neutral language concerning God, some advocates also want other revisions including, a Christian’s duty to the Earth’s conservation, adding same-sex marriage ceremonies to the liturgy, (since the church has been performing homosexual weddings for years) and even adding a ceremony to celebrate a transgender person’s adoption of a new name.

The other resolution asks that the church not update the Book of Common Prayer, but should spend the next three years studying the existing book. The prayer book’s roots go back to the first Anglican prayer book which was first published in 1549.

Chicago Bishop Jeffery Lee is one of the church leaders supporting the second resolution. 

The Book of Common Prayer, he told the Post, “really constitutes the Episcopal church in significant ways. Our theology is what we pray.” 

Lee says recent events have revealed to him why the church needs to listen to the women who are pushing for gender-neutral language in the prayer book.

“In the culture, the whole #MeToo movement, I think, has really raised in sharp relief how much we do need to examine our assumptions about language and particularly the way we imagine God,” he told the Post.  “If a language for God is exclusively male and a certain kind of image of what power means, it’s certainly an incomplete picture of God. . . . We can’t define God. We can say something profoundly true about God, but the mystery we dare to call God is always bigger than anything we can imagine.”

That includes gender, he told the newspaper – even if one of the three components of the Trinity is depicted as Jesus’ “Father” God, that God is bigger than male or female.

Other Protestant denominations, including the United Methodist Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, have also debated the use of gendered language for God. 

In 2007, the Reform Jewish movement changed its God language in its prayer book to gender-neutral terms.

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