What’s in a name? Episcopal Church considers making God gender-neutral

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The Episcopal Church is debating whether it will keep the use of masculine terms for God in its prayer book or change it to a gender-neutral language.

Bishops, priests and lay delegates, who have been meeting in Austin since July 5, are discussing legislation that would make changes to the Book of Common Prayer aimed at stripping away some of the masculine descriptions of God in favor of more “expansive” language.

During the hours of debate over the weekend, delegates butted heads over tradition, theology and what it means to be welcoming. One argued that children of all genders should hear language that allows them to feel made in God’s image. Another speaker, a delegate from an urban parish that serves poor families, said the masculine nature of God is crucial for children growing up without a father.

“Both sides are worried about alienating the people we’ve got and not being welcoming to the people we don’t have,” said the Rev. Cathy Tyndall Boyd, rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Williamsburg, Va.

Some also had practical concerns: Revision opponents suggest that the approximately $1.9 million it would cost to develop the language, with an expected $8 million to print and distribute the new books, could be better spent on evangelism, racial reconciliation efforts and training new church leaders.

The discussion has attracted attention outside of the Episcopal Church as well as within it: Traditionalist Christians, including those whose own denominations are considering similar changes, worry that gender-neutral terms for God undermine the concept of the Trinity.

Episcopalians represent a wide range of political and theological beliefs, they consider the prayer book the “primary symbol of our unity.” Nothing riles them more, they often joke, than tinkering with it.

Originally published in 1549 after England broke from the Roman Catholic Church, the book is used in varying versions by the worldwide Anglican Communion. The Episcopal Church last updated the Book of Common Prayer in 1979, revising the 1928 version, with its “thees” and “thous,” by adding modern prayer language and new rites. The changes inevitably drew outrage from traditionalists.

Sensitive to these feelings, delegates have embraced the painstaking deliberations at convention, said the Very Rev. Samuel Candler, chair of the prayer book legislation committee.

“There is the movement of the spirit even in parliamentary procedure and even in committees,” he said.

If so, the spirit moves very slowly. Passing a resolution requires approval from both houses of the church’s bicameral governing body — the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies, the latter consisting of clergy members and lay people elected from each diocese — which adhere to a strict order of debate.

On Saturday (July 7), the House of Deputies passed an amended version of the prayer book resolution. It now awaits action from the bishops. If the measure passes there without any changes, the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music will begin a three-year listening tour, conducting surveys and holding meetings with the denomination’s roughly 2 million members. A new prayer book would have a trial run in 2024 and would not go into official use until 2030.

— by Eileen Flynn | RNS

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