Arecent resolution out of the Diocese of Washington has advocated genderless talk about God. This is not a new thought (though its association with gender neutrality is). In the wake of strong criticism, the bishop has replied that this resolution should be taken not politically but theologically. To honor this distinction, I offer the following theses.

1. God is not a creature, and hence is not male or female. God is beyond our knowing, and were we left to our own devices we could only project our notions upon him.

2. But God has revealed himself to us in Scripture and pre-eminently in Jesus Christ. In this light we can rightly understand how creation too reveals his glory.

3. Naming is different from describing. Jesus calls God “Abba,” and he is addressed as “my beloved Son.”


4. The official liturgies of the Church derive from this revelation and must make sure they address the true God truly.

5. As a result we are commanded directly by the risen Jesus to baptize in the name of the “Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

6. In the relation thereby restored, we are given the space to describe God in many ways. Jesus described himself as a hen gathering her brood. The proper places for such descriptions include private prayers, poems, songs, and even sermons.

7. The question of how we address one another is a different one, dependent on custom, language, and usage. It should be debated separately.

8. The use of he for God is a linguistic accommodation to the Incarnation within the grammatical structures of English. It makes no metaphysical claim.

9. Male and female God created us. But these roles have been the subjects of great historical and cultural change, and are an appropriate topic of discussion.

10. For these reasons God should be addressed without exception or change in an orthodox manner in the worship of our Church, to his praise and glory.

About The Author

The Rt. Rev. Dr. George Sumner, ordained priest in Tanzania in 1981, is the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas. He has served in cross-cultural ministry in Navajoland and has a doctorate in theology from Yale. Bishop Sumner is married to Stephanie Hodgkins.

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5 Responses

  1. Joshua Daniel

    Just a quick thought. Metaphysics is often (though not always) connected to issues of necessity. For instance, merely that a particular creature exists in a certain way is not a meaningful contender for metaphysical status. But that a particular creature *must* exist in a certain way (because existing in that way is determined by its essence, or whatever) is such a contender precisely because the concept of necessity plays such a distinguishing role. With that said, it seems dubious that thesis (8) can be squared with thesis (10). If the claim is that God must be addressed in a particular way, it would most reasonably follow that some metaphysical authority is being invoked. What am I missing?

  2. Mary Barrett

    While I shall not offer such heavy theological thoughts, I will write what I know from being born into Roman Catholicism about 60 years ago a female: thesis #9 is an understatement of the horrible power abuse of women by those using male imagery to control belief systems. By my early 20s, I knew how important it was to separate from this imposed male imagery of Something so unfathomable. Yahweh. Sorry, I do not pray to a Father God. And I am just fine with the consequences.

  3. Andii Bowsher

    At one level no.8 is right “The use of he for God is a linguistic accommodation to the Incarnation within the grammatical structures of English. It makes no metaphysical claim.” However, it misses the point by being too constrained in scope. Since we know now about the effects of psychological priming (and marketers rely on it routinely, should we doubt it) then we need to reckon with the effects of only using that particular accommodation to human language which is to supercharge masculine ‘readings’ of God. Given the acceptance of the first proposition above, we should take seriously ways to counterbalance the masculine priming such language empowers. We might also question proposition 6 on the basis that to tell the ungendered truth within our corporate life, some of the countervailing to masculine priming should be liturgical.

    Then we might also reckon with linguistic change and perhaps for the sake of truth (proposition 1) and justice lean into the changes in English already underway away from over-specificity in gender. We probably should note that while in previous ages it is arguable that masculine pronouns were genuinely heard as gender neutral in some contexts, that state of affairs is increasingly rare. Out of love for our neighbours and for the sake of commending the gospel, we have to respond to that changed cultural-linguisting reality.

  4. Robert

    God was referred to as “our Father” 13 times in the Old Testament, Jesus’ frequent use of this title brought a whole new understanding of our relationship with God. Jesus referred to God as His father over 150 times, and He spoke of God as being our father 30 times. This infuriated the religious Jews of Jesus’ day who considered it blasphemy to call God their father, because they perceived that to mean they were equal with God (John. 5:17-18).


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