Is God Male or Gender-Neutral? Episcopalian Church Debates God’s Gender on Book of Common Prayer


The terms for God as they are written in the Book of Common Prayer are apparently up for debate in the Episcopalian Church; furthermore, so is God’s gender.

The Episcopal Church was set to begin a week’s long debate on the gender of God for the Book of Common Prayer which is a central piece of literature used by the Church.

“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,” said the Rev. Wil Gafney, a professor of the Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School in Texas who is on the committee recommending a change to the gendered language in the prayer book.

Furthermore, the Reverend says that she often switches the words in the Book of Common Prayer to align with her narrative, making God gender-neutral. Currently, Episcopalian Priests are not formally allowed to change the gender of God during Sermons; however, after the debate that may change.

However, the Bible is abundantly clear that God is the Father of humankind, in addition, while Jesus was physically on Earth he was a male. Yet, Episcopalian Priests are attempting an overhaul of the language used to describe God in the Book of Common Prayer.

Gafney says that she often changes words like “king” to a gender-neutral term like “Ruler” or “Creator,” also the Reverend sometimes uses “She” instead of “He.”

The Book of Common Prayer has not seen a revision since 1979, and while a wholesale revision would take decades to complete, it’s one that could entirely change the current book.

Other Church leaders are seeking additional changes such as; adding a liturgical ceremony to celebrate a transgender person’s adoption of a new name; for adding same-sex marriage ceremonies to the liturgy, since the church has been performing such weddings for years; for updating the calendar of saints to include essential figures named as saints since 1979.

On the other hand, a competing resolution read that the church should not update the existing Book of Common Prayer. Instead, they should spend the next three years intensely studying the current book.

That’s what Chicago Bishop Jeffrey Lee advocates. The Book of Common Prayer, he said, “really constitutes the Episcopal church in significant ways. Our theology is what we pray.” Lee is a member of the committee that considered the two resolutions and will put forward one of them — or an alternate revised proposal — to the larger legislative bodies at the convention.

Although he thinks that the church should focus more on mining what is in the 1979 book instead of revising it now, he said current events had shown him the importance of listening to women’s demands for gender-neutral language. “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 said. “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.”



C031 Minimize Gendered Language in the BCP
Resolved, the House of _______ concurring, That the 79th General Convention direct the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, as it considers revision of the Book of Common Prayer, to amend, as far as is practicable, all gendered references to God, replacing them with gender expansive language.


Language matters. The 231st Annual Convention of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut “acknowledged that using only male language for God distorts and impoverishes our theological vision” (Resolution #12). Our principal worship resource, the Book of Common Prayer, contains thousands of references to God, virtually all of which are male. As we increasingly understand the fluidity of gender, assigning a male gender to God reinforces patriarchy, androcentrism and clericalism. The 78th General Convention required the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music to present a plan for BCP revision to the 79th General Convention. This is an unprecedented opportunity to further our commitment to equality of all genders.


Resolved, the House of _______ concurring, That the 79th General Convention recognize the urgent pastoral and evangelical need for revision of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, particularly in regard to the use of inclusive and expansive language for humanity and divinity, continuing work which began even as the 1979 BCP was being developed; and be it further

Resolved, That the 79th General Convention direct the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music to undertake a thorough revision of the Book of Common Prayer 1979, leading to a proposed revision of the Book of Common Prayer for trial use no later than the 81st General Convention in accordance with the Constitution Article X(b) and a proposed revision of the Book of Common Prayer in accordance with the Constitution Article X no later than the 82nd General Convention, to meet the contemporary needs of The Episcopal Church, including employing inclusive and expansive language for humanity and divinity; and be it further

Resolved, That the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music report its progress to the 80th General Convention; and be it further

Resolved, That the 79th General Convention request the Joint Standing Committee on Program, Budget and Finance to consider a budget allocation of $ $1,917,025 for the implementation of this resolution, as requested in Resolution A068.


The Book of Common Prayer is in need of a breadth of diverse language reflecting the diversity of human identities and expressions of those identities and to demonstrate in the language and liturgies of the church that all persons are reflected in the divine image. The biblical text provides a wealth of imagery describing the divine that has yet to be plumbed. The Church has neglected feminine imagery in particular, and has not as yet begun to explore language that transcends binary understandings of the human person. The need is urgent and pastoral and ultimately evangelical.

The use of inclusive language was a consideration in the development of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, and further development began almost immediately after the 1979 BCP was adopted.

Toward the end of the process of developing the 1979 BCP, the Standing Liturgical Commission formed a subcommittee on linguistic sensitivity relating to women. Meeting in 1974, the committee identified broad areas of concern:
1. In the 1928 BCP and Hymnal 1940, the generic use of masculine nouns and pronouns to encompass all human beings established a concept of maleness as normative and femaleness as the exception or “other.” Decisions at the 1970 and 1973 General Conventions made clear that such generic use was not actually inclusive: the masculine-gender nouns in the canons were interpreted to exclude women from ordination to the priesthood.
2. The use of exclusively masculine symbols for God – Father, King, Lord – evoke the image of God as male, leaving the Church “without models of ministry and worship that affirm the female.”
The committee made general recommendations for using inclusive language in liturgical texts and reviewed drafts of proposed rites to recommend specific changes in wording. As a result, the 1979 BCP uses inclusive language regarding humanity in many places.

In 1981, the Standing Liturgical Commission formed a committee on language in worship, which identified five tasks:
1. The publication of an occasional paper on the rationale and guidelines for the use of inclusive language in worship;
2. The development of a calendar of female saints, with biographies, collects and lections;
3. Development of a lectionary for preaching about women and God, and for expanding awareness about non-sexist interpretations of God;
4. An audit of inclusive-language issues in the seminary training of clerics;
5. An audit of both exclusive and inclusive terms in the present Book of Common Prayer.
An occasional paper, “The Power and the Promise of Language in Worship: Inclusive Language Guidelines for the Church,” written by Robert Bennett, professor at EDS and a member of the commission, and issued in October 1984, discussed language both about humanity and about God. The paper recommended drawing upon the “rich reservoir of divine names from Scripture, tradition, and hymnody” and revising texts to eliminate the use of masculine pronouns for God. It concluded by stating that its suggestions “recognize that there is a problem in our religious language which increasing numbers of worshipers feel excludes, demeans, and casts persons into stereotypic roles.”

Upon the recommendation of Standing Liturgical Commission, the 1985 General Convention called for the development of inclusive language texts for Morning and Evening Prayer and the Eucharist (Resolution 1985-A095). The Commission directed a committee on supplemental liturgical texts “to look at our liturgies through the prism of biblical metaphor and, from these metaphors, search out inclusiveness in terms of God, humanity in all its cultural diversity, and creation, mindful of the traditional integrity of the Eucharistic Prayer and the shape of the Eucharist and the Office.” The first drafts included adaptation of texts in the 1979 BCP as well as newly written material, all presented as full rites that would be alternative to Rite I or Rite II. Minor changes to existing texts proved to be unsatisfying; replacing masculine nouns and pronouns with “God” resulted in prayers that suggested an abstract rather than a personal God.

The work during the 1985-1988 triennium resulted in “Prayer Book Studies 30: Supplemental Liturgical Texts,” alternative rites for Morning and Evening Prayer and the Eucharist, which the 1988 General Convention authorized for use “for the sake of perfecting draft rites” (Resolution 1988-A103). An extensive evaluation of these texts resulted in a different approach: a collection of “Supplemental Liturgical Materials,” a collection of resources that could be used in place of texts in Rite II (Resolution 1991-A121). After the 1994 General Convention reauthorized the texts (Resolution 1994-A067), the Commission developed additional liturgical materials, and these were added to the supplemental liturgical materials in a new volume entitled “Enriching Our Worship.” No additional texts have been developed for daily offices and the eucharist, although the Commission has developed additional volumes in the “Enriching Our Worship” series for other Prayer Book rites.

From 1985 until 1994, the Standing Liturgical Commission engaged in extensive consultation about the texts they were developing and the principles underlying them. Two congregations from Provinces I-VIII, along with Episcopal seminaries and two religious orders, prayed with the earliest draft texts in 1987 and provided extensive feedback. After the 1988 Convention, the Commission consulted with the Theology Committee of the House of Bishops, leading to the publication of Prayer Book Studies 30. Individuals and congregations that used this material were invited to submit responses; over 5000 participants offered suggestions for perfecting the rites. In 1993, the Commission hosted a consultation of theologians, biblical scholars, and liturgists, along with laity and clergy who had prayed with the texts, to explore issues in liturgical language about God. The Commission noted in its 1994 report to the General Convention that public discussion of the texts had diminished during the previous triennium, perhaps because initial fears had diminished as people experienced the texts.

In its 1994 report to the General Convention, the Commission used the term “expansive liturgical language” for the first time, and its 1997 report explained that this language “uses a diversity of images to convey the inexpressible mystery of God.” Drawing upon some of the riches of scripture and Christian tradition, the Commission’s goal was “to employ evocative language which would lead worshipers deeper into the mystery of God.”