Nouns, Names and Nonsense

Geoffrey Kirk denies that there is a case for inclusive language

A consensus seems to have emerged about the vexed question of 'inclusive' language in the liturgy. We are to be 'inclusive' about people, but 'exclusive' about God.

Many will see that as a sane and reasonable compromise; one which Rome will also probably accept when the new English Mass finally emerges from whatever dicastery has taken it hostage. It is a compromise which defuses a potentially explosive situation and gives both parties at least something of what they want: how very Anglican!

But, to my mind, it is neither so simple nor so rational a solution as it seems. The problem arises from precisely the fact that it is a compromise.

Masculine language about God, it might be thought, has been retained merely in order to avoid the fuss which traditionalists would inevitably make if it were altered. It is simply, it might be said (and where have we heard this before?), that the Church is not yet ready for such a development.

Papal statement

Not long ago a piece in the Irish Times, announcing a forthcoming conference of Roman Catholics in favour of women's ordination, cited the present Pope's claim that God is both 'our father and our mother', and went on to draw the predictable conclusion that the Church needs both men and women priests in order to image both the motherhood and fatherhood of God. The argument assumed a direct and logical connection between the papal statement and the ordination of women. Because God acts in a motherly fashion, it was being claimed, he must be represented as, and spoken of, (from time to time, at least) as the Mother.

It is clear, in the face of such louche argumentation, that if the retention in the liturgy of masculine language about God is to mean anything at all, we have a duty to explain why this is not so. Such an explanation, in the present climate, will not be easy. But let us try.

Names and naming

'Father', used by Jesus and bequeathed by him to the Church, is not a generic term ('Joseph was father to Jesus'), but a proper name ('Thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth…'). Jesus used it, moreover, in a culture which had a peculiar sensitivity about the use of the proper name of God (YHWH; ego

eimi). John's gospel turns on the use of the divine name and on the claim of Jesus to a special relationship with the divinity so named. At the moment of his arrest he applies the name of God to himself '(Who are you looking for?'. They answered: 'Jesus the Nazarene' He said 'I am he' – ego eimi. (John 18.5). His use of his own proper name for God is the cause of his execution ('we have a law and by our law he ought to die, because he has claimed to be the Son of God' (John 19.7)). The Son of the Father goes to his death in place of Barabbas (who is merely 'a father's son.) ('Not this man', they said, 'but Barabbas' (John 18.40)).

Pater Noster

Jesus bequeaths that proper name, and the relationship which goes with it, to the Church, his Body. It is en Christou that the Spirit cries out in each one of us 'Abba Father!'. In Christ God is no longer 'like a father to us'; he is 'Our Father'. The Word-Made-Flesh (who is consubstantial with the Father ('the Word was with God and the Word was God' (John 1.1)) enables us to enter experientially into the very texture of analogical language about God. No longer need Deity be imageless and nameless: the second commandment and the prohibition of the Tetragrammaton were swept away at the first Pentecost, when language was renewed, healed and fulfilled. We live now in the age of the icon and the Paternoster ('Lord, show us the Father' … 'Philip, he who has seen me has seen the Father' (John 14.9); 'Pray then like this: Our Father' (Matthew 6.7)).

At the heart of a Christian understanding of God is the awareness that no one can know God except God; and so no one can know God except through God. As a Johannine outcrop at the heart of the Synoptics puts it clearly: 'All things have been delivered to me by my Father; and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him' (Matthew 11:27; Luke 10.22). The revelation of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit is a revelation of divine Being as intrinsically personal, interpersonal and personalizing. Apart from that revelation, our conception of God quickly degenerates. It becomes impersonal or non-personal – ultimately the sad personification, and so deification, of our own desires and ideals.

There can, therefore, be no compromise about the naming of God. It cannot be a counter in some on-going negotiation with the proponents of a politically correct agenda. It is not a part of the family silver, which can be pawned to buy time in the struggle with modernity. It is our whole inheritance. The naming of the Sacred Trinity is a sine qua non of Catholic Christianity. They are pagans who call him by any other name.

Sanskrit sources

With less passion, but almost as much certainty, we should also be explaining the absurdity of 'inclusive' language about people.

It is not merely that such language distorts or obscures theological patterns and historical continuities (the Son of the Father is also the Son of David); it is absurd in itself. The Sanskrit root 'man', 'mannu' means nothing more or less than a human being. It is superbly suited to its purpose since it is cognate with the word for 'I think'. (Descartes was merely thinking another man's thoughts after him; he was a living, speaking tautology!) And that is what 'man' means in all those compounds now thought to be so 'politically incorrect' – as 'chairman', 'spokesman' and the like. 'Woman' is a compound of precisely the same kind – waefman, or Wife-Human. Rather appropriately, perhaps, the interrogator of Oscar Wilde in the famous trial had a surname which exhibited another parallel form: he was Carman (from ceorl or kerl, thus Male-Human).

If it is true that 'man', by gaining another meaning ('male-person'), has been weakened in its generic meaning 'person' – and there seems to me to be no evidence but special pleading that this is the case – it is worth remarking that

other terms have moved in the opposite direction. 'Girl' originally referred to children of either sex and 'maid' simply meant adolescent or young adult. 'Man', in its generic sense, has, moreover, proved so useful and so tersely appropriate that it has re-emerged in different forms. French 'on' (and, to a lesser extent, the Windsor 'one') is a neutral rebirth of 'homme', and the 'mon' of my West Indian parishioners is used indiscriminately of either sex.

Sleeping Dogs

I am personally for leaving linguistic development in the hands of the demos, and only creating a specialized speech register when one must. 'Man’, as a generic term, has had a glorious history and is still alive and kicking. 'Man inhabits all the climatic zones', says the zoologist; whilst the moralist reflects that 'Man is mortal.’ 'Man's mind is unconquerable', boasts the philosopher. 'What is man?' the poet muses. 'Everyman is my brother', proclaims the socialist. 'Man is but earth', preached John Donne on Christmas Day 1627 at St Paul's Cross. And generations of clergymen of the Church of England have been admonished on the thirtieth evening of the month that the Lord ‘delighteth not in any man's legs’, and have taken comfort, no doubt, therefrom.

I would not for the world condemn this rich linguistic ecology to the machetes of the literary pygmies who now write liturgy for the Church of England. They must, it seems to me, decide whether they intend to use language or to manipulate it. If they choose, as seems likely, the latter course, then they will condemn themselves to the well-deserved obscurity of jargon and cant.

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s, Lewisham in the Diocese of Southwark.

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