What does it mean if we call the Spirit ‘She’, as some are now suggesting?
One argument seems to be that it doesn’t mean anything —that since God is ‘beyond gender’ we might as well call the Spirit ‘She’ as ‘He’, so long as we don’t call the Spirit ‘It’ because this sounds ‘impersonal’.
There are, however, problems with this. Specifically, if God is beyond gender, then it does not matter, either, if we call God ‘She’. Similarly, within the godhead, although we may traditionally refer to the First Person of the Trinity as ‘the Father’, and the Second as ‘the Son’, it would not matter if we used the more neutral ‘Parent’ and ‘Child’, and, given the theological understanding we are expressing by calling the Spirit ‘She’, it would be entirely appropriate to call them, at least on occasion ‘Mother’ and ‘Daughter’.
Some would dismiss this suggestion as mischievous. However, we must ask ourselves on what grounds we might resist it if God is truly ‘beyond gender’ and our language for God must avoid mis-statements about God’s nature.
It might be argued that the language for the First and Second persons of the Trinity is ‘fixed’ by the biblical use of ‘Father’ and ‘Son’. But if we can remain with this terminology without distorting our understanding of the godhead, why can we not similarly remain with the Scriptural (Jn 16:13) and traditional (credal) use of ‘He’ for the Spirit?
If the response is that we must, somehow, ‘balance’ our language by the use of ‘She’, however, we are back to our first objection, namely that at least with regard to God considered per se, we can (and perhaps must) use ‘She’ of God as well as God’s Spirit.
If, on the other hand, the response is that the language we use for the Third Person of the Trinity can differ from that which we use for the First and Second Persons, we must ask whether we are expressing thereby a difference in the being of the Spirit. Is the Spirit ‘She’ in a way that the Son is not ‘She’ and the Father is not ‘She’? If the answer is ‘no’, then we are back to the second objection, that we can just as appropriately call Father and Son ‘Mother’ and ‘Daughter’ without doing an injustice to the qualities of God. If the answer is ‘yes’, however, then we have to consider in what sense is the Spirit ‘She’ in a way that differs from Father and Son.
My own suggestion is that the whole use of ‘She’, as currently proposed and loosely practised is incoherent, dangerous and potentially heretical.
The test must be in our liturgy. Can we (and should we, as some are advocating) call on God as our Mother? More specifically in this instance, could we, without qualms, change the Nicene Creed to say of the Spirit, “She has spoken through the prophets”? Is the only resistance to this our prejudice and inconsistency? Would this be liberating, or would it be disastrous?
If, however, we should not do this, then we should not suggest that is does not matter whether we call the Spirit, or the godhead ‘He’ or ‘She’. If it matters, it truly matters.
Revd John P Richardson
18 June 2009