John Humphrys - Does God have a gender… and a conscience?

February 10, 2023, 12:36 PM GMT+0

This has been one of those weeks when one news story eclipses all the others. The sheer scale of the earthquake in Turkey and northern Syria is impossible to comprehend but, as with every great tragedy, it is the individual suffering that has halted us in our tracks. The picture of the tiny, battered baby whose mother lay dying even as she gave birth to her. A rescuer had cut the umbilical cord. The picture of a man sitting in the ruin of what had been his home staring with empty eyes into the distance, one arm stretched out, his hand holding the hand of his young daughter. We could not see the child because she lay dead under the rubble.

In one very obvious sense this is not the subject of a ‘What do you make of it…?’ debate. We must all, surely, feel the same horror and sympathy. But there was another story this week that does raise questions linked to the tragedy. A bizarre story in the circumstances, you may think. It has to do with God.

There are, inevitably, many questions to be asked about God when terrible tragedies happen or when terrible atrocities are committed. That’s assuming, of course, you accept the existence of God or some all-powerful divinity. If you do, there is one question that even the most devout find supremely challenging. It was encapsulated by a survivor of the most horrific, inhuman crime against humanity of our lifetimes. The Holocaust. His question was devastating in its simplicity. ‘Where was God in Auschwitz?’ Yet when the General Synod of the Church of England held its annual meeting this week the question that attracted the most interest and controversy was not: ‘Where was God in Turkey or Syria?’ It was : ‘What gender is God?’

So, my debate for this week centres on what you make of the church raising this issue at this time. Or, for that matter, at any time. Melanie McDonough, who writes for the Catholic newspaper The Tablet, described God as the ‘bodiless uncreated creator of the universe’ who is, according to every orthodox theologian, every church father, neither male nor female. But that, she says, is not quite the end of the debate.

She continued: ‘How we refer to God is another matter. It’s this vexed question that the Church of England opened up when the Bishop of Lichfield told the General Synod this week that a new joint project on gendered language will begin this spring, run by its faith and order commission plus its liturgical commission. Quite a big ask.’ McDonough concedes that language matters and gender-neutral prayers already exist. But she has serious reservations about this new proposal. New prayers to accommodate ideological concerns are, she says, a bleak prospect.

The question was raised by a member of Synod, Joanna Stobart, who was concerned with what she called ‘the steps being taken to develop more inclusive language in our authorised liturgy and to provide more options for those who wish to speak of God in a non-gendered way’. Another cleric, Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, said the view that God is a man had a ‘knock-on effect on all our debates about gender and sexuality and women’.

As McDonough points out, it wasn’t long before it occurred to every single pundit to raise the question of the most important prayer in the Christianity: the Lord’s Prayer. Here’s how she put it: ‘Christ told his followers to pray to Our Father. If gendered language was good enough for God Incarnate, isn’t it good enough for the CofE? Mind you, there are already Anglican churches where God is addressed as Our Father and Mother.’ Even so, she says, the Church now has the difficult job of ‘squaring its amiable anxiety to meet the sensitivities of our age with the intractable realities of what Christ said and did and was on earth (male), in the language of his place and time. As John Barton, the scripture scholar, points out, there isn’t even a gender-neutral pronoun in Hebrew or Aramaic anyway. But Christ did call God Father, including from the cross.’

McDonough’s main objection – and it is shared by many in the Church of England – is that what Christians ‘cannot honourably do is make God in our image to make Him more congenial to the preoccupations of our day.’

And there is another question that cries out to be answered at the end of a truly terrible week. It takes us back to that anguished cry after the ultimate horror of the Holocaust: ‘Where was God at Auschwitz?’ and it is, for those who agonise over it, infinitely more important than what they regard as the absurd conceit of seeking to define God as a man or a woman. Or both. It lies, they say, at the core of Christianity. It is the concept of the ‘God of mercy’.

Those of us – like me - who were brought up as Christians will remember being told endlessly that one of the many wonders of God is that we could turn to him in our hour of suffering and he would hear our prayers. Indeed, that was the core appeal of a loving God. It remains the case. No church service is complete without some reference to the all-merciful God.

And yet, they point out, when the most powerful body in the church of England was agreeing to launch a bizarre debate on whether God is male or female, it avoided the truly profound question of how a merciful God could subject innocent children and their loving parents to the unimaginable horrors of a massive earthquake.

The question of why God ‘allows’ so many innocents to suffer so terribly is one that has been raised endlessly by religious sceptics over the centuries. I did so myself on one memorable occasion with Margaret Thatcher in the final stages of the election campaign in 1987. Rather than kick off the interview with the predictable questions about the parlous state of the economy I decided to try a different approach. Thatcher spoke often about her faith, so I decided my first question would be: ‘What is the essence of Christianity?’ I convinced myself that she would answer something along the lines of ‘love’ or ‘charity’ and I would then be able to charge her with having shown precious little charity herself to the longsuffering electorate. I was, of course, wrong in that assumption. Instead she answered with just one word: ‘Choice!”

Many of my listeners applauded her and you can see her logic. A true Christian will be rewarded for choosing the path of morality and unselfish charity over the pursuit of selfish gain or savagery. Others pointed out what they see as the obvious flaw. What about the millions who suffered and died in the Holocaust? They had no choice. What about the parents in Turkey or Syria who saw their children crushed in the earthquake for which they bear no responsibility? What about the fathers who I watched digging their own dead children from beneath the mountain of waste that crushed their school in Aberfan in 1966? Some of them found comfort in their faith. Others cursed an uncaring god for allowing their lives to be destroyed through the action of others.

Where do you stand in this debate? How did you react to the leaders of the Church of England opting to launch an inquiry into the gender of God? If you are a believer are you uneasy with the acceptance of ‘God the father’ and, if so, how do you reconcile that with the first two words of the Lord’s prayer? Or do you simply find a debate on the gender of God a ridiculous exercise in political correctness? And when terrible disasters happen do you ask yourself: Where was God?

Do let us know.

Picture: Getty

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