Episcopal Church Considers Making Book Of Common Prayer Gender Neutral

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Joshua Gill Religion Reporter
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Leaders of the Episcopal Church are considering a major overhaul to The Book of Common Prayer, in part to make references to God gender neutral.

The Episcopal Church will consider two resolutions, one of which proposes a complete overhaul to The Book of Common Prayer. The other proposes an intensive three-year, church-wide study of the book as it is, during the denomination’s triennial convention in Austin, which began Tuesday, according to The Washington Post.

Those who support the proposal for changing The Book of Common Prayer said that the overhaul is necessary to promote gender equity. (RELATED: DC Episcopalians Push Open Borders And A Gender Neutral God)

“As long as ‘men’ and ‘God’ are in the same category, our work toward equity will not just be incomplete,” said Rev. Wil Gafney, professor of the Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School, according to WaPo. “I honestly think it won’t matter in some ways.”

While some supporters of the proposed overhaul, like Gafney, argue for gender neutral language, other supporters advocate for language affirming that Christians have a duty to steward the Earth, adding homosexual marriage to the liturgy, and adding a liturgical name-changing ceremony for transgender people.

“As long as a masculine God remains at the top of the pyramid, nothing else we do matters,” Gafney said. “We construct a theological framework in which we talk about gender equality … then we say that which is most holy in the universe is only and exclusively male. That just undoes some of the key theology that says we are equal in God’s sight, we are fully created in God’s image.”

If the denomination adopts the resolution, it will be the Episcopal Church’s first revision of The Book of Common Prayer since 1979, though the revised version would not be ready until 2030.

The Book of Common Prayer, adapted from the Anglican prayer book of the same name written in 1549, constitutes the official liturgy of the Episcopal Church and is therefore integral to Episcopal theology, according to Chicago Bishop Jeffrey Lee.

Lee is a member of the committee that will put one of the two resolutions or a revised alternate forward to the denomination’s higher legislative bodies. He said he supports the resolution proposing a three-year study of the book in its current form.

The Book of Common Prayer “really constitutes the Episcopal church in significant ways. Our theology is what we pray,” Lee told WaPo.

Even Lee, however, supported the idea of considering gender neutral language for God in the future.

“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,” Lee told WaPo.

The Very Rev. Samuel Candler, chairman of the committee that will put one of the two resolutions forward, told WaPo that he personally supports the resolution for the overhaul in light of what he sees as a need for gender neutral language concerning God.

“It stands for something. It’s a symbol of our common faith,” he said. “The words in our prayer book do matter.”

Washington National Cathedral’s canon theologian, Kelly Brown Douglas, clarified that a revision for gender neutral language concerning God would incorporate creative and descriptive ways of referring to God in an effort to help Episcopalians imagine the various aspects of what they believe to be God’s character.

“God as Creator, Liberator, Sustainer. God as the one who loves,” Douglas told WaPo. “We use descriptive words for God, so that we can begin to imagine who God is in our world.”

“That, to me, is the theological challenge, to get away from the static nouns that don’t tell us anything anyway,” she said. “The God that I can see in the least of these. The God that I can see in the face of a Renisha McBride or a Trayvon Martin — that tells me something about God.”

If the resolution for revision does not pass, advocates like Gafney and other feminist priests said they would argue for permission for priests to use alternative, gender neutral and homosexuality-affirming texts that the denomination has in the past approved for use along with the Book of Common Prayer at the discretion of diocesan bishops. They would push, however, for priests to be allowed to use the texts with or without their bishop’s permission.

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