Why ‘Allah’ might be better than ‘God’

One of the most interesting responses I had to my last blog about language was from a Muslim friend who suggested that the word I was looking for to talk about the divine being was not God but Allah.

Allah, he explained, cannot be made plural so it is always ultimate and other nor can it be made feminine so it remains ungendered. God, in contrast, because of the existence of the word, goddess, has become gendered and can become plural. Allah is the Arabic word for God and the word Christians from the Middle-East use to talk about the trinitarian God of the Bible as well as the Muslim name for God used across the world.

I have been mulling over this conversation for some time and it is true that while Goddess rarely (or never) makes it into the language of the liturgy  the word does occupy the linguistic space for the feminine divine thus making God male.

Other -ess words are starting to disappear. People on stages are rarely called actresses any more – an actor can cover either gender. Since the Church of England has agreed to ordain women a deacon can be either male or female. The word deaconess is slipping out of usage (I think) and according to a quick Google search a priestess is largely a Canadian rock band while priestess alchemy makes surpisingly good skincare! But godess has an important role to play in many different faiths and cannot be written out of our dictionaries.

Gender identity is one of the prime ways of defining ourselves and others and our gendered language reflects this. This gendered language can then lead to gendered worship which is not neutral and carries the weight of centuries of patriarchy with it. I really appreciate it when an effort is made to counteract that with more women leading worship, more female images for God (usually Mother) and more inclusive hymnody that reflects experience of both men and women.

But services and sermons like these are still unusual and slightly ‘other’. I hope our language can be as expansive and as liberating as possible generally rather than when we concentrate on it. And if God is always going to remain male, perhaps we will have to join  Christians the Middle-East who used the word ‘Allah’ in their worship. Or share the names used by our Muslim friends who also use the word Allah  and in addition have two important names for God,  Ar-Rahman and  Ar-Rahim (the all merciful and all compassionate), which are both taken from the Arabic word for womb.

If we are not comfortable borrowing from other cultures or traditions we might need to make our language more flexible without becoming too clumsy. He/she just about works but God/Goddess is definitely ungainly and I could never see Lord/Lady taking off. But now we have, as I recently heard it said, Bishops with wombs, (who are definitely not Bishopesses) our practice is continuing to embrace equality in our church structures. Let’s hope our language catches up soon.



Lost in Translation

This Sunday some friends of mine who are Muslims came to church to hear me preach and experience Christian worship. While I have heard a few sermons in a few different mosques I had never before had the honour of hosting Muslim friends in my home church and it gave me an interesting perspective on the service.

I haven’t yet had the chance to talk to my friends about what struck them in good and bad ways about their visit and I am looking forward to that conversation tomorrow.  In the meantime, here are few of my reflections from my perspective as a host.

A lot of the things that it highlighted could apply to people who had never been to church before  – things like how hard it is to find your way from the car park into the right door and along the corridor into church or how difficult it is to juggle a service book, a pewslip, an extra piece of paper with a Psalm and a hymn book.

But what really stood out for me was the way we use language and particularly the way we refer to God. We opened our service by saying ‘When the Lord comes… ‘ meaning Jesus but then in our first reading from Isaiah we have a speaker who was ‘anointed by the Lord’ and we mean God of the Hebrew Bible. How can you know that if you are not familiar with the context?

So when we say in Church: “The Lord be with you” are we talking about God the Father, or Jesus or can Lord cover all three persons of the Trinity? It may not matter to us but for someone of a different faith it might well influence the degree to which they can assent and participate in a service.

To be honest, ‘Lord’ is not my favourite word. It is clearly male and carries with it a whole load of feudal and patriarchal baggage, but because I am so used to it doesn’t usually trip me up in worship like it did this week.

After the service I spent a bit of time looking at the history of the word LORD as it appears in the Old Testament and all the explanations I could find were about the Jewish community avoiding the holy name of YHWH and introducing the term Adonai which was translated as Lord.

However when I worshipped recently at progressive synagoge they didn’t use the word Lord at all – instead the phrase Eternal One was given to describe God in the Hebrew Bible.

I found this phrase really liberating in its openess and its otherness. Now I can see too that it carries a clarity lost in our translation of LORD or Lord.

Our worship now takes place in a multi-faith context whether there are Muslims in the room or not. Our worship takes place in a context of feminism where we now have at last women (Lord) Bishops.   And we live in a context where feudalism has left a nasty after-taste. Just yesterday, somebody told me a story of his grandfather who worked for a ‘Lord’ and had a pretty tough time.

I wonder if we could get a little more creative in our language and perhaps learn again from our Jewish brothers and sisters to talk about God in an accessible and clear way.