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.