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  • Writer's pictureRoss Moughtin

When ‘he’ is a ‘she’ but never an ‘it’

For the first time in 40 years I am saying he/him rather than the default she/her. It’s not easy. Even yesterday when I held newborn grandson Jack Walter for the first time, I soon lapsed into how content she looked. So four daughters and eight granddaughters later, our first male arrival! Nappy changing is going to have that extra dimension. So congratulations to Jen and Ewan. But the use of personal pronouns is now becoming very significant. On the very same day as Jack was born our new Bishop was announced – and we pray for Bishop Paul in his move from Hertford this autumn. This will be the last time we will be praying for the choice of a new Bishop that he may lead our diocese in God’s way. From now on (assuming General Synod makes the decision) we will be praying for the new Bishop that he or she may be God’s person. In fact, from the news yesterday, you soon will not be able to use the ‘he’ word for a frontline soldier. We live in a non-gender specific world but for some, old habits die hard. And of course this is shown by the way we use language. Take the way we pray. There has been a huge shift since the Alternative Services Book was published in 1980. In our confession to God we prayed then that “we have sinned against you and against our fellow men.” It now reads very awkwardly and Common Worship published just 20 years later uses the word ‘neighbour.’ For how we speak, how we use words, is so very important. It expresses our values. And a key value of the Gospel is that each of us – whoever we may be – is precious to God. The cross of Jesus shows that we each have the same infinite value. So the apostle Paul can write that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) Our use of language is changing rapidly in this rapidly changing world. Even how we translate Paul’s words is shifting. In modern Bible translations the apostle now appeals to ‘brothers and sisters’ and not just to the “brethren’. As the late John Stott observed: "When man means human being, without any intention to exclude women, and when the use of brothers was never intended to exclude sisters, then to retain such gender-specific words would be offensive. Even worse, it would actually misrepresent the meaning.’ But how do we speak of God himself? It was suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst who said “Trust in God, she will provide!” Here our language is simply not upto the job – which is often what happens when we try and speak about God. You cannot use the word “it” for the simple reason that God is personal and that we are made for relationship with. . . I have to say, him. What is fascinating is the pronoun we use for the Holy Spirit. He is a he and not an it. This is shown when in John’s Gospel, Jesus speaks about the Holy Spirit as Paracletos, his name. And then in reporting Jesus’ words John actually breaks the rules of Greek grammar and uses the pronoun ‘he’ when the word for Spirit (pneuma) demands an ‘it’. But that is in the Greek. In the Old Testament Hebrew, however, the word for spirit (ruach) is feminine. And so he is a she. However, the basic is that whatever we do in Christ’s name, we do in love – and that includes the way we speak. For in the Kingdom of God everyone is welcome!

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