We worship a non-binary God. Don’t we?

male, femals, non-binary form

Just over a week ago there was something called the Scottish Church Census. Churches all over Scotland were asked to count how many people were present and to account for the gender diversity, ethnic diversity, age profile etc of the congregation.

Those organising the census helpfully provided a brief form which people could use to tick the various categories in order to make an accurate return. Though this was helpful, I quickly realised that we couldn’t use the form that was supplied as using it was not going to be inclusive of everyone in the congregation. The first question on the form asked people to indicate whether they were male or female and I was aware that for at least one person in the congregation, that was not going to be a helpful question.

I was aware that there was someone in the congregation who does not identify themselves in a way that would allow them to tick either box with any conviction, seeing gender as something rather more complex for themselves.

Once you start to notice this, you realise that the world is full of forms that require one to identify oneself as either male or female, very many of them forms for which gendered information is completely and utterly irrelevant.

Anyway, we ended up producing our own local version of the Scottish Church Census form with a third box. The options were now male, female and non-binary.

When all the forms were gathered up and counted, it turned out that three people had ticked the non-binary box, one of them circling the words and writing “thank you” next to them.

Thus I found out simply by asking the question, that there were three times as many people in the congregation that day than I would have estimated who would describe themselves as not male nor female but in some way non-binary.

We’re going to hear quite a lot more about this in the coming years I think. In Scotland there’s going to be a consultation about allowing people to legally be regarded as being of a non-binary gender, the law neither regarding them as male or female. It is a change which should go ahead I think though one suspects that a great number of people have never thought it through.

The three people describing themselves as non-binary in St Mary’s that Sunday were towards the younger end of the (very mixed) age profile that we have. This suggests to me that this way of identifying oneself is likely to become more common as time goes on and may be very helpful.

Gender does push people’s buttons a lot and we don’t all agree. There’s a pernicious law being pursued in some parts of the USA trying to ensure that people use the “correct” toilets according to the gender they were assigned at birth. This is problematic for those who have transitioned from one gender to another, those who were born intersex and those for whom gender is simply more complex and who would regard themselves as non-binary.

(We have both gendered and non-gendered toilet facilities at St Mary’s Cathedral. At home I only have a non-gendered toilet, like most people).

But here’s the thing. Christians worship a non-binary God, don’t we?

Haven’t we come (rejoicing) through¬† the days of feminists calling upon us to recognise that there is a female aspect to the divine which makes all talk of God as purely male to be inadequate?

Haven’t we come to a point of recognising that God is beyond gender?

When the government comes to the point of asking us all what we think of introducing a non-binary gender category, won’t the churches joyfully embrace it and support it because this reflects the God we know and in whose image and likeness we are made?

Might the non-binary gender category that is increasingly going to become an option for people be a helpful way in which we might reflect on the nature of God?

In congregations like my own, I suspect that will be the case very quickly but maybe for the whole church this shift in the way we regard gender may help us in the way we look at God.

I wrote last week about the fact that anyone who insists on God being a male authority figure or even daddy is readily challenged by simply reading the bible where God is seen more by attributes that go way beyond gender. When we address God these days in my own congregation we are more likely (far more likely) to address God as “Eternal God” or “Loving God” than we are to talk of “Father God”. This is partly because not everyone has a good model of fatherhood in their own experience but far more it is because this simply isn’t the God whom the bible has introduced us to. Jesus used fatherhood as a metaphor for God but that has to be seen in the context of a book which speaks of God as a flower – the Rose of Sharon, a carnivorous wild animal – the Lion of Judah or weapon – sharper than a two edged sword, along with dozens of other complex rich and sometimes perplexing images.

We worship a God who is beyond gender even though our tradition has sometimes embraced images of God which are highly gendered – sometimes I think, to distinguish the faith from other highly female gendered images of divinity with which Christianity was competing. (I’ve seen an effigy of Artemis of Ephesus and can honestly say I wouldn’t like to meet her during a dark night of the soul).

Christian people are not in the business of dealing with a Mr God.

And Christian people need to wise up fairly quickly to the questions about gender which are coming our way.

Dear God who is beyond gender,
give us a greater dose
of your holy spirit of common sense
in dealing with gender
than we have seemed to the world to posses
over your gift of sexuality.

Amen

 

Comments

  1. Ah, good. That was my first thought on looking at the form and I wondered whence it came…

  2. Rosemary Hannah says:

    Oh heavens – the ethnic box caused huge problems – I was glad to see the non-binary box, though I am cis-gendered. Like you, I knew people that the bnary would cause problems and upset to.

  3. Meg Rosenfeld says:

    “Non-binary” seems, to me, to be a good, neutral (no pun intended) term with no emotional baggage attached. I don’t think it’s in use in the US, at least not yet.

  4. Alex Staton says:

    Good to read this, Kelvin. Never mind that pernicious law being pursued in parts of the USA, there’s been more than enough perniciousness regarding gender on the part of some Christians here in Scotland. At least one prominent churchman thinks non-binary gender is by turns funny and the end of humanity.

    Your comment about a non-binary God is, of course, correct. I for one particularly appreciate your noticing that the idea of God as Father isn’t always helpful. I’m reminded of where Jesus asks, “which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone?” Sadly, there are fathers too willing to do precisely that. Yet, whilst God isn’t ‘daddy’, to address him (sic) as ‘Heavenly Father’ implies a closeness of fellowship that is not captured by ‘the Almighty’.

    I tend to baulk when I hear God referred to in the femine. This seems more common in relation to God the Holy Spirit. Of course ‘it’ won’t do at all. No doubt my discomfort arises from the influence of 3000 years of Judaeo-Christian tradition. But then theology isn’t static and we’re aware of the complexity of gender, not to say the equality of women and men, in a way that people barely gave a thought to in the past.

    The great Biblical affirmation of the equality of every gender comes from St Paul: “There is in Christ neither male nor female”.

    Long response, sorry.

    • Every week when we say the Creed, I am aware of at least some in the congregation who end it by saying:

      We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
      who proceeds from the Father.
      With the Father and the Son, she is worshipped and glorified.
      She has spoken through the Prophets.
      We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
      We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
      We look for the resurrection of the dead,
      and the life of the world to come.
      Amen

  5. I love your blog. Adding “non-binary” to that form was great. As a Christian I believe in a non-binary God and try very hard not to speak about our Creator in the masculine. I am a gray person who does not think in black and white, so therefore sees gender as often fluid. God cannot be bound by our perceptions. I like the prayer you ended with a lot.

    • Daniel Berry, NYC says:

      I agree with your response. But one thing about this worries me a bit, and that’s the movement toward removing gender from the godhead, which I think is, well, a mistake. Not unnaturally, many of us are uncomfortable with the use, or, at least, exclusive use, of masculine pronouns to refer to the deity. OTOH, denying gender to “it” runs the risk of denying very powerful attributes.

      One of the things I liked about C S Lewis’ “Perelandra” was that he posited many, many more genders inhere in the godhead than our binary model suggests.

      Additionally, all one has to do is peruse the texts of neutered hymn texts in unitarian hymnals and other places to see how disconcertingly vapid our sacred mythology risks becoming if we eliminate gender from our god.

      No one need agree with me about this, but I’ve had these thoughts for decades now. I like the idea of “non-binary” because it opens the door to the wider variety of lives, experiences and models, rather than curtailing the list.

      • Thanks for your input. I get your point and agree with you about not calling God “it”. I do still use the masculine pronoun when refering to God although to avoid masculine or feminine pronouns I use God/God’s instead of a pronoun. You have given me much to ponder. I look forward to more “conversations” with you.

  6. A “Non-Binary” option? TBT(N-B)G!

  7. Larry Rosenfeld says:

    Re your observation about all of us being made in God’s image:

    http://www.npr.org/2016/05/22/479048513/pastor-writes-to-dispel-embedded-misconceptions-about-transgender-people

    BTW: At All Saints’ enough people use “she” in the two places you quoted in the Creed that “she” is what you hear us say.

    Larry Rosenfeld
    San Francisco

  8. Peter Stockell says:

    But… there are only two genders?

  9. Isabel says:

    I had been thinking about why historically we refer to God as he or him when he is not a human entity and therefore transcends gender. This was an interesting read, thank you. I also love the idea of replacing father with loving or eternal on the points you made here.

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