the duchess be with you

Amidst what is quickly becoming one of the scariest and least stable years I can remember, this week news broke of some incredibly minor shenanigans at the college where I did my theological training, Westcott House. Some students organised an evensong in polari, a language that’s been developed and used by gay subcultures in the past few decades. Articles about the college’s ‘apology’ and ‘repentance’ over this service showed up in the Grauniad, the Torygraph, and the Beeb. Even NPR picked the story up, so I’m told.

I don’t really want to get into the internal politics of the situation here — though let it be known that I am entirely in support of the students who planned the service and think that they have been rather awfully thrown under the bus by some of their peers and their supervisors. What I want to muse about is *what is so offensive* about the language that was used, what is so terrifying to the religious establishment.

Complaints were made that a ‘polari bible translation’ was used. This translation uses the word Gloria in place of Godthe Duchess in place of the Lord, Josie in place of Jesus, and the Fairy fantabulosa  in place of the Holy Spirit — amongst many other substitutions. These choices and others were seen by some to undermine the historic doctrine of the church, as well as make an unhelpful contribution to the currently very-hot-indeed issues around sexuality in the Church of England. This same week, the C of E bishops issued a statement which confirmed no change in some traditional teachings around sex and marriage (not surprising, but still sad). This statement urged churches, where necessary, to repent of their homophobia and to ‘change the tone’ of their engagement around issues of (particularly queer) sexuality. I could write multiple posts about the bishops’ statement; right now I want simply to note the synchronicity of these two events.

So — back to the ‘polari bible‘ and its paraphrase of scripture, particularly its use of female God-language. Those who know me will know how dear to my heart this issue is; how incredibly important I believe it is that people of faith are enabled to see how patriarchy & phallocentrism is harmful, especially in the way we speak about God.  The God of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures refers to Herself in female terms, metaphors, and pronouns as well as male. [1]  Many reasonable theologians and biblical scholars accept this. However, it is one thing to accept the concept that ‘God is neither male nor female but both and, more importantly, beyond’. (Not all Christians accept this! If I had a nickel for the number of times I’d sat across a table from a Christian, usually a man, and been told that ‘God is not a man, but God is male!’ well, I’d probably be able to buy a coffee at Starbucks.)

It is one thing to accept this concept and quite another thing to put it into practice. Still, today, the feminine, and especially the female (see footnote for disambiguation) tends to make churchy people incredibly squeamish. [2] Even churchy people with a high regard for Mary or female saints. [3]  Why is this? I think it comes down to the famous dictum of radical feminist Mary Daly: ‘If God is male, then male is God.’ If people’s overwhelming linguistic means for describing, praising, and speaking to God is male or masculine — if we project onto God a man’s face, stereotypical properties, even genitals — then it is not long before they, before we, project what we perceive to be Godly attributes onto the males of the species, and those who display more culturally ‘masculine’ attributes.

By tightly orthodox Christian standards, polari is an intentionally irreverent, transgressive, thoroughly ‘indecent’ language  — I am reminded of Marcella Althaus-Reid’s ‘indecent theology’. The ‘polari bible’ was produced by the queer activist group the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. They’re an activist group, not a religious order. But it’s funny how the lines between activism and religion blur and swerve: how many nuns one finds on protest lines, how much space the church has made, perhaps quite unintentionally over the years, for (often closeted) gay men.

God as Gloria – Jesus as Josie – the Holy Spirit as the fantabulosa Fairy. What is it that offends people here? I ask about offence, not theology, right now. Why do these titles make people physically and mentally cringe, even before they marshal theological arguments? Changing the address ‘Lord’ to ‘Duchess’…aside from the variation in gentry rank [4], what is the problem? How are they different?

They are different, of course, because of gender. Christians are so accustomed to God as Zeus, or the Trinity as ‘two men and a bird’. We imbibe the patriarchy of the earlier centuries and millennia which produced our holy texts, and we continue imbibing the patriarchy of today which denigrates the female, and the feminine, and finds them nauseating. We perpetuate this.

To protect ourselves from realising how much of this debate is about offence and internalised, institutionalised misogyny (and homophobia), we marshal theological arguments: ‘If God were female, then God would have been incarnate as a woman, surely’; in short, ‘because Jesus was male, God cannot be at all female’. Such an argument willingly ignores St Paul’s writings on people of all genders, ethnicities, and classes as literally the body of Christ, spiritualising the bible’s words beyond all significant meaning (a heresy which is usually referred to as Gnosticism).

Alternatively, even if we can admit that God might be, somehow, in some way, female as well as male, or beyond gender, we stick to the safety of male God-language. Perhaps we stick in a bit of language around God’s ‘midwifery’ or ‘nurturing love’, but do we make that leap to God as Her, She, Mother, or Sister? Do we address God as such in the depths of our beings? I am convinced that until we learn to do so, it is very difficult to nail the last nail in the coffin of our culture’s, and our religion’s, debts to patriarchy.

The polari bible is not meant as a serious biblical translation. I don’t know for sure, but I’d reckon that no biblical scholars were consulted in its production. Raise all the questions you want about the wisdom of using that bible in a theological college evensong. The fact remains that the move in that service towards female God language, though in jest, is primarily what scares the significantly male-dominated global religious establishment — not just a branch of the Church of England. The fear felt by the establishment is the reaction to the removal of privilege: in this case, the privilege that comes particularly to men when God is imaged exclusively as male.

Such fear so often becomes hatred. Whether we call it homophobia or misogyny or not, that is what it is. No amount of card shuffling, of attempting to shift the debate back onto ‘real theological issues’ can detract from the fact that the church has demonstrated once again its deep unease, distrust, and ultimate rejection of the female, and with the queer. And believe me, those of us who are female and/or queer and love Jesus feel this rejection sharply, like swords piercing the soul.



[1] An accessible book on this topic is ‘Is it Okay to Call God Mother?’ by Paul Smith.

[2] I draw a distinction between ‘the feminine’ and ‘female’ because, it seems apparent to me, that while people are born male, female, or intersex; they are also born with brains, bodies, and personalities that miraculously mix and combine traits which various cultures assign (variously!) as more ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’.

[3]  I do think, as I have argued elsewhere, that part of the reason for the strength of the cult of Mary and of female saints is the lack of space that many Christians find in their God-images, and God-language, for anything female.

[4] The Sister of Perpetual Indulgence are an American group. We Americans don’t really do gentry titles. We find them quite queer.



6 thoughts on “the duchess be with you

    • Well the Duke and the King were our pop culture trying to form its own sort of gentry! I’ll give you First Lady, though. (That said I’m not sure the current First Lady much wants the title.)

  1. I’m sure this is part of the issue. I’m told though that the Polari bible translation also made a quite serious reading sound rather funny, and people were giggling, and that was perceived as inappropriate. I’m all for this, and I wish I’d been there, though :).

  2. Hi Erin – remember me from shared Ethics conversations at the top of Westcott? I was interested to read your piece, after seeing much eye-rolling in my end of our (increasingly) broad church. In the spirit of ‘shared conversations’ (though it seems the jury is out on their success …) I thought I might comment and make a conversation.

    I’m sure there are people today who believe aspects of “God is male so male is God”, and there were certainly plenty in the past. But I don’t know anyone with theological education that would say that “God is (intrinsically) male”, and would agree with your line that “God is neither male nor female but both and, more importantly, beyond”. We happily teach the feminine aspects of the Godhead, because evangelicals (when they’re behaving themselves) teach from all of Scripture not just the bits they most like. We can’t argue with the fact that Jesus was male, but we can understand that there were a whole host of cultural factors then that meant he couldn’t really have incarnated as a she. We also, to my mind, can’t argue with the fact that Jesus taught us to call God ‘Father’. To sometimes remind us of the feminine aspects of the Godhead by calling God ‘Mother’ seems fine to me. But to do so all the time just seems to go against Jesus.

    I know it’s difficult to compare internal feelings about God. But when I use male language for the Godhead, I’m not (I believe) brining in patriarchal thinking. In the same way I now call +Rachel Treweek ‘my Lord Bishop’ it’s not implying patriarchy but authority, and (in the case of God) I bring to mind his intimate love and care just as much as omniscience or omnipotence. As to the church having a patriarchal feel, I just don’t buy it. The way our churches generally meet puts off most men, unless they have been inculturated to it as youngsters. They feel too feminine: flowers and careful hymn singing, and dressing up in frocks, and sitting still for long periods. None of that is masculine.

    As for irreverence in services: I’m all for some humour, and love it when my church family laughs together. But a sustained exercise like the polari throughout a service is unlikely to be a vehicle to encourage worship ‘in spirit and truth’, and should have been left to a comedy sketch in an end-of-term revue.

    OK, come back at me! God bless, Jonathan

    • Hi Jonathan. Of course I remember you and hello! I hope you’re loving Gloucester Dio & being a curate.

      If I could come back to a couple things you’ve raised here…first, re: the use of polari for a whole service. I tried to stay away, in this post, from dwelling too much on the pros and cons of using polari for evensong, largely because I think this event was, and will come to be seen as, such a MINOR thing. (It certainly doesn’t seem minor for the ordinands’ lives who’ve been made hellish at the moment by their community turning on them, but that’s another matter.) I was interested in your final paragraph about irreverence that you suggested that laughter (or perhaps you mean just irreverent laughter?) cannot be a vehicle for worship in spirit and truth. This seems to imply that truthful, spirited worship is in some way opposed to mirth. You might disagree with me and say that ‘But of course worship implies mirth — the joy of salvation is deep and abiding!’ I wonder what you (or anyone else) really means when they use a phrase like ‘the joy of salvation’…if not being able to laugh at ourselves, at our church, at the nonsense we put ourselves through in the name of Christ, and less compellingly, in the name of rightness.

      Of course, an assumption here is that the polari evensong was done only as a kind of irreverent jape, not also as a nod to groups of people everywhere who are discriminated against by organised churches (and other parts of society) and who develop ways of protecting each other with language: mirthfully, sometimes disrespectfully, but also with subversive solidarity. Especially in such a time as this, when churches everywhere are having to grapple with the deeply sinful ways they have treated LGBT people in their own pews and pulpits as well as beyond their doors, such a service seems to be to be, prophetic in its trickster-y extremity.

      Back to your other thoughts — firstly about addresses for God. I can’t agree with your assertion that calling God ‘Mother’ seems to go against Jesus because Jesus taught us to call God ‘Father’. Jesus taught devout Jews whose religious practice forbade (and still forbids) them to even utter the name of God to use an intimate familiar term, in order to imbed the scandalous nearness of God into their religious practice. You’ve studied this stuff — you know that ‘Abba’ isn’t the formal ‘Father’ that we use in church: it’s ‘Dada’, ‘Daddy’, ‘Papa’. It’s the almost pre-verbal address of a toddler to a parent, not quite babbling. Naming. Any parent will know the joy of hearing a child use that word amongst its earliest, limited vocabulary. What I’m getting at is that the maleness of ‘When you pray, say, “Father…”‘ is not the point. It’s the intimacy.

      So, what is the problem with using the other parental address, ‘Mother’ (or in the vein of ‘Abba’, ‘Amma’: meaning ‘mama’, or ‘mum’ or ‘mummy’) to invoke this intimacy? Much better theologians that I have written books on why Christians avoid Mother-language and why they need not do so (I can recommend some if you fancy!). But on a basic level: why is using an address like this ‘going against’ Jesus? Why is the female address for God, in your view, opposed to the male, instead of part of a beautiful variety of ways of addressing God? This kind of ‘war of the sexes’ when it comes to God-language seems to me to be not only necessary but also thoroughly divisive, dualistic and pretty unscriptural.

      Which brings me on to your last point: you say that churches feel off-putting to men. I have been recently enjoying the Twitter feed of @God_loves_women, an acquaintance of mine who is reading a (truly awful) book entitled ‘Why Men Hate Going to Church’. I thorough recommend looking at some of her tweets if you’d like to see someone frustrated with the deep harm that the view that ‘churches are feminine, men hate them’ does not only to churches, but also to women and men.

      If you haven’t the time or inclination to wade through Twitter, I’ll summarise! The author of the book tries, in various ways, to say the same thing you’ve said above. Which, if you’ll permit me to be frank, is complete ridiculousness on SO MANY LEVELS. I’m not trying to say that some men feel put off going to church — not at all. However…so do a lot of women! Some (not all) churches involve flowers, singing, frocks and sitting still. However, *NOTHING* about these activities is inherently feminine; women are not bound to love any of these things, no matter how hard our culture dictates we should. Men who use the ‘it’s too girly’ excuse about not going to church have rightly identified something of the gentleness and emotionally intimate presence that a lifelong relationship with a God brings about — a God who wears away our angry, rough, dominating edges. (Note: not our ‘male’ edges, our wayward edges.) What is so ‘male’ about churches that eschew flowers, sing haphazardly, wear plain clothes, and move about incessantly? Nothing, I would argue. They just encourage people to encounter God differently.

      So when I say our church is patriarchal, I’m not saying that our churches ‘feel like masculine spaces’. This is partially because I think that our culture tends to define ‘masculine’ as ‘dominant power and authority, curry and beer, football, beards, leather and a bit of homophobia’. I’m not saying that all Christian men deserve these labels! But I am saying that that is what our culture (and sometimes our churches, especially often the kind that try to do ‘men’s ministry’) tend to force on them. When I say our church is patriarchal, I am saying that our church buys too much into this insufficient stereotype of maleness, at the expense of a truly beautiful, integrated maleness that is not afraid of God’s femininity, or even each human’s femininity. When I say our church is patriarchal, I’m talking about the sexism, abuse and discrimination that women clergy and laypeople still receive at the hands of their male colleagues/peers, which is rife. (that’s a whole series of blog posts, though!) I’m talking about women — and ultimately, a church — not fully alive, because we have not learned to honour the full humanity of half the human race.

      This has been a long-winded answer! But you’ll remember from our past discussions that I’m not capable of much else 😉 Replies v welcome. E

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