Comment

No, it is not offensive to refer to God as ‘He’

Luca Rossetti da Orta, The Holy Trinity, fresco at St Gaudenzio Church at Ivrea (Torino)

Last Sunday was Trinity Sunday and so I have been reading Trinity: A Story of Deep Delight by a Dominican sister, Anne Marie Mongoven O.P. Published by Columba Press. Although the Trinity is the Christian Mystery, Mongoven is right to emphasise the two essential aspects of it: the Blessed Trinity is love and it is relational. As she points out, “This identification of the mutual relationship within God distinguishes the Christian vision of God from that of all other religious faiths”.

There is much to meditate on in this book: that the Triune God is “one, living, creative, passionate and ecstatic love”; that St Augustine distinguished between the three Persons as Lover/Beloved/Love; and most fascinating, her anecdote that in the Church of the 4th Century “One could hardly walk through the marketplace without becoming engaged in a conversation about the Trinity.” I would love to think this could happen in my local high street today, but I think it is vanishingly unlikely. As an experiment, I might harangue an acquaintance on the subject when I next bump into him or her and see what happens.

It is also a shame that we only sing the hymn Veni Sancte Spiritus on Pentecost Sunday. Said to have been written by Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury in the 13th Century, it reminds us that the Holy Spirit is a Person and the bringer of specific gifts to the soul: consolation, solace, healing, joy and comfort. How often, in our darker moments, do we remember this and call upon Him?

Writing “He” reminds me that we do not usually give this personal pronoun to the Holy Spirit – even though Stephen Langton describes (Him) as “pater pauperum” – “father of the poor.” Nonetheless, we always speak of “Father” and “Son” to describe the two other Persons of the Trinity.

This brings me to one of two annoyances in the book: Sister Mongoven thinks there is a “problem” with these names. She writes, “Today, in a society becoming ever more aware of the value of women in themselves, the words Jesus used to name Trinity seem offensive to many women and men. But we can change our images…To do nothing is to continue to oppress women. To do away with exclusively male imagery would make our Church stronger and more loving and our prayer more authentic.”

She goes on, “It may take a long time to remove the stigma against women evident in male imagery. In the Roman Catholic Church, for example, women still have no participation in Church leadership…” and so on.

This strikes me as coming straight from the School of Feminism. Women might have some genuine grievances against the Church but feeling “oppressed” by the language given to distinguish the Persons of the Trinity isn’t one of them. My knock-down argument is that Jesus’s own language can never be “offensive”: if he has given us that sublime prayer, “Our Father who art in heaven…”, who are we to judge it wanting or inauthentic towards women? I have never met any woman who thinks this. Perhaps I move in very narrow circles.

My other quibble is an old one I have raised before: why does Mongoven use “CE” (Common Era) rather than the traditional and commonly accepted “AD”? Her book is about the Trinitarian God, made fully manifest to humankind by the coming of Christ into the world. I suspect the author is being oversensitive towards the susceptibilities of those outside the Christian faith. Let’s stick with Anno Domini.