God has no gender, Britain’s top Christian cleric said this week, joining other religious leaders who have tried in recent years to shift away from the idea of God as male.
Speaking at St. Martin in the Fields in London’s Trafalgar Square on Monday, Rev. Justin Welby, the head of the Anglican Church, said any attempt to assign a gender to God would fall short.
“‘All human language about God is inadequate and to some degree metaphorical,” the archbishop of Canterbury said when asked about the idea of God as male.
“God is not a father in exactly the same way as a human being is a father. God is not male or female. God is not definable,” he said. “We can’t pin God down.”
Each of us is made in the image of God. That’s why we have the chance to encounter Christ in every person we meet – especially those on the margins.
— Archbishop of Canterbury (@JustinWelby) November 20, 2018
While Judeo-Christian tradition has usually referred to God in male terms, many theologians see the usage as a relic of patriarchal societies anthropomorphizing God.
A statement on Welby’s website notes that the Church of England’s Articles of Religion, dating from the 16th century, state God is “without body, parts, or passions.” Similarly the Catholic Church’s 1992 Catechism says “He is neither man nor woman: he is God.”
Welby, whose father kept many secrets from him, including the fact that he was born a Jew, said describing God as a “father” still had meaning for him personally given his own complicated history.
“What does it mean for me to call God father, having had a rather confusing experience of fathers,” he asked. “It means that here is one that is perfect, that loves me unconditionally, that reaches out to me and knows me better than I know myself and yet still loves me profoundly.”
Welby considers Gavin Welby, the whisky salesman who raised him, to have been his father, although paternity testing two years ago showed that Welby’s biological father was actually Sir Anthony Montague Browne, a private secretary to Winston Churchill.
“In the last month I have discovered that my biological father is not Gavin Welby but, in fact, the late Sir Anthony Montague Browne. This comes as a complete surprise,” Welby said in a highly unusual statement issued through the Church of England at the time.
“I know that I find who I am in Jesus Christ, not in genetics, and my identity in him never changes,” said the London-born Welby.