Liturgy, Gender and Identity

Cover des Buchs "Lively Oracles of God"

Last year theologians of different Christian confessions came together to publish the book “Lively Oracles of God”. The contributions are influenced by the traditions of different countries, churches and theologies. In recent weeks, we have published individual theses from these essays here in English and German. The series ends with a contribution by Stephen Burns, who summarizes the theses of his essay from the aforementioned anthology.

Stephen Burns
Stephen Burns

An as yet small number of Protestant churches in English-speaking contexts are revising their theologies of marriage so as to enlarge ‘traditional’ understandings. Those traditional understandings, scripted into liturgies hitherto, presume the marriage of one man to one woman. The changes afoot can be glimpsed in, for example, the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s revisions which speak of that ‘traditional’ configuration of marriage partners only in the pastoral introduction to the service (Book of Common Worship of 2018). In the rite itself, terms shift to speak of ‘the two persons marrying’ and such like, gender not specified. In churches undergoing such revision, now is a moment of opportunity for liturgical renewal as changing theology means that liturgical resources that do not reflect the changes are ‘out of date’. So where marriage rites are bundled into larger ecologies of rites—‘prayer books’, ‘directories’ or whatever the closest equivalent to ‘sacramentaries’ may be—more than marriage rites themselves are opened to renewal. The whole book, the directory, or whatever, is in for a shake.

At the same time, some of the same churches are more confidently expressing new or more open hospitality to persons defining themselves as transgender, a term that encompasses a wide range of self-expression and ‘performance’ and includes possibilities of ‘realignment’ of a person’s body. Just as marriage rites are being revised to give looser direction about the marriage-partners, so constructs about gender are becoming more widely understood as fluid, mixed, changeable. Wise liturgists are among those who remind that, whatever the changes are going on in relation to marriage in some contexts, Christian tradition has long played its part in the ‘web of oppositions and relations’ that are part of gendered identity, and that much more imagination than ‘men’ and ‘women’ is needed to take in the tradition. Consider the German Roman Catholic Teresa Berger’s sage list including amongst others however contested religious identities that Christian tradition has well-esteemed: ‘women, men, eunuchs, lesbians, hermaphrodites, syneisactics, transgendered people…’. [1]

Such reconsideration and the shifts it may involve are, however, taking place long before other contested developments in gender expression in liturgy have settled in. Depending on where and with whom one goes to church ‘feminist’ liturgies may be nowhere to be found. In at least some places, though, the English word ‘man’, once widely accepted to refer to more than males, has given way to a either a ‘generic’ approach—‘human’—or a ‘complementary’ approach—‘men and women’ or ‘women and men’—when speaking in liturgy about human beings. The same pertains to ‘he’, now ‘he and she’, and other pronouns. Of course, even this is by no means uncontroversial, as is evident in struggles about translation of Latin phrases in creedal expressions, and in how the Roman Catholic Church officially aligns such Latin phrases with only certain kinds of bodies in its theology of ‘ministerial priesthood’.

Some if by no means all Protestant traditions, in their practice of ordaining women—and in some cases of ordaining transgendered persons—affirm that more than males may acceptably ‘image’ aspects of God or Christ in the service of Christian assembly, welcoming them into offices whose service comes into focus in assembly.

In some cases again, conviction that ‘imaging’ of God can begin from more than males sometimes now finds ‘official’ expression in liturgical language—that is, it has found its ways into the prayer books, the directories, or whatever, of some churches—and is given voice in the kind of naming towards God that is involved in speaking of God as, for example, ‘mother’. As another contributor to Lively Oracles of God suggests, ‘It is indeed possible to address God as “Mother” with the same confidence (and degree of hesitation) as God is addressed as “Father”.‘ [2] (Ann Loades, p. 212). This conviction may be identified as ‘feminist’, but most commonly, gendered images such as ‘mother’ find their place in liturgies enriched by a wide approach to ‘expansive language’ which is in fact not focused on gender, but includes it, while drawing on a wealth of metaphor and meditation on the abundance of the created world. A liturgical context in which God is praised as, for example, light, mountain, fountain, storm, relativises not only more ‘traditional’ ascriptions in what Brian Wren has called the ‘KINGAFAP’ schema—‘King-G-d-Almighty-Father-Protector’, [3] it also, arguably, relatives ‘mother’ (and ‘midwife’ for another example) alongside the ‘father’, ‘lord’, and ‘king’ and the like. An important point to appreciate about such developments is that they are understood by those who support them to be energised not least by holy scripture, which apart from anything else, is quite familiar with the thought of God as ‘mother’. They may well also appeal to tradition, likely including Julian of Norwich (1343–c1416), the first known woman to have written in English— and present in the sanctorale of a wide range of Protestant traditions. Notably, she addressed Christ as mother (not that she was by any means the first. Think Anselm, for example).

Advocates of such liturgical possibilities may well also be deft at doctrinal affirmation: a recognition that Mary offered up bodily elements that would become body and blood of Christ is persistently present in relation the convictions that have emerged in many feminist liturgical circles, and it sometimes sits alongside the like of the stunning idea that uniquely female bodily experience—of miscarriage—may yield the most precious and painful kind of insight into trinitarian orthodoxy—the ‘Father’s’ suffering of the loss of the ‘Son’—as that pertains to the mysteries of grace enfolding persons as they touch the divine in the eucharist. [4]  Another possibility, maybe less orthodox—but maybe not?—concerns the idea of ‘Christa’, [5] expressing in words, in art, and/or in the human body that Christ can rightly be encountered ‘in the form of our sister’—an extension of an argument that will be familiar to any readers of Roman Catholic Rosemary Ruether’s ‘systematics’ .[6] Of course, those who support any of the developments so far mentioned may not feel any level of responsibility towards the kind of ideas in Roman Catholic teaching that presents in current struggles about Latin translation.

Ardent feminists, however, also now face new challenges, given that much ‘feminist’ liturgical language, concerned as it has been to ‘make women visible’, increasingly looks to have fallen into ‘binaries’ that may exclude transgendered persons much like women had once themselves been excluded.

The task to render words for liturgical celebration in a more ‘fully humanly inclusive’ awaits even where change in a ‘feminist’ (or another descriptor: scriptural?) direction has been achieved. The work of those who have flourished at expansive language looks most promising to be up to the challenge, for example Gail Ramshaw, whose work is discussed in my chapter in Lively Oracles of God[7] Her prayer texts are important because many have already found their way into a wide range of official denominational liturgical resources across a Protestant spectrum, but more because they have long been resistant to binaries, Ramshaw consciously having evolved her art beyond from even the best doublets (in Ramshaw’s view, contrasting elements) familiar in tradition, to trinitarian triplets: God, ‘our light, our beauty, our rest’, ‘our grove, our well, our lover’, and much more, all with a biblical footing, not to say orthodox in—troika’d—style as well as content.        

While feminist liturgists are now challenged to reflect empathy with—and indeed celebrate—transgender experience as much as other liturgists taking ‘tradition’ in a different sense from feminists, it remains the case that in so far as feminist liturgy has focused on words, it has not yet fully risen to the demands of enacting the inclusion it reaches for in words. Liturgical language is most certainly important, but unless it is allied with gestures, ceremonial scenes, ritual pictures with which it is coherent, it could only falter anyway.

English-language liturgists have sometimes been fond of repeating an adage ascribed (with no clear certainty, it seems) to wartime British prime minister, Winston Churchill: ‘first we shape buildings, then buildings shape us’. Wise indeed. This adage calls attention to the fact that a focus on words alone simply cannot contend with problems about space in which liturgy is celebrated. We can add: and with the art that ‘adorns’ the environment, the differences—or lack thereof—among persons stepping into roles, and the diversity—or otherwise—of those gracing the gathering with their particular gifts and the blessings of the cultures they represent. Not only the ‘built environment’, then, but the richest possible range of possibilities for ‘participation’ is involved in feminist liturgy, alongside whatever words are or are not used.

Many Protestant liturgists of course wrestle as surely as surely as their Roman Catholic siblings with the challenges of participation as they seek the wisdom of the Sacred Constitution of the Liturgy from Vatican II, so strikingly regarded as the most important document to affect the Protestant churches in the twentieth century. [8] The ‘hierarchical array’ of the General Instruction on the Roman Missal no doubt sounds very grim indeed to many Protestant ears, feminist or not, but Protestants may often themselves be saddled and hampered by conventions and can easily become hopelessly mired in clericalism. They can also be deeply afflicted by profound lack of imagination about liturgy as source and summit of their hearts’ desire—if indeed they have such desire—in a ‘kin-dom’ scene that echoes, always faintly, of the feast for all peoples. Feminist liturgies do have some clues about how to break through problems to do with participation, but it must be said that even those with the best kind of finesse for feminist liturgical language may offer little towards dismantling enacted ‘anti-liturgica’, to employ Gordon Lathrop’s term. [9] Lathrop used this term to pinpoint the ill of inward turned closed circles and hierarchy become so familiar it is barely able to be seen, let alone railed against, by those present.

So Rosemary Radford Ruether, this time in her Women-Church[10] gives some clues towards ‘feminist gesture’ in her encouragement that feminist liturgy should best take place in a ‘conversation circle’ in a ‘celebration center’. (To avoid the trap of ‘anti-liturgica’, the circle must of course not become ‘closed’.) The circle here signals a kind of levelling, an equality. ‘Conversation’ indicates the possibility of being able to ‘talk back’, not least without a script involving ‘unison prayers’ foisted upon those gathered. ‘Celebration’ heralds ways in which Women-Church’s liturgies celebrate women’s lives, including some of their uniquely female bodily experience (rites for the onset of menstruation, for example) which are indeed ‘centred’ in her book. Nicola Slee, in her Fragments for Fractured Times: What Feminist Practical Theology Brings to the Table [11] of 2020 neatly distils the characteristics of feminist gesture in the triplet, ‘face to face’, ‘on the level’, and ‘in the round’. And if Eastern Orthodoxy has sometimes dubbed its liturgical books The Great Book of Needs, Ruether’s Women-Church (only one important example in the genre) is an invitation to consider the ‘great needs’ of women that sacramentaries have not touched. What is missing in the sacramentaries and official books is foreshadowed by the devastating ‘joke’ relayed by Roman Catholic sacramental theologian Susan Ross, ‘How many sacraments are there?’ ‘Seven for boys and six for girls’. [12] But much more than a felt-need for ordination among some women is going unmet. Feminist challenges are not only to the existing sacramental sequence—traditionally relating to the acquisition of virtues, of course (Aquinas, Summa 61 a.4, 65 a.1, &c)—able to support women in only some virtues, it would appear, but in search of many more ways in which liturgy might manifest saving grace.

The ‘conversation circle’ now needs to include transgendered persons and not least their unique bodily experiences.


[1] See Teresa Berger, Femininity and Sanctity: Where Gender Constructions and Hagiography Meet, in: A cloud of witnesses. The cult of saints in past and present. Ed. by Marcel Barnard [a.o.]. Leuven, Dudley, MA 2005, 63–78, 63.

[2] See Ann Loades, Children Are Church, in: Lively oracles of God. Perspectives on the Bible and liturgy. Foreword by Paul F. Bradshaw. Ed. by Gordon Jeanes – Bridget Nichols. Collegeville, Minnesota 2022 (Alcuin Club Collections 97), 206–226, 212.

[3] See Brian Wren, What Language Shall I Borrow? God-talk in Worship: A Male Response to Feminist Theology. London 1989, 119.

[4] See Karen O'Donnell, Broken Bodies: The Eucharist, Mary and the Body in Trauma Theology. La Vergne 2018.

[5] See most notably Nicola Slee, Seeking the Risen Christa. London 2011.

[6] See Rosemary Radford Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology. Boston 1983.

[7] See Vgl. Stephen Burns, Liturgy, Gender, and Identity, in: Lively oracles of God. Perspectives on the Bible and liturgy. Foreword by Paul F. Bradshaw. Ed. by Gordon Jeanes – Bridget Nichols. Collegeville, Minnesota 2022 (Alcuin Club Collections 97), 227–250.

[8] See Don E. Saliers, Christian Spirituality in an Ecumenical Age, in: Christian Spirituality: Post-Reformation and Modern. Ed. by Louis Dupré –Don E. Saliers –John Meyendorff. New York 1989, 520–544.

[9] See Gordon Lathrop, Holy ground. A liturgical cosmology. Minneapolis 2003.

[10] See Rosemary Radford Ruether, Women-church: theology and practice of feminist liturgical communities. San Francisco 1985.

[11] London 2020.

[12] See Susan A. Ross, Extravagant Affections: A Feminist Sacramental Theology. New York 1992.

Stephen Burns is Professor of Liturgical and Practical Theology in the Pilgrim Theological College, University of Divinity, Melbourne, Australia; he convenes the research work of the Australian Collaborators in Feminist Theologies. He is a presbyter in the Church of England and has taught in ecumenical seminaries in the UK as well as in the USA and Australia.

Recent publications:

  • Grace is Not Faceless: Reflections on Mary (Ann Loades; ed. Stephen Burns; London: DLT, 2021)
  • When We Pray: The Future of Common Prayer (coedited with Robert Gribben; Melbourne: Coventry Press, 2020)
  • Liturgy With a Difference: Beyond Inclusion in the Liturgical Assembly (coedited with Bryan Cones; London: SCM Press, 2019)
  • Postcolonial Practice of Ministry: Leadership, Liturgy, and Interfaith Engagement (coedited with Kwok Pui-lan; Lanham, Md.: Lexington, 2016)
More Information