The latest efforts of some sections of the media to brand Oxford University a haven of over-zealous liberalism has forced Wycliffe Hall - a theological college at the university - to vehemently deny that it asked students to refer to God using gender-neutral pronouns. This follows a similar sequence of events regarding OUSU (Oxford University's Student Union), who also had to refute false claims by a UK paper that it instructed students to use the the pronoun 'ze'. As both articles were fabrication and have since been removed from the original paper's website, one wonders what certain members of the media were trying to achieve, other than to try and snidely portray the transgender rights movement as some sort of unstoppable, gender-neutralising machine.
Calls for gender-neutral language to describe God are nothing new (and have indeed been adopted at the divinity schools of Duke and Vanderbilt Universities in the US). Such calls, however, have all too often been incorrectly conflated with transgender issues. Gender-neutral language should be used when speaking of God, but this has little to do with contemporary gender issues - it's just good theology.
As one savvy commenter on the (now removed) UK paper article noted: "Didn't God create Adam in his own image? Last time I checked, Adam was a masculine name". Were our commenter to take the trouble to read the Bible (I shall use the very traditional King James Version for their benefit), they would find Genesis 1:27 tells them: "in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them." It was God, not a man, who created the female, and the female too was created "in the image of God". If both the male and female are in the image of God, God must be beyond binary gender. In fact, associating God with any concept of gender is unhelpful, as good theology finds God to be completely and utterly different to humans. To see God's image as anything to do with gender is shallow and superficial - rather, it should be understood as the human potential to be loving, merciful beings. Using gender-neutral language to describe God would be to correctly elevate 'him' above the realms of humanity.
Why, then, did the historical authors of the Bible choose masculine language to describe God? It was almost certainly because female dominion over the universe was unthinkable. Even today, for some, female dominion over a government remains unsavoury at best, unthinkable at worst. Disassociating God from the male may hence seem a purely feminist endeavour but, as outlined, it actually makes theological sense.
The Church, of course, has yet to subscribe to this, with Wycliffe Hall's principal Revd Michael Lloyd's response to the paper confirming there is "no suggestion that the traditional gender pronouns concerning God should be altered in any way." He maintained that the college's new "inclusive language policy" made no threats to this. Indeed, whilst God may be described as moving in mysterious ways, the Church may well be described as moving in slow ones.
The college is undoubtedly trying to protect itself from accusations of 'political correctness gone mad'. Perhaps, however, it might do well to hold its theological responsibility in greater regard than its tradition when doing so. The right-leaning media undoubtedly wants to attack the university as a 'snowflake' institution. In the future however, perhaps those with authority would do well to not defend themselves by rushing to reassert their conservatism, but by defending themselves on the principles the university should pride itself on: intellectual rigour and progress.