Inclusive language and the Trinity: the latest from Brisbane

Inclusive language and the Trinity: the latest from Brisbane

Michael Apthorp

Around mid-2003 my wife and I moved to a new parish in suburban Brisbane; let us call it St Bede's (not its real name). At Mass the community was welcoming and the music and sermons were good, but there was one drawback: the novel and unauthorised version of the Scriptures to which the congregation was subjected.

This translation sought to apply an extreme version of the principles of so-called "inclusive language" to God himself. Thus Trinitarian terms like "Father" and "Son", being masculine, were objectionable to our feminist revisers.

For example, in John 3:13-17 in the standard translation we find "God ... gave his only Son" (v. 16) and "God sent his Son" (v. 17), but in our feminist revision, in both places, the words "his" and "(only) Son" were excised and replaced with "the beloved one".

Further, something very similar happened to God the Father in the Epistle of James, 1:17-27. Here the offending word "Father" was eliminated and replaced with "Source" or "Creator".

Feminist translators

In the Old Testament, too, our feminist translators deleted masculine references to God: the words "he", "him" and "his" were eliminated, either by monotonous repetition of the word "God" or by arbitrary grammatical changes such as using "who" instead of "he". The resulting version was inaccurate, unhistorical, unidiomatic and wooden, and in subtle ways even the theology suffered.

Astonishingly, wherever possible, masculine pronouns were removed even from Jesus! The word "his" was simply omitted, or the name "Jesus" was repeated, or the grammar was rearranged.

Finally, if a passage as a whole was too offensive for a radical feminist to stomach, the remedy was to censor it: reduce its bulk by half and offer a bowdlerised precis instead. This is what happened to St Paul on marriage, Ephesians 5:21-32, which was rewritten to make the demands on husbands and wives identical.

Where did this novel translation come from? I was told that it was concocted by a group of feminists working under the aegis of the priest in charge of another Brisbane parish.

I do not know how many people complained to Church authorities about this translation, but I can at least report that when I drew the matter to the attention of Auxiliary Bishop Brian Finnigan myself, I received a most courteous and welcome reply stating that the problem was being addressed.

Not long afterwards the offending translation ceased to be read at St Bede's, and I heard that its use had been banned by Archbishop Bathersby. Later, Bishop Finnigan wrote to me that "Archbishop Bathersby has always stressed the importance of using the approved translation".

Unexpectedly, however, the matter did not end there. In December 2003 I discovered that strange and unauthorised translations of the psalms very similar to those previously used at St Bede's were still being used in another church of the Archdiocese.

That church was St Stephen's Cathedral itself.

On 23 December, I wrote to Bishop Finnigan again, expressing surprise "that Archbishop Bathersby's writ should not run even as far as his own Cathedral" and pointing out that in the Mass-sheet for 8 December, the word "he" or "his" referring to the Lord "has been eliminated seven times", and that similar changes had been made on other dates, all of them designed to remove masculine pronouns referring to God. I asked why the Archbishop's edicts were being blithely ignored in the mother-church of his own Archdiocese.

Over three months later, I received a brief reply from Bishop Finnigan which avoided answering this key question. I wrote back immediately (10 April 2004), pointing out that this question remained unanswered and requesting him to pass on my letter to the Archbishop "if you feel unable to deal with this issue yourself". Fourteen months later I have still received no reply.

Fast-forward now to late November and early December 2004. Both secular and religious newspapers are full of reports of invalid Baptisms being performed at St Mary's Catholic Church in South Brisbane "in the name of the Creator, the Liberator and the Sustainer". Archbishop Bathersby condemned this invalid formula and demanded that the correct one be used henceforth, while encouraging parents whose children have been victims of the invalid ceremony to have them properly baptised.

But what is happening at Mass in St Stephen's Cathedral during this same fortnight? Masculine pronouns referring to God are still being deleted from the Psalms in the Mass sheets! A supporter of the outlawed South Brisbane Baptismal formula attending such a Mass might well wonder why, if such drastic steps have to be taken in the Cathedral to "emasculate" the Psalmist's God, it was really so wrong to remove the masculine terms "Father" and "Son" from the Baptismal formula or, for that matter, from the Scripture translation used at St Bede's.

Wrong message

In other words, I would argue that the deleted Divine masculine pronouns in the Cathedral send the wrong message, promoting a confused and self-contradictory religious culture. The astonishment expressed by the parish priest of St Mary's on learning that Archbishop Bathersby regarded his baptismal formula as invalid ("gobsmacked", according to one report) could thus have been perfectly genuine.

But let no one imagine that such audacious tinkering with the Scriptures represents the way of the future. No mainstream Bible, whether Catholic, Protestant or ecumenical, has had the hubris to impose "inclusive language" on the Trinity itself in this manner, and certainly no such Bible is being seriously considered as a basis for the new English Lectionary. It is high time for the Brisbane Catholic Church to rejoin this mainstream.

Dr Michael Apthorp is an Honorary Research Adviser in the School of History, Philosophy, Religion and Classics at the University of Queensland.

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