I really wasn’t intending to get into issues around Feminist theology on this blog. I tend to think that I have left such topics behind, only to discover that they nevertheless pursue me and it turns out that my rather throw-away comment on inclusive language has generated more discussion than anything else so far. Actually, in the course of my posts on Zizioulas I had thought of including a similar aside on the use of “inclusive” language when applied to the Persons of the Holy Trinity, but had decided against it, not wanting to get into too many old issues.

However, in the context of these sorts of issues, I find it worth noting that Tina Beattie, whose book New Catholic FeminismI cited for its extensive critique of the gendered theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar and his followers, has an article in this week’s Tablet in which she defends the recent declaration of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) concerning the invalidity of so-called feminist baptisms, i.e. baptisms which replace the words “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” with gender neutral alternatives such as “Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier.” (The article is only available for subscribers, but Beattie normally publishes her Tablet articles on her own website although this one has not yet appeared. Update: it is now available here). Beattie argues that:

All we have in the end is a shared language, which belongs more to the order of poetry than to the order of rational explanation, and which enables us to express what is in the end an inexpressible mystery. There is some truth in the postmodern claim that we do not speak language, language speaks us. Our lives are shaped by the language we use, and while we might enrich and transform the ways in which we interpret our sacraments and symbols, we can only do so within certain parameters which respect the fundamental truths we profess and the coherent unity of our faith.

Beattie agrees with the CDF that the traditional language of “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” expresses not maleness but relationship, which an alternative wording is not able to express. (This is, incidentally, similar to the argument that Sarah Coakley makes in one of the papers in Powers and Submissions, which I don’t have access to at the moment and therefore can’t cite more fully). She does nevertheless go on to argue that accepting traditional Trinitarian language does not necessarily mean accepting patriarchal power structures and that the Church needs to be able to show that its language does indeed transcend gender.

Now I must admit that this is an issue on which I have certainly changed over the years, and I sometimes cringe at what now seems the superficiality of views that I once inclined to. This not only has to do with the issue of relationships within the Trinity, but also with standing within a tradition and allowing that to flow over one and take one up in it. To seek to rewrite tradition or redefine language seems problematic to me precisely because language functions so subtly and at so many levels. We cannot stand over and against tradition, carefully deciding what we accept and what we don’t, but need rather to allow it to interrogate us and form us. That does not mean that we do not also pose our own questions, but we are only ultimately able to do that if we accept our identity as part of the whole, which is larger than our own vision and is able to relativise the issues of our own age.

I’m rather encouraged to find Beattie taking this stand. She writes that “it would be a great pity if either side of the feminist/conservative divide sought to score points on this, for it is a core doctrinal issue on which the Church’s leaders have a duty to intervene.” It is precisely the need to overcome this divide, to engage in real soul-searching and genuine dialogue in a common commitment to the central truths of the Faith that seem to me to be crucial issues for the Church today.