There have been some comments circulating on e-mail here recently, concerning the language showing up in worship for people, and more importantly, for God. The comments suggest that we have collectively been relaxing our due diligence about the use of inclusive and expansive language. They have provoked some familiar responses, along the lines of “sheesh, when will this end?”
Well . . .
The language issue itself is a long-standing and challenging one. The PC(USA) has been addressing it long enough to have developed guidelines and definitions for inclusive language along with summary publications like Well Chosen Words produced by the Office for Women’s Advocacy of the PC(USA).
The Presbyterians are not the only ones who deal with this issue, of course, as a cursory review of the Internet reveals. (In a search for “inclusive language” and “expansive language” I found, among other things:
– a lengthy discussion from an Episcopal church committee on the status of women which included this paragraph on inclusive language:
We continue to stress the power of language as it is used in liturgy and worship and in educational materials in the church. All people are created in the image of God and are entitled to see themselves in the language and images that the church employs in its worship, education, and other printed materials. To leave out a group is to dis-empower them and to over-entitle others. This is especially true when it comes to language relating to gender inclusion. A resolution calling for Baptismal Parity was passed at the 74th General Convention without funding. We met with staff at the Church Center and reminded them of the intent of this resolution which we now offer again for funding. A paper was prepared for that Convention on the power of language to shape, empower, or limit people.
– a very nice resource on inclusive and expansive language by Julie Aageson of the ELCA, available from WITNESS;
– the UCC’s resources on inclusive and expansive language in worship, which in places are substantially identical to the PC(USA)’s Well Chosen Words, but which include a particularly clear and uncompromising introductory statement: “Inclusive language is far more than an aesthetic matter of male and female imagery; it is a fundamental issue of social justice.”
I also found notes on the use of inclusive and expansive language from That All May Freely Serve, and a syllabus for Johanna Bos’s J-Term 2008 To Know the Heart of the Stranger class — in other words, this has long been an issue close to the heart of the Women’s Center at LPTS as well.
The Women’s Center’s policy, when it comes to worship designed or sponsored by us, is not to use masculine pronouns for God (including any of the 3 persons of the Trinity), or the teminology “Lord,” and to use inclusive and expansive language. Executing this policy is always challenging. [I confess — for me, too.] The challenges themselves attest to the pervasiveness of our habitual references to God as a kind of heavenly patriarch — which, in turn, attest to our habitual unthinking about God Godself as a kind of heavenly patriarch.
We’re not alone in facing these challenges, either — I ran across these rueful remarks by a British Anglican on the ongoing struggle to keep inclusive (or expansive) language in the life of worship, and the ceaseless, sometimes tiresome effort it demands.
The challenges have something to do with the nature of language itself: everywhere, all the time, alive and indwelling, with us and in our hearts and minds always, already, actively shaping the images and ideas by which we understand the world. None of us can remember a time before we knew ourselves and the world as named and nameable in our language. The recognition that language is powerful fuels the conviction that inclusive and expansive language is far from a trivial matter, that it is one of those “leavening” issues that affects everything. The tiresome chore of paying attention to language, insisting and insisting and continuing to insist on inclusivity and expansivity in the language we actually use, is one of the things we reap from the long, ubiquitous sowing of the Church’s naming and relating to God as well-nigh-exclusively masculine.
So: the work demanded by this “fundamental issue of social justice” turns out to be no less than that demanded by all the other such issues.
And, if we believe that as a fundamental matter of social justice every human being deserves to know, fully and vividly, that she herself, or he himself, is included in that humankind that is made in the image of God, then we will not shirk it, any more than we would shirk any other call from the direction of the realm of God’s justice and peace.