God Beyond Gender

An iconic interpretation of the concept of the triune God

by Heather Thiessen

The Women’s Center advocates gender inclusive and expansive language as part of its mission. For us, then, this month’s decision by the United Churches of Christ to substitute “triune God” for “Heavenly Father” as part of a constitutional change was encouraging, despite the discouraging controversy it engendered. (See Peter Smith’s 7/16 Courier-Journal article.) We agree with Professor Amy Plantinga Pauw’s comment on the matter, that “there has to be real pastoral sensitivity around this issue” of language for God. As she notes, our language for God is the language of prayer, which is the language through which people intelligibly relate themselves to God. These God-words are theo-logy of the most fundamental kind.

That theology, or language, says much more about us than it says about God. What it says about us may not be easy or pleasant to recognize or accept. One of the functions of that needed pastoral sensitivity is to help people come face to face with the pervasive, unarticulated gender bias that is one of the deep wellsprings of resistance to expansive language for God, and to realize that it is permissible and desirable to challenge it.

Despite our determination not to make graven images of God, we tend to fall back on familiar clusters of meaning in our heads and hearts in our public and private rituals. While these meaning clusters are supported by Biblical language, their content comes largely from the world around us. It includes everything we know about various kinds of people — fathers, mothers, children, servants and so on — and their various relationships. It includes everything we know about which kinds of people can say or do what, to whom, when and where, and what all of that means — what conveys strength, e.g., or kindness, and whether the quality conveyed is positive or negative, good, bad, or indifferent.

Those clusters of meaning are awash with gender. It is commonplace for discussions about gendered language for God to appeal to God’s Spiritual genderlessness: God is famously “beyond gender.” But the human beings who make this claim are not. Whenever English-speaking people think of a personal, as opposed to an impersonal, reality, they are always already thinking of a gendered reality: him, or her. Thus, while we can honestly claim to believe in a God who is beyond gender, our ritual practice — particularly to the extent it invokes God as a personalistic reality — cannot support that belief articulately. We are driven over and over again to use gendered language, because it is the language we have available to us.

Because we do use gendered language, and have for millennia, we find that the challenge facing a person of faith in using new terms of reference for God is sharpened by the way gender plays a part in their clusters of meaning. To what extent can the new terms articulate or support the familiar understanding of God, the “same God,” that has been worshipped until now in other words? Or, if these new terms promote a change in the understanding of God, to what extent is that change experienced as a positive expansion of the possibilities attributable to God, or to what extent is it experienced as a denial or diminution in God’s positive attributes? It is at this point that we are liable to come face to face with one or more widespread, pervasive, normally unarticulated strands in our web of beliefs that have to do with gender.

Anyone can try this thought experiment:
First think of a familiar prayer that uses masculine-gendered language for God (e.g., “Our Father, who art in Heaven . . .) Then, try praying that prayer using feminine-gendered language for God (e.g., “Our Mother, who art in Heaven . . .) Pay attention to how this address to God feels. If it feels comfortable, try to put words to that comfort; “it feels good, because . . .” If it feels uncomfortable, try to put words to that discomfort; “it doesn’t feel right because . . . ” Finally: what does the feeling have to do with everything you know about the difference in meaning between the masculine term and the feminine term? That is: what does this experiment reveal about your own background assumptions about gender?

Very often, reasons for discomfort with this exercise take one or both of these forms: (1) I don’t feel I am addressing the same God when I use feminine language; or (2) I feel I am addressing God improperly — the word I am using doesn’t fit the God I am addressing, in a way that seems to take something away from God. Those feelings, in turn, give us clues about our understandings of these gendered terms. If I feel I am addressing a different God altogether, I may begin to realize the extent to which the image of God I cherish is, in fact, a distinctly masculine or patriarchal one, which cannot be supported by feminine language. If I find that I feel a feminine term is improper for God, that it takes something away from God, I may have to face the extent to which my own background assumptions about women include some form of inferiority, that makes those terms feel less than fully adequate to figure the divine. Either way, an exercise like this can face us with the extent to which we continue to hold a patriarchal understanding of God, which is held in place by our continued use of patriarchal language. As long as we never question our language practices, we can make statements like “My God is beyond gender,” fully believing them, while in practice worshipping and relating to a God we understand in distinctly masculine ways. Only when we begin to pay attention to our practices around language for God does this subtle form of idolatry come to awareness, and with it the limitation that imposes on our openness to encounter with the living God.

Once again, it is important to recognize that this exercise doesn’t pretend to tell us much about God, but about our own, usually implicit and unthinking, accepted and taken for granted, assumptions about gender. We can get at those assumptions by paying attention to the way we use and respond to language — its denotations and connotations, its emotional resonances — because language is our tool for communicating meaning. That’s also why the words we use for God shape and contain what we mean about God and what God means to us and for us.

For some, the problem with changed language for God is that the new language will not support an understanding of God that supports arrangements of power and privilege from which those people benefit. But for most, the even more profound challenge is that it opens up an avenue for fresh encounter with God, beyond accustomed and comfortable language and understanding. That opening is profoundly uncomfortable, and the intimation of an imminent uncomfort it announces ultimately has little to do with gender. It is rather the unsettling, frightening and yet fascinating awareness that the God we might really encounter is One who exceeds our categories and transcends our settled understandings so radically that no knowledge we already possess or imagine to be satisfactory is going to withstand that revelation.

Bracing the community of faith for that transformative encounter will really call for pastoral sensitivity.

updated 07/26/11

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Re-Imagining, or, The Face of God

A ceremony featuring the sharing of milk and honey occurred at the Re-Imagining Conference of 1993

As Bill Berneking notes, ” . . . it would be difficult to write a history of women in America without mentioning the 1993 Re-Imagining conference and subsequent movement.”

The Conference was a watershed or turning point in many ways. On one hand, it sparked an ongoing Re-Imagining Community that continued to champion the theology and practices of the initial conference. On the other, it made clear, especially for mainline protestant denominations, just how contentious the principle of women’s equal value could be when it came to expression in religious language and practice. It gave other Christians a powerful symbol that summed up their dissatisfaction with a specific direction of change in the church, and may also have marked the time when the term “feminist” became synonymous, for these Christians, with something like “godless.”

The Re-Imagining Conference took place November 4-7, 1993, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. More than 2,000 people attended, with more on a waiting list for space. Approximately 1/3 of the attendees were members of the clergy of various denominations, including the PC(USA), the UMC, and the ELCA. All of these denominations had participated in conference planning through arms of their national organizations, and had contributed church funds for travel to the conference. The conference had been three years in the planning, and was the midpoint of the World Council of Churches’ Decade in Solidarity with Women, 1988-1998. Its purpose was to demonstrate and disseminate current theology and practice that incorporated feminist methods. Feminist theology perceived the longstanding exclusion of women and women’s perspectives from organized religion, only recently being overcome, to stem from more deeply-rooted linguistic and doctrinal practices that sanctified images of God that privileged things masculine, and social arrangements based on domination and coercion.

To that end, God was invoked by names different from those in ubiquitous use in the churches, including “Father,” “Son,” “Lord,” and “King.” The conference explored and presented alternative names for and images of God — from the Bible, from other religious traditions, and from women’s religious experience — that depicted God in a feminine mood. The list of speakers was a Who’s Who list of feminist theologians and religious from across the spectrum, including Mary Daly, Delores Williams, Rita Nakashima Brock, Carter Heyward, Chung Hyun Kyung, Mary Hunt, Virginia Mollenkott, Kwok Pui-Lan, Catherine Keller — and the Women’s Center’s Johanna Bos.

Immediate, intense, and lasting controversy exploded in the aftermath of the Conference. Critics challenged the use of other religious traditions and of images drawn from women’s experience as “idolatrous” — more in the sense of being invented by humans without being informed by divine revelation, or in the sense of not having divine authorization, not in the sense of being a limited image that is improperly taken to be complete that becomes an obstacle to communion with the living God. The use of a “milk and honey” ceremony — designed to skirt differing theologies around the eucharist, which problematized sharing communion at the conference — was seen by some as a rejection of the Christian sacrament, or a blasphemous parody of it. Since a number of speakers questioned the deployment of certain Christian doctrines, which detractors recognized as essential tenets or fundamentals, like “the atonement,” the conference was seen as a place where heretical views were championed and applauded. Particular objections were to addressing God as “Sophia,” which critics understood as a form of idolatrous goddess worship such as that which preceded the Babylonian exile, and the generally warm reception given to lesbians attending and even speaking at the conference, who from the critics’ perspective should have been rebuked or at least ignored rather than embraced and listened to.

(It is possible that the most heretical act of the conference was the one called out by James R. Edwards in his article “Natural Born Sinners”: “Most distressing, however, was an undisguised intolerance for other viewpoints, which belied the spirit of inclusivity, diversity, and nonviolence that was touted as the feminine way. No male voice was heard in four days of the conference (only 83 men attended), and never was heard an encouraging word about the masculine gender.” The conference was not enough about men.)

The money was a particular problem. Presbyterians, Methodists and Lutherans who heard that their national organizations had funded a conference where heresy was celebrated and Jesus and his Father lampooned were irate that their contributions had been used in this way, and let their bureaucrats know that they would not be contributing to more of the same. Conference organizer Mary Ann Lundy, of the PC(USA)’s Women’s Division, resigned. “Were you at Re-Imagining?” became a litmus test that prospective pastors and professors might have to pass. The response to Re-Imagining was as much the event as the conference was, and perhaps more.

What the event of conference and criticism made clear was that the church was deeply divided theologically and theoretically, between at least two groups: a group that believes there is a definitive revelation, well-understood by the tradition of the church, and well-expressed by its traditional language, which establishes the parameters for legitimate and acceptable experience, and which ought to instruct and discipline lives that deviate from those parameters; and a group that believes revelation has been in various respects mis-understood, mis-represented, and oppressively communicated throughout the tradition and practice of the church, and needs to be corrected by the experience of suffering to which that misbehavior has led, especially since that experience is an ongoing vehicle of revelation.

The first Re-Imagining Conference sparked the development of a Re-Imagining Community which has continued to hold conferences annually since; the group Voices of Sophia continues to uphold it as a positive force. For others, Re-Imagining serves as a symbol of dangerous excess, against which the faithful must be on perpetual guard. The legacy of Re-Imagining is contemporary history. Its issues are issues we Christians involved with practical and doctrinal theology and church governance live with today.

[Editorial comment: What seems to have been obscured in the controversy — at least as it has come to be remembered by the Internet, which seems only to be “forever” for those who make use of it — is the nature of the hope that drove over 2,000 people to make a pilgrimage to Minnesota, with more on a waiting list for spaces. What did those people think they were going to hear in Minneapolis? Probably what I thought I would have heard, when I first heard about Re-Imagining, the following year: about how the church they already loved and participated in might openly and unashamedly acknowledge and return their love by reflecting their creation in God’s image in its speech and practice, thereby turning a face of God towards them in which they could glimpse the outlines of the best version of themselves — something the church has done for men all along. Since cultivating the best version of each of the unique and precious lives that are the members of the Body of Christ is one of the tasks of the church, it — we — ought to learn the lesson of that hope. That lesson is a hard one. It is that the church is not doing its job “at home,” here “on the ground,” when people have to go to Minneapolis — and suffer condemnation for it from their church — to see a face of God that should already have been turned towards them daily in and by the home of the good news of Jesus Christ.]

Read More . . .

An internet search for “Re-Imagining 1993” will yield an immense volume of criticism of the Conference (a good representative would be the comments at Brethren Renewal Online, which include the text of a statement of protest signed by many leaders of the critical response from other denominations); it is far more difficult to find neutral or positive treatments of the Conference (but maybe I didn’t use the right key words).

Stephen Goode’s analysis “Feminists’ crusade sparks holy war” from Insight on the News July 25, 1994 tries to cover both conference participants’ and critics’ interpretations and motives

Sojourners made space for Janice Love’s, “Commentary – Finding Space to Reimagine God” (free registration required to access the article)

LPTS Alum Alexa Smith covered a Re-Imagining Revival in 1998 and the shadow of Re-Imagining in Mary Elva Smith’s remarks about plans for the Women’s Ministries Program Area in 2001

Janet Fishburn, in “Theological Education: A Reformed Imperative”, advances the thesis that the “Old Light/New Light” controversy is still with the Presbyterian Church, uses the Re-Imagining Conference as a case in point

Rosemary Radford Reuther, in “Can Women Stay in the Church?”, has a different negative take on Re-Imagining

Or, read the memoir: Nancy J. Berneking and Pamela Carter Joern, eds., Re-Membering and Re-Imagining

Language for a God Who Loves Women

. . . my Rock and my Redeemer.

I recently overheard a conversation between two seminarians that ended something like this:

“I don’t doubt God. I know that God is . . . well, I can’t say it here, but God is my father, and wants what’s best for me.”

I was happy for that person, and his faith. But I was sad, too.

I assume the reason this person, a person I haven’t met, thought he couldn’t call God Father here, at the seminary, is that the masculine identification of God as father doesn’t fit the seminary’s inclusive language guidelines. We don’t use “he/him/his” language for God, supposedly, at LPTS. We practice thinking of God more broadly, reflecting usages that separate our understanding of God from our conventional understanding of gender in our world.

It made me sad for several reasons.

For one, because I am one of “those” people, someone who supports inclusive language. I suppose I must be a kind of villain in the eyes of this seminarian, whom I’ve never met. One of those radical minutiae-ists, whose focus on “politically correct” language keeps people from simply confessing their love and trust in God their Father.

But more, because that rueful sentence seems to me a sign of bafflement, as to what this inclusive language thing is all about. And if people don’t understand what the inclusive language thing is all about, what does it teach? Does it teach anything besides “whoever has power in a place can force people to use whatever language they choose?”

(Not that a lesson like that would be entirely wrong. Throughout history, this has in fact been true. The people who have had the power have used the language for God that spoke most clearly to them. That has been language that reflected God in the image of those who had power in the world: Lords; Kings; Husbands; Fathers.)

Surely that isn’t the main lesson inclusive language is meant to teach. Surely the idea is to branch out beyond the rigid, often unthinking use of stereotyped language for God. We are all too prone to call the God whose self-given name is “I will be being whoever or whatever I will be being” by the same one or two names, over and over, when that God needs more names than are even in our language to do justice to that God’s reality and identity.

And then, there is our addiction to picking, as that name to use over and over, a single name that reinforces some meanness in the world that chooses it. The problem with non-inclusive language — patriarchal language, language in which God is always “he/him/his” — is not that it is, understandably, a way for many people to relate to God as powerful and protective. It is the way it has worked, and still works, to hide the fact that God really wants the best for all God’s people.

We live in a world in which God created humanity male and female; we live in a world in which women have been endowed by God with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love. We also live in a world in which women have been told, and in some sectors of The Church are still actively being told, that they cannot use their God-given gifts in the church to the fullest because women are not as fully in the image of God as men are. Because God — Our Father — says in His God-Breathed Book that women are to keep silent in the churches.

That is not a picture of a God who loves and wants the best for women.

The problem with that non-inclusive language is that it hides the God who wants the best for God’s inclusive people.

It is the God that seminarian means by Father — the one each of us can fully love and trust — that we need to proclaim in the church. And that is precisely why we need to practice using many names, besides Father, for that proclamation.

Revealing Language

Image of portrait of Henrietta Maria and Charles I by Anthony van Dyck

Daddy, mommy, bubby

The adult class I attend is reading a book (The Good and Beautiful God, by James Bryan Smith) together, so I have been doing my homework, dutifully reading the chapters and doing the exercises. The text is designed to encourage us to adopt the narratives Jesus tells about God, in preference to the ones we might have in our heads from who knows where, on the premise that Jesus’ narratives are the ones to go by. In general I have been appreciating this book, albeit critically, and thinking it has good things to say and is worth studying. But this week, the issue of language for addressing God has come up, and I have a bone to pick with the author. Not so much with Jesus, I don’t think — although I am confident Jesus would not mind having this conversation one bit.

The issue is about calling God “Father.” Smith in essence repeats Karl Barth’s argument about revealed language. We ought to call God “Father,” because Jesus did. And we ought to let what Jesus says about God the Father define what “Father” means when we use the word. So “Father” doesn’t essentially mean “the male person who contributed 50% of my DNA” or “the male person, whether or not married to my mother, who was one of my adult role models while I was growing up” or whatever positive or negative personal meaning that word has. “Father” means a familiar, personal entity who is present, pure, powerful, provident, pardoning, and protective. A good “father” (in the ordinary sense) would be all of these things, and so would a good “mother” for that matter. “Father” language isn’t really about gender, according to this author. It is about whatever God has in mind when God chooses a word to use to reveal Godself.

This is an interesting argument, but it seems incomplete to me, for a couple of reasons. One reason is that, when we hear the word “father,” it does not fail to have a “literal” meaning for us, and the literal meaning of “father” — at least in our culture, as in Jesus’ culture — includes the dimension of human gender, and all of the social connotations of that dimension. It includes all the collateral knowledge we have about what fathers do and mothers don’t, what fathers like and dislike and how that is different from what mothers like and dislike, how fathers look and sound and dress and how that is different from how mothers look and sound and dress, and so on and on. In fact, if the word did not carry any such freight, we might have a difficult time saying what the word means. Because for all the sophisticated theories of meaning that have been developed, meaning, at least in the case of nouns, like “father,” still keeps coming back around to what people think a word stands for or points to, and we generally learn that from the way the word is used by the people around us. So to say that “father” shouldn’t make us think of our own fathers seems something like saying “apple” shouldn’t make us think of the red or green fruit we see in the stores about this time of year, and “sun” shouldn’t make us think of the bright light we see in the sky most days. Whether or not it should, it does, and if it didn’t, we wouldn’t be able to talk to our brothers and sisters.

So, that argument ignores, or suppresses, the revelation about us that Biblical language incorporates. Calvin took the view that Biblical language was hugely accommodated to limited human understanding — something like the way baby talk is accommodated to the limitations of babies and young children. One consequence of that position is that, while all human language is inadequate to full revelation of truth about God, some language “for” revelation might work better “as” revelation for us, whoever “we” are, and other language less well, because of the way people use and understand that language. Which means that the language used in the Bible says something about its readers, and how we use the language, and what we are capable of understanding those words to mean, along with whatever it communicates to us about God.

Since we know (people tell me all the time that we know this) that God does not have gender, then theoretically it shouldn’t make an iota of difference whether we call God Father or Mother or Parent. If a good Parent is present, pure, powerful, provident, pardoning, and protective; if that is what “Father” means in the context of Jesus’ prayer; if a good Mother is equally those things; then we should be able to say “Our Mother who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name” etc. with the same ease we have in saying the “Our Father.”

If we can’t (and the persistent resistance to that practice, active and passive, strongly suggests that some of us at least cannot), the question of “why can’t we call God Mother” seems to have much less to do with God than it does with us: why can’t we call God “Mother?” What is it about addressing someone as “Mother” that seems (to some of us, anyway) incompatible with what we think we need to say about God, or have been told to say about God, or have learned to think about God? What is it about the way people use the word “mother” that makes that word seem (to some of us, evidently) inadequate to contain the revelation of God?

More importantly, what revelation about God are we missing out on because of the many limitations imposed by chronic masculine language for God, and by the human reality it reflects? To what human reality is non-inclusive, patriarchal language an accommodation? And what will it take to move past that reality, to one that would be more receptive to something a little less like baby-talk?

Worship in the Words of the Tradition II

The tradition has many words. As we noted here yesterday, and in Caldwell Chapel on Thursday, February 12, some of those words are beloved of many, sanctified by long use in the church, and at the same time words that make Christian worship damaging.

This is about language. Language that is, perhaps, easy to use. Language that, perhaps, most of us barely even notice, barely even think about. Language that, if we do think about it — if it is, for instance, brought to our attention by someone’s complaint or lament — we might barely be able to take seriously. (“Oh, that? But that’s just . . .” or “Seriously, it’s no big deal!”) Language that comes to our minds and mouths quickly, almost without having to think about it, because we have used this language so long, and have thought the thoughts that travel with this language so long.

Words (and thoughts) like:

Kyrie eleison

    (“Oh, come on! It’s just THE KYRIE, for Jesus Christ’s — or Pete’s — sake. You can’t seriously have a problem with that. Try not to think of it as “Lord,” as if it had all kinds of hierarchical, kyriarchical, patriarchal baggage, just think of it as “God”. Don’t make a big deal out of this.)

. . . All to Him I freely give;
I will ever love and trust Him,
in His presence daily live.

    (It’s just a song. Lots of people love this song. It’s about surrender — what, you don’t want to surrender everything to Jesus? Nobody means self-esteem, desire for freedom, the dignity owing to a human being that someone in an abusive relationship might be trying to convince you to deny you even have a right to. Surrender bad things, selfish things . . . bad selfish things . . . OK, it says “Him”, but it doesn’t mean your husband or your father, it means Jesus, just try not think of Jesus in the same way as that husbandfatherpastor . . . Jesus is different, Jesus is better than that . . . you can do it! Don’t make a big deal out of this!)

. . . our Lord Jesus Christ . . .

    (Yes, “Lord” is male language, master of slaves, leader of armies, “husband” — in olden days — but look, here it’s just a formula, it doesn’t mean that, no one means anything by it, it’s just language, you have to call Jesus something, come on, don’t make a big deal out of this!)

Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise . . .

    (Down, girl! Whoever put this liturgy together probably couldn’t find a copy of the current Presbyterian Hymnal, where this allegedly ‘generic’ use of ‘man’ to designate ‘humanity’, obscuring or perhaps even denying the presence of women in that humanity, has been changed to the inclusive “vain, empty praise”. Why can’t you just cut him — or her! — some slack? What ever happened to forgiveness? Grace? This is such a little thing — don’t make a big deal out of it . . .)

. . . my sister death . . .
how not hear her wise advice?

    (See, there’s some feminine language in here, too. Yes, “death,” but in context this is positive, see, wise . . . plus, it’s from a traditional prayer. By St. Francis. Saint Francis. You don’t seriously have a problem with Saint Francis, do you? It’s not really linking women with death, deadliness, bringing death into the world . . . Eve . . . cut it out, don’t make a big deal out of this.)

“Turn to the Lord your God again.” . . .
Turn to us, Lord God, . . .

    (Almost done now. You know the drill. Swallow, suck it up, say “amen,” just, you know, what were you thinking, you know, you did basically ask for it, coming to church, and on Ash Wednesday, of all days, what were you expecting . . . you can’t really make a big deal out of this, you know that, right? Because you are SO missing the big picture, the main point, and all the GOOD PARTS of the service, why don’t you pay attention to that, why do you have to be so negative, why do you have to get so angry, what is wrong with you?)

So how many “no big deals” does it take to make a big deal?

Using inclusive language for humanity is an official policy of Caldwell Chapel worship for a reason.

We have the conversations we’ve had with people about avoiding “Lord Lord” language for a reason, too. Some of those we’ve even had here. (Here’s one. Here’s another.)

Yes, this is about language. This is about language because, protestations to the contrary, language means something. And if it really doesn’t mean anything, then why use it in the first place?

During this Lent, maybe we could all actually surrender the practice of calling Jesus Lord, as if the very best, the greatest, the most honorific and the only thing we can think of to call Jesus is Master of slaves, Owner of property, Leader of feudal armies, Husband, Sir, Big Man.

Jesus. The Word and Wisdom and Lamb of God, the Bread of Heaven, the Living Water, the Christ, Savior, Redeemer, Teacher, Mediator, Alpha and Omega, Lily of the Valley, Rose of Sharon, Morning Star, Author and Finisher of our faith, . . .

Even though all of that, too, is only, you know, language.

[The Order of Service for Caldwell Chapel Worship, Wednesday, February 25, 2009]

On Inclusive Language

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.