Tuesday, September 08, 2009

on the importance of inclusive language: an open letter to all worship leaders

This post has been rolling around in my head for about a month and a half--since our Yearly Meeting sessions. Inclusive language is something that's been important to me for a long time, but it's hard to know how to address it in a community in a way that will be truly heard. So, rather than address it in a community, I guess I'm choosing to just throw it out into cyberspace and hope that someone, somewhere benefits by it! Maybe this is a first step in addressing this issue in your community, and in mine.

Inclusive language is important to me when we talk about people and when we talk about God. I'm willing to wait a while until we can change our God-language in ways that are helpful and stimulate conversation and imagination, rather than closing people off. But that means kids right now need to be taught differently, and adults right now need to start being educated, so that at some point in the future we can speak of God in ways that are more helpful.

But language about people should ALWAYS, ALWAYS be inclusive! There is no excuse in American society for keeping all-masculine language in songs, biblical translations and preaching. There is NO excuse. Songs are easy to change, and although people already know them a certain way, it's easy to just change the words on the PowerPoint or in the bulletin and people will sing along. (Granted, it's a little harder with hymnals, but you can probably figure something out.)

Translations of the Bible into English have traditionally translated the Greek and Hebrew words for "people" as "man," even though there are separate words in both languages that mean "male people," and those words are used when referring solely to males. So changing our translations is not changing the Bible or the meaning therein, it is updating the translation to fit with modern English. A couple hundred years ago, even though it was still sexist to use the word "man" to mean "humanity," it was commonly accepted and used. Today, it is really only in the church that we've held on to this antiquated usage.

Why does it matter, you might ask? Well, imagine we put in "women" and "she" everywhere we meant "all people." Doesn't that sound like it excludes all males? Even if you know that it means you as a male, doesn't it take an extra step to get your brain to wrap around the concept that you are included in that statement? Doesn't that remove you one step from being fully present and feeling wholly acceptable in that space? This is what women must deal with daily when this kind of language is used. We may have gotten used to it; our brains may traverse this extra step quickly.

But to do this all our lives, to have to translate in our heads that we are meant to be part of the "men" who are spoken to in the Bible and in the church, means that we are subliminally taught that we aren't as fully part of humanity as are men.

Especially as Friends we should change this behavior. We believe all people are created in the image of God, male and female, Greek and Jew, slave and free. We are all beloved children of God. We can all hear God and respond in faithfulness. Some of us seem to hear God "better" than others, or have a special sense of God that others don't, but this is not based on gender--it's based on the way the Spirit works in us as unique individuals. And so to speak to only the "men," to treat all women as a sort of second tier, tears down this supposed belief among Friends.

Therefore, I ask you, as you lead worship music, as you preach, as you read from the Bible in community: please be intentional about using inclusive language.

Personally, when I lead worship music, I change the words. (Even when I'm singing in my pew I change the words, but no one can really tell.) It's not hard. You can change "man" to "humanity" or "people," or you can just change the wording of the phrase slightly so that you get rid of the problem. For example, in "Be Thou My Vision," change the verse to:

Be thou my wisdom and thou my true word
I ever with thee and thou with me Lord
Thou my great Father, I thy true child (instead of son)
Thou in me dwelling and I with thee one

Riches I heed not nor vain empty praise (instead of man's)
Thou mine inheritance now and always...

(This doesn't get rid of the problem of all masculine imagery for God, but at least it's a step in the right direction.)

Also, I write or print out the biblical text I'm going to read and change any of the masculine language so that it's gender-neutral or gender-inclusive. This is pretty easy, too. I can often do it on the fly if I didn't get a chance to prepare ahead of time. It just takes awareness and intentionality. There are gender-inclusive translations of the Bible you can use as well, such as the TNIV. (Here is an article posted yesterday by Sojourners that gives support for the TNIV, stating, "many of us believe the TNIV is biblically correct," although it has proved controversial among evangelicals and Zondervan is going to phase it out, to be replaced by a fully revised version of the NIV, which will include many of the TNIV changes.) The NRSV uses inclusive language for people, although not for God. (It is also a really excellent translation of the ancient texts available to us.) There is also "The Inclusive Bible," which you can find on Amazon or elsewhere, but I've never read it so I don't know how accurate it is or anything.

Basically, what I'm trying to say is that in order to respect all persons, we need to include them wholly in the ways we talk and the ways we act. When we use all masculine language, although we may not do it intentionally, we exclude half the population. We also ingrain ideas in ourselves accidentally about the relative worth of people, and this bleeds over into the ways we treat ourselves and others. Hopefully if we can be more intentional about using inclusive language in our music and sacred text, that will also influence our behavior and the ideologies that inform the way we treat one another. There is still a great deal of sexism in our culture today, for all the good work that has already been done. A major part of this sexism resides in the church and its refusal to admit when it's wrong and needs to repent: meaning "turn around," "go a different direction."

Please allow the Spirit to speak to you on this matter, and if you have any questions or need help changing the wording on a song or something, please contact me or leave a comment here.


Ashley W said...

Way to go, Cherice! This Friend speaks my mind.

Friendly Feminist said...

it's sad to me that as early as the 1970's Allie Walton and Elizabeth Watson and others were asking for inclusive language and those of us in the 1980's spoke out often at the Gathering and at our local ym's and mm's on how it feels to be left out; one woman coined the term 'first day pain' because of her experiences with exclusion. it disturbs this 66 year old that we seem to be slipping backwards and not many younger women are seeing the dangers of this exclusion. thanks for speaking out. nancy whitt

QuakeSpace said...


Thanks for sharing. I fully agree with you on the inclusive language in Scripture where the text is clearly referring to humankind. And there needs to be more done in terms of relating to people the feminine qualities of God in ways that are equal to those traits considered more masculine.

I'm please to join you, as a man, in this plea.


Tom Smith said...

I'll second Jamie's comment. I guess maybe I was sensitized in the 60's and 70's which were my "formal" learning years, but I feel "strangely?" excluded when male exclusive language is used in the sense that if we exclude some people "all" people become excluded from someone else.

Hystery said...

Because my father was a feminist minister in the Methodist and later Congregational churches, I grew up with inclusive language. Dad served rural churches in conservative areas of Upstate NY throughout the 1980s. I never heard anyone complain about the minor changes that do so much to make all worshipers know that they belong.

mauri macy said...

...certainly an important topic, and one that many of us have worked to do something about. It's not a corrective word to suggest that good solutions might involve more than just changing the word or words. At NFC we wrote the following:

Worship discernment - principles regarding inclusive language...
- We'll try to notice when song and/or scriptural materials truly are non-inclusive, or in need of updating for other reasons.
- We'll try to make appropriate changes...with consideration for the degree of offense (how blatantly non-inclusive is it), meaning (does making the change also change what the line is saying?) aesthetics (does it fit stylistically?), and familiarity (how jarring will it be to change familiar materials? can that be weighed against the benefits? how much does it bring the issue to the front?)
- If we can't satisfactorily change or accept the materials, we won't use them.

(we didn’t agree on this, but since there are obvious differences represented on the planning group, i’ll suggest that when a question about inclusive language not obvious to us all comes up, we’ll - without much delay - look to the group for consensus, make a good choice, and move on.)

I've found the Covenant hymnal published in 1996 to be an especially good reference in working with older materials. Here's what they do with the lines you mentioned from "Be Thou..."

"...Thou my great Father, thy child shall I be,
Thou in me dwelling, and I one with thee..."

I appreciate their work to maintain aesthetic integrity as well as change the non-inclusive word(s).

cherice said...

Thanks, Mauri, for your insightful comments on how you deal with this issue as a real, live worship leader! I'm glad to hear about your process at NFC. It would be great if other meetings could utilize those "worship discernment principles regarding inclusive language" in order to think about this issue and establish their own criteria.

Thanks, too, for the helpful suggestion for a good hymnal.

And thanks to everyone else for your supportive comments! It's great to have some men who attend to this issue so it doesn't seem like just a militant feminist soap-box...I truly believe this is an important issue that affects all people, not just women.

Anonymous said...

Amen. Preach it, broth... Uh, excuse me. Preach it, everyone!

Gr. Ralph

Anonymous said...

This Friend speaks my mind.

Mary Elizabeth Bullock-Rest said...

Thanks and God bless.

Phil said...

Hi Cherice,
I am glad that you are creating this group. Have you invited Becky Ankeny? I would think that this would be something that she would love to be a part of.
God bless you and your discussions!
U. Phil

Jeph and LeAnnes Blog said...

What a thought provoking post...I really enjoyed it! Thanks for being obedient and sharing!
God Bless!