Inclusive, Expanded … He, She … – what language should we use about God in our worship?

A Twitter exchange by two colleagues and friends in the diocese of Liverpool this week (Archdeacon Jennifer McKenzie and Fr Sam Korn of our Sodality) made me think about where I am at the moment in my use of ‘inclusive language’.

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It is hard to believe that there is any issue about this any more. Although there may have been a time when someone hearing or reading the word ‘man’ understood it as referring to men and women that is no longer the case. I am glad to say that the Church of England’s current liturgy, Common Worship, is good on this and I don’t find myself having to change texts as I go along. If I am praying the Roman Rite Office the British edition needs a lot of changes in the intercessions which are sometimes remarkably full of men and mankind, brothers, and not sisters. These are not difficult changes to make, although it is possible to slip up and end up with fairly convoluted language. The Kenyan edition of this Office, The Liturgy of the Hours, Paulist Press 2009, is much better in the intercessions and has a slightly (but only very slightly) inclusivised version of the psalms (the Revised Grail Psalter).

The Roman Missal published in 2010 is more problematic. When proclaiming the Collects and Eucharistic Prayers I believe myself to be praying on behalf of the church so would prefer not to alter these. In fact in many places exclusive language has been avoided, perhaps more often that is given credit for. But there are places, such as Eucharistic Prayer 4 which use ‘man’ very often. Hardly anyone uses EP4 and so far since the Missal was published I haven’t had to use it.

Scripture

When studying Scripture I want a translation that is as word for word accurate as possible. I find that NRSV in its effort to be inclusive has gone too far, often in pluralising texts, and occasionally quite clumsily. I tend to use the RSV when I can for study. I quite like the English Standard Version but recognise that it has a theological (Protestant) bias, as does the NIV. I use Nicholas King’s New Testament which is excellent, fairly inclusive but without stretching it, and of course, check the Greek. I am enjoying Robert Alter’s Hebrew Bible in three volumes for study purposes. Again he avoids unnecessary exclusiveness.

Psalms

When it comes to praying texts and reading them in worship I think things become more difficult. The Common Worship psalter is pretty good. Although where, as in Psalm 8, christological issues come to the fore in the use of ‘man’ even it has to provide two versions of the text.

My only problem with the Common Worship psalms is that they are sometimes quite wordy (Psalm 119 has 25% more words than the Grail version) and the words are often, referencing the Coverdale Psalms of the Prayer Book, quite churchy, ‘righteous’, ‘testimonies’ etc. I have prayed the Grail psalms for most of my life and the sprung rhythm, the sense stanzas and the vocabulary have a lightness that I like. An inclusive language version was produced some years ago but was not entirely successful, partly because it is hard to replace the single syllable ‘man’ with another single syllable word. The International Commission on English in the Liturgy produced a very beautiful psalter in 1995. It too uses a careful sense of rhythm, Anglo-Saxon rather than Latinate vocabulary, to reproduce the simple shape of the Hebrew. I have used these texts very often in prayer and would happily do so permanently. Sadly they fell foul of the neo-conservatism of the Benedict XVI papacy and are not authorised for use by Roman Catholics:

I think that because we pray the psalms rather than hear them as readings, it is important that they reflect the highest possible use of inclusive language for human beings.

In all Scripture whether heard as readings or prayed as prayers I would be uncomfortable with changing the text to be less gendered for God, and in the readings would prefer translations that reflect an exclusive meaning if that is what the text says. I have used very inclusive versions at times. When I was curate in charge of Saint Faith, Portsea in the 90’s I used, at Mass and the Office, the lectionaries prepared by the Carmelites of Indianapolis. These are very strongly inclusive both horizontally and vertically, for God. Lord is always replaced with God, Almighty with Holy One, disciples with ‘companions of Jesus’ and so on. I can’t imagine using these texts now. I think they go too far.

The community also produced a form of Morning, Mid-Day and Evening Prayer of the Divine Office with the same level of expanded language, A People’s Companion to the Breviary, I like the intercessions but the psalms are inclusivised RSV which are wordy and difficult to use, the Collects are very wordy and almost impossible to read out loud. The short readings are from a somewhat eclectic range of non-Scriptural sources. It is always interesting.

She and the Trinity

Archdeacon Jennifer made the point in her tweet that using ‘he’ for God all the time is unhelpful. I agree to an extent and think this can be reduced. However, I am naturally conservative and am cautious about moving too far from our inherited Christian tradition. There are many questions to be answered about gender but gender does exist and the tradition has almost universally chosen to talk about God as ‘he’ and to address God directly in male terms as Jesus himself commands us. I have made various extended experiments in my private praying of the Office. I love Janet Morley’s book All Desires Known:

I used her version of the Benedicite with its “praise her and glorify her for ever” at a parish Quiet Day once and I adore her psalm “I will praise God, my Beloved” which I occasionally use at the Office as an Invitatory psalm:

“I will praise God, my Beloved,

For she is altogether lovely.

Her presence satisfies my soul;

She fills my senses to overflowing

So that I cannot speak.”

Yes! This is where silence in prayer originates.

When she looks upon me

I can withhold nothing.”

Indeed.

I also have a very personal memory from my childhood that informs my understanding of God. It was as a small child, perhaps four or five years old. I had fallen and hurt a knee or elbow or something and ran in to see mum. She sat me on her lap and comforted me, and I was profoundly aware of her breathing, her breasts rising and falling, the warmth of her breath on my head. Perhaps it provoked memories of being breast fed? Much later I made the connection with the hymn “Breathe on me breath of God” which I cannot sing without thinking of that maternal love which I received and receive so strongly.

Despite all of this I am quite resistant to changing the historic designations of the Trinity as Father, Son and Spirit, particularly in key texts such as the sign of the Cross. The Daily Office SSF suggests as a doxology to the psalms and canticles:

“Glory to God, Source of all being,

Eternal Word and Holy Spirit …”

Similarly I have heard a priest begin Mass “In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier.”

My problem with these are that they are functions not persons. I can relate to God as Father in a personal way, ‘Source of all being’ is deeply impersonal, as is ‘Eternal Word’. Clearly Jesus is the Eternal Word, but when I talk to him, feel his presence, it is with a proper name not a description. Just as it is with all people.

I would be even more uncomfortable in public worship invoking God as “Mother, Son and Holy Spirit.” The danger for me is that this so easily loses the Trinitarian nature of the Godhead. Is the Mother the same as the Father? Or is the Mother an additional person of the Trinity? It feels like a rupture from tradition.

Jewish Liturgy

There is a great deal to be gained from examining how another liturgical, biblical, tradition addresses these issues. I have reviewed a number of siddurim (prayer books) of Jewish communities on this blog and have benefited from reflecting on these texts in my own prayer. In each case I look at how inclusive language is addressed.

Jewish Prayer Books 1: Forms of Prayer – the British Reform siddur

Jewish Prayer Books 2: Siddur Lev Chadash – The British Liberal siddur

Jewish Prayer Books 3: Paths of Faith, Chaim Stern

Jewish Prayer Books 4: Mishkan T’filah, American Reform

One day I hope to extend this series, Jewish communities are continually working on new liturgies! And my Jewish friends continue to send me their new siddurs.

Of course, Judaism does not have a Trinitarian faith to take into account. Jewish liturgy also has the advantage of having a sacred language that is completely different to everyday language. In many reform, liberal and progressive prayer books the English can act as an expanded version of the Hebrew. In some ways I think this is a good model for us. The biblical text remains static but our hymnody and contemporary texts reflect evolving understanding. I make some suggestions below for how that might be done.

Some Jewish writers have produced new material expanding the language for God in Hebrew, notably Marcia Falk in her profoundly beautiful Book of Blessings.

Given that the name of God, the tetragrammaton is not to be pronounced Jews have a range of alternatives to use, Adonai, ha-Shem, and so forth. I especially like an attempt by the Reconstructionist synagogues in the States, in a draft version of their liturgy, to show that the Divine name contains many meanings by showing it as a mathematical fraction with a partial meaning as the denominator:

Sadly that didn’t survive into the definitive form.

The Way ahead: Mining the Tradition and New Texts

So although I agree with Archdeacon Jennifer’s call I puzzle in delivering it. I think there are two ways forward that I am comfortable with. Mining the tradition for expanded images. We know that both biblically and in the tradition there are references to Jesus as mother and God as mother. I often use the canticles in Common Worship Daily Prayer from Anselm and Julian of Norwich. There are other points in the liturgy when expansive texts could be used. The doxology on the psalms and canticles of the Office is one of them. I have used this Orthodox prayer for some years:

We have seen the true light;

we have received the heavenly Spirit;

we have found the true faith,

worshiping the undivided Trinity, for the Trinity has saved us.

It has the advantage of addressing the Trinity as a whole. This has been an element that has tended to be omitted from western liturgy. Texts from Julian of Norwich could be used in the same way:

Either:

The Trinity is God, and God is the Trinity,

The Trinity is our Maker and Keeper,

The Trinity is our everlasting lover,

Our joy and our bliss.

Or:

We are enclosed in the Father, and we are enclosed in the Son,

And we are enclosed in the Holy Spirit.

The Father is enclosed in us, and the Son is enclosed in us,

and the Holy Spirit is enclosed in us:

Almightiness, All-Wisdom, All-Goodness: one God, one Lord.

Although the second form retains gender specific language I think it does expand the imagery.

Other examples of expanding language at this point also exist. The Order of St Helena, a monastic community for women in The Episcopal Church in the United States has this in its Office (The Saint Helena Breviary, 2005):

Glory to the holy and undivided Trinity, one God:

As it was in the beginning, is now and will be for ever. Amen.

Which I think works very well.

OSH also provide expanded language versions of the doxologies of Office Hymns, for example:

Creator, grant that this be done

Through Jesus, your Beloved One,

Who, with the Spirit and with you,

Shall live and reign all ages through.

In our ordinary Sunday worship hymns and songs provide an opportunity for expanding language. I have used some of the material that is available and found it was welcomed very warmly. A writer I particularly like is Miriam Therese Winter (a sister of the Medical Mission Sisters) in her collection Womansong.

For example:

Mother and God, to You we sing:

Wide is Your womb, warm is Your wing.

In You we live, move, and are fed,

Sweet flowing milk, life giving bread.

Mother and God to You we bring

All broken hearts, all broken wings.

Most of her work does not use such explicit imagery of God as Mother:

All praise and thanks to God

From Whom the Word resounded

Whose Wisdom fills the One

On Whom our hope is founded,

Whose Spirit dwells within

And hears the heart’s intent,

Whose grace inspires the “yes”

Of every just dissent.

Which fits the tune Nun danket.

Again I think this is a better approach, writing good quality new hymnody rather than trying to adjust existing texts.

It is even possible to use female pronouns without going beyond the existing tradition. I particularly like Colin Hodgett’s hymn Sing Praise to Wisdom, sung to Lobe den Herrn, which I often use on retreats and pilgrimages:

Sing praise to Wisdom, all gentle, the heart of creation;

O my soul, praise her, for she is your soul’s liberation;

All you who hear now to this fountain draw near;

Praise her with glad adoration.

….

Sing praise to Wisdom, who’ll nurture your work and defend you.

Surely her strength and her insight will daily attend you.

Hear Wisdom call.

If you love her above all

She in your love will befriend you.

*

One of my favourite collections of prayers is Prayers for An Inclusive Church by Steven Shakespeare. Steven is also a priest in the diocese of Liverpool (he teaches at Liverpool Hope University). He has a keen ear for good English and understands the need to preserve the genius of the western rite: noble simplicity. Too many inclusive prayers are extremely wordy. Although I was fond of Jim Cotter he often fell into this trap. Steven has a great crispness of phrasing matched with powerful images which expand our sense of who God is:

Birthing God,

Whose Spirit’s wings

Stir the waters of creation.

*

God of restless fire,

And urgent river’s flow.

Not authorised for use as Collects these can be used at the end of the Intercessions in the Eucharist, or in place of the opening prayers at Morning and Evening Prayer in Common Worship Daily Prayer.

*

In the Twitter exchange this week Jennifer rightly pointed out that it is good to feel uncomfortable on occasion. I agree. I think this can be done entirely within orthodox Christianity. Steven manages that balance perfectly. I am writing on the feast of the Visitation. When I read his Collect for today it took my breath away:

God of faithful love,

and tumbling thrones,

in the friendship of women

your glory is embodied

and a song of liberation born:

with Elizabeth and Mary

may the promise of life

leap within us for joy

and cross the deserts

that divide our hearts:

Through Jesus Christ, fruit of Mary’s womb.

The General Instruction on the Liturgy of the Hours, offers the possibility of replacing hymnody with poetry at the Office. This is another way of introducing expanded imagery to our worship. It takes some preparation and voices are needed that read naturally, not in an artificially poetic way. But it can work well. With preparation this can also work at a main Sunday act of worship, I occasionally use a poem during a sermon, and then it is repeated at the silence after communion, on both occasions read by someone other than me.

The collection Before the Door of God contains many excellent examples, as does the appendix to the Roman Catholic Divine Office. Or how about this, from Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy’s version of Rilke’s Book of Hours (Love Poems to God):

I love you, gentlest of Ways,

Who ripened us as we wrestled with you.

.

You the great homesickness we could never shake off,

You, the forest that always surrounded us,

.

You, the song we sang in every silence,

You dark net threading through us,

.

On the day you made us you created yourself,

And we grew sturdy in your sunlight …

.

Let your hand rest on the rim of Heaven now

And mutely bear the darkness we bring over you.

Finally, I hope one day to look more closely at the songs used at Hillsong, the repertoire of Matt Redman and the New Wine music. It seems to me that they considerably expand our images of God in tender, intimate ways, that take us well beyond the register of traditional hymns.

I like the phrase ‘expansive language’ very much. God calls us to expand our hearts. To soften the hard places. Our language is vast, the song we sing in every silence. Our language is powerful and can expand our hearts.

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4 Comments

  1. Amazed… wow…. I keep changing words in the Universalis texts and thought it was just quirky me! Thank you!

    On Fri 31 May 2019 at 18:40, Quodcumque – Serious Christianity wrote:

    > Father Richard Peers posted: “A Twitter exchange by two colleagues and > friends in the diocese of Liverpool this week (Archdeacon Jennifer McKenzie > and Fr Sam Korn of our Sodality) made me think about where I am at the > moment in my use of ‘inclusive language’. Horizontal It is hard t” >

    Like

  2. Thank you, good and comprehensive stuff. As my friend the Revd. Dr. Andrew McGowan would say about liturgy “Bit is it pleasing to God”

    Like

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