out with the old?

Once again, Kate has written an important post reflecting on the experience of Liturgy —  most specifically: what it feels like to be pushed to the edge by overwhelmingly male & patriarchal language for God.   I can picture the scene all too easily, and it frustrates me.

But I know that if Kate came here, she would find things little better.  I know, because I flinch as I lead worship — saying phrases I would quietly omit if I were sitting in the pew, phrases that I believe are unhelpful and misleading.

So, Kate’s post also makes me uncomfortable because it puts me face to face with my own hypocrisy.  I hate some of what the tradition offers as normative.  It was not part of my formative experience as a Christian, it was not part of my formative experience as a theology student or ordinand, but I have had to learn to deal with it as a priest.

I deal with it as a priest because it is what the tradition demands of me.  I deal with it as a priest because one has to pick one’s battles, and my own needs and those of the congregations do not always match.  I deal with it as a priest because I naively and somewhat stubbornly resist being too free with the words of the liturgy, because I have known too many priest who cut (or add) all sorts of things without any sense of the theological implications of what they are doing.

I pray daily for a revised liturgy that will take away these pains (and give thanks for those who are working on it).

But in the mean time, what can we do other than flinch?

Well, while I have chosen not to push the language agenda too far in these particular congregations, I do try to keep as many images of God on the go as possible.    ‘Father’ has it’s place, and it’s place is scattered amidst a thousand other images for God.

I try — though only with partial success — to get the other preachers in the congregation to respect my wish that we not use ‘men’, ‘man’ or ‘mankind’ to refer to humanity.  But then, neither can I force people to agree with me, nor prevent them from preaching on the importance of ‘Son of God’ rather than ‘Child of God’ while I quietly fume in my pew (there is a theological argument to be had there, but it is rather more complex than sermons allow, and the effect of stressing Sonship, to me, is to overemphasise maleness).    And the thing is:  there is almost no way to convince someone that inclusive language matters if they think it doesn’t.  To engage in the feminist critique of language for the first time is to be confronted with your own complicity in abusive power structures, and most people just aren’t willing to do that while chatting over coffee.

But there are days when I want to throw caution to the wind, days when I want to send Kate on tour to each and every congregation that lives quietly with outdated language and image and say,  ‘look:  is this not precisely who we need in the church?  We are lucky she seems strong enough to withstand the damage, but how many others are we losing along the way?’

I do not know how to reconcile the fact that in one church, there are people who hurt if they lose language they have loved all their lives, and others who hurt if they are constantly confronted by images of God which exclude them.

I believe that the greater burden needs to be on those who have lived longest with God, and have grown deepest in faith.  But of course, age never guarantees experience.

In the mean time, I thank God for the blogs, for the community that has developed, for a place where we can speak honesty of what we find hard in church and know that there are others there working for the same revolutions, those who understand that the anger and frustration at some of what happens in God’s name comes out of our love for the  wonderful terrible beast that is the Episcopal Church.

17 thoughts on “out with the old?

  1. Every time I write about the event of the Incarnation, I struggle with my inclination to inclusive language and the physical fact that the person who was born Jesus of Nazareth was male. Having borne sons, I know how clearly male even little babies can be – and wonder at the total femaleness of my granddaughter. We’re surely in the bind of confusing a birth in time with the Christ who lives now? But I agree that it’s the thoughtless use of language that gives rise to problems – rage, even; very difficult. So I shall continue to say “who for us and for our salvation” but will also say “and was made Man”.

    BTW – did you notice the altered words at the end of “Hark the Herald Angels” in the green hymnbook?
    🙂

  2. I agree with Chris that we can’t really get away from the maleness of Jesus of Nazareth. But much as we are bound to revere him, he is not, ultimately, the one we worship: we worship the Risen Lord, who is beyond gender. If the Resurrection means that Jesus is taken up into the Godhead, and if God doesn’t have gender, then it follows that the maleness of Jesus is, in a sense, superseded.

    I admit to sometimes making small alterations in wording without, I hope, being careless about theological implications. Like you, Kimberly, I would worry if colleagues were too cavalier about the agreed forms of service. Nevertheless, should we feel inhibited from changing ‘mankind’ to ‘humankind’, as I have been known to do in the Postcommunion prayer in the 1982 liturgy?

  3. I find the changing of a few words to established hymns, carols, etc. difficult to get on with.

    These old favourites are typical of their time and I have the feeling that they should either be used as is or not used at all.

    A typical example was the Radio 4 service on 28 December. I was introduced as being inclusive, and the first carol was God rest ye merry Gentlemen. I feel that the carol should not have been used at all – a rewording would have been worse.

    A quick look at Common Praise and the Canadian Book of Alternative Services (both bought when I was over there) shows a mixture of hymns and prayers with male and female pronouns etc.

    One particular hymn – All people that on earth do dwell – is printed in English and French (the Canadian official languages). However it is also printed in Moose Cree, Iniktitut and Inuit. I can not read the first two scripts, or translate the last.

    As I mentioned on Kate’s blog, I was heartened by how accepted female clergy are in the Diocese of Huron. Their presence is normal and I look forward to the days when this is normal in the SEC and we wonder what all the fuss was about and are celebrating the richness of our diversity.

  4. Thank you for this, Kimberly. I sometimes wonder if I’m demanding too much of the liturgy (or the church, or the people in it), and I marvel how sometimes I am able to take no notice (the danger of having said much the same words most of my life, I suppose) and other times find it nearly impossible to take part because of the language.

    Stewart, I agree that I found ‘God rest ye merry gentlefolk’ jarring at church on Sunday, but also found ‘Good Christian men rejoice’ on Christmas eve very off-putting as well. It is tricky, isn’t it, knowing what do do with the traditional carols? Sometimes I feel it depends on my mood how I react to them. And that’s terribly fickle and hypocritical of me.

  5. No need to accuse oneself of being fickle or hypocritical, Kate. We’ve inherited these expressions of worship from the past, and, as Stewart says, they don’t lend themselves to impromptu revision on the wing. One can perhaps comfort oneself with the thought that nowadays it would be unthinkable to use exclusive language in any new hymns or carols that we would write, though, given the deep-seated nature of our cultural conditioning, I’m sure it does happen.

  6. Eamonn, you have far more confidence in the prevalence of inclusive language than I do.

    Most modern church music (Kevin Mayhew for example) seems to be accidental in its usage, and lots are written in unreformed language.

    Even the BBC has returned to an uncritical use of ‘man’ and ‘mankind’. We seem to be going backwards, not forwards.

    But I’ll blog later about why this is not a ‘one word’ issue.

  7. I’ll look forward to another post from you about this, Kimberly.

    Having thought a bit more about language in hymns vs language in liturgy, I realise that I’m quite reluctant to change the wording of the hymns. I suppose it’s because I see them as static, as coming from a particular writer at a particular time. I would never insist that poetry or literature be altered to be inclusive, and I see music in a similar way. There are, of course, hymns whose images and theology I don’t like or agree with, but I would rather they simply not be used – or used carefully – instead of changed.

    However, liturgy is alive and has been evolving since the church began and should continue to be. I get frustrated when people and churches treat it as though it has always been the way that it is and who don’t see the need to wrestle with it and engage with it.

  8. In actual fact, I find the truly unchurched draw back worse form any innovation that they do from practice which makes me feel uncomfortable.

    Do you want cheered? I went to Midnight Mass in an Victorian church in the middle of a housing development where weed perfumed the air from the tower blocks. The front row was teen age girls, there by themselves, and comforting one of their number after a prayer for the bereaved. The rows behind us filed up with a congregation almost wholly under the age of thirty. The sermon wandered terribly, but the female priest quelled the use of a mobile phone with a wink. It was not an evangelical church, though judging from the relaxed congregation, evangelism was alive and well. She was beloved. I said, and meant, what a joy it was to worship in such a vibrant congregation.

  9. fabulous. I trust you told her.

    I find the C of E unchurched/ establishment-once-a-years/ ex-forces want the church to conform to the expectations of collective consciousness & Hollywood occasional offices. But they also don’t want to come more than once a year and to funerals and heaven forbid we should talk about God. It’s not them, but the seekers I’m after.

  10. Oh yes, it was her I sad it to, in my well worn ‘Let us support all who might possibly need it’ mode. I had occupied the sermon time in devising it. It took my mind off devising ways of teaching how to write a sermon arising out of prayer = the prayers being as good as the sermon was bad. But I took my had off to her.

    Son in law last night (not even vaguely Christian) opined that the church as a whole missed out on a huge chance over big moral issues like Iraq. He and daughter unmoved by language issues (but getting an unbroken nights sleep is currenlty the big issue. )

  11. I’m coming way late to this conversation, but this post and various half-articulated responses have been going around in my head ever since I read this (already a while after it was written) and am finally getting around to contributing them (hurray for Friday afternoons!).

    I sympathise with the difficulty – of course one has to deal with the issues one thinks are most pressing for where one is. And I have found it really difficult to figure out how to bring up issues of language when it’s not a situation conducive to in depth discussion or challenges (any tips are welcome!). And the issues of the pain of losing loved language is real and I don’t deny it. It’s hard. I have been trying to change my language for prayer, both personal and corporate for over a decade and I still find it difficult. And this is something I passionately yearn for. Not something I don’t want or never thought about. I don’t know how as a priest you reconcile your inheritance of the tradition (with the understandable resistance to changing it willy-nilly) and your desire for revolution. I for one, look forward to the day you through caution to the winds.

    “‘Father’ has it’s place, and it’s place is scattered amidst a thousand other images for God.”

    I think this is a really important point. I once counted how many times ‘Father’ was used in a fairly inclusive service and it was about nine in the written liturgy, which doesn’t include its use in intercessions and informal prayers, sermon, etc. And Lord is even worse, in addition to being exclusively masculine, it also has discomforting connotations of domination and hierarchy. And yet this word is perhaps even more embedded in our tradition liturgically and scripturally. I think it’s hard for us to realise the extent of the imbalance. And the great need for more diversity. From a pastoral point of view, I know some people who find ‘Father’ intolerable because of abusive histories. And others for whom ‘Mother’ is equally toxic. In these terms, I think diversity is the best we can do.

    I think the language issues are still live issues in the wider culture, although they may not be articulated or foregrounded. I, too, am dismayed at the use of masculine universals in public speech. As a postgrad student, I notice this most often in the academy and it frustrates me deeply. However, in my (very limited) recent experience of teaching, only a handful of students used exclusive language (for people, sadly, for God, the numbers were greater – but we were talking Donne, Herbert and Hopkins, not theology as such, so I let it ride – picking battles here too!). And I certainly noticed my students being quite appreciative of the gains feminism has brought to women (okay, major detour from the language issues, too much woolgathering going on this afternoon).

    There are lots of difficult issues with language. As Kimberly’s pointed out in subsequent posts, it’s not just about gender-inclusion. And even as far as that goes, we know from history that a feminine divine does not necessarily mean anything good for real women. However, I do think that diversifying our language, taking a hard look at the heritage we are affirming when we use triumphalist or military language, or language that suggests domination, and using language that affirms that all humans can image God, is deeply important.

    As for who is being lost, I’m not really sure. I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to someone who said their reason for leaving church was because they felt excluded by the language used. But I expect there are quite a lot of people for whom this forms at least part of the reason they are not in church.

    Kate – I also sometimes think I’m demanding too much – but isn’t this how change happens?

    I guess this overly long ramble is more or less a reiteration of what’s come before. So maybe I’m just adding my solidarity to the cause!

  12. Elizabeth, I love how you ponder and muse, then draw us back into thought. Thank you for coming late to the congregation.

    Please keep demanding ‘too much’ — I need to be braver, and I need to be held to what I believed before I started making pastoral compromises.

  13. Kimberly, you are ever hospitable to latecomers! You are not alone in struggling with how to navigate the thorny thickets of compromise. I’ve been thinking over the past week, where several times I let offensive comments pass without challenge (or with the barest hint of challenge). I’m particularly thinking about a conference I attended, where you would think challenge and discussion would be appropriate, and yet still I chickened out. Maybe we can help each other be braver.

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