maddening man

I have returned to a struggle with language.

Six years of ordained life has not dimmed the inner flinching each time I must speak and pray phrases that exclude half the human race.  There is no going back to easy innocence once one has been led by the hand through the feminist critique of language and had consciousness raised.

But I live in a hypocritical state:  believing one thing, and saying another.  ‘Affirming my faith’ even, in words that betray.

The one exception I make to all this liturgical flinching is the ease with which I can sing old and beloved hymns.  Sometimes, a more inclusive version is easy and right; but often, I am happy to sing old worlds to an old tune, and to chalk it up to our tradition.  I imagine the saints all around, and accept that I am singing their songs, in the best words, the best truths, they had at the time.

… and in the service booklet (not always, but often; and always if the crowds are gathering) I tip my hat to our forebearers by printing quite clearly next to the worlds:  4th Century; 8th Century; 18th Century; 19th Century.

Where it all comes un-stuck is ‘2oth Century’.

I have been trying to incorporate a few modern songs into the Christmas services.  Someone had made suggestions, and sung snatches of tunes that sounded promising.

But then I found the words, and it’s a boys club all around.

Men everywhere.

Mankind, of course.

he and He, his and His.

horror upon horror.

And the one hymn that — miraculously– spoke of humankind, then went on to talk about the infant Christ as the one born to take our punishment.

I can’t do it.

I don’t think I can do it.

Should I do it?

I very deeply do not believe that we should be singing modern songs written as though nothing good has been learned in the past 100 years.   I do not want to pretend that the language is OK.

But in my desire not to flinch — not to teach others not to flinch — not to pretend that our use of language doesn’t matter — I am asking people to give up songs they love and care about.

Will Spring Harvest ever learn to critique language?  Will Kevin Mayhew ever say ‘no, we won’t publish it like that.  try again’.

… because there are good songs out there, that ‘work’ for worship and carry people’s prayer.

and I wish we could sing some of them.

but I can’t (can I?) when I know that they will get in people’s heads, and sink into their souls, and shape a vision of God that is too small, too angry, too narrow to be true.

You’ve heard me say all this before, but this time it comes with a question.  What should I do?

(and does anyone know of better songs for us to sing, that still meet the desire for ‘songs’ not hymns upon occasion?)

11 thoughts on “maddening man

  1. Oh this is a daily dilemma for me too. I was just asking a certain Provost the other day if there were any good hymn books out there where modern ‘songs/hymns’ used inclusive language and good theology. He suggested Canadian Common Praise. And did you ever know Voices United which I often hear American friends talk about. Is it worth buying?

    Sorry, but I don’t have the answer either. I haven’t really done the ‘inclusive language’ talk here either and I’ve been over 3 years. One day… one day…

  2. Well, looking at it like that, I can’t think of anything written since 1990 where I want to sing the words either. (And a good deal of old stuff goes happily out the window too, for being talk of power/conflict/nationalism, as well as insufficiently inclusive.)

    So, perhaps you could write something, possibly involving those of musical and poetical bent in your congregation (giving prospective lyricists a simple positive brief such as “ponder God”) and release the results as a resource on church website under a creative commons license?

  3. Voices United is quite good on modern hymns. I also like Gather Comprehensive (from Canada).

    The Provost is not our best source here, because he is not in a church that has a tradition of band/ worship songs. (pace, Provost, re: ancient history)

    Margaret Rizza edited a book of ‘chants, songs and hymns for contemplative worship’ called be still and know and I think there’s lots of useful stuff there.

    But it is still hard to banish Stuart Townsend and Graham Kendrick altogether, and yet they ruin many a good song with a careless verse. (oh, I’m not being fair. It’s not their fault if they have been taught that there is only one theory of atonement and that it’s all about sin even at Christmas).

  4. Writers before, oh, probably even 1960, if classically trained, hear another language, or other languages, behind English. When they write ‘man’ I suspect they hear ‘homo’ and not ‘vir’. We are singularly ill-fortuned in English in that the oldest strands of language took the same word for the male human as for human kind and we lost an easy distinction that Latin and Greek provide. I think that that is why older writers do not offend in the same way – the language they wrote is no longer really the language we actually speak. We are visitors in another country, where, famously, they do things differently.

    Personally I am infinitely more offended by penal atonement than any thing else likely to to come up in a religious song (though every year I sing ‘Veiled in flesh is heresy’ which fits very nicely).

    But how far does one have to know theology to see some of the layers of thought, of experience, which are there at the Incarnation? Surely a real poet would reach down into it with a less facile theology, from mere life experience and thought – from prayer. What seems to me to be wrong is that some modern song creators are not really writers and poets. But how many have there ever been? Bridges, probably (though how surpassed by Hopkins, who though is not singable!) Wesley, Neale, and the incomparable Herbert. What we are looking for now is several in one generation. We have never found that before.

  5. p.s Yes, I realise this is no actual help, but the clearer any problem is seen, the easier to bear, or so I think.

  6. This is not the answer you might expect BUT Kimberly you are able to write your own hymns as are many of your readers of this excellent blog. So I/we await a new hymn/song book that reflects the present age. Who knows there might be the next Charles Wesley waiting to suprise us all. I do know a provest who is able to write the music to go with the words

  7. In the first Postcommunion Prayer in the 1982 Liturgy, I always say ‘which is your will for all humankind’. That doesn’t take us very far, I know. Maybe all we can do until suitable forms of inclusive language are evolved is to accept that we minister to a Church which, as Herbert McCabe said about 40 years ago, is ‘almost irredeemably corrupt’ (and got a belt of a crozier for his pains).

    But I agree with Zebadee. You’re more than capable of doing this, and help is available from several of your readers. Trust your innate creativity and go for it!

  8. Kendrick is amazingly prolific. He does have plenty of Christmas songs which are not all about sin. The trouble is, that even at his best his metaphors mix worse than marble cake and his idea of scansion is shakier than mine.

  9. It is good to read an articulation of this profound struggle. There have been moments when I have been sorely tempted to walk out of the pew . . . . .
    Margaret Rizza is usually good – and John Bell – certainly no penal atonement there! And Bernadette Farrell.
    Janet Morley writes wonderful litanies, poems & prayers.
    Kathy Galloway, Anna Briggs and other Iona folk are worth researching. The poet, Ruth Burgess, lives on your doorstep in Dunblane – a good contact.

    LIke rosemaryhannah, I find the 19th century & earlier easier to sing than the 20th (or 21st!) century because I agree ‘we are visitors to another country’.

    Go for it, Kimberley!

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