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Rethinking Inclusive Language

The launching of the HeForShe movement is a good time to rethink inclusive and expansive language, and other gender-discriminatory issues, in liturgy. HeForShe aims to enlist men and boys in a campaign for gender equality.

HeForShe is a solidarity movement for gender equality that brings together one half of humanity in support of the other of humanity, for the entirety of humanity.

This, then, is not women working together solely for women. Especially not, following a bullying-paradigm, women thinking they will advance by putting down men. This is the realisation that all people benefit, women and men, when men and women are treated equally.

This insight is certainly true in liturgy and in language used in liturgy. The Bible itself is replete with a multiplicity of images. Anyone who prays the psalms is constantly using a plethora of images and metaphors for God, and for people. Liturgy has often cramped this tradition rather than following its expanding trajectory. And we have sorely neglected our apophatic birthright.

This is not to suggest the abandonment of accurate translation in, for example, these very psalms – quite the opposite. [But, let us also, in passing, remind ourselves of the creative, permissive, psalm-reworking tradition in many of our hymns.] Certainly, translate the Hebrew אֲדֹנָי (‘Adonai’) as the gender-specific ‘Lord’. But maybe we can have a serious re-look at what we do with the Hebrew יהוה (‘YHWH’). Yes, certainly when Jews encounter this word in prayer they say אֲדֹנָי (‘Adonai’). And I think we should be very hesitant before we use ‘Yahweh’ – a term very inappropriate to our Jewish older brothers and sisters from whom we have appropriated these texts. But perhaps instead of ‘the Lord’ for יהוה (‘YHWH’) we might consider something like ‘Our GOD’. It has the same number of syllables as ‘the Lord’ (and even as ‘Yahweh’) so that rhythm for proclaiming and chanting is unaffected by this substitution. And the convention of writing the full word in capitals helps distinguish it (as ‘LORD’ regularly does in other texts). ‘Our GOD’ also retains the monolatrous roots of יהוה (‘YHWH’) whilst (as with the original) allowing its use in a monotheistic understanding.

A New Zealand Prayer Book He Karakia Mihinare o Aotearoa did a great 1980s job on inclusive language, with only the very occasional use of ‘he’ for God. But it made essentially no effort with the gender-specific title ‘Lord’ for God.

New texts, not seeking fidelity to some translation principles, certainly are not bound to gender-specific titles, images, and metaphors. Furthermore, earlier avoidance of titles such as ‘Almighty’ can now also be revisited. Seeing might and power as somehow ‘masculine’ attributes is now more obviously itself sexist. Certainly paint with a broader collection of colours than always referring to God as ‘Almighty’, but we do not need to avoid ‘Almighty’ with a false prejudice that women are not, by nature, mighty.

Inclusive and expansive language benefits us all, especially in combatting the image that God is some sort of masculine sky-fairy.

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17 thoughts on “Rethinking Inclusive Language”

  1. I hadn’t really thought of Lord has being gender-specific though I suppose the feminine equivalent might be Revered Lady. The principle idea of Lord is vassallage, i.e. the one whom we serve with all our heart, body, mind and soul(regardless of gender). But, as always I find these posts stimulating and though-provoking.

    1. Thanks, Stephen.

      I would be surprised if you asked people to pick out or draw a picture of ‘lord’ that (m)any would have a woman.

      If you are right that “The principle idea of Lord is vassallage, i.e. the one whom we serve with all our heart, body, mind and soul” then that underscores the unsuitability of continuing to translate יהוה (‘YHWH’) as ‘LORD’. The root of יהוה is most likely היה (h-y-h) the verb “to be”, obviously connecting to Exodus 3:14. If we could think of a title that incorporated the concept that God is the ‘beingness’ of all that is, then that would better express יהוה


  2. Carys Underdown

    In “Praying twice: The Music and Words of Congregational Song” (2000) Brian Wren discusses translating the tetragrammaton in detail in a chapter entitled “Captured by gender: Chant and Ritual Song”. He sees Lord as having ‘indelible meanings of maleness and male dominance’. He argues for the use of Living One as capturing the sense of “Amness” and also for Jesus as the resurrected one.

    Personally, for me in referring to Jesus as Lord the male element is not predominant but the fealty element “to whom would we go?” But am aware that that is a rather unusual position.

    Maggi Dawn has also written on expansive language.

    1. Thanks, Carys. I don’t know if you have followed some of my work on collects where I regularly refer to Christ, “who is alive with you” as a way of picking up some of the points you are making. “Living One” has one more syllable if it is substituted in texts for “The LORD”. Blessings.

  3. Lord is very gender specific, and so is “father” and “he”. There is no service in the NZPB that is gender-expansive, that uses “she” and “he”, Mother and Father, Creator, Redeemer, and Giver of Life interchangeably so that women feel welcomed and included with the language used. The Holy Spirit is clearly identified as Sophia, Holy Wisdom, She, but those terms are never used anywhere in our liturgy.

    Liturgy has been written by men, for men, and at present, reflects a masculine view of God and masculine power structures. God is above and beyond gender but the language we use does not show any other image of God. Our image of God in language shapes our experience of God and the church. It is time to consider the words we use and the images of God we incorporate into our prayer book, because that reflects how we relate to Her, and how welcoming our liturgy is to everyone. It also changes and deepens our relationship to God when we have different and more expansive images of God.

    1. Thanks, Sr Therese. It is obvious from the central point of my post that I agree with much/most of what you are saying. Mother and Father imagery for God is used occasionally in NZPB (mostly sourced from Jim Cotter). Love-Maker, sadly, was an image too far. Sex, at least, is acknowledged in NZPB. It is not fair, however, to say that NZPB “has been written by men, for men”. Here’s a challenge, then, for you, a woman with a quality website: write some liturgical texts that are usable by women and men, (if it is a eucharistic prayer let it fit one of the three frameworks that are allowed in our church), and place them (from time to time) on your website as a resource for all, and to encourage others. I believe that the texts I provide are inclusive and often tend to be expansive – and are usable by women and men. I think that I am part of the HeForShe movement. Blessings.

  4. Does not talking about “Our God” risk taking back down the “God is my mate/boyfriend” cul-de-sac, by defining God in human terms rather than God’s terms?

    1. Thanks, James. I’m not sure how using “our GOD” defines ‘God’ in human terms any more than “our universe” defines the universe in human terms. I did a quick check and found ‘our God’ or ‘your God’ used in the Bible about 741 times. Blessings.

      1. Which to me harkens to a pissing contest. Our God is better than your God! So there!!

        Especially in the lyrics of many praise choruses used by our more conservative/evangelical sisters and brothers.

  5. In my experience (living in a republic, anyway), it’s exceedingly rare to encounter the word “Lord” in any context referring to a human in the first place; it’s turned almost exclusively into a God-word. Most people surely know that historically it was used to refer to aristocrats, but now, such use seems almost blasphemous.

    I don’t think “Lord” is perceived as being any more gendered of a word than “God” is.

    Avoiding referring to God as “He” strikes me as a mildly silly, but I understand why people do it, and why it’s important to some people. It’s doesn’t really matter to me one way or the other, except in two cases:
    – First, when it messes up words of songs, especially ones I like.
    – Second, (and really, this should be first, if my priorities were straight), when people refuse to call Jesus “He”. To refuse to acknowledge Christ’s manhood is tantamount to denying the incarnation.

    1. Thanks, Peter, for bringing a different perspective to this discussion.

      I’m not sure which republic you live in, but I am a little surprised (if it is English speaking) with your contention that the word ‘lord’ is “turned almost exclusively into a God-word” in your context. You do not have anyone in your republic reading Harry Potter (Lord Voldemort) or watching those movies? You do not have people reading the novels or watching the films about the “Lord of the Rings”? Or “Lord of the Flies”? Or anyone interested in the Star Wars series (The “Dark Lord”, the “Sith Lord”)? Etc?

      It would be interesting to reflect on your thoughts about the risen Christ. Do you think that we have gender in the resurrection, and why? I would flip your point by pointing to the doctrine that anything that is not assumed by Christ is not redeemed – are females redeemed, and in your view, how (if Christ only assumes the masculine gender and retains that in the resurrection)?


      1. I might add to the Padre’s list, anyone enjoying Downton Abbey encounters plenty of Lords and Ladies from the British aristocracy represented.

        I think in your haste to dismiss inclusive language you mistake the maleness of Jesus for the gender of an eternal Christ. Two different things.

        You likely wouldn’t enjoy services at the church I have been attending, hymn lyrics are often rewritten to make them more inclusive of the diverse congregation we attract. Having folks mess up your favorite hymn is so much a 1st world problem!

  6. In psalm 9:21, Καταστησον, Κυριε, νομοθετην επ’ αυτους: «Set, O Lord, a lawgiveress, upon them.»

    I thing we should explore this kind of passages, especially the Wisdom, who is Christ.

    YHWH was rendered as Κυριος, and, as the LXX was the version of a part of the early Church, «the Lord» is ok.

    Let us not put forth a duality: male-female. God is beyond that. (And, through the incarnation, Jesus has to be beyond that too.)

    1. I have no idea what your point is here.

      The early church’s surviving legacy appears to be male dominated language regarding God. On this side of the planet we are attempting to throw off the oppressive yoke of Patriarchy, so just because Lord worked for the ancients, doesn’t mean it works today for many of us.

      1. Before arguing with me just for the sake of arguing, read all my sentences.

        The early church’s surviving legacy appears to be the New Testament, which had used the Greek Old Testament in its quotations. This is why rendering YHWH by «The Lord» is more than legitimate.

        One thing is to interpret. Another thing is to ban the text.

        1. I read and comprehend English well. Pardon my misunderstanding, I took what you were stating differently then you intended. You were strictly speaking of translation, when it seemed your were speaking of current use and dismissing folks intent with inclusive language. “If Lord was good enough for the ancient Church, Lord is good enough for the modern Church!”

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