Inclusive Language and Politeness

Every now and then I learn how to be just a bit more polite to someone.

It isn’t that I’m particularly rude, at least, I hope not. It is more that I’m still learning about people and still learning about how people prefer to be treated. Meeting a lot of people as I do means that there’s always more to learn.

Here at St Mary’s, we are quite sensitive to gender. There was an exercise going on in the office today which was all about writing to the congregation and we faced every possible variation of people living in the same premises who might prefer to be written to together or who might prefer to receive a letter addressed not to a couple but to two individuals. Lots of different legal ways in which people find themselves coupled up means a lot of difficulty trying to decide how to address letters and envelopes.

On this occasion, it isn’t me who is doing that job but others and it is inevitable that some people will find themselves being addressed in ways that they would prefer not to be addressed. I hope they will simply let us know if we’ve got it wrong.

Inclusive language in church seems to attract a huge amount of comment but it is really mostly a question of politeness.

Long ago, I accepted that it is a bit rude to speak to a group of people which includes people who identify as both male and female as though they are all men. And for that reason, we try to use inclusive language at St Mary’s.

It is harder than it seems too. Hymns are the most difficult to deal with. Most hymns can be changed sensitively and sensibly into language that is inclusive of everyone but it does take work and there are some that I just don’t know what to do with.

To me it isn’t an issue of political correctness, it is just a matter of being polite. Why be an oaf and deliberately leave other human beings feeling left out of your discourse after all?

There are some hymns I can’t put into inclusive language which have just disappeared from our hymnnody here. An example of that would be

Firmly I believe and truly
God is Three, and God is One;
And I next acknowledge duly
Manhood taken by the Son.

And I trust and hope most fully
In that Manhood crucified;
And each thought and deed unruly
Do to death, as He has died.

I can’t see any way of making that singable now and to sing the original makes some people snigger about the word Manhood. So, love the tune as I do and though it tugs a bit on my heartstrings, we’ve not sung it for years and I can’t really imagine it being sung here again.

There are a tiny number of hymns that I can’t do anything much with in terms of changing them but which I’m not prepared to ditch. The most obvious of these is:

Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways!
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives Thy service find,
In deeper reverence, praise.

I don’t like “mankind” but I can’t find any way of rewriting it that makes sense and it is just too good a hymn to drop completely.

Similarly with Bunyan:

Who would true valour see,
Let him come hither;
One here will constant be,
Come wind, come weather.
There’s no discouragement
Shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent
To be a pilgrim.

Whoso beset him round
With dismal stories
Do but themselves confound;
His strength the more is.
No lion can him fright,
He’ll with a giant fight,
He will have a right
To be a pilgrim.

Hobgoblin nor foul fiend
Can daunt his spirit,
He knows he at the end
Shall life inherit.
Then fancies fly away,
He’ll fear not what men say,
He’ll labour night and day
To be a pilgrim.

I think there is some fun to be had singing that occasionally with female pronouns (“She’ll fear not what men say…” and all) but basically it isn’t a hymn that lends itself to inclusive language and my best hope is anyone singing it might realise that if we are singing about hobgoblins then we are not really using the language of the moment anyway.

It is my view that we need to reflect the widest range of imagery for both human beings and for God simply because we are biblical people and that’s reflective of the Hebrew and Greek scriptures.

That’s why we sometimes sing things that have exclusively female imagery as well as those which have lots of male language. This from John Bell is particularly good:

She dances in fire, startling her spectators,
Waking tongues of ecstasy where dumbness reigned;
She weans and inspires all whose hearts are open,
Nor can she be captured, silenced or restrained.

For she is the Spirit, one with God in essence,
Gifted by the Saviour in eternal love;
She is the key opening the scriptures,
Enemy of apathy and heavenly dove.

It was interesting to see the opprobrium which landed upon the Church of Sweden over some minor inclusive language changes this week.

“The Church of Sweden to stop referring to God as He or Lord” howled the Telegraph and many other newspapers without bothering to check whether this was remotely true. They’ve changed the liturgy to include one gender-neutral expression as a possibility for the start of a worship service. So now, they can use “In the name of the triune God” as well as still being able to use – “In th e name of God, the Father and Son, and the Holy Spirit”

It doesn’t seem particularly radical to me but it is the kind of thing that stokes up fake outrage very quickly.

There quite a good report here:

The Swedish Church has hit out at ‘fake news’ after reports it had decided to stop calling God ‘he’ or ‘Lord’. ‘It is not true,’ a spokesperson told The Local.
The Church of Sweden will only refer to God in gender-neutral terms, reported several of the world’s biggest news outlets on Friday, saying it had made the decision in an update of its 31-year-old handbook…

“It’s not true,” repeated Sofija Pedersen Videke, head of the Church’s service of worship committee, which was heavily involved in the work on the new handbook before it went before the Church Assembly.

The Church Assembly, a 251-member decision-making body, voted on Thursday with a large majority to update the handbook, which includes the Church’s aim to use language that is “more inclusive”.

“The old handbook is from 1986 and the new edition is much more in line with the Swedish Bible translation made in 2000,” Pedersen Videke told The Local. “God is beyond ‘she’ and ‘he’, God is so much more.”

“We want variation when it comes to how you express yourself, just like in the Bible.”

It all seems so sensible, so Swedish and so completely unsensational.

The most recent things I’ve learned about inclusive language are that things that I used to think were inclusive of people are not so inclusive of other people.

Addressing an assembly of people as “brothers and sisters” or (better) “sisters and brothers” has for a long time seemed to me to be inclusive and capable of drawing people in.

I’ve recently learned that it can leave some people feeling very much excluded and left out of the circle of faith.

If you identify as non-binary then you are not going to feel included by sisters and brothers language at all.

And remember that God is distinctly non-binary in scripture.

This affects how we develop liturgy in the future. Its a good thing I think to write and speak in ways that don’t leave people feeling left out.

No, not just a good thing.

I think it is a polite thing.

We shouldn’t use inclusive language just because it seems right and certainly not just because we are told to use it. We should use it because it is a matter of politeness.

Imagine if you could draw more people into church just by being a bit more polite.


Don’t just imagine it.

[Comments are allowed for this post but will be moderated. I’d be interested in any discussion about the post above but I’m not interested here in an argument against inclusive language per se or anything that is rude about women or indeed rude about anyone. Please argue about whether or not inclusive language should be a thing elsewhere if you must but not right here, right now. There’s a much more interesting conversation to be had about why we might want to be inclusive and how we might be inclusive and there’s always more to learn. I’ll be moderating accordingly].


  1. I can recall from my Catholic youth being told that the language of ‘Man’ often used in the bible and prayers and liturgy wasn’t exclusive, but if we thought of to mean ‘Man or Woman’ was entirely inclusive. I didn’t really buy into this, but as I stopped being a Christian, it didn’t seem to matter.

    Half a lifetime later, I became an Anglican, and met the 1662 BCP Service, and the language captured my attention and grudging approval. I didn’t worry about inclusive language as it was a traditional language and quite Niche service, even Evensong and Matins seemed acceptable. Although, I found things like the ‘Church of Women’ must disturbing as it felt like they were being accused of being somehow impure after birth, until the Church service and prayers were said for them. However, the service was obsolete – so what did that matter.

    Common Worship was quite inclusive and flexible and akin the the Post Vatican !! mass in the vernacular that I remembered. And I continue to find that I have come to love both forms of liturgy.

    I have a number of bible translations and find that most modern translations are relatively inclusive, albeit, some might not agree.

    I find it difficult sometimes when the words of hymns are updated in the process of modernization or for a particular agenda, that is difficult to understand. When it is for inclusion than I agree that it is appropriate.

    How we address each other or speak of each other needs to respect individual identity and integrity, and with love as part of it, surely we are doing this out of God’s love for us and our love for our fellow human beings. (is that inclusive enough) 🙂

    • Tony Fitchett says

      Regarding the BCP ‘Churching of Women’ – if you read it carefully you will find that, whatever it may have been earlier, and whatever folk superstition people endowed it with, the 1662 service is actually nothing to do with impurity. It is, as its proper title says, “The Thanksgiving of Women after Childbirth” even if it is “Commonly Called the Churching of Women”.

      Though, so far as I know, hardly ever used (a now retired clergyman told me his wife had asked for it to be used for her) it is still relevant to thank God for giving “safe deliverance” and preservation in “the great danger of childbirth”. As a GP doing obstetrics I persuaded the General Synod of the Church of the Province of NZ [as it was then] not to remove it from being a formulary when the GS was authorising its new Prayerbook in 1987 – there is a service of Thanksgiving for the Gift of a Child in the new [then] book, but nothing for a mother whose baby had not survived delivery. Diarmaid McCulloch disagrees with me, but it still has a place.
      Regarding non-binary language, what about the ‘singular they’, which is increasingly being used for those, like a god-child of mine, who don’t identify with either male or female?

      • Toby Forward says

        My mother was ‘Churched’ in 1947 and 1950. I believe it was widely pray practised at that time.

  2. Fr. John-Julian, OJN says

    Several of the familiar hymns in our American Episcopal Hymnal (1982) have been made gender neutral—but the problem with hymns is that most of them are copyrighted, and they cannot be “modernized” without permission from the copyright holder (which in many cases is now some stuffy legal firm).

    In the Newman hymn you mention (“Firmly I believe and truly…”) the “Manhood” refers only and exclusively to Jesus, and I think no one is suggesting that Jesus was not male.

    “Dear Lord and Father of mankind” can become “Dear Lord and Father of us all.”

    If you want to change the Dearmer/Bunyan hymn, try this:

    Who would true valour see,
    Let them come hither;
    We here will constant be,
    Come wind, come weather.
    There’s no discouragement
    Shall make us once relent
    Our first avowed intent
    To be a pilgrim.

    Whoso besets us round
    With dismal stories
    Do but themselves confound;
    Our strength the more is.
    No lion can us fright,
    We’ll with a giant fight,
    We will make good our right
    To be a pilgrim.

    Hobgoblin nor foul fiend
    Can daunt our spirits,
    We know we at the end
    Shall life inherit.
    Then fancies fly away,
    We’ll fear not what men say,
    We’ll labour night and day
    To be a pilgrim.

    There’s a bit of a poetic stretch to go from plural to singular in the last line, but by and large, it works. But I quail at presenting something like the above because while it does become gender neutral, it also wreaks havoc with a creditable poet’s original work—another matter to be seriously considered: do we have that right?

    Sometimes I think we can consider a venerable hymn merely an attractive historical oddity and just sing it anyway.

    But it certainly would be nice to be able to “clean up” some of those old (and precious) relics.

    And part of it all has to do with just changing habits.


    • Meg Rosenfeld says

      I like your “translation” of “He (sic) who would valiant be”! It works quite well, and by simply switching the pronoun, you’ve managed to keep the rest of the language intact, with all the fairy-tale-fabulous-monster quality which provides much of its charm. I also think that “We’ll labour night and day / To be a pilgrim” works just fine, and even if I were still teaching high school English and received this sentence on a paper to be graded, I would let it stand.

      • Elizabeth Anderson says

        Agreed! I like it very much. Or the suggestion of alternating him/her in different verses. Because even if I know we’re being metaphorical in invoking hobgoblins, I would still enjoy singing the hymn more if it included me. ‘They’ much better though as it’s more inclusive than him or her.

  3. I read this with great interest, & it is my hope that inclusive language will get easier as more people become more accustomed.
    I know I have sometimes offended gay friends by saying the wrong thing – mostly they just tell me which is fine. And I tell them that it is never my intention to offend but I’m not gay & so at times I don’t know that I’ve said anything wrong….
    As for hymns, I always understood “man” in certain usages to equate to “mankind” ie all of humanity.

    • Elizabeth Anderson says

      ‘man’ and ‘mankind’ may be generally meant to equate to all of humanity but research has shown that masculine language does tend to exclude women (i.e. women are less likely to apply for jobs if the pronouns used are masculine, etc). ‘Mankind’ implies that the masculine is normative, that it can stand for all and the feminine can’t. And I agree, I continue to hope that inclusive language will get easier with time. I think part of that ease will come as we continue to look at the language we use and see how we need to shift.

  4. Better not tell the Telegraph about “in the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer”, then. They might have the vapours.

    With respect to the hymns, do you feel that “Dear Father, Lord of humankind” would change the meaning of the line too much?

    • I feel that “Dear Father, Lord of humankind” is OK meaningwise though it only addresses the human element and not the divine. I’m not sure I like the way “of” sits with two syllables in the tune though it is hardly the only issue like that in the piece.

      I do urge you to read the rest of The Brewing of Soma, by the way…

      • Meg Rosenfeld says

        In the American hymnal its “Dear Lord and Father of mankind,” which is just as problematic but avoids the two-syllable “of.” I’m always amazed, when the matter of hymns comes up, to see how many differences there are in the words between the English and American hymnals, even when no actual translation is used.

    • And it isn’t difficult to give the Telegraph the vapours.

  5. Jinty Stewart says

    Dear God, creator of all humankind

    More power to the Swedes!

  6. Paul Hutchinson says

    Having just done my annual adjustment of the NRSV to talk of “the least of these my brothers and sisters” rather than “members of my family” (which I think horribly crass for reasons that you know on Mothering Sunday and other relevant dates), I am intrigued by the non-binary issue. Since “siblings” (and also indeed “cousins”) has a much much narrower field of meaning than “brothers and sisters”, what can be done in its place?
    But then I am someone who doesn’t inclusivise pre twentieth century hymns (where uninclusive language is less dense and frequent than it is in the twentieth century), though I probably reduce frequency of usage, on the grounds that we sometimes have to acknowledge the ways in which we have changed…

  7. Gordon Woods says

    I agree that some things are just hopeless cases – I didn’t know the Newman hymn, but I’d also prefer not to sing things that just don’t resemble current English usage:

    And each thought and deed unruly
    Do to death, as He has died.

    Who on earth would write or speak like that today unless they were trying to force a sentiment into a metre?

  8. Toby Forward says

    Firmly I believe and truly
    God is Three, and God is One;
    And I next acknowledge duly
    Incarnation of the Son.

    And I trust and hope most fully
    In that person crucified;
    And each thought and deed unruly
    Do to death, as Jesus died.

    Far from perfect, I agree, but passable enough to bring back this wonderful hymn????

  9. I have no problem with ‘manhood taken by the Son’. It happens that Jesus was born male, and those who find something sexist in referring to him as male are in fact damaging the cause of inclusive language. Then if we acknowledge Jesus as the second person of the Blessed Trinity, then ‘Son’ is perfectly appropriate. However I do think we could encourage more ways of addressing the Trinity, such as ‘Creator, Redeemer and Holy Spirit’, rather than using ‘Father, Son, Spirit’ as the only form of address.

  10. Meg Rosenfeld says

    At All Saints’ Parish in the notorious Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco, we use the female pronoun for the Holy Spirit when saying the Nicene Creed. The parish includes a large number of LGBT people as well as having (forgive me, please, if I’m being redundant here) a markedly leftist slant. Personally, I like the idea of a female Holy Spirit, as it seems like a job description which suits a woman quite well.

    • Some people do that here.

      • Meg Rosenfeld says

        Does it have any connection with the idea of “Holy Wisdom”/Saint Sophia?

        • Yes. Absolutely.

          • Meg Rosenfeld says

            Thank you, I’d been wondering about that but didn’t know whom to ask.

          • It isn’t a change I make because I don’t think I’ve got the authority to change the Creed in that way. (And add I sometimes have to remind people, the Creed is something I believe in). However I am aware of some people making the change when they say it.

          • Meg Rosenfeld says

            I understand. And, for the record, I also believe the Creed. Now I’m curious: is there, in any of the original languages of the Bible, a reference to the gender of the Holy Spirit?

  11. John Prescott says

    I am loving the breath, depth, and civility of this conversation. At risk of muddying the waters, I would like to add another element to this discussion, namely language changes to choral works sung by a choir. As a progressive Episcopalian I want to do everything possible to make the liturgy inclusive. As a musicologist by profession, I also care about the integrity of musical works from other historical periods. Composers like Byrd and Purcell took exquisite care in the setting of particular words to music. Hymn tunes and texts, on the other hand, are often interchangeable and so, in my opinion we can be much freer in altering them. A solution may be for choirs to perform works from earlier times with their original words but also make a point of including new works with much more inclusive language. This is one possibility and I would welcome any other thoughts.

  12. Meg Rosenfeld says

    John, your suggestion is eminently sensible and would enable us both to enjoy and appreciate the older musical works (whether as singers or listeners), and to rejoice in the inclusiveness of new or perhaps intelligently altered newer pieces (e.g. hymns and/or modern anthems.) Actually, I think that’s basically what we do, or strive to do at All Saints; would you agree?

  13. Ross E. Herman says

    As an historian, much of this takes me back to the Puritanism of the seventeenth century that wreaked havoc on the traditional ways of worship and the beautiful art that so many held dear, things which our many of our Continental cousins still have and cherish. One of the three legs of Anglicanism is tradition and the respect we hold for those who came before from whom we inherited our faith and worship. Changing poems such as Bunyan’s impose our own values on an ancestor, debasing his genius and his faith, saying that he was somehow not enlightened enough to anticipate how mores would change. Part of the church’s mission is to celebrate the wonders of Creation, including the artistic contributions of the faithful.

    This issue is very similar to the argument in America over the censorship of Mark Twain’s seminal novel, Huckleberry Finn, which, as an honest reflection of his time, includes quite a number of instances of the use of the ‘n-word’. As it has been taught in American schools for decades, many have proposed, and even published versions which replace this with an alternative. This is wrongheaded on many counts, but it most importantly insults readers by presuming they are not intelligent enough to incorporate the historical context of the book into their comprehension of it; this also applies to the drive to puritanically whitewash any reference to gender, including the wholesale abandonment of traditions and practices that bring comfort to many.

    As an institution which holds teaching the Gospel as one of its fundamental missions, the church is perfectly well-equipped to remind or teach people of the context of things which may possibly offend, even using it as an opportunity to teach the importance of critically thinking about our world. The approach advocated here is an abdication of the church’s responsibility to preach the truth for the sake of making everyone, including itself, feel righteous and insulated from the iniquities of mankind. (NB: I seriously doubt Neil Armstrong was thinking that the many women at Playtex who worked to make his spacesuit were somehow excluded from the ‘big leap for mankind’; or maybe I’m wrong and he was actually a horrible bigot whose words should be scrubbed from history.)

    • And yet, I’m guessing you’d not be comfortable with a church using a hymn in public worship with the n-word in it. Am I right?

      • Ross E. Herman says

        Such an argument only begs the question of whether such a thing even exists; worship exists within reality, and hypotheticals can only go so far in addressing the needs of the faithful. Besides, it is an invocation of the fallacious warning against slippery slopes.

        • Not really. We tend to speak of Spirituals these days in our worship rather than the way in which people used to refer to them.

  14. Ross E. Herman says

    Also, your decision to exclude critical commentary is incredibly hypocritical, blatantly going against the discursive nature of the Anglicanism that has enabled you as a priest to speak out in the first place. I understand the just desire to discourage hateful words, but criticism is not inherently hateful or derogatory. Please reconsider your policy.

  15. Tony Wesley says

    At Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland, OH, USA, our beloved canon has recently introduced the term “kindred” to use instead of “brothers and sisters” precisely to address our non binary members and visitors. It seems to have taken hold more and more in our weekly newsletters, group emails, etc. I still pause when I use it and that is a valuable pause as it makes me aware again of the vastness of creation.

  16. Mikhail Ramendik says

    Suggestion, good Reverend:

    Dear Lord and Father of our kind,
    Forgive our foolish ways!
    Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
    In purer lives Thy service find,
    In deeper reverence, praise.

    I see a possible problem here with “our kind” being read as Christians as opposed to humans, but not sure if it is a real danger.

  17. Ryan S. says

    Dear Kelvin,

    Such a wonderful reflection on inclusive language in our worship.

    I have long cherished “Dear Lord and Father of mankind”—you could even say it’s my favorite hymn—and in my search for something to sing as a solo one day, I found several versions of it adapted for inclusive language. I ultimately decided I preferred “Dear God who loves all humankind,” though I also thought “Dear God, compassionate and kind” would’ve had a lovely sound to it. Someday, I hope that perhaps we shall all move away from referring to God with an implicit gender.

    Do keep up the good work. You’re doing fabulously.


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