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].

We worship a non-binary God. Don’t we?

male, femals, non-binary form

Just over a week ago there was something called the Scottish Church Census. Churches all over Scotland were asked to count how many people were present and to account for the gender diversity, ethnic diversity, age profile etc of the congregation.

Those organising the census helpfully provided a brief form which people could use to tick the various categories in order to make an accurate return. Though this was helpful, I quickly realised that we couldn’t use the form that was supplied as using it was not going to be inclusive of everyone in the congregation. The first question on the form asked people to indicate whether they were male or female and I was aware that for at least one person in the congregation, that was not going to be a helpful question.

I was aware that there was someone in the congregation who does not identify themselves in a way that would allow them to tick either box with any conviction, seeing gender as something rather more complex for themselves.

Once you start to notice this, you realise that the world is full of forms that require one to identify oneself as either male or female, very many of them forms for which gendered information is completely and utterly irrelevant.

Anyway, we ended up producing our own local version of the Scottish Church Census form with a third box. The options were now male, female and non-binary.

When all the forms were gathered up and counted, it turned out that three people had ticked the non-binary box, one of them circling the words and writing “thank you” next to them.

Thus I found out simply by asking the question, that there were three times as many people in the congregation that day than I would have estimated who would describe themselves as not male nor female but in some way non-binary.

We’re going to hear quite a lot more about this in the coming years I think. In Scotland there’s going to be a consultation about allowing people to legally be regarded as being of a non-binary gender, the law neither regarding them as male or female. It is a change which should go ahead I think though one suspects that a great number of people have never thought it through.

The three people describing themselves as non-binary in St Mary’s that Sunday were towards the younger end of the (very mixed) age profile that we have. This suggests to me that this way of identifying oneself is likely to become more common as time goes on and may be very helpful.

Gender does push people’s buttons a lot and we don’t all agree. There’s a pernicious law being pursued in some parts of the USA trying to ensure that people use the “correct” toilets according to the gender they were assigned at birth. This is problematic for those who have transitioned from one gender to another, those who were born intersex and those for whom gender is simply more complex and who would regard themselves as non-binary.

(We have both gendered and non-gendered toilet facilities at St Mary’s Cathedral. At home I only have a non-gendered toilet, like most people).

But here’s the thing. Christians worship a non-binary God, don’t we?

Haven’t we come (rejoicing) through  the days of feminists calling upon us to recognise that there is a female aspect to the divine which makes all talk of God as purely male to be inadequate?

Haven’t we come to a point of recognising that God is beyond gender?

When the government comes to the point of asking us all what we think of introducing a non-binary gender category, won’t the churches joyfully embrace it and support it because this reflects the God we know and in whose image and likeness we are made?

Might the non-binary gender category that is increasingly going to become an option for people be a helpful way in which we might reflect on the nature of God?

In congregations like my own, I suspect that will be the case very quickly but maybe for the whole church this shift in the way we regard gender may help us in the way we look at God.

I wrote last week about the fact that anyone who insists on God being a male authority figure or even daddy is readily challenged by simply reading the bible where God is seen more by attributes that go way beyond gender. When we address God these days in my own congregation we are more likely (far more likely) to address God as “Eternal God” or “Loving God” than we are to talk of “Father God”. This is partly because not everyone has a good model of fatherhood in their own experience but far more it is because this simply isn’t the God whom the bible has introduced us to. Jesus used fatherhood as a metaphor for God but that has to be seen in the context of a book which speaks of God as a flower – the Rose of Sharon, a carnivorous wild animal – the Lion of Judah or weapon – sharper than a two edged sword, along with dozens of other complex rich and sometimes perplexing images.

We worship a God who is beyond gender even though our tradition has sometimes embraced images of God which are highly gendered – sometimes I think, to distinguish the faith from other highly female gendered images of divinity with which Christianity was competing. (I’ve seen an effigy of Artemis of Ephesus and can honestly say I wouldn’t like to meet her during a dark night of the soul).

Christian people are not in the business of dealing with a Mr God.

And Christian people need to wise up fairly quickly to the questions about gender which are coming our way.

Dear God who is beyond gender,
give us a greater dose
of your holy spirit of common sense
in dealing with gender
than we have seemed to the world to posses
over your gift of sexuality.