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].

The speech Bishop Rachel Treweek might have made

This is the speech that I would have liked the Rt Rev Rachel Treweek to have made this week on entering the House of Lords.

My Lords – I am overwhelmed by your generosity in welcoming me to this house. Your warm and unprecedented applause as I was introduced to this house contrasted so strongly to the experience of being in the General Synod when the key votes were taken which allowed women, at last, to become bishops in the Church of England. In that place and at that time both women and men who rejoiced in that change were silenced and told that applause was inappropriate. Your own enthusiastic welcome to me here in this place stands in stark contrast to that experience and I have no doubt that it will give many pause for thought.

I ask you all to understand that the things that I am about to say about membership of this place are said out of the deepest respect for the ways in which your Lordships work and the diligence with which you scrutinise legislation. However, it is plain to me that having taken my seat here, I must now depart.

There is only one other country in the world which reserves places in its legislature for clerics and that country is Iran. Keeping seats exclusively for so-called “senior” clerics can have no place in a modern democracy. The good things that have been accomplished by my brother bishops who have sat here hitherto are commendable but fall a long way from convincing me that any of us who are appointed bishops in the Church of God should sit as though by divine right in the parliament of this land.

I remain convinced however that Christians should be involved in public life. For that reason, should the opportunity ever arise for the people of Gloucester to choose their own representative to sit in this place in a reformed Senate of the Nations of the United Kingdom, I would strongly wish to serve them and would consider offering myself for election to the cross-benches of a much changed House.

There is an air of constitutional change that is blowing through this land from the north to the south. My Lords, those of us who sit here by virtue of privilege or patronage cannot be unaware that change is coming. Let us all commit ourselves to the reforms of this House that will lead to the stability of this realm.

My Lords – whilst expressing no little delight in being introduced to this place, it also falls to me to remind your Lordships that the recent legislation that was enacted that brought me here was based on the principle of positive discrimination for those women who are consecrated as bishops. Notwithstanding my joy at being here today, my life has taught me to oppose discrimination wherever it is found regardless of whether it is for regressive or progressive causes. The wisdom that I have received not only from feminist thinkers but also from the wisest friends tells me that people should only ever be promoted in life through merit and never because of their gender. My joy in being here is tempered by my embarrassment at having been “leapfrogged” into place by legislation that means that another person who might have expected to serve here cannot do so merely because of my gender. I make no apology for being here today but I ask your Lordships to ensure that no piece of legislation ever favours anyone by virtue of their sex.

It remains the case that women who become bishops do not have the same authority in the Church of England that men who become bishops have. Your Lordships will  not be surprised to learn that it is my view that the recent consecrations of women as bishops are a welcome step – but only a step towards the full equality of men and women. Our work towards that goal has taken a giant leap forward but remains unfinished.

In choosing not to sit in this chamber and not to participate in its learned debates, it is my hope that I will provoke a period of reflection within the Church of England about our relationship with the state. My decision not to participate in this venerable institution will one day be mirrored by a decision by the Church to divest itself of the privileges of power, not least in the arena of education. I shall work to ensure that all schools offer the finest education that could possibly be on offer to our young people and that they do so liberated from the control of an established church or indeed any other faith group.

In departing this place, I remain loyal  to the Church in which I work. My colleague the Archbishop of Canterbury has the unenviable task of balancing what it right with the pragmatic realities of complex political situations. I have no doubt that he believes in his heart that men and women should be treated equally everywhere. Notwithstanding this, he has given his good name to a situation where bishops who happen to be women are, even now, not bishops who have parity with their brothers. The Archbishop’s head has ruled his heart in coming up with one compromise after another to appease those who, in the church, are unable to show me the generosity that your Lordships have shown over my recent consecration. I remain loyal to the Archbishop’s heart if not his head – a heart which burns for bringing the Good News to this land. He must know, as all people of goodwill know, that we are hampered in our task of bringing the liberating news of Jesus Christ to England and beyond, whilst the church remains famous more for homophobia and sexism than the love of God.

On the matter of homophobia, I know that your Lordships will be pleased to hear that I met with all my sister bishops recently and, as ever, we discussed issues of equality within the church at great length. I am delighted to be able to report that we speak as one in condemning homophobia and in longing for a time when we can celebrate the arrival of gay and lesbian bishops amongst our number on the bishops’ benches of the General Synod. As women, we know that justice demands that we work tirelessly for all who are excluded or discriminated against. That will begin with working for and with those who are in same-sex relationships to ensure that discrimination against them becomes unthinkable. But that is merely where we will begin. We will not end there. Our ambition is justice for all.

It is the work of a particularly evil genius in the church to come up with a policy – “gracious restraint” which makes it harder for progressive people to work towards eliminating sexism and homophobia from the common life of the church and consequently from the common life of this land. We know from scripture that the powers and principalities of darkness must ultimately fall. Such will be the case with the so-called “Five Guiding Principles” of the Church of England. No Christian can ever elevate the desire to be nice to one another over the gospel imperative of doing what it is right.

This House has done a great work for justice this day in delaying and opposing the government’s attack on the poor by the reduction and withdrawal of tax credits. The temptation to remain here to join you in similar struggles is great but for now at least, I must fight with you but in other places.

My Lords, this, my maiden speech will also be my valediction. And as I depart I wish upon you all and upon your work the benediction of almighty God that is due to all those who work for the common good. I chose to work in a different way and in different places but, and here I have no doubt in my mind, for the same common cause for which you all labour – the well-being of the people of this land.