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Monday, October 12, 2009

2nd Monday Discussion: God-Language

For our second 2nd Monday discussion, we have a question from our BE 2.0 presenter. The Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney asks:

What kind of God-language do folk use in liturgy and sermons?
A) Traditional (Father, Lord, King, etc.),
B) Neutral (God, Redeemer, etc.),
C) Feminine (Mother of All, Womb of Compassion, etc.),
D) Inclusive - explicitly feminine and masculine and/or neutral (Our Mother and Our Father) or,
E) Some combination of the above
F) Other?

I hope you'll answer in the comments!

And, it's not too late to sign up for BE Three. Read more about it here. The registration deadline is just two weeks from now! You do not have to be a ring member to attend. Send us an email to request a brochure and registration form. Hope to see you there!


  1. I would have to say (e), with a leaning towards simply saying God.

  2. I'm getting ready to leave town, but I can't wait to get back and read everyone's comments! This is a significant question as I prepare for sabbatical around such a topic.
    I personally try to live D, and my congregation attempts to be B (with a smattering of A every week).
    Thanks for the question!

  3. I'm currently in an (E) church. My colleague uses the same baptismal formulation I do, the traditional "in the name of" with the ending "One God, Mother of us all." We use the traditional Congregational version of the Lord's Prayer, but we sing an inclusive Doxology. Neither my colleague nor I refers to God as gendered. I'm probably more likely to use some combination of him/her if I ever write a liturgy where the contrast feels needed to make a point. And since we have two hymnals in the pews (the Pilgrim and the New Century) you get a mixture of old school hymms and inclusive language versions from week to week.

  4. Generally speaking, I suppose I fall under 'E.' That said, my congregation is definitely 'A.' Surprisingly, the most vocal opponents of gender neutral language are the women. We are a very small, older group and most have known God the Father, et all for 80 years and more.

    Personally, I lean more towards 'D' seeing both masculine and feminine aspects of God.

  5. Two of my three churches are definitely "A" churches. The third church does have some leanings toward "B". In my former parish, I was soundly told off when I attempted to express where I am, which is "D". It's a very emotional issue for some of my members.

  6. Some years ago, in before the turn of the century, (wow sounds like a long time ago), at a Presbyterian women's Gathering, the woman who was much beloved brought out a series of book for children with inclusive language for God. she said why would raise another generation with only one gender for God? I think more needs to be written in the broader world for real inroads to be made.
    I use God and God's self...
    and I sing the inclusive doxology though others do not, but i'm an interim and have changed things carefully... happy week

  7. ok i forgot to add this
    30 years ago when we were in KY we used inclusive language. It came up in discussion at the presbyterian general assembly one lady said we're going to stay away from THAT. we asked if she like what we were doing...she said well yes. I said ok then we will...
    of course we were using inclusive
    language...images etc.

  8. The Rev. Dr. Wil GafneyOctober 12, 2009 at 10:33 AM

    Thanks all, I'll keep checking back. The responses so far make me wonder: What makes this topic so emotional for some folk? Especially some women?

  9. We are mostly B with a smattering of D...When I hear too much A coming from someone, I will sometimes ask them if they think God is a man, and if not could they please use more inclusive language.

  10. Wil, I remember sitting in a service in 1992 with my mother, who was born in 1925. This was her response to the inclusive language used: "Doesn't it bother the men to hear it?" I think she came from a place of such reverence for and/or fear of the patriarchy that she felt changes threatened safety for everyone.
    Needless to say, I disagreed.

  11. It occurs to me, what is the difference between D and E? Truly inclusive is a mixture.

    I have had this debate before with some who claim that inclusive laguage means excising all male imagery from our hymnody and our prayers--obviously that is not inclusive. Inclusivity can't be measured by one hymn or one prayer or one worship experience. Inclusivity can only be measured over a longer term, as a composite image.

    Where I find it really difficult is the English reliance on pronouns since we only have male or female personal pronouns. So I try to only use nouns to describe the Divine.

    Wil, I think the opposition often comes from a place of familiarity and comfort. But also a need to exercise control over some part of life--and often the church and faith are the only places where folks feel they have some measure of control instead of being put upon from outside. THe other theory I have is that churches are like small children and prone to being contrary just because.

  12. I most often use God, and when I'm being more descriptive, neutral or inclusive language.

    Seminary -- I would hazard a guess that other than me, the language is 100% masculine, although sometime professors (never students) use God in place of a pronoun.

    CPE - absolute insistence on geneder neutral language.

    Field ed -- the bulletin uses male language and I got called out (gently) for inserting God in place of He as I was reading from a printed bulletin text. The criticism was that I was distracting from the text and inserting my own priority into it.

    No one ever seems much concerned by how distracting I and perhaos others find all the male gendered language.

    It did come up in a sermon the next week, when the senior pastor commented on the difficulty of adjusting to changed language in hymns and prayers learned as a child.

    (I have found making such changes a happy relief rather than a difficulty. But I'm sure his experience is the majority one.)

    Home church -- gender neutral or inclusive/alternating he and she langauge.

  13. I am compelled by Wil's comment at the BE 2: gender neutral language, God, allows folks to hear God in the gender they value. So, God for some (most, all?) will be male even if male is not used.

    If we want to enlarge and deepen our understanding of God and the understanding our congregations have of God we need to be more expansive in the language: God, mother, father, sister, brother, womb, love poured out...etc

    personally I find little value in "Lord" or "King" language...but I still use it in worship on occasion.

  14. mompriest,
    your last comment raises a question for me that touches on language (but also hymn choices and other aspects of worship). Who is it for? Where does the pastoral need to meet people where they are at override the prophetic need to pull them ot another place? How do we find the balance between what we find meaningful and comfortable versus what person a or person b or person c finds meaningful and comfortable?

    I find that the hard balance to find

  15. I use God, but also other names that may describe the indefinable in a certain service.

    Ground of Being; Mother and Father God; God of love; Creator God; Loving God; Creator of all; Eternal Love.

    In my poetry I do the same.

    Everyone has a feeling that may be different about God and God is so vast and full, not one human has the only word that could possibly speak the fullness of our Loving Creator.

    I did a service a long time ago and one man, a friend, who rarely came, asked me why I used the word God all the time? He could not find a connection in this one word.

    We need to speak fairly regularly about the different ways God is for us, and using different names helps us do that. And tell them we cannot ever fully describe the fullness of this God, we may limit others access who need to see the Creator in words they can connect to.

  16. In further comment: God sees neither male, or female; colour; size; etc...God sees the inner heart, our inside being.

    Balancing gender can be dicey, but when God sees the inner-side before anything else, that needs to be the emphasis. Looks, don't speak of my whole being, and gender defines some of whom I am. We are more than the sum of our parts.

    We create God as human, which I cannot see as truth.

    2000 plus years later we are not as they were in Biblical times.

    Our congregation is older too and people sometimes need to be uncomfortable.

    However, not alone. If there is a concern have people talk about it
    in an open and a safe environment. It isn't about favouring one, or the other, it is about who God is to us personally.

    So, perhaps using different ways is a good thing, and hopefully, will create respect for everyone's thinking.

    I doubt God is worried about this. I imagine God is about meeting us where we are and us being without judgement and feeling left out, or in.

    God is about love, respect and becoming whole, not 'right'.

    No one dismissed, all accepted....right now, where we are.

    Living that is the Jesus way.

  17. Excellent question and I’m so very interested in the various responses as I think I have a limited vision of the Church which needs expanding. The church I attend is definitely an ‘A’, our poor Head of Staff (a man) once ventured into ‘C’ and got a very angry upbraiding after worship for trying to preach “that hermaphrodite God;” poor fellow. For the most part, I’m ok with where they are; I sing my own feminist version of the Doxology while everyone else sings the traditional words; only once has anyone mentioned that they noticed and that couple has since moved to Oregon. When I teach or preach or pray in the congregation, I try to subtlety open the paradigms through the language I chose… I even mentioned the “F” Word (feminism) from the pulpit and openly identify a feminist hermeneutic when it is an intentional part of my process. Not being on staff has its privileges!

    In my work as a hospital chaplain, I’m definitely in the ‘F’ camp—whatever the patient brings—and if they’re not sure, we shop around until we find what fits. Often that leads us back to ‘A’ but we’ve explored the ground from childhood to the present which cultivated their uncertainty in the first place—a very valuable trip, or we decide that none of the usual metaphors work and we negotiate the space in between. As a lot of my patients have Chemical Dependency issues, we get to Higher Power quite often (the only real hope an addict has is to be found in the community of other addicts in recovery) and the more existentialist leanings, Source of All That Is and the Searching for Meaning in Existence are popular resting places as well.

    Interestingly, I find that the language I use is quite powerful for many folks, opening or closing them to our work together in the first few minutes. I have literally spent weeks in conversation renegotiating my use of the word “God” with many who have had negative experiences with the church or church people. Now I’ve simply fed into whatever was preexisting with many in the first place, but getting beyond the language to that stuff can be a perilous journey, the names of God are visceral metaphors in the human community.

    Thank you for your thoughfulness.

  18. Bear with me...this really will be on topic! Back when my kids were very young and in daycare, we chose to see their caregivers as an addition and expansion to our sons' world--more loving adults!--rather than as competition or substitutes for us as their parents. We understood all our lives to be enriched in this way.

    I see my use of language in much the same way. I have not done away with all of my male language for God; sometimes it still resonates for me, and I know it does for others. But I am always looking for ways to expand my vision, and thus my language (and sometimes it goes the other way: language > broader vision), so that what I am getting is "more" rather than simply another way of being exclusive. From this perspective, I'd describe our worship as traditional but moving bit by bit toward inclusive.

    I always need to remind myself that language in worship is far more than an intellectual choice; when making changes, we are pushing on deeply ingrained preferences, perhaps even brain physiology. If I recall correctly, my OT professor--who did research on brain processing and prophecy--told us about a study in which people's brains were studied while saying the Lord's Prayer. If they were using traditional language familiar to them, an entirely different part of the brain was lighting up than if they used a contemporary version, even when they expressed no preference for the former.

  19. I use whatever is printed thereby trying to maintain tradition with folks, but I use God, Lord and other neutral language in my extemporaneous speech, thereby forming a new tradition for the young folks.

    By the way, at my seminary the focus was on inclusive language, and I appreciate it not being forced upon me but rather the professors gave me and my fellow students ample opportunity to discuss and debate this topic in class and assignments so I could develop my own informed opinion.

  20. I find myself using gender-neutral language for the most part. Sometimes, I will slip a feminine pronoun in. Rarely will I use a masculine pronoun without pairing it with a feminine.

    It's really interesting to note the usage of language at the university where I'm studying. The monks (biggest Benedictine house in the world) almost always use masculine pronouns in liturgy. The nuns (again, biggest Benedictine house in the world) use gender-neutral words in liturgy. A lot have used feminine words outside of liturgy. My young, lay theology professor uses masculine. My colleagues in campus ministry use gender-neutral or feminine. It's interesting!

    My home congregation uses inclusive language, including the doxology. I do a "Our Creator" rather than "Our Father." I once let a feminine pronoun slip from the pulpit (pulpit supply) and nobody made anything of it.

  21. I am in an (A) church but when I talk or preach I try to use (B) as just a means of moving the cemented minds a little in one direction.

    I had a woman lambaste me for calling the Holy Spirit "she" and it was difficult for me to talk to her after that.

    Apparently, the female gender since Eve must evermore be associated with "sin" and not "God."




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