AnglicanTheology & Spirituality

The Feminist Case Against “Inclusive Language” Liturgy: Part II

I was once involved in preparing the liturgy for an ordination service in an Episcopal diocese. During the planning process, the rector mentioned to me that he had been planning to use the “inclusive language” liturgies approved for trial use by the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, and asked for my thoughts. I gently voiced my opposition which generally followed the argument I make in this article

He and I went back and forth for quite some time. Our conversation was charitable and good natured, but ended with him telling me that he was going to go ahead with the liturgy as originally proposed. I didn’t object—it is his church and as the rector he has the right to choose the liturgy he prefers—but I was concerned that his argument wasn’t based in his liturgical theology, ecclesial authority, or even personal preference. “I want to be gender inclusive,” he said, “because the ordinands are women.” The irony that he—a man—was making a decision about what liturgy best supports women, over the objections of a woman (me) was apparently lost on him.

I learned feminist theory and theology at a Christian college, and while I have struggled with the label “feminist,” and especially with the hermeneutic that that label seems to require, I am and will continue to be resolutely anti-misogynist and an advocate for the witness and work of women in Christian ministry. This means, of course, recognizing and responding to the times in the past and today, when the Church fails or ostracizes its female members solely on the basis of their sex. 

And it is this commitment, essentially, that is the root of my concern with arguments like the one above. Having navigated both secular employment and Christian ministry as a young woman, I know that one of the ways that sexism and misogyny keep their stranglehold on our institutions is by operating quietly, stealthily and—too often—under the guise of ”inclusivity” and the “greater good”. Recent efforts to make the liturgy gender inclusive, like those approved by General Convention, no matter how well-meaning, make  assumptions and liturgical decisions that are, I believe, still rooted in sexism. These decisions limit, rather than promote, women’s full participation in the life of the Church. 

For example, many of the proposed revisions rely on changing our inherited names for God; “Lord” is replaced with “God” or “Savior” or “Christ,” and “King” is replaced with “God.” As I’ve written before, there are myriad theological problems with such revisions. But they also hint at a surprising amount of literal-mindedness among mainline traditions that spend a lot of time mocking Biblical literalism. They assume a static view of language, and of women’s grasp and use of it. Women, after all, are capable of reading poetry and fiction. We know that language is limited, and thus that we speak by God only by analogy. To say that terms like “King” or “Lord” inherently exclude women is to suggest that women are too closed minded (or too simple minded) to understand how figurative language works. 

When, as a child, I read “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19) it never occurred to me that Jesus wasn’t also talking about me. When I address God as “Maker of all things, judge of all men…” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 331) I do not assume that I am somehow off the hook. Women are capable of reading scripture more deeply than the base, literal definition of the word in a particular context. And, if there are women who don’t know the context behind the translation of anthropos or who don’t see that the reason we address God as “Father” is not because he has divine male gametes in a heavenly male body, then we need to invite them more deeply into conversation about interpretation and theology, not with revision. Our liturgy is drawn from Scripture, and Scripture is a treasure trove of metaphors for both God and humankind, and all believers—male and female—should be equipped by their pastors to plumb the depths of Biblical language.

I have, of course, had conversations with women who do not like male language for God in the liturgy. Often the argument is based on painful or even abusive relationships with men in their lives. And this leads me to my second, and more serious, pastoral concern about gender inclusive liturgical revision. Changing the liturgy to make it more female friendly is a quick fix, when what is demanded is deep repentance. Praying “thy Kin-dom come” cannot undo the abuse by a father or brother. It can’t heal a broken marriage. Resistance to male language for God has nothing to do with God, and everything to do with a fallen human nature. Lordship is not oppressive if Jesus Christ is our Lord.

This does not mean that the abuse and trauma that women have suffered at the hands of men in and out of the church do not deserve a faithful and sensitive response. Women who struggle to address God as “Father” because of their relationships with her earthly fathers or who have had bad interpretations of 1 Corinthians 14:34 (“Let your women keep silence…they are commanded to be under obedience…”) thrown in their faces do not need lectures about analogy and Trinitarian theology, they need compassion, understanding, and welcome. But, at the same time, we should not pretend that an “inclusive language” response gets to the root of the problem. If we want to combat sexism and misogyny, we need the power of Christ lived out in His Church in all her glory, not pandering language games that put a Band-Aid on deep wounds. 

But the problem with the move to “inclusive” liturgy is not just that it masks the root of women’s suffering, but that it assumes that—like children—women need a special version of the liturgy to meet their experiences and needs. Changing liturgies to make them more “inclusive” suggests that there is something exclusive about the Catholic and Apostolic faith once delivered to the saints. This is a premise I wholeheartedly reject. This faith doesn’t need to be revised, it needs to be lived into more fully. I do not want the language of my tradition changed because I have been excluded and belittled by men. On the contrary, I love the tradition more deeply because in it I have met the One who offers freedom from such abuse. I know the One whose love makes a particular cultural understanding of my sex, or sex at all, meaningless in the light of eternity. Women like me refuse to be told that we cannot have a place in this liturgical tradition because it is not “inclusive” enough—that it needs to be changed before it is ready for us. It is baptism, not liturgical revision, that makes women full participants in the life and work of the Church. Those of us who are called to the priesthood are called to occupy the same theological and liturgical realities that our male forebearers occupied. Whether lay or ordained, we don’t need some second-class Christianity that has been feminized for us; we need to finally be fully included in the same great tradition, so that we can joyfully pray, serve, and worship alongside our brothers in Christ.

Barbara White

Barbara White

Barbara is an Episcopal priest serving as Associate Rector for Worship and Formation at St. Francis in the Fields Episcopal Church in Louisville, Kentucky. Prior to entering ministry, Barbara worked in public policy and corporate communications. Her interests include Christian metaphysics, the King James Bible, eschatology, and third-wave coffee. Barbara and her husband Joshua live in Louisville with two impious felines.

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