When I first started teaching theology, acknowledging one’s social location was a fashionable way to begin. In my case, the race-class-gender narrative went something like this (I lived in the Southern United States at that point): I am white, and originally from Europe. I am a woman. I was raised in an upper middle-class context and educated in European universities.
None of these markers of difference have really changed, but — fast-forwarding to today – how to name them has morphed, and other ways of self-identifying have emerged. For example, the “woman” I am might be described as cisgender (rather than transgender). I am also, in terms of linguistic identity, a “translingual” human being, as I discovered recently. Just as important to my social location is the fact that, having moved north, I now reside in the traditional homelands of the Quinnipiac peoples. And, taking to heart the recent book Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith and Practice, I should note that I live in the Quinnipiac River watershed of Southern Connecticut. In short, my markers of difference are not only multiple but also somewhat unstable.
What does all this have to do with Christian worship? Lest you think these markers are mostly irrelevant, Galatians 3:27f makes clear that issues of naming differences are at least as old as the New Testament. The apostle Paul, in his letter, reminds a divided community of its baptismal identity, over and against specific markers of difference: “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Paul names differences here according to some basic binaries of his time and culture: Jew vs. Greek, slave vs. free, man and woman. He leaves other important binaries invisible, however, such as young and old, and rich and poor. Furthermore, he occludes in his list markers of difference that soften the binaries he names, for example eunuchs and persons with intersex conditions. All this goes to say: naming differences is never an easy task, because the differences we choose to name are not innocent; they always both highlight and occlude.
Struggles with naming differences continue in Christian worship today. Think, for example, of the upsurge of hymns since the 1970s that explicitly name women together with men as protagonists of salvation history. The core image projected in these hymns is one of gender complementarity, a gender complementarity that mostly follows a traditional gender binary. A couple of texts by John Bell offer striking examples, such as his “Women and Men as God Intended,” or his “Sisters and Brothers, with one Voice.” These hymns grew out of and lent a voice to the struggle for women’s rights both outside and inside the church. As women gained greater visibility, many liturgical texts, including hymn texts, were amended to reflect the importance of women’s voices in the life of the church. By now, however, some of these women-specific gains in liturgical language have been overtaken by newer gender-specific concerns. The gender complementarity championed in some hymn texts and the addition of “sisters” to the traditional “brothers” have been supplanted, at least in some cases, by the search for a liturgical language that does not reproduce the traditional gender binary. The main reason is that this traditional binary excludes those who live with non-binary genders. Ruth Duck’s “Sacred the Body” is an example of a hymn texts that envisions lives beyond the traditional gender binary. The author calls for respect for “persons,” “bodies,” and “difference,” without ever locking such respect into a binary model of sexual difference. The hymn tellingly lacks any specific naming of “male and female” bodies. There is a lesson in this, I think: a liturgy may not need to name every specific marker of difference that surfaces in a particular cultural moment in time. To put this differently, I will not be holding my breath for the first-ever hymn text that spells out cisgender, transgender, or intersex lives. At the same time, however, foregoing limited and limiting traditional binaries is important as we struggle with how best to name and honor diverse ways of being in the world.
I cannot help but wonder whether the complexity of adequately naming differences is one of the reasons for the popularity of Marty Haugen’s “All Are Welcome”? The inclusivity and elasticity of the “All” allows some communities to envision a rainbow flag while singing, and others to imagine an interracial future for their community of faith. A transgender person might feel affirmed in their journey in his hymn, as might a pregnant woman carrying a severely disabled child in her womb; and an undocumented immigrant might be allowed to feel safe for a moment.
A slight unease with a simple “All,” however, must remain. The struggle over differences is not easily settled, in liturgy as in the rest of life. And how to honor and welcome each others’ markers of difference is a profound challenge, of which the right naming of our differences in worship is only one small part.