How Many Differences Must a Liturgy Name?

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.




  1. Great post. I must admit that I find some of the hymns we sing (mainly from the 80s and 90s) that seek to be inclusive of women to be cringe-inducing in the way in which they underscore some gender stereotypes: men seem to always be strong, women to be tender.

    I also think it is good to probe the all-inclusive “All.” Though I have made my peace with “All are Welcome,” I originally thought (and, to be honest, on occasion still think), “Really??? ALL??? Klansmen and Neo-Nazis??? Tridentine Mass enthusiasts??? Really?” One hymn that I still cannot bring myself to seem is Shirley Erena Murray’s undoubtedly well-intentioned hymn “A Place at the Table.” In particular (apart from the nonsense about God delighting when we create justice and joy) I cannot bring myself to sing the verse that goes:

    For just and unjust, a place at the table,
    abuser, abused, with need to forgive,
    in anger, in hurt, a mindset of mercy,
    for just and unjust, a new way to live.

    I cannot imagine how Catholics living after 2002 could bring themselves to sing these words (I realize the author is not Catholic and wrote the song in 1996). This is inclusion without justice, which ends up putting the onus on the victim to forgive. In our context, singing these words is as bad as singing “Dixie” or “The Horst Wessel Song” at Mass.

    1. I suppose the prototypical Christian way of naming differences is the distinction between the mighty and the lowly found in the Magnificat, and enshrined in the social-teaching principle of the preferential option for the poor. “Lowly” and “meek” can cover a good deal more territory than a measure of income or wealth.

    2. Thanks for your response, Fritz. Interesting that you should bring up Shirley Erena Murrays’ “A Place at the Table.” One stanza of the original hymn, omitted in most hymnals, was this:

      For gay and for straight, a place at the table,
      a covenant shared, a welcoming place,
      a rainbow of race and gender and color,
      for gay and for straight, the chalice of grace . . .

      As to the abuser/abused binary Murray names in her hymn: I think her words were dangerous and toxic long before 2002. Marie Fortune’s well-known work on sexual abuse and domestic violence in religious communities began to take off in the early 1980s already.

      One last note: I must admit to being troubled by your list of “Really??? ALL??? Klansmen and Neo-Nazis??? Tridentine Mass enthusiasts??? Really?” If this is supposed to be sarcastic, this reader at least would have been helped by that being made clearer. I write this as someone who grew up in post-Nazi Germany, on the heaps of 60 million people dead after the war, and as someone who also is able to appreciate the Tridentine Mass. I see nothing that connects the two.

      1. I did intend a certain irony; sorry if I offended. I do find that some people treat trivial differences (such as a preference for one style/form of liturgy over another) as if they were matters of great import (such as racism and genocide). I would gladly welcome Tridentine Mass enthusiasts (though I’m not sure singing “All are Welcome” would make them feel very welcome), whereas I would not be opposed to excommunicating Klansmen and Neo-Nazis. In hindsight, I should have used /sarcasm/ tags. Again, sorry if I offended.

      2. I wasn’t previously familiar with the text “A Place at the Table” but it is interesting that it is by Shirley Erena Murray, because this conversation had brought to mind another of her texts, “Fresh as the Morning”. Unlike the stanzas from “A Place at the Table” given previously in this conversation, “Fresh as the Morning” doesn’t name specific identities, but rather uses more general and possibly more allusive language:

        God in our struggles, God in our hunger,
        suffering with us, taking our part,
        still you empower us, mothering Spirit,
        feeding, sustaining from your own heart

        Those without status, those who are nothing,
        you have made royal, gifted with rights
        chosen as partners, midwives of justice,
        birthing new systems, lighting new lights.

    3. While I share your concern about calling people to the table of the Lord without the prospect of conversion, I respectfully disagree about your displeasure in “placing the onus on the victim to forgive.”

      At the heart of the Gospel is the divine “commandment” to forgive and forgiveness does not depend on the actions of the offender. No one is exempt from forgiving as a matter of exception. We are called to will the good of everyone including those who engage in despicable behaviors, of course this includes a desire for reformation. So forgiveness is a willingness to overcome any hindrance to giving a person the charity (and desire for conversion) that each person is justly entitled to as being created in the image of God.

      It is a hard teaching and of course there is mercy for those who fall short of the commandment, but I think about the Amish community and how they immediately responded with forgiveness in the West Nickel Mine Shooting a decade ago. I wish that such formation in the habit forgiveness was central to our parishes. I realize that the Amish have had difficulties with discernment in this area in regards to domestic abuse, in not sufficiently testing the reformation of perpetrators prior to full integration, but I still think we have more to learn their idea of “radical” forgiveness.

      1. I hope it’s not a cop-out to invoke the distinction Aquinas makes between the obligation we have to forgive those who ask our forgiveness, which is a precept binding upon all Christians, and forgiving even those who do not ask to be forgiven, which is a counsel of perfection. I don’t think this distinction is simply a mitigation of the Gospel, but is rather one way of balancing the command to forgive withe the equally clear Gospel call to repentance. I would be willing to tell a Christian who was a victim of abuse that she had a obligation to work toward forgiving a repentant abuser, but I’m not sure I’d be similarly willing to say that to someone whose abuser was unrepentant. Perhaps it would be good to offer such forgiveness; perhaps it would manifest a higher righteousness. But I don’t think it can be an obligation.

      2. It is never a cop-out to invoke Aquinas and obligation is a very strong term. Still, since Love is at the heart of the Gospel, I can’t help but think that an unforgiving human heart (even towards the unrepentant) could reside in heaven. But perhaps a willingness to forgive an abuser, even if conditioned on repentance, is a seed that can grow and transform with the help of grace. Perhaps then it is not an obligation to forgive an unrepentant sinner in this life because some wounds can only be healed in the life to come.

  2. Fritz’s post may explain something. After the horrible Church shootings in Charleston last year, surviving family members and parishioners offered forgiveness to the shooter. I was floored, and do think that it ‘manifested a higher righteousness’.

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