Wrestling with Words: Inclusive Language and the Difficulties of Prayer

In his tenth Conference, John Cassian tells of how Bishop Theophilus of Alexandria sent a letter to the monks living in the desert of Asia Minor, instructing them to renounce the anthropomorphite heresy—the view that God possesses a human shape. The monks don’t respond well to this, since the bishop

seemed to impugn the teaching of holy Scripture by the denial that Almighty God was formed in the fashion of a human figure, though Scripture teaches with perfect clearness that Adam was created in His image (ch. 2).

Cassian goes on to tell the story of one monk in particular:

Among those then who were caught by this mistaken notion was one named Sarapion, a man of long-standing strictness of life, and one who was altogether perfect in actual discipline, whose ignorance with regard to the view of the doctrine first mentioned was so far a stumbling block to all who held the true faith, as he himself outstripped almost all the monks both in the merits of his life and in the length of time (he had been there)” (ch. 3).

A clever deacon named Photinus arrives from the city and explains to the monks, using both reason and scripture, that the “image of God” is mean in a non-corporeal way and all are convinced by his explanation, even the old monk Serapion.

[A]nd when we arose to give thanks, and were all together offering up our prayers to the Lord, the old man was so bewildered in mind during his prayer because he felt that the Anthropomorphic image of the Godhead which he used to set before himself in prayer, was banished from his heart, that suddenly he burst into a flood of bitter tears and continual sobs, and cast himself down on the ground and exclaimed with strong groanings: “Alas! wretched man that I am! they have taken away my God from me, and I have now none to lay hold of; and whom to worship and address I know not” (ch. 3).

Last week at its General Convention the Episcopal Church approved the development of new liturgical materials that would employ “expansive language” for God—more or less what a lot of people have called “inclusive language,” with the perhaps the added twist that it would not be simply gender neutral language but would employ a variety of gendered images for God. It also approved for trial use an inclusivized version of the current “Rite II” liturgy (i.e. the liturgy in contemporary, as opposed to Tudor, language) of the 1979 Prayer Book.

There is a lot that can be said about all this, and I have some specific doubts about some of the suggested changes in Rite II (e.g. the substitution of “maker” for “Father” in phrases like “the God and maker of all”—the first person of the Trinity is the Father of all, but not the maker, since according to Nicaea, the Son is “begotten, not made”). And apparently some at the General Convention who reject a gender binary raised questions about whether adding female language to male language did not end up excluding those who identify as neither. But as I was praying the Office this morning I found myself thinking about all this in terms of poor Serapion and the ineradicable difficulty of prayer.

Advocates of inclusive/expansive language are clearly correct in claiming that God has no gender, and that all people are in the image of God and therefore we can use a variety of gendered images of God. And they are somewhat correct in claiming that we should always seek more theologically adequate language in our prayer, while recognizing that none of our language expresses adequately the reality of God toward which it gropes. But I worry that we can fool ourselves into thinking that if we tinker enough with our language we will somehow get it right, that we will have found the correct language for prayer. I think Serapion shows us that the nature of human language is such that in trying to say “God” we never have gain without some loss, and that ever greater abstraction is not always the solution to our linguistic difficulties. Indeed, nothing really alleviates the difficulty of prayer. We are always wrestling like Jacob with the angel, seeking a blessing from words that can seem like an adversary.

This occurred to me this morning as I prayed psalms that, on the face of it, seemed to me like nothing more than ancient dynastic propaganda, pumping up human rulers by putting God on their side. The fact that God was referred to as “he” seemed small potatoes compared to the image of God as the transcendent legitimator of earthly power. While I recognize the real difficulty that some people have relating to a masculine God, I found myself equally if not more at sea in trying to relate to this petty tribal deity. And this is, at least in scale, an even greater problem than the gender of God, because we cannot solve it with a few verbal tweaks. We’d have to throw out at least half the psalter, not to mention great swaths of the rest of the Old Testament, in order to fix it. And I don’t think this would fix anything, but simply give us a deracinated imitation of Christian prayer.

Cassian and others suggest another strategy for dealing with this: to take such passages “spiritually,” seeing the king as Christ and the enemies so ruthlessly defeated as the power of sin. And I often do this, imagining that the enemies surrounding Jerusalem that I am asking God to smite are actually the daily temptations around my soul. But in doing it I always face a couple of difficulties. First, to extract the spiritual blessing I must wrestle with the literal words; they do not go away, and I remain always aware that, whatever God intended by them, they have been used by human beings throughout history in quite literal ways to justify various sorts of horrors. Second, in wrestling with the words there is always the danger that I will kill them, that I will so strip them of their literal sense that they will become mere gaseous abstractions and I will be left, like Serapion, bereft of my God.

There is no solution in this life to the difficulty of prayer. We should always seek more adequate language about God, but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that by doing so we can free ourselves from having to wrestle with the words in all their gendered, historical, concrete specificity.


  1. “Advocates of inclusive/expansive language are clearly correct in claiming that God has no gender, and that all people are in the image of God and therefore we can use a variety of gendered images of God.”

    I am not sure it follows that since God has no gender and all people are made in the image of God, we therefore can use a variety of gendered images, at least in liturgical prayer. Jesus refers to God as Father, not mother. And Jesus is himself male and the Holy Spirit is referenced in either masculine or neutered language. As Abraham was provided the ram on top of the mountain, so God has provided for us form of address.

    I think the greater issue beyond pronouns and gender is acknowledging that God has chosen the language and images that we use, although at times to modern peoples and certain subgroups, this language is very inconvenient and difficult. Life would be a lot easier if Matthews version of the Lord’s Prayer referred to Father while Luke’s referred to Mother. Or if that the tribal warrior deity language of the Old Testament was never used as this does legitimately seem to impede evangelization.

    A similar issue is involved is in the translation of the pro multis (as it reflects the underlying Greek). Based on other areas of scripture, we know the sacrificial death embraces all humankind so it would be “better” if it read differently but it doesn’t.

    1. You certainly have a point about the givenness of the language of Scripture, but this has not traditionally restricted the language of Christian prayer completely. For example, we have this from St. Anselm:

      And you, Jesus, are you not also a mother?
      Are you not the mother who, like a hen,
      gathers her chickens under her wings?
      Truly, Lord, you are a mother;
      for both they who are in labour
      and they who are brought forth
      are accepted by you.
      You have died more than they, that they may labour to bear.
      It is by your death that they have been born,
      for if you had not been in labour,
      you could not have borne death;
      and if you had not died, you would not have brought forth.
      For, longing to bear sons into life,
      you tasted of death,
      and by dying you begot them.
      You did this in your own self,
      your servants, by your commands and help.
      You as the author, they as the ministers.
      So you, Lord God, are the great mother.

    2. My name is Emily Anne Oliver. I hold an MA in Communication (Speech not Media). The difficulty with language in prayer is something I dealt with extensively during the writing of my thesis. Indeed, the way the English language is structured, it’s gender issues do not only complicate in prayer. In the end, in my heart, all matters were enormously simplified when I truly accepted that all language is and can only ever be symbolic. It was when I fully realized that all the “Hes” and “Hims” and “Fathers” etc. of gender specific language can mean anything I want them to mean that the language became inconsequential to me and the overarching message is all that matters. In this awakening I found lasting freedom.

  2. St Anselm illustrates that in the area of personal prayer, people will do what moves them. And that’s appropriate.

    In the area of liturgy, there has been some very human pushback, mostly of the male-in-power variety that strikes many believers as decidedly ungodly, like the work on the ICEL Psalter: first the insistence on a “few” male references, and then the deep-sixing of it by Rome. Symbolic, but telling. And likely a confirmation that some liturgical language is intended to keep the lid on the pot, as it were.

    Case in point: my first exposure to the Mundelein Psalter and its hymn translations. The consistent use of “man” for the Latin homo struck me as not only inaccurate, but needlessly provocative of feminists. After two to three decades of singing hymnody, I found it jarring. I can only imagine what many women would have thought of it. And for what? A resource that may have pried open a space for celebrating the Hours in a parish is consigned to being an ideological backwater.

    The issue lays bare a new chink for Christian unity. And sadly, advocates on both sides have resolved to go ahead and chisel away at Christian tradition, even including the ones who think they’re defending it.

    1. Let’s not forget that the English word “man” has long had a gender neutral definition alongside the specifically male one, especially in Scriptural translations. Is it confusing sometimes? Yes, but such is the complexity of any language. The onus always falls on the reader to have sufficient critical thinking abilities to accurately interpret language in its context, and unfortunately no amount of language engineering can fix that.

      I don’t necessarily see ICEL’s preservation of the traditional gender-neutral “man” as taking a side in the culture war, but trying to stay above it by not ceding the word to increasingly polarized cultural forces. They would’ve received just as much flack, but from the traditionalist flank, if their products used aggressive gender-neutral language a la NRSV. If one wants to find fault with ICEL or Vox Clara (love ’em or hate ’em) over their use of “inclusive language” or lack thereof, fine, but it doesn’t mean their decisions were based in any intention to stick it to the feminists.

      1. “Let’s not forget that the English word “man” has long had a gender neutral definition . . . ”

        And it’s not archaic, yet. Still used in NPR broadcasts, TV, common speech, et cet. Not as universal as it once was, but far from dead.

    2. Largely unconvincing, my friends. The use of scare-quotes for the term inclusive language may be telling. Those two words, linked, are an acceptable and accepted term, even if disagreement is behind the usage.

      Being archaic, or possibly lurching toward is not the point, really. It’s about artistry. Especially for a work like the Mundelein Psalter which aspires to something more than planting a flag on an ideological hill. A use of “man” or “men” without gender context may be correct among English literature advocates. But they will also bring out the red marker for failing to apply useful synonyms when a “man” hauls out the word multiple times in the same hymn, prayer, or liturgy.

      1. I think there is resistance to inclusive language partly because of artistry. New translations are done or old Hymn texts “updated” with little regard for the work being poetic – and there often seems to be a correlation between those who champion inclusive language and those who want “plain” language or want to remove all archaic words and phrases. The result is often bland, clunky, unpoetic language that sounds like it came from a large corporation’s human resources office. I’ve certainly seen no attempt at creating “something more than planting a flag on an ideological hill” from the inclusive language crowd, but would count myself as not being against all forms of inclusive language.

      2. Oh, I would agree. But poor literary art isn’t exclusive to those who want to update what are sometimes mediocre texts to begin with.

        It’s usually easy to tell the difference as I’ve seen, between committee members and secretaries changing words, and getting a poet or author to make adjustments.

        Archaic expressions, well you get no big fuss from me. That’s not an issue of sexism as such. I don’t think there’s any magical benefit from 100 to 500-year old language. The next Dickens or Shakespeare may be just around the corner.

  3. Far from dead but definitely on life support. For the well educated in English literature, and among those who prefer traditional expressions to more contemporary ones in the liturgy, the use of “man” or “men” poses no great obstacle. But I submit that for the vast majority of people the word man refers to a male member of the human species not all the people on the planet. Why it is considered even controversial to substitute “men” with men and women or human beings is beyond me. Don’t we all know how the collective expression came about? As far as liturgy goes it is surely a well known fact that the 1998 translation, affirmed by all the Bishops’ conferences, was rejected in large measure because of its employment of more inclusive language. The Vatican thought it was a ploy by feminists and their sympathizers to undermine long accepted vocabulary.

  4. I find Ps. Dionysius’ /Divine Names/ very helpful with this line of inquiry. Reading it reminds me that when thinking about God, we benefit from pairing the Via Positiva and the Via Negativa. Thus, we may ask, “How is God like or unlike a Father?” And, of course, we may ask, “How is God like or unlike a Mother?” While no analogy is perfect, exploring these two methods of inquiry help us discern which analogies get us closer to the mark. No one, for example, would argue that God is more like, say, a rock or a shield or a fortress than either a Father or a Mother, but it is still worth considering how God is like those things.

  5. View from the Pew
    Regarding: “Wrestling with Words: Inclusive Language and the Difficulties of Prayer”
    – This is a good article.
    – The shift from Greek to Latin in the liturgical life of the church with Rome is emblematic of how important linguistic and other language issues are for catechesis and evangelization in these days.
    – As humankind is created by God as male, or female, or another combination distinct from either of those, and as we each are made, by God to be God’s image, it would follow then, that as we pray the how we pray we engage with God as God who created all that of which we know and which we are.
    – That women know that they are each God’s own image, is so divine that it is foolhardy in any days to persist in creating a paradigm or linguistic construct that allows men to experience what women know as only what men know.
    – This does not mean that liturgical language should be such that women pray as women, and men pray as men, and never the ‘twain shall meet. Nor does the contrary suffice: well those men, 10 thousand years ago, really meant humankind when indeed male dominated society, and later the male oriented institutional Church, generally acted as if male was the only gender that mattered. All of this despite what men said the words meant.
    – As language changes, so does the human expression of prayer, whether personal, or liturgical. The question of to change in and of itself has no merit if we mean only to be correct. The question is meritorious if it helps to catechize and evangelize.
    – Always, it is not God who changes. The human changes.

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