CONSTRUCTIVE CONVERSATION: Harmon, Nichols, and Ramshaw on Gendered God Language in Worship (Dec. 21)

INTRODUCTION: Pray Tell’s “Constructive Conversations” is a response to the spirit of divisiveness sometimes found in church and society today. We seek to model honest and respectful dialogue about controversial topics. The goal is not to come to consensus, but to clarify what the different convictions are and identify the underlying concerns of those with whom our opinions differ. In this conversation we have Katharine HarmonBridget Nichols, and Gail Ramshaw addressing gendered God language in worship – especially whether it is appropriate to use male pronouns for the divinity in prayers, hymns, sermons, and other texts of the liturgy.

[The earlier three exchanges are reprinted below this one, each with its date of publication.]

DECEMBER 21, 2021

Bridget Nichols:

Our conversation about gendered language for God, with its focus on names and pronouns, is entering its last round. I find myself trying to hold two things in tension: on the one hand, a great wish to see a richer range of imagery applied to the first person of the Trinity than is encountered in many of the authorised forms of prayer I meet regularly (unofficial collections are a different matter and there are some splendid examples to be found); on the other hand, a growing interest in language that expresses relationship. Metaphors that deepen and widen our sense of who God is and what God is – a rock, a shield, a fortress, a sun, a protecting wing, water in a parched land – have a vital role in prayer and song.

Yet no one would seriously propose addressing God as ‘Rock’ or ‘Shield’. The closest we come is when we use invocations like ‘God our Rock’. Relationships demand names or titles that function as names and this is surely one reason why ‘Father’ and ‘Lord’ have not been displaced, even when their endorsement of a masculine identity has been called into question. One answer to this is to seek other names and learn to pray with them. That isn’t a novel suggestion, but looking beyond the maternal repertoire might introduce a new challenge, and avoid an entirely different set of exclusions.

Pronouns will be the final test. Recently I’ve had an opportunity to spend some time reading through the inclusive language Psalter of the Anglican Church of Canada and the St Helena Psalter (New York: Church Publishing, 2018). Both avoid pronouns for God altogether by a variety of strategies: repeating noun titles instead of using ‘he’, ‘him’ and ‘his’; exploiting relative clauses; adopting phrases like ‘the divine name’ instead of ‘his name’; and switching from third to second person singular. There are gains and losses. This puts God beyond questions of gender, particularly in the St Helena Psalter, which doesn’t use ‘Lord’ at all. At the same time, the reworked texts can jar, especially in the case of very familiar Psalms. Psalm 23 moves from third to second person. That is of course one perspective and others will experience these revisions in different ways. For now, though, I hope there will not be wholesale abandonment of texts using ‘he’ and ‘him’.

Gail Ramshaw:

Dear Katie and Bridget,

Katie, perhaps we are neglecting to provide worshipers with the interpretative key for Christian poetic speech. Americans seem able to interpret the symbols woven into movies: are we exploring with even preschoolers the metaphors in the Psalms?  Bridget, yes, relationship matters. But might the language of our address to God be too familiar, the naming too commonplace? It may be a rather limited and comfortable God whom we are addressing.

On a Sunday about 30 years ago, both the second and the third stanzas of one of the hymns were filled with “he” for God. The pastor asked that we sing the second stanza as printed, but that throughout the third stanza, we change each he to a she. I appreciated that the verbs attached to either pronoun were random, with no hint of essentialism: God was not he if a strong protector or she if a gracious nurturer.

Over the decades, whether speaking with Elizabeth Johnson about her tour de force She Who Is or recently noting persons who alter their preferred pronouns, I ask: in contemporary American English, what do “he” and “she” mean – beyond the designation of a male or a female in a species that reproduces sexually. When employing these pronouns for God, Christians must be referring, not to physical sexuality, but rather to gender stereotypes, which themselves are now being challenged in our society. When Christians address especially the Holy Spirit as she, what have they been taught about this profound alteration of their religious language? Are they copying this one example of Hebrew grammatical gender, or are they imagining an airy breeze floating in the sky, or they are granting bisexuality to the deity? Perhaps God-she replaces God-he because females are thought to be welcoming and males unsavory, and I reject this essentialism. Chinese, Estonian, Finnish, and now Swedish and French – how many other languages? – have gender-neutral single personal pronouns. American English is behind the times, its speech out of sync with its social practices.

So I and at least some other Christians are omitting gendered pronouns in reference to God. Mercifully, prayer language refers to God as “you.”

Katharine Harmon:

My career as a music minister started in college.  I played a lot of Masses for my Catholic Newman Center, situated across the street from my mainline Protestant university.  The experience was a blessing, both for the practice I gained in playing pastoral music, but also for the friendships I formed with other music ministers in this tiny Catholic center.

It has been many years since I last played with this beloved group. But I continue to reflect on my friends, and the pastoral realities I encountered with them. They shaped my language for liturgical prayer.

Since I played so frequently with my Newman Center musicians, I had the opportunity to pray with them many times. Eventually, I began to notice how one of them, who stood closest to my seat on the piano bench, said something different during the Creed. Rather than “and became man,” I heard the words “and became one of us.” One day, after Mass, I decided to ask why. And suddenly, my first-year undergraduate self became aware that language could be exclusive.

With this pearl in hand, I began to be more aware of how language was used—in school, in prayer, and in my own mouth. I, too, began replacing, quietly, “and became man,” with “and became one of us,” every time I said the Creed.

I continued this practice…softly…in the midst of lessening attention to inclusive language in most of the Catholic circles and parishes I found myself. But my softness gradually reduced to silence.  I ask myself, why? Language is performative—and liturgical language is public. I have never been interested in performing my private language in liturgical settings. I felt reasonably comfortable breathing  “and became one of us” sotto voce behind an organ bench. But the last time I was at Mass, I was not at the bench, but in the pew. And I was not by myself but with my little daughter.

Throughout the Mass, I’d been sitting close to her, explaining (in as few and as interesting words as possible) the readings, prayers, and motions. We came to the Creed. Suddenly, I didn’t feel like mouthing “and became one of us” close by her so she could hear.  I said, “and became man.”

I couldn’t bring myself to use a general pronoun, or to say something different from the rest of the gathered assembly.  I want my daughter to hear the language of the liturgy—at least as it is now—and not my public performance of private remembrances and interpretation.

Certainly, language reflects (and forms) our understanding and identities. I understand that it has been reasonable for some of our world languages to introduce a non-gendered pronoun, and to apply it in a variety of situations. Many Christian denominations also feel comfortable with a flexible approach to language. But the Roman liturgy doesn’t work that way (now) yet. Perhaps I want my daughter to make her own choices about what language she feels best expresses the reality of the Living God. Or, perhaps, by the time she is in college, she, too, will ask the question about what language we shall borrow. And, perhaps, by the time she might have a daughter of her own with a listening ear, the whole congregation shall be saying, “and became one of us.”

*  *  *

NOVEMBER 10, 2021

Bridget Nichols:
Dear Gail and Katie, Can I launch our conversation by focusing on male pronouns for God and whether it is appropriate to use them? Some contextualising may be helpful: I write as a lifelong Anglican, formed by the Book of Common Prayer (1662) and more recently revised prayer books in South Africa, England and Ireland. In these later books, God, with very few and rather subtle exceptions, continues to be addressed by predominantly male titles and referred to by male pronouns. Alongside this, I have longstanding research interest in aspects of liturgical language, including its creative development in the hands of contemporary writers. While the view is bifocal, in that it confronts the arguments from all sides, I don’t feel ready to eliminate all masculine language for God.

I put those cards on the table fully aware of the issues of discrimination, injustice, false hierarchies, and grievous abuse of power that such language has supported. But I’m not convinced that erasing male titles and male pronouns altogether is a route of redemption. Part of this comes from a conviction that the language of the liturgy can’t do all the work of reparation on its own (the assumption that it can has coloured the discussions in the church bodies I know best). The whole environment of worship – song, choice of biblical translations for public reading, preaching, prayers of the people – has to provide the texture of justice, equality, relationship and recognition. But even that on its own doesn’t make up for institutional shortcomings.

To put things more positively, most people meet Christian doctrine and the way it has developed in the liturgy. How do the Churches maintain the continuity of baptism and blessing in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit without foreclosing what God might still reveal? How can cohabiting images test and form the imagination of worshippers? In the light of those questions, the ‘expansive language’ proposal seems compelling.

Gail Ramshaw:
Dear Bridget and Katie, I agree with your second paragraph, Bridget. For about five thousand years, most societies have viewed males as the superior sex and have structured their cultures and rendered their religions accordingly. Towards our contemporary goal of establishing gender equality, I urge us to identify whatever perpetuates patriarchy and reform it.

Despite my forty years of advocating a degendered God, I quite agree that erasing male titles and pronouns for God will not do the work of reparation on its own. But I maintain that it can achieve some good. For those of us Christians who hope to conduct our lives as if all females, males, nonbinary and transgendered people are equal, it is illogical to continue the patriarchal pattern of granting the head god male pronouns. I take inspiration from Isaiah 43:19 and Revelation 21:5: God is making all things new.

My context supports me. A lay member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I worship weekly and pray daily using our 2006 primary worship resource Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Concerning pronouns: the ELW features the ELLC inclusive translations of the prayers we have in common; several hundred hymns, whether new or amended, without male pronouns; the 150 psalms without male pronouns. The ELW liturgical texts and prayers, being addressed to God, employ the nongendered “you.” Assemblies can choose the inclusive language rendering of the lectionary readings in Readings for the Assembly. Thus depending on the preacher’s commitment to speak of God inclusively, members of my denomination can worship week after week without ever encountering male pronouns for God. “It can’t be done,” say some Christians. Well, yes, it can.

But there are many other issues. . . .

Katharine Harmon:
I come to the table here with such a divided heart. I am a Roman Catholic, who was educated by ELCA Lutherans (Valparaiso University), and who has had the great joy of serving Anglican congregations as organist. My heart is not divided about my love for the liturgy as celebrated by our different denominations—my heart is deeply divided on what language we may borrow to speak to, with, and about the Living God.

As a Roman Catholic, I’ve watched my own Church both step toward, and away from, the use of inclusive language. The most recent English translation of the Roman Missal, challenging as its presented English syntax may be, stripped the imposed stamp of “Father” from the collects and post-communion prayers. We now say “God,” which perhaps leaves more room for the imagination attested to in Sacred Scripture. At the same time, in my continued practice of pastoral ministry, I have heard no Catholic minister, preacher, presider, choir member—or congregation member, for that matter—use language-beyond-gender for God in about ten years.

Full disclosure: I have been out of graduate school for the past ten years.

As a graduate student, my heart was full of righteous hope that God might be spoken of in a multiplicity of ways. I learned that we have abundant Scriptural and traditional evidence for this, retrieved and reconstructed by the inspiring scholarship of persons like Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Elizabeth Johnson, and our conversation partner here, Gail Ramshaw. I worked with fellow women graduate students in theology to raise awareness regarding the use of inclusive language—which resulted in a Departmental agreement regarding the use of inclusive language (at least for humans).

When I graduated, though, the dreams of theory and theology were met with stark resistance, even anger, in the classroom, and with gentle apathy in ministry settings. I have…gradually…given up on saying a word about inclusive language. Never do I bother in parish settings. Only with students whom I know well, will I venture to expose them to feminist concerns about equity in our use of symbolic media—like language.

I have great respect for our hopes, and for the work of other denominations aside from my own. But, I see no road to follow…through hearts of anger and apathy…in a divided Roman Catholic world.

NOVEMBER 17, 2021

Bridget Nichols:
How do we proceed from the positions we’ve laid out: that liturgy of high quality does not require masculine language for God; that even discussing gendered language is risky in some settings; and that in others its damaging assumptions are acknowledged but the response stops short of discarding it altogether? I want to interrogate my own alignment with the third position in a very practical way, by looking at some of the regular encounters with ‘he’, ‘him’ and ‘his’ in reference to God that Anglican worship in its Church of England and Church of Ireland forms provides. Brevity dictates that these are very limited observations.

Starting with the daily offices, the Benedictus and Magnificat continue to use masculine pronouns, despite the existence of ELLC alternatives that avoid this by addressing God in the second person. The emphasis on compassion, liberation, justice and concern for society’s disregarded ones in these texts is robust enough to resist an oppressive and domineering image of God. Perhaps the pronouns even heighten the relational sense of God’s personal salvific interest in human history. Eucharistic texts are largely free of gendered pronouns for the first person of the Trinity, though they return up repeatedly in relation to Jesus. But that is not always true for readings from Scripture or for psalms, hymns and even contemporary worship songs. I notice determined efforts to avoid gendered reference to God when a biblical translation uses the name instead of the pronoun (God, Godself). Hymnals too have edited some of the stalwarts of the canon. This requires skill to achieve convincing rhymes and occasional theological adjustments: banality is always lurking around the corner. Some favourites, like ‘All people that on earth do dwell’ and ‘All my hope on God is founded’ evade such comprehensive revision. Why keep on singing them when there is a vast repertoire that does not present God in gendered form? Alongside a theological integrity, they do, I think, have a place in an ecclesial genealogy, problematic as that genealogy is. Used critically – even only implicitly – alongside texts that model a firm intention to place God beyond gender, they can offer something to the life of the church.

Gail Ramshaw:
Dear Bridget and Katie,

Bridget, I agree that the current downpour of titles, images and adjectives for God is a welcome relief for dry liturgical soil. Katie, I am sorry for your classroom disappointments: you might assign Psalm 18, with its sixteen different depictions of God, and verses 2 and 29 providing opposing images. Thinking about the worldwide turn to the right or of a preference for old texts, I wonder whether countless people dread the current intensity of societal criticism and pace of reforms, and so snatches of old-time religion become solid ground to stand on. Perhaps for some worshipers, although not for you, Bridget, God “he” is a sign that the head of state ought to be a Strong Man. For me, that the church can be blown by God’s Spirit into a new future is my stay. God, both Rock and Pillar of Cloud.

That a teacher can be fired for refusing to use “they” for a nonbinary student indicates that pronouns have become identity markers that are individually chosen and fiercely defended. I am sorry that American English did not adopt “tey-ter-tem” as a third person singular personal pronoun. (We seem to have invented “Ms.” just fine.) Calling God a presumably singular “they,” however, would be heard as tri-theistic, and thus impossible usage for Christians.

When altering masculine pronouns in hymns, oftentimes the third person (God = he) can be amended to second person (God = you), which I judge an improvement for several reasons. That in English-language hymnody, God was often called King simply to rhyme with “sing” illustrates that each language has its own quirks. Lutherans are not required to sing any particular hymns, and of the three different translations of “A Mighty Fortress” in our hymnal, one is masterfully crafted in inclusive speech. I admit to minimal patience with the complaint that old people cannot be expected to change the words to texts known by heart – so, let them sing their memorized version loud and clear! – since I am always inquiring how we are to raise our children to remain Christian, some of whom are nonbinary and among whom the use of “he” is suspect. Indeed, what in our time does “he” mean?

Next time I want to consider “she.”

Katharine Harmon:
Dear friends,

Whose language is it, anyway?  I think some of our questions have been focused on how we humans interpret words, and how humans respond to the waxing and waning billows of languages that slowly change.  It was only some short 200 years ago that “thou” became uncouth to say, was it not?

In considering worship practice, the question to ask regarding inclusive language is not “how shall we be inclusive for God and humanity,” but “who has ownership over determining the language we use.”  For Romans, questions and wonders about using the latest vogue in politically correct language are for naught—“they” as a singular, inclusive pronoun is not used in the language of the Church.  “Godself” is not used as a pronoun for God.

Until the Roman Catholic Church as an entity chooses different language, there will be no other language for Roman Catholics to use.

That said, Roman Catholic Christians are invited, even bound, to be guided by their conscious.  So perhaps one’s music minister seeks to favor hymns which use wider language for God.  Perhaps one’s crafter of petitions carefully employs inclusive language for humans.  Or perhaps even the homilest elects to use a variety of images to describe God.  These are choices that can be made.  But, for the body of the Roman Catholic faithful, it will be up to random chance whether they are systematically exposed to wider, or inclusive, uses of worship…regardless of how great Thou art.


Bridget Nichols:
Katie has raised the matter of ownership of language and the way the language of the liturgy is regulated. While the idea of liturgical ‘uniformity’ is still dear to Anglicans as a token of another treasured concept – Anglican identity – it is a long time since uniformity has meant limitation to one prayer book. Across the Anglican Communion (now just over 140 Provinces worldwide) there is a family of prayer books. Recently, revision processes have taken account of gendered language for God and built proper consideration of its use into their work. New Zealand and Brazil are examples, the latter an interesting reminder that Portuguese as a Romance language also presents problems of gendered usage. In the Episcopal Church and the Scottish Episcopal Church, the conversation is ongoing as new material is drafted and a succinct and helpful short statement from the SEC warns against language that limits the worshipper’s apprehension of the being of God. It’s probably true to say that different approaches to expansive language emerge in these contexts. I still think the ELCA’s principles for liturgical language constitute the best current document for any church body creating texts for public worship.

We’ve all commented on public intercessions/ prayers of the faithful as an important opportunity for drawing on a wider and more evocative range of images for God, and for modelling ways of avoiding gendered language. Yet in working with seminarians who take turns to lead acts of worship, and in attending to intercessions in other gatherings or online, I’ve realised that often precisely the opposite is happening. God is addressed almost exclusively as ‘Father’ and ‘Lord’, not only at the opening of a prayer, but repeatedly, the titles acting as punctuation marks. ‘Lord’ covers the second person of the Trinity too and reference can become blurred. Familiar standard texts using these titles might be introduced and embellished with descriptions of the actions of God as ‘Father’ and ‘Lord’. This is emphasis and entrenchment of a completely unregulated kind. It sets a low standard in liturgical style, yet it is too formulaic to count as genuinely spontaneous prayer. How can this significant part of congregational formation be constructively confronted?

Gail Ramshaw:
Dear Bridget and Katie,  The task of widening and deepening our vocabulary to and about God is massive, given three thousand years of patriarchal religion: Jupiter was the Father of Fathers, before Christians commandeered the title. The religious imagination must be planted, cultivated, nourished. I have been much helped by the hymns of Symeon the New Theologian and the prayers of Catherine of Siena. Gratefully we are given a Sunday lectionary with three biblical readings that differ in their description of God, and sometimes even conflict; the poetry of a psalm; freedom to craft the intercessions; and perhaps a sermon or homily that relies on biblical imagery through which to encounter God.

Thomas Aquinas wrote that Qui est is a better name for God than Father, which is merely metaphor. But over the last century, we have rediscovered the wonders of religious metaphor. Metaphor = a word that is not, yet is. In my church, at least three hymns each Sunday provide space for metaphoric masterpieces such as the eighth-century “Be Thou My Vision,” Philipp Nicolai’s 1599 Queen and King of Chorales, the twentieth-century “You, Lord, are both Lamb and Shepherd,” the cultural surprise of “The Rice of Life,” the Lenten mediation in “Tree of Life and Awesome Mystery” – “we the river, you the sea.” The metaphors beloved by mystics have malleable edges, frightening to some, liberating for others, and although I appreciate the discipline of doctrine, I thrive in the forestland of metaphor. I say: we need both. But the metaphors “Father” and “he” can lose their transformative mercy if they are presented as the only true facts which can save the world. How, if accompanying “Father” on Sunday, God is Bread and Wine, Castle, Everlasting Arms, Gardener, Haven, Healer, Light, Lover, Midwife, Morning Star, Refuge, Rock, Shield, Ship of Salvation, Sun of Justice, Teacher, Wisdom? How if “he” for God, which is unconsciously literalized, is wholly avoided? Indeed, what does “he” mean, given that as we are trying to talk to and about God, we resist applying to the Wholly Other One our limited cultural stereotypes about males?

Perhaps next time, she.

Katharine Harmon:  Both Bridget and Gail have touched a key for this discussion.  We contemporary speakers of English do not seem to be mindful of our metaphors or of our language, because we are not lovers of language and are ignorant of poetry.  In this world, we are consumers of clear-cut divisions, camps, and true facts.  Saying God has many names is simply confusing…or wishy washy…or flip-flopping….  It is easy to say “God is Father.”  And so to that we stick.

That is to say, we are in a cultural moment in which many of us (perhaps Roman Catholics especially) are short on our ability to “read” liturgical symbols.  Many of us might wish to be told by an authority why we should have a tabernacle behind an altar (rather than understand the theological logic as to why Blessed Sacrament Chapels were once encouraged and in vogue).   If we notice anything about our symbolic environment, many of us might wish to see things as they used to be, in the imagined eye or ear of our pasts: when a certain number of candles and a crucifix sat upon the altar; or when God was called Father, and that was that.

The aesthetic challenges we meet in liturgy extend to our choice and use of words, and certainly extend to our music—an art filled with words.

Metaphors are challenging, complex, and invite reflection and thought.  We have short attention spans and enjoy less collective attention on religion with the waxing and waning of each generation.  Providing more than a bare bones description of God is challenging.  And, when Christians are concerned about sharing a few shreds of sound doctrine in a clear way, they have no patience for metaphors which may be slippery, regardless of their provenance.

In short, a lack of attention to the wideness and flexibility of language walks hand in hand with liturgical minimalism and, one could argue, an ignorance of Scripture and tradition.

Nonetheless, we are in a moment of building firm walls and storing up foundations.  Perhaps, in coming decades, we’ll be able to move beyond the milk of easy language, and enjoy the more robust fare which is offered to us by our forefathers—and mothers—in the faith.

Featured Image: Three Women (1965) by Maxim Bugzester