Monday, December 30, 2013

Why Words Matter 2013

Rev. Molly was invited to be a part of an ecumenical workshop called Why Words Matter: Expansive Language & Liturgical Leadership (on Friday, October 4). She was unable to participate, and I was among the people she suggested as alternates -- "a lay person in our congregation for whom these issues are very close to her heart (and she is very articulate about gender and God! She's been keeping me on a growing edge about God, gender and trans issues for some time now)." ♥

I wasn't entirely sure what to expect, but I was pleased to get to attend and participate.

I knew the audience would be somewhat wide-ranging, so I was expecting some conservative folks (I don't think there were any) but was surprised to encounter people who would likely have described themselves as good liberals who said things like that The New Century Hymnal "ruined" the Christmas hymns. Yeah ... my starting place for gender/language conversations is apparently different from other people's.

Near the end, one of the organizers commented that from her dropping in on various conversations throughout the afternoon, it was clear that there was a lot of energy for these conversations to continue. I would definitely be interested in attending additional stuff like this. I will have my expectations calibrated more accurately -- and also may be more assertive about bringing up my hobby-horses: non-binary gender, non-male Jesus, and cultivating a practice of volunteering names and pronouns. [Sidebar: Nametags with pronouns!]


Apparently the impetus for this event was that someone was cleaning out her basement and sent the Mass Council of Churches [MCC] a (mimeographed! typeset!) booklet ("Faith and Mission: An Ecumenical Women’s Liturgy Resource Book was originally prepared by the Task Force on Women of the Massachusetts Council of Churches in 1978," says their blogpost) and MCC posted a photo to their facebook and got a surprising number of comments -- including from many people who were on the task force that helped create it. This suggested to them that while we may often feel like we're sort of "over" the inclusive language conversation, that we've "solved" that problem, in fact there's still a lot of energy around that issue.

Rev. Laura Everett told a story of being a teenager in a church that did a carrying the cross Good Friday walk, and she wanted to be Jesus, and of course she wasn't allowed to be. (On reflection, I wish we had talked more about imaging Jesus as female, since even in progressive contexts we're usually insistent that of course Jesus was male, and imaging Jesus -- or even the risen Christ -- as other than male seems wholly off the table, in a way that imaging Jesus as for example any race/ethnicity isn't. Laura talked about how she was excluded/marginalized, but I don't think she or any of us really talked about embodying Jesus as female -- other than Stephen Burns reading a Christa poem by Nicola Slee.)

Stephen Burns (professor at EDS) talked some about the history that brought us to this point. He said that while people talk about the 1970s, he thinks the heyday of inclusive language was the 1990s:

  • The UCC put out The New Century Hymnal (which edited the words to many traditional hymns as well as commissioning many new hymns) in 1995.
  • The Episcopal church put out Enriching Our Worship (a liturgical supplement) in 1997.
  • The Roman Catholic Church put out the ICEL [International Commission on English in the Liturgy] Psalter in 1995 -- which book was quickly quashed, 'cause oppressive Roman Catholic Church. (He said it's "like gold dust" -- that you can get it on eBay.)
Stephen Burns talked about the danger that expansive language can be co-opted, can be used to disguise a reality that is not as inclusive/liberative as the language might suggest, and so advised us to approach with a degree of suspicion and not naivete.

He talked about gesture -- which is one of his big things -- about how it's not enough for us for example to use non-hierarchical language if the way we structure all our liturgy and worship is still very hierarchical.

(One audience member I read as female talked about being mentored by Madeleine L'Engle who told her, "When you get ordained -- and you will -- don't become a little man.")

He also talked about context. He said he went to every feminist gathering in the north of England [he's originally from England] and removed all the Lord Father He etc. language from his vocabulary about God ... and then he became a father, and he needed to reclaim that language.

One attendee works primarily with a non-literate congregation, so she can't just hand out sheets of paper with alternate words. Also, as a well-educated financially comfortable white woman ... with a congregation of poor/homeless African-American men who use very traditional language ... she feels really uncomfortable telling them that their language for God is "wrong." Stephen Burns suggested that maybe that's not the fight to have in that congregation, that maybe in that congregation she needs to find ways to be on their side fighting poverty, racism, etc.

Another attendee brought up multi-lingual issues -- that in different languages, words can have very different connotations. She said that "Lord" in French has a "sweetness" to it, and even the tone the presider uses is different than when people say "Lord" in English liturgy.

People talked about The New Century Hymnal a lot. One woman said they "ruined" the Christmas hymns. Another woman said she has pastored 6 congregations in the past 16 years and there has been conflict about The New Century Hymnal in every one of them.

Wendy Miller Olapade talked about coming to the church through AA, having not grown up in the church, and getting out of seminary and into her first Call right around the time The New Century Hymnal came out and people were having lots of trouble with the new hymnal and she just didn't understand, because she thought the hymns were beautiful and these were the only versions she knew -- she reminded us that not everyone's coming from the same place, not everyone has the same history.

Inez Torres Davis talked about some of what she has learned in dealing with privilege. She said that she's learned that you need to acknowledge the pain that privilege experiences when it's .. she used some less strong word than "threatened," but I can't remember how she phrased it.
She said that privilege is fragile -- which she said neutrally and without any of the tone I would have inflected into that, but I totally loved it :)
She said that being uncomfortable is not the same as being unsafe.
She said that the purpose of the divine is healing, liberative.
She said that the Church, the Body of Christ, is suffering.

There was a little bit of conversation about referring to "expansive" vs. "inclusive" language.


In the first breakout session, our prompt questions were on a handout that asks about your experiences of gendered language in liturgy, etc. Initially no one in my group said anything, so I opened with the fact that my experience is heavily influenced by the fact that my best friend is genderqueer -- so every time we say e.g. "male and female and a little bit of each" or "brothers and sisters," I wince because in that language my best friend is erased and told "you're not welcome here, you don't have a place here," even though of course I know that yes ze is welcome here.

One woman expressed concern that we go far that we're falling all over ourselves to be overly PC, and I chose not to respond. I wanted to respond to people's pushback, but I worried I would come off as defensive, and it felt more important to me to allow people to say their piece than for me to respond to every little piece of everything everyone said.

We talked some about language that would include my best friend -- like saying "brothers and sisters and siblings."

People talked about the concern of using the wrong language (in trying to be inclusive).

One of the women said that when you get to know people as people, then you'll know the right language -- because it will be language that you've learned being in relationship with that person, rather than just some abstract concept. She said that it's taking a risk, and you must be willing to fail -- that when people know you and know your intentions, they'll forgive you, and that you'll continue to have opportunities to try. (I think she was over-generalizing from her personal experience a bit, as I know people who would have felt excluded/offended in the examples she cited, and I don't think Good Intentions grant total absolution, but I did really appreciate her comments and felt it was more helpful for the gathered body for hers to be the last word on this than for me to pick it apart.)


We had 2 themed breakout sessions -- you could choose from 4 topics (and there was a booklet with some reading material for each, which I wished we'd gotten in advance; it's up on their blog now):

  • The Lord's Prayer/Our Father
  • Trinitarian Idioms
  • The Great Prayer of Thanksgiving/Eucharistic Prayer
  • Texts and Contexts, Words and Actions

The first of the themed breakout sessions I went to was the Trinitarian Idioms one. We started with talking about what the Trinity is (because I was like, "I'm really bad at being a Trinitarian, and I know that any time I attempt to explain the Trinity to someone I'm using modalism or some other heresy, so I really have no idea how to go about using more expansive language without somehow being heretical" -- not that I necessarily personally have a problem with being heretical, but...) and the facilitator talked about inter-relationship and dance (she didn't say "perichoresis," but I thought it) and how one thing that Trinity indicates about God is that God is dynamic, not static. I said that was really interesting, because I feel like a lot of the pushback around changing Trinitarian language is that the inherited language is the language we have to use, that we can't change it, but there's a variety of Scriptural language for the Godhead -- including the Second Person of the Trinity: Jesus using "mother hen" language. One of the women at my table said that she taught her kids the "God is like a mother hen" song so they would have at least one alternative image of God in their minds as they grew up.


The second one I went to was the Eucharistic Prayer one, but I don't have much in the way of notes/commentary from that.

One participant offered the language:
hold bread: this is the broken body of Christ
look around: this is the Body of Christ made whole

Stephen Burns offered: "receive what you are: the Body of Christ; be what you see, become what you are"


The person before me on the closing panel was a 58-year-old man who's been an ELCA pastor for like 30 years.

He talked about how using "traditional" language can be really powerful -- that he spent time in ministry with refugees from Communist Czechoslovakia, and they used very old-fashioned Slovak to pray the Lord's Prayer, and to pray in that language on the other side of the ocean was very powerful.

He talked about the importance of engaging in conversations, that you can't just impose things by fiat. (Which I suppose is equally true when you're a lay member with a fiat agenda :) )


One of the prep questions I was given for my part on the closing panel was: "What changes has your congregation made to gendered language in liturgy? How did you implement these changes to make language more expansive?"

I reached out to some folks who have been at FCS longer than I have, and I cribbed heavily from one person's response, so you get a c&p, which is more artful than my unrehearsed regurgitation was:

One shift we made during my time was adopting the New Century Hymnal [NCH], with its resolutely inclusive language. Prior to that we used the Pilgrim Hymnal, which had a lot of inclusive language but by no means always. For a while we kept both hymnals in the pews and sang some songs from each, and gradually phased out the old hymnal. But we still used the Pilgrim hymnal at Christmas, because many people found the inclusive language jarring in the very familiar Christmas carols. [...]

After we had used the NCH for a few years, [person] mentioned to me that she had attended a service at a different church where they were still using the Pilgrim Hymnal, and she was looking forward to singing the good old words. But, she reported, when they actually sang, it was jarring to hear He/Him/His all the time after getting used to inclusive language. Her consciousness had been raised, though she didn't say it that way.


As for LGBTQ [...] inclusive language, that really started with Molly. We became an ONA church years before Molly's tenure, but as is quite usual, he first few years after making the declaration, our ONA stayed on the down low. Some older members were very sensitive and anxious about it, and it didn't seem useful to pick fights with them. When Molly came, she "didn't know" how sensitive the issue was, and so "naively" flew a rainbow flag right away. Precipitating some pushback, and a compromise, but the tide had turned. Our prior settled pastors had mentioned LGBTQ…I people sympathetically but carefully; Molly was the first to talk about us casually, as if there were no controversy. And by being the change she wished to see in the world, the world (or at least, FCS) changed.


Katie Ernst, the final closing panelist, cautioned that we not perpetuate gender essentialism as we attempt to expand our language (e.g., only using She for gentle nurturing and He for fierce strong anger), which I can't say enough YES to. I do really appreciate that a lot of the ~contemporary hymnody that uses expansive language for God intentionally talks about e.g. fierce Mother God and nurturing Father God.

People had lots of positive feedback about the Welcome liturgy [also up on their blog], so Katie Ernst talked a bit about the process of shaping it. (It was like a very extended version of the Welcome we do at FCS.)

  • you start with what parts of yourself do YOU need to have named/affirmed/welcomed?
  • think about the people who will be in attendance, naming those diversities
  • acknowledge darkness -- "you who are worn out... you who are grieving..."
  • in the opening, acknowledge/honor those who have been in this space before us (including those who lived on this land before we colonized it)
  • this is gonna be like 5-10 minutes long, and people aren't used to a Welcome being that long, so there will be some discomfort, but lean into that

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