Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Inclusive Language

Rev. Christina Whitehouse-Suggs

I've been attending a church conference and we started with worship yesterday morning with one of my favorite hymns, Be Thou My Vision. I memorized that hymn long ago but when I started wrestling with inclusive language in scripture & hymnody, I started struggling with this hymn because of the words in the traditional version of verse two, "Thou my great Father and I thy true son."

Now, before you jump down my throat with historical language and the fact that when ye writers of olde meant EVERYONE when they wrote about man/son - I know that. I was an English major for awhile before switching to American Sign Language (another story for another time). We also know that for a language to be alive, it will continue to grow and evolve and develop. Think about the fact that just 40 years ago, we didn't have "compact discs" or "cellular/mobile phones" or "electronic mail". Think about the fact that while we still use English (albeit our Americanized/bastardized version), it certainly isn't the same English that good ole' William Shakespeare used. I'm not writing this post in the King/Queen's English.

I also want to point out that I'm not some raging feminist who's advocating a linguistic shift to some ridiculous political correctness or to swing the pendulum to a female-dominant language. But in church tradition, masculine-dominant language has been used to oppress and subjugate women for centuries and I, for one, am tired of it. This is probably an overstatement but I believe that women have sustained the (institutional) church for the entirety of its existence and yet we continue to be among its least valued members.

If we hold to the belief that if God is neither male nor female and if we also believe scripture when it says that God created us in God's image, then we need to change the way we refer TO God and talk ABOUT God (just my humble opinion). And for those of us who have accepted this and have become more inclusive in our language about the Divine, it's a bit of a learning curve but we seem to manage it. But we always seem to struggle and bump into problems with our hymnody - partially because of meter & rhyme but also because we've memorized it and it seems more difficult to address somehow.

So, back to the conference - we stand up to sing Be Thou My Vision and I'm wondering if they'll just use the traditional lyrics or how they'll change them...and this is what they posted:

Be Thou my vision O Lord of my heart.
Not be all else to me save that Thou art.
Thou my best thought by day or by night
Waking or sleeping my treasure Thou art.

Be Thou my wisdom and Thou my true word
I ever with Thee and Thou with me Lord
Thou my redeemer my love Thou hast won
Thou in my dwelling and I with Thee one.

Riches I heed not nor vain empty praise
Thou mine inheritance now and always
Thou and Thou only first in my heart
Great God of heaven my treasure Thou art

Great God of heaven my victory won
Now I reach heaven’s joys O bright heaven’s sun
Heart of my own heart whatever be fall
Still be my vision O ruler of all.

Now, to be honest, I stumbled over the lyrics but I was so happy to see them - not only the more gender neutral/inclusive part but also the less imperialistic stuff (Great God instead of High King). I asked where they found these lyrics and was told these are from the Chalice Hymnal, hymn 595, words by Eleanor Hull. So thankful for writers like her who are willing to wrestle with the traditional text and stay true to the spirit of the hymn but include everyone today.

Christina Whitehouse-Suggs is the Associate Coordinator of CBF of South Carolina, and graduated with an M.Div. from Campbell University. This article originally appeared on Christina's blog, Thoughts From The Journey.


  1. I, for one, do not like inclusive language. Especially where the Holy Bible is concerned. The Holy Bible is the inspired word of God from God. It's words should not be altered to satisfy any agenda.

    As far as hymns go. I feel the same. The writers of long ago were inspired by God to write these hymns. To change the words to satisfy an agenda is to change the meaning and message of the hymn.

    I will go as far to say when we start referring to God as a female we have gone too far.

  2. Glenn,

    Thank you for your comment. There are actually many times in the Bible where God is referred to in feminine language. There probably would have been more, but the biblical writers were male and lived in a patriarchal society. Their culture shaped their imagination, which had an effect on their religion.

    Check out Is. 42:14, where God compares God's self to a woman in labor; as a mother suckling her children in Numbers 11:12; comforting her children in Is 66:12-13; a midwife in Is 66:9. This is only a few of the many. Check out a more comprehensive list here: http://clubs.calvin.edu/chimes/970418/o1041897.htm

    Surely everyone can agree that the transcendent God is not actually male or female, but that we can relate to God in gendered language because that's what we are--male and female, BOTH created in the image of God. We understand "Father" and "Mother" because that's our framework for understanding something greater. And if we are both created in the image of God, then both pronouns work fine to refer to God, who is actually neither male nor female.


  3. H-m-m... Well, much ado about...something, I guess. But I find much of this an unnecessary distraction.

    As to references to God, He is consistently spoken of in the Word of God with masculine nouns and pronouns. (So are the angels.) We are to pray to "our Father," not our Mother. That occasional feminine similes and metaphorsare are used of Him (as in the references given) prove nothing. The Apostle Paul did the same thing (I Thess. 2:7). So did Moses (Num. 11:12--words you mistakenly attribute to the Lord).

    I also question many of the attempts to modernize language. By the time we get finished tinkering with Shakespeare, and Dickens--and our hymns, they will have lost much of their richness and beauty. And "Not be all else to me save that Thou art" may not even make sense! Not and naught are not synonyms.

    More importantly, it does not hurt us to have a somewhat different language for our worship. It helps to emphasize the set-apartness of God. A little explanation will suffice in most cases to allow folks to participate meaningfully. No need to emasculate the great hymns of the faith.

  4. Robert,

    Thank you for your comment. I think you dismiss feminine language far too easily in favor of church tradition. I think that God is far bigger and more encompassing than we can imagine, and larger than the male pronouns that many are used to using.

    Even the authors of the Bible, though they are probably all male (not surprising, given their advantage of access to education), they still used feminine language for God because they felt that God was so many things to them that they grappled and pushed their metaphors to the limit to explain their experience. Surely we can both agree that God is not actually male, but can be like a Father or a Mother in His or Her provision.

    All language about God is metaphorical because of our limitations--none of us can accurately explain how great God is. Which is why God calls God's self in Ex 3:14 "I am who I am." There is no way to put it into human language.

    Right now, arguments over which pronouns to use for God are being used in arguments, along with antiquated biblical interpretation, to keep women who want to answer God's authentic call out of ministry. I find answering God's call in a broken world far more important than arguing over whether or not to call God "He" or "She", when God is greater than either.


  5. Thank you Laura. I am so blessed to have found this blog. I was hunting on the internet for alternative words to this hymn, as on Sunday - again - I struggled with being God's son. I am not. I am God's child, God's daughter. I do not understand the ongoing blindness of so many to the effects of the langauge the church uses. So guys...if there is to be men's camp at your church and all the women turn up for it, what do you say? This is now, that was then? This is now and we all need to work to change to using inclusive language.
    Keep up the good work Laura.
    God bless you from New Zealand.


  6. Thank you for posting these lyrics! So grateful to have found a way to enjoy this favorite hymn with my 5 year old daughter (who loves for me to sing this one to her before bed) and give her a more inclusive experience of hearing about God. I remember feeling confused as a girl by the lack of references to my perspective in church music, and as an adult I like many women have learned to translate in my head when references are not inclusive of me as a woman.

  7. I'm wholly on board re changing the language, but think the rewrite listed here is a bit of a botch job. This came up in a discussion with one of our pastors. I'm trying a rewrite myself, and if I can come up with anything remotely respectable will post it here.

  8. Well, that didn't take me quite as long as I'd thought, though I'm not sure of the result. The key verse needing a tweak is the one w/ "son" in it. For me, influenced by a female mentor / pastor who strongly preferred the use of "Father" when referring to God, I've left "Father" here -- but it can easily be replaced w/ "Parent." Here's the verse:

    Be thou my Wisdom, and thou my true Word;
    I ever with thee and thou with me, Lord;
    Thou tender Father, and I your true child
    Thou in me dwelling, by Christ reconciled

  9. Laura,
    Than you for your various responses. You have way too much patience that I.
    The Revd Amrela C Massiah