Wednesday, October 9, 2013

2013.10.09 Why Words Matter

Sticks and stone can break your bones, but words can break your heart. 

Last week I went to a daylong conference called Why Words Matter:Expansive Language and Liturgical Leadership. The day was jointly sponsored by Episcopal Divinity School (EDS), Sacred Threads (Regis College), and the Massachusetts Council of Churches (MCC) and attended by some 50-60 people, which was not a bad attendance for a beautiful autumn Friday in October. 

The Rev. Laura Everett, Executive Director of MCC opened the day telling a bit of her story of coming into Christianity. “I'd accepted a savior I somehow couldn’t be,” she said. Everett recognized the efforts made with inclusive language in the mid-70s. (Yes! I remember those efforts well.) She said that there were no women heads of churches, non-liturgical denominations she must have meant, because the Episcopal Church has women bishops and a woman Presiding Bishop. It’s worth noting  that on October 5, 2013, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America installed its first woman Presiding Bishop.

Nevertheless, Everett noted, liturgical language, the language of worship, still divides the Church. I’d say it’s time to look at the language issues again and was grateful for the re-start of this conversation.

The Rev. Dr. Stephen Burns, a presbyter of the Church of England who teaches worship at EDS, cited two dynamics at work in this renewed conversation. “It’s a different conversation from former conversations.”
CONTEXT. Expansive language means that our language system is ever expanding, an emergent design, you might say. It advocates that we must be aware of the worship context of liturgical space,  styles of worship, and practices. In other words, just changing language without awareness of the culture of a worshiping community could be too superficial and a naive strategy at best, a manipulation at worst.  
JUSTICE.  Consider the “other” when we use language to dismantle oppression. For example. how do we speak about our hierarchies? Erasing patriarchal language ought not to erase the history in which we are embedded. Burns said he eliminated all exclusive language, like addressing God as Father in his personal prayer life. “But then I had a son, and I was a father.”  Nothing can ever be either/or, I guess.

“Our prayer will carry us,” Burns said. 

There is no question that the whole issue is emotionally charged, and pastoral sensitivity is required.  Thoughts and ideas:  One hymnal provides both normative texts and new ones. Options are offered. Being uncomfortable is not the same as being unsafe. Traditional language also has the power to transform oppression and attendant feelings.  Think immigrants on a foreign soil. Think Israel in exile in Babylon.

An Episcopal lay woman, on the ECW executive committee, shared how “unsettled” she felt when she went to her granddaughter’s wedding recently in a yoga studio (context) and the celebrant presided at a Eucharist that had two settings/servings, one of bread and wine in honor of Christ, and another of honey and milk to honor Sophia. “I felt slapped up side the head,” she said and added that her shock motivated her to come to this day.  “Who is Sophia?”  This courageous woman was shocked and de-centered, yet willing to learn. Brava!

Inez Torres Davis, ELCA, commented that when speaking to the privileged one needed to include them with their pain and questions about tradition, heritage, and identity. “We are saying there might be another way, and everyone must be welcomed into the conversation. The purpose of the Divine after all, is healing.”

It is clear there is much more to do together.  The National Council of Churches Justice for Women Working Group has a “Words Matter” site (

I was grateful for this day and all the participants. My small group at table #10 had a good time and some chance to talk about Sophia, Spirit of Wisdom, as well as our own practices and feelings. I went away well fed and eager to keep going, also wondering why no one mentioned the darn English pronouns —except me of course:0)

I leave you with a story to treasure. A Lutheran woman told the plenary group that when she was a child she’d wondered about the road to heaven being a “narrow gate” as Jesus said. She’d concluded: “Well, maybe God was very big so the gate just seemed very narrow to God.”

And a little child will lead them. Now who said that?

To come back round to my broken heart, strong language for the way I feel often whenever I hear masculinizing words for God, for Divinity:  broken heart language is strong because I have said and heard such words over many years, and as a priest, I often have to say them to be sensitive to my community context. I omit pronouns when I can and dodge the He-Christ by saying Christ instead of He.  Thus, my joy that the conversation about expansive language is being re-invigorated. It's kairos time.

You see, God met me under a table when I was a small child and I gleaned from that Presence, not only that God mattered but that I matter. Hence words matter, too!