Inclusive Language, Women’s Ordination, and Another Great Awakening

by Browne Barr

Dr. Barr, a Century editor-at-large, is dean emeritus of San Francisco Theological Seminary. He lives in Calistoga, California.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, April 13, 1988, pp. 366-368. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.


While acknowledging the dangers of dilution of language and depersonalization of God inherent in some inclusive language, Browne Barr goes on to laud the positive results not only of inclusive language in word and table, but of the appropriate and long-delayed inclusion of women, both clergy and laity, as full participants and leaders in the majority of Protestant churches in the United States.

I first felt the keen edge of the feminist critique many years ago at the hands of two exceedingly able and determined women who often shared a pew and a hymnbook in services at the church where I was pastor. In that church the offering was received near the end of the service, well after the conclusion of the sermon. I began receiving in the collection plate every Sunday an offering from the two women, meant just for me. It was a copy of the order of worship for the morning with all the "hes" "hims," "Fathers" and "mankinds" crossed out and inclusive terms substituted. Around the margin of the "cleaned up" order were strong suggestions about needed revisions in the language of the sermon. So, like or not, my consciousness began to be raised about inclusive language.

This happened in a congregation that had long since ordained and called a fulltime woman minister, a congregation that more than once had elected a woman moderator and which had successfully importuned a woman to head up a major capital fund drive. The parish had taken most of that in stride. But inclusive language was a different matter.

Many congregations' intense resistance to inclusive language does not mean that they are simply stiff-necked. The roots of that resistance, acknowledged or not, lie very deep in religious experience. For words and other symbols are the lifeblood of the church. When we change words we invite a changed perception of the reality to which the words point. To demand that the words of faith change is to demand that one's faith change. And in changing it can either grow or shrivel, blossom or die.

One important way of guarding against alienation is to take care that new, inclusive language does not call undue attention to itself. This is certainly possible to accomplish, but it does require much preparation and creativity.

I have worked at such efforts myself. In revising some early sermons, I realized that they were much improved by translation into inclusive language. However, it is also clear that no one would be particularly aware of how they were improved; the revision does not scream out, "See how inclusive this language is!"

The argument is made that when inclusive language is conspicuous it bears witness to the sin of sexism. However, the purpose of language in public worship is not to disseminate propaganda -- not even Christian propaganda -- but to "unhide" and re-enact in the present moment the saving event of Jesus Christ. Therefore unless a congregation dares to exclude from that experience everyone who is put off by sexist words for God -- either masculine or feminine -- it must chart a careful course. It must devise inclusive language so graceful and so functional that it does not stand out.

A growing number of congregations are battling sexism in the church. They are encouraging women to prepare for and seek ordination, and they are trying to be open to considering women as well as men for positions of lay leadership. Nevertheless, they find that changing the language used in public worship is such a painful task that they wonder if it is really worth it. To what is it all leading? Will this change bring enrichment, or death?

This struggle brings to mind a comment made to the pope during his recent San Francisco visit. A nun who was addressing the pontiff on behalf of her sisters in the church lamented the necessary preoccupation of women religious with, "internal issues at the cost of mission." Churches tackling the issue of inclusive language may also wonder if it is really worth all the groaning and the pain. Is it, along with women's ordination, an "internal issue" confronted at the "cost of mission"?

Speaking of how "the people of Israel groaned under their bondage," Walter Brueggemann refers to that groaning as "the public processing of pain." Dean Thompson comments that when pain is publicly processed it becomes energy, and when pain is not publicly processed, it becomes resentment and despair." We know well that when the pain of Christian feminists is not publicly processed, it issues in resentment and despair. But is it true that publicly processing that pain produces new energy? Will congregations that seek to rout sexism by reaching for inclusive language be energized by that pain for a divine purpose? I believe that the answer is Yes. At least there are grounds for seeing in the implications of inclusive language -- along with the unique effectiveness of women pastors -- the seeds of renewal for mainline churches.

Many of the congregations that are willing to tackle the problem of inclusive language appear to be ones in which public worship has been intellectualized into sterility. The sacraments are often humanized or sentimentalized, and the sermon is regarded merely as a religious lecture, without sacramental potential. Many members admit that they attend services primarily to see their friends or for the study group, task force or coffee hour. The lives of such congregations often appear to be centered in the consequences of the gospel -- peace and justice -- not, in the heartwarming experience of God's saving love in Christ Jesus.


Yet such congregations often have a profound spiritual hunger. And in the midst of their struggle, over inclusive language they may come to recognize the reality, mystery and power of Christian words and symbols.

Once I showed a congregation the photograph of a woman many of them knew and loved, someone they had not seen in person for years. Then I spit on it and tore it in two. There was an involuntary corporate gasp. People were shocked; some were angry; some were personally affronted. "But why?" I asked, "if it is only a symbol, if it is really only a piece of paper?" They were then ready to consider the question crucial to all public worship: how much of the reality of that which is symbolized is somehow present in the symbol?

A congregation that has groaned over inclusive language has been traumatized by the power of symbols. As they understand that wounding, they may be freshly prepared to participate in words and symbols as more than just words and symbols. They may be open in a radical way for the invasion of that divine reality, the Word made flesh, which the words of the sermon and the symbols of wine and bread are meant to convey. They may be prepared to receive and not only to discuss the undiscourageable, saving love of God which is the good news of the gospel.

A profound Christian revival of local congregations might be too much to hope for as a consequence of coming to grips with inclusive language, if there were not another factor common to most of the churches that have taken inclusive language seriously: they are also the churches most likely to be open to the ministry of ordained women. My experience with women ministers has convinced me that they are uniquely positioned to invigorate the church.

First, women ministers, especially as leaders of public worship, have more credibility than men in guiding the church away from unfortunate excesses in inclusive language. I refer not so much to bruising contortions of expression, which any sensitive pastor would seek to avoid, but to those language substitutions and accommodations that depersonalize God and hence make God less accessible. In his lively commentary on Genesis, Gerhard von Rad argues winningly that all those wonderful human descriptions of God which we dismiss as primitive anthropormorphisms are deliberately risked. The tellers of the Genesis narrative would rather compromise the greatness of God than diminish by one iota God's accessibility.

In trying to make room for the full personhood of God, inclusive language does sometimes diminish God's accessibility. It asks us to address God as a function. But, as someone once reminded me, when a child falls down and is hurt, he or she cries out, "Mommie!" not, "Caregiver!" To abandon God the Father in our doxologies in favor of God the Creator feels more like loss than gain to me. The whole church needs help in avoiding the depersonalization of God as we seek to overcome the limitations imposed on our Christian experience by male-oriented language. Women pastors who are concerned more for their people than for any ideology are less suspect and therefore probably better able to help us around the grave theological and liturgical hazards in God-language changes.

Second, women pastors may be more effective in dealing with the feminization of the local church which has taken place increasingly, and which troubles many mainline congregations.

Certainly it is true that until recently the church has generally been a patriarchy. However, in my experience of 40 years in ministry in New England, the Midwest and on the West Coast, I have found churches to be more like matriarchies than patriarchies. Until recently, they were officially dominated by males, but great power lay also with female parishioners. They had power not only because they were the majority or because church work was seen as women's work, but also because men supported the myth that women are somehow morally superior. The local church was often actually run by women members, but indirectly, and hence without either accountability or credit.

Catharine Beecher, sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher, argued against women's suffrage on the grounds that "women could influence public affairs very satisfactorily without recourse to the ballot box, by the simple expedient of influencing the opinions and outlook of those who did have the vote -- their husbands and sons" (Reay Tannahill, Sex in History, [Stein & Day], 1980, p. 389).

As Reay Tannahill points out, this "was the exercise of power without responsibility -- the same type of power women exercised in churches. In the local congregation where women did not ask for and were not allowed legitimate power, there was present this other "behind the scenes" power and its demeaning sexism. Thus the inevitable parish conflicts often took on an underhanded air and were more unpleasant than conflicts brought into the open.

A woman pastor can help the church recognize, in ways a man cannot, that both men and women have been responsible for the growth and nurturing of sexism. She can make clear that the situation has not always been one of good, abused women versus bad, dominant men. Then the "I'm OK, you're not OK" game can be exposed and ended, and women and men can work together to repair the damage they have done together.

Some observers think that the feminization of the church, evident in the declining percentage of men taking part in church life, will be aggravated if inclusive language is employed or, worse, if a woman is called as pastor. Such an eventuality, some say, amounts to admitting that all aspects of church work really are "women's work." However, Lyle Schaller reports in It's a Different World (Abingdon, 1987) that men are showing up in substantial numbers in churches that display eight or ten of 18 characteristics, one of which is that "the pastor is a mature female. "

Third, women pastors, and the experiences they bring to ministry, may reflect more clearly our justification by faith. They are likely to make clearer the gentle, nurturing aspect of God's eternal person, and to call on both men and women to reflect it adequately.

When one of my daughters became a mother herself she was unalterably committed to breastfeeding, which in turn meant that she was always available to her children. When her children cried they never found her absent. Indeed, she cared for them in a fashion I thought neurotic. "The day is going to come," I instructed her loftily, "when that child won't have you at hand and she will be an impossible brat. No one will be able to stand her and she will be miserable."

But Holli thought nothing was more important in those first years than being there for her children. If the child learned to trust her, she claimed, then she would not be afraid to move out into the next and subsequent passages of her life. I was not convinced. "Let them cry it out," I said. "Let them learn disappointment now while they are young, to prepare them for real life."

A few years later I received a post card. "Dear Dad," Holli wrote. "Today was the first day of school. I took Cassie down to the corner to meet the school bus. As that big yellow monster whisked her away, she waved happily to me until she was out of my sight. Then I went home and cried."

Is that not the human paradigm of the divine love which the pulpit proclaims and the communion table re-enacts? We are saved by faith, made whole, corporately and individually, by God's holding us to God's own breast by the love and sacrifice of Jesus Christ. How could we have ignored for so long the need for female experience in the clergy if the ministry is to be fully perceptive and balanced?

Infant baptism discloses through symbols this determined, loving aspect of God's character. Nowhere is it clearer that God's love is not won by our good works than when the person declared to be loved by God is a totally self-centered and often noisy, smelly baby. The love celebrated in the sacrament of infant baptism is love flowing freely from the person of God without regard to human merit or achievement. How much that symbol may be enriched if the infant, held there for baptism in the arms of the church, is sometimes held in female arms. As we see and remember the nurturing feminine side of both men and women, we ourselves may rest more profoundly in the nurturing arms of God.

If inclusive language and the ordained ministry of women can help change our image and experience of God to include the God who loves us like a mother holding her baby to her breast, that may be the Great Awakening in our time. It is remarkable to contemplate but surely not beyond God's mysterious ways: mainline congregations, delivered from the twin perils of routine worship and works righteousness, moving in the vanguard of another powerful Protestant revival. In the process inclusive language will be inescapable. "0 for a thousand tongues."