Taking the Next Step in Inclusive Language

by Pamela Payne Allen

Ms. Allen is a staff member of The Christian Century and director of music at the United Church of Hyde Park in Chicago.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 23, 1986, p. 410. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The most important way to redress the patriarchal imbalance of our faith is to refer to the deity as feminine. A balanced use of all types of imagery in both word and song can help us to achieve a more accurate — though never definitive — idea of who God is.

We like to think that we’ve made much progress in the pilgrimage toward inclusiveness. Liturgies and hymns are now frequently shorn of generic male references to humankind, and imperialistic stances toward mission have been discarded.

Though these are positive steps, it would be premature to conclude that we have achieved inclusiveness. True inclusiveness means more than changing words; it means exploring images of God based upon the experience of oppressed peoples. In our context, that means exploring the rich possibilities of feminine imagery, as well as drawing on liturgy and song written by, and in response to, black Americans and peoples of the Third World. For the sake of justice, and for an accurate representation of God’s self-giving, such imagery is essential.

This article will focus on sexual inclusiveness, the frequent misunderstanding of which was brought home to me recently when a friend told me about a paper he had just written on a religious topic. "You’d be proud of me," he said. "I managed to avoid using any pronouns to refer to God!" What he meant, of course, was that he had avoided using male pronouns to refer to God. And it is possible that he successfully portrayed a desexed God. I suspect, however, that much of his other imagery was still patriarchal.

The same problem is evident in our liturgies. In many cases we have successfully replaced "man," "men" and "brotherhood" with words such as "humankind" and "community," and masculine pronouns frequently are avoided both in reference to God and to humankind. Still, our primary images of God are masculine: Father, Son, Lord, King. For instance, we may revise the Doxology to "Praise God from whom all blessings flow. /Praise God all creatures here below. /Praise God above, ye heavenly host . . ." but if the last line still says "Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost," we have done little to counterbalance the patriarchal tendencies of our faith. Revision of only the pronouns in hymns and prayers produces an unhelpful paradox: a bland, asexual deity who is nonetheless masculine. Such a God reflects little of the vitality of the biblical references to God.

Scripture abounds with vivid images of God, not all of them human. A surprising number of scriptural passages describe God in terms of nonhuman creatures.

Like an eagle that stirs up its nest, that flutters over its young, spreading out its wings, catching them, bearing them on its pinions, the Lord alone did lead him. . . . [Deut. 32:11-121.

I am like a moth to Ephraim, and like dry rot to the house of Judah. . . I will be like a lion to Ephraim, and like a young lion to the house of Judah. I, even I, will rend and go away, I will carry off, and none shall rescue [Hos. 5:12,14].

. . . therefore [Ephraim] forgot me. So I will be to them like a lion, like a leopard I will lurk beside the way. I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs. .. [Hos. 13:6b-8a].

Other descriptions of God use the images of light, wind and fire:

In him was life, and the life was the light of [all people]. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it [John 1:4-5].

The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit [John 3:8].

And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit . . . [Acts 2:2-4a].

Scripture’s primary means of describing God’s self revelation is through that of human relationships, and nost of these descriptions are obviously patriarchal: Father, Master, Lord, King. But occasionally the Holy spirit had her way, for there are a few uses of feminine imagery to describe God’s relationship to her people:

For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in travail, I will gasp and pant [Isa. 42:14].

. . . It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of compassion, with the bands of love. and I became to them as one who eases the yoke on their jaws, and I bent down to them and fed them [Hos. 11:34].

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! [Matt. 23:37-38].

The sheer abundance and diversity of images of God in the Bible bears witness to the futility of focusing on any one image as the ultimate exemplification of God. Unfortunately, the church has done just that. By claiming the male experience to be normative for faith, and by naming the deity as male, we have overemphasized strength and aggressiveness and denied -- indeed, repressed -- many expressions of faith that focus on God’s self-giving, self-emptying love. It would be difficult to say whether our culture’s stress on aggressiveness grew out of an overemphasis on God’s power and might or whether the images of God’s power and might emerged from a society that valued such strength. Regardless, our faith is the poorer for this lopsided view.

The most important way to redress the patriarchal imbalance of our faith is, at least some of the time, to refer to the deity as feminine. It is no small matter to move from a male or even a sexless deity to a feminine one. Congregations that tolerate the use of the terms "humankind" and "Creator God" may well balk at the sudden introduction of "God the Mother." An appropriate approach to this issue would be one which allows for a gradual introduction of feminine terms, addresses and images.

The importance of a gradual, prepared and pastoral introduction to feminine imagery cannot be exaggerated. People brought up to call God "Father," to believe in the maleness of God, will not understand, without explanation, why we are suddenly (and seemingly without scriptural precedent) calling God "Mother." They will rightly resent abrupt shifts in, or abandonment of, the metaphors that have proved most meaningful in their spiritual pilgrimages.

I once had the experience of worshiping at a church where a visiting pastor decided to make a few changes in the day’s already-typeset liturgy. Without explaining to the congregation what it should expect and how it should respond, he simply replaced all pastor-led references to "Father" or "Lord" with "Sovereign" or "Creator," while the congregation read what was already written. Everything went along fairly well until the Lord’s Prayer. Then, instead of leading us directly into "Our Father . . ." he hesitated, searching for an appropriate replacement. He decided on "Our God" at the same time that the congregation took the initiative and began the prayer without him.

Had the visiting pastor explained that the changes he would make in the liturgy were for the sake of inclusiveness, the congregation would have followed with greater understanding. As it was, most were perturbed, and felt uneasy and insecure about the improvised liturgy. I suspect that the insecurity imprinted itself more strongly upon the corporate consciousness than did the effort to be inclusive.

That experience was an isolated one, perhaps, but feelings of insecurity and uneasiness can be prevalent in any service where unfamiliar images are used without preparation. Because of the potential volatility of introducing feminine imagery, I would like to suggest a possible three-step approach. It begins with a congregational study of the patriarchal origins of Scripture, and of the church, and of the nonmasculine imagery present in Scripture. The following questions might serve as a guide for the study:

Though Scripture’s primary (most obvious and concrete) metaphor for God is "Father," does this imply that God is sexual or that God is personal? Granted that Scripture’s primary images of God are masculine, are we to assume that the image of God as male was intended to be normative for all time? If so, does this imply that masculinity is superior and femininity inferior? If not, how may we adapt the intent of the message of personal relationship in a way that reflects feminine experience?

The study could then lead participants to explore feminine expressions for humankind. Women could be encouraged to describe feminine experience. What is it like to mother? How can that experience help us understand God (in terms of giving oneself to the beloved) ? What is it to feel as a woman feels in pregnancy, childbirth, nurturing and lovemaking, and how do these experiences help us understand the feminine face of God?

Male participants should be encouraged to speak or write of their perceptions of women in their lives -- sisters, mothers, friends, lovers, wives -- and of how these women have helped to shape their own faith and character. After listing and describing so-called feminine attributes men could be encouraged to search for these attributes in their own personalities, and to explore ways these traits may be used to describe God.

It would be important to stress that there are many experiences and traits once thought exclusively feminine that women and men actually share. Yet to describe these attributes and then name them "male" or "masculine" in some sense downgrades womankind. If women and men are equals, lovingly created in the image of God, then God may be imaged in feminine as well as masculine terms.

After the study, the introduction of feminine imagery through sermons is a logical second step. This could be approached gradually, through a sermon series, or, if the congregation seems ready, in one sermon. At this stage it would certainly be appropriate to use the groundbreaking inclusive Language Lectionary (Division of Education and Ministry, National Council of Churches, 1983) for the Scripture readings. Though the lectionary is not without problems, its editors have nevertheless dared to adapt Scripture to reflect feminine imagery. Their endeavor is worthy of serious attention and can serve as a valuable guide for making one’s own revisions of the text.

After careful preparation through study and sermon, the congregation may be ready for the third step -- feminine imagery in the liturgy itself, in both spoken and sung words. Prayers, responses and hymns can be revised to reflect feminine imagery.

Here again, it Would be wise to begin gradually, using indirect feminine references -- images which describe God as "like" a mother -- in combination with traditional masculine images. For example, prayers beginning with the following phrases might prove less threatening: "O God, who is like a mother to us . . ." or "Dear God, who loves us with a mother’s fierce protectiveness and a father’s tender mercy . . ." There is also a very fine affirmation of faith that begins: "We believe in God, who is like a good mother or father, near to us, and strong to help us" (Hymnal for Worship, James W. Gunn, editor: Program Committee for Professional Church Leadership, National Council of Churches, 1982) The following pastoral prayer demonstrates how feminine imagery may be used effectively without referring to God as either father or mother:

Gracious God of the loving heart, by whom all fatherhood and motherhood is named, Source of our own creation, you whose Trinity of persons all human bonding and richness of human community reflects, may your name be praised! ... Because of the boundlessness of your love, you opened your womb, pouring forth your own inner life, giving birth to the world, and bestowing on it life like your own.... [Flames of the Spirit, edited by Ruth C. Duck (Pilgrim, 1985) , p. 971.

Such examples would accustom the congregation to hearing the word "mother" in conjunction with the word "God" so that the next step, direct reference, may take place, as in the following prayer by Brian Wren:

Holy and Living God, Father of life and light, weaving space ~nd time, only source of everything that is, set us free from all false gods to worship you alone. . . . God our Mother, you give birth to all life, and love us to the uttermost. Your love surrounds us and feeds us. Within your love we find our home, our joy, our freedom. [Copyright © Brian Wren, 1982].

What can we do in the meantime? We can revise and supplement.

Contrary to what seems to be a popular opinion among some traditionalists, revision is not the seventh deadly sin. Those who cry, "Preserve the author’s integrity" in regard to inclusive language do not know (or perhaps forget) that almost all the hymns we sing today bear the mark of editing. "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing" was originally "Hark! How all the Welkin Rings." Hymnody is not a "pure" art in the sense that poetry is often thought to be. Rather, hymnody is art for the church, art that aids the community in expressing its faith. Hymnody is not sacrosanct, or immune to time’s movement and changes. It is a gift to the church, to be used in ways that build up the faithful. The church has not just the right but the responsibility to alter texts to reflect its new vision of what has always been the church’s hope: the inclusion of all God’s children in the beloved community.

This is not to say that there are no constraints on revision. Judgments must still be made between good and bad revisions. Preserving the author’s integrity is not a bad guideline, if the spirit rather than the letter of the intent is followed. Because hymn editors must revise within the bounds of rhyme and meter, compromises must be made. One example of compromise is Brian Wren’s revision of "Sing Praise to God Who Reigns Above." Wren says, "A hymn so full of ‘feminine’ imagery deserves to be recast in a feminine form. This version does so, and makes a few other changes, while keeping the imagery of God as ruling sovereign." Wren’s revision shows careful thought both in retaining valuable feminine imagery and choosing additional images. Not only does his revision retain the original hymn’s image of God as ruling sovereign, but it gives the hymn new credibility.

As with changes in liturgy revised hymns should be carefully introduced to the congregation. Revised hymns can be used as examples during the study series on feminine imagery, and introduced during the sermon or sermon series on feminine images. Later, the congregation could be asked to sing both the original translation and the revision. At other times, only one or the other version could be used. It is not necessary to reject the original translation altogether. Total rejection of masculine imagery denies both our history and the value that such imagery has had in our consciousness of the divine.

A balanced use of all types of imagery in both word and song can help us to achieve a more accurate -- though never definitive -- idea of who God is. Drawing from the abundance of scriptural images which are God’s gift to us, perhaps we will more clearly see that

God is not a she, God is not a he,

God is not an it

or a maybe.

God is a moving,

loving, doing,

knowing, growing


[From The Song of Three Children, libretto copyright © Brian Wren, 1986].

The mystery that cannot be pinned down, but is known to us through a personal relationship, is speaking to us today in a new voice. May our liturgy and song reflect our response to that voice.