The Words of Worship: Beyond Liturgical Sexism

by James F. White

When this article was written, James F.White was professor of liturgy in the department of theology at the University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, December 13, 1978, pp. 1202-1206. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Our growing awareness of the sexist problems inherent in our language provides us with a valuable new hermeneutical tool. A change in speech habits is necessary if we are to change attitudes.

The problem of sexist language in worship has caught up with us; there is no avoiding it any longer, though I still hear many evasions. The most common excuse: "Language is not that important." My usual rejoinder: "How long has it been since you last used the term ‘nigger’?" So long as someone uses that less-than-human term for a black person, it is impossible for him or her to progress toward racial justice. Language is not an indifferent matter, as Earl Butz discovered. A change in speech habits is necessary if we are to change attitudes.

No longer do we have a choice to be concerned or not about sexist language. A fundamental issue of justice is involved, and the church cannot be silent in matters of justice without being a disobedient church. Obedience to Christ means according justice to others just as we desire justice for ourselves. To determine what constitutes justice in this instance, to be sure, may not be simple, but we should have little difficulty in agreeing that an obedient church has no choice about opposing injustice.

The importance of public worship in this matter is only slightly less obvious. Nowhere else does the average Christian so frequently take part in explicit theological statements and actions as in Christian worship. Nothing helps form a Christian’s thinking about God and one’s responsibility to others so Persistently as continued engagement in public worship. Worship shapes the theology of the laity through the weekly repetition of constant elements of worship plus unique local and temporal elaborations of them by the gathered community.

Feminine Images

Let us begin with the good news. Our growing awareness of the sexist problems inherent in language provides us with a valuable new hermeneutical tool. It opens to us aspects of God’s word to which we have hitherto been deaf and provides us with a deeper sensitivity for hearing what God says through Scripture. One soon realizes the importance of accurate biblical translations. Frequently the original texts make no indication of gender; it has been supplied gratuitously by translators. This is true of the pronoun tis, often translated "a man" instead of "anyone." In many cases, sexual distinctions have been dubbed in for the sake of readability by modem translators when these distinctions do not exist in original texts. More nearly accurate translations would not make such arbitrary distinctions. Such knowledge ought to be an incentive to more intensive study of the Scriptures in the original languages.

But there is a more important level of awareness, sensitive to the variety of metaphors in which Scripture refers to God in feminine images. Jesus, for instance, in an image rarely used in worship, refers to himself as wishing to gather people together as a "mother hen gathers her brood under her wings" (Matt. 23:27, Luke 18:84). Only one who has kept chickens can know how protective a mother hen is and what a marvelous image she is of divine protectiveness. In the prologue to John’s Gospel, translators shy away from an exact rendition of the last verse (1:18), which says literally, "God’s only begotten, he who is in the Father’s breast" The word kolpos (breast) rarely makes it into English, the RSV being an exception here. Apparently even the faint suggestion of female anatomy for God troubles us, though anthropomorphisms abound in Scripture.

We feel uncomfortable with such passages as Deuteronomy 32:18: "You forsook the creator who begot you and cared nothing for God who brought you to birth." Jesus compares his death and resurrection to labor pains and childbirth (John 16:21). Much of our theology of Christian initiation might be more balanced if the image of new birth had developed throughout history as did images of incorporation or forgiveness. New birth is equally as prominent for initiation in the New Testament. Baptismal regeneration became a most controversial term, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries; A positive approach to the birth images in baptism (John 3:5, Titus 3:5) gives an important dimension to God’s gift of new life in the body of Christ.

Prenatal and Postnatal Events

Protestantism has yet to recover those aspects of Christology witnessed to by some of the minor christological feasts. It is probably no accident that, despite widespread recovery of much of the Christian year, Protestants have not seen much value yet in the feasts of Naming, Presentation, Annunciation and Visitation. The biblical evidence, of course, is in the first two chapters of Luke, but there is far more there, than just shepherds and angels. Prenatal and postnatal events are part of the history of salvation, though we ignore them. The Annunciation (March 25) has had powerful appeal to the greatest painters of past ages; we have looked in another direction, though this feast once signaled the start of the civil year. It still marks the beginning of the climactic event in the salvation of the whole human race. And it is entirely in the hands of a woman. Traditionally an angel is sexless, and the only other person in Luke 1:26-38 is a woman, Mary. There are parallels with her kinswoman, Elizabeth -- John is not the only forerunner. Visitation (May 31) has intrigued musicians with the Magnificat. In the Magnificat the social creed of the Christian church is articulated in its most concise form -- all in the context of a dialogue between two peasant women (Luke 1:89-56).

The postnatal stories are too good to miss, too. The Naming of Jesus (Luke 2:21) stresses Christ’s identification with human society, particularly in receiving a common Hebrew name on the eighth day (January 1). The Presentation in the Temple (Luke 2:22-38) on the 40th day (February 2) is the first event in which humans proclaim the meaning of the Christ child. And that proclamation comes first from the lips of the elderly -- a man and a woman, Simeon and Anna. What a difference it would have made if the church had based its theology of ordination on these two prototypal proclaimers of God’s word! I cite these passages only to show rich images that we would probably not have overlooked if they had been masculine. Fresh sensitivity to the female role in the process of salvation will help us discover other elements in God’s word which we have missed.

Limiting God, Limiting People

There seem to be two stages in applying our sensitivity about sexist language in worship: the negative stage of eliminating exclusive language and the positive one of developing language that affirms both sexes. Unfortunately, most who have worked in this field have been content with the first of these. Actually we need language even more explicitly sexual than that we now use -- language that affirms both sexes in our knowledge of God and of humanity.

The negative stage, of course, is very important. It comes in the realization that the English language has definitely changed in the past decade and that such terms as "man," "mankind," "men" and the masculine pronouns are no longer being used in the familiar generic sense. This change has been recognized by the National Council of Teachers of English, a group more likely to acknowledge current usages than to initiate new ones.

The negative stage has two implications for the language of worship. First of all, it becomes increasingly problematic to limit God to masculine images -- and the words "he," "his" and "himself" are no longer so inclusive as they once were. Words that imply that God is masculine, as these pronouns now do, are much more restrictive and limiting in naming God than such terms were in the past. Today a hymn, a prayer or creed that uses these pronouns says something much more narrow than it did a decade ago. Since we hardly want to set limits to God, these words must be replaced by more inclusive language. This task challenges us to broaden our comprehension of the deity. The Section on Worship of the United Methodist Church has published a list of 200 ascriptions for God. Perusal of this fascinating document can lead to an expansion of our language for addressing God and our comprehension of the Giver of Love. The first step is the purgative one of eliminating language that is now exclusively male in our speech about the Redeemer of Israel.

Second, the same negative stage is necessary with language regarding people. In the past, it meant one thing to say "who for us men and for our salvation." Today, that phrase means something quite different. The new International Consultation on English Texts (ICET) translation, now used by many denominations, says "for us and for our salvation." There is no more need to limit people today than to limit God. The negative step means pruning away terms that are exclusive in present use: "man," "men," "mankind." Salvation is for all, not for just one sex, as these words now imply.

Inclusive Terms

The positive stage, on the other hand, is both more creative and more difficult. It is the phase in which we develop inclusive terms for our understanding of God and for our speech about humanity. It implies an even more explicitly sexual language than we now use, but a language in which female and male terms are balanced. It means that when God created us in God’s own image, we were created male and female. We do not seek a gray, sexless imagery, as if God created us neuter, but the rich coloration of both sexes. This effort is not easy; it is simpler to follow the familiar monochrome. But when we take this step, we soon find that our visions of both God and humanity are greatly expanded.

How do we reach this creative stage? We begin with Scripture and tradition. We find, once we start looking, traces scattered everywhere of the female side of God, the feminine half of humanity. Eleanor McLaughlin reminds us that Chrysostom could call God "Sister, Mother" and Anselm could pray to Jesus as Mother. It helps to know that Chrysostom and Anselm could do it. We need to recall the medieval debates on the Christian life as reflecting either Mary or Martha. Our first steps must be taken on familiar ground but with a keenness of sight we have never had before. We must discover the feminine images already available in Scripture and tradition before we can develop new ones.

A word of caution may be helpful. It now seems that more recent materials, especially hymns, are the worst linguistically. Not until the 20th century did hymnists get aroused about the brotherhood of man. Victorians were not concerned about "lesser breeds without the law." But the "good guys" of the social gospel could cry: "Join hands, then, brothers of the faith," meaning something twice as inclusive as those words now signify. Others could sing: "Till sons of men shall learn thy love," or "The voice of God is calling/ Its summons unto men," not realizing how exclusive those lines would sound today. Someone has suggested that we need to change only one letter in another hymn: "Wise up, Omen of God!" All these and many more hymns now suggest the opposite of what they intend. Consequently, they may have to go unsung for a time.

What do we do with much of the older hymnody and language of prayer? I do not believe that it should all be discarded, though one can be more selective in choosing it. There are plenty of alternatives to singing "Good Christian Men, Rejoice." But even that can be mended once people learn to substitute "folk" for "men," "one" for "man" and "humans" for "mankind." In so doing, we are really reinforcing the writer’s intentions by translating a previous language into a present one. And there are some surprisingly good words we never before appreciated, such as the 15th century "O Sons and Daughters, Let Us Sing." The translations of the International Consultation on English Texts will be helpful for creeds, canticles, doxologies and, the Lord’s Prayer. One can check the new Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (1976) or the Lutheran Book of Worship (1978) to see ways by which exclusive sexist language has been avoided, though less intentionality in providing language that affirms both sexes seems evident.

Acknowledging the Limits

There is bad news, too. We need to know the limits before we can do anything responsibly new in worship. There are some things we ought to do that we have not done; there are also things that we ought not to do. It is only by knowing the limits that we can get a more radical view of unexplored possibilities.

First of all, we are not free to rewrite Scripture. There is no doubt that the world view within which it was written was patriarchal. We must be careful to distinguish between those things that were culturally contingent and those things which are essential to the gospel. Paul says many things about women which reflect his culture. But he also makes what must be the most radically egalitarian statement in all of Scripture, in Galatians 3:27-28: "Baptized into Union with him [Christ], you have all put on Christ as a garment. There it no such thing as Jew and Greek, slave and freeman, male and female; for you are all one person in Christ Jesus." This equality is based on baptism. It does not hurt to know that women baptized persons in the early church, that fonts have been designed in the shape of a pregnant woman, that womb imagery is clear in the Easter vigil, or that Calvin and Wesley, on the other hand, were vehemently opposed to women baptizing. The more we look, the more we find.

But Scripture cannot be rewritten, though it frequently deserves retranslation. Anthropos can be translated "human being" instead of "man," but we cannot use anér as anything but "man." I do not think we can change the word "Father" when it appears in Scripture. But, as indicated above, we have numerous possibilities for addressing God in prayer. I now realize it was wrong of me for many years always to begin grace at the family table with the words "Heavenly Father," especially with my three daughters and wife present. I had countless other options and never exercised them. How narrow an image of God that one ascription now implies! My images of God have grown since I began reaching put for alternatives to that invariable "Heavenly Father."

We are not free to avoid the masculinity of Jesus Christ, who, as a concrete human individual, had to have sexuality. But the important thing is not that Jesus became man but that he became human, one of us with whom every woman and man can identify. Thus the clause in the creed of the United Church of Canada, "who has come in the true Man, Jesus," no longer means what it did in 1969. The important thing is that God became human, not that God became masculine. Still, I do not yet see any alternatives to referring to the second member of the Trinity as "he" or "him."

God-Talk and People-Talk

Okay, those are the limits; but what are some of the possibilities in actual worship language? Pronouns give us the most trouble. Many times our prayers would be greatly improved by rigorous excision of any third-person pronouns. Simply say "you" when speaking of God, and in almost all cases it will be a better prayer by being made vocative. Of course, this language will not work in parts of the service not addressed to God. Here we can change "God . . . he." to "God . . . God" or to some such naming as "God . . . our Sovereign." "God . . . his" can give way to "God . . . God’s" or some such possessive as "God . . . our Sovereign’s." The really difficult pronoun is the reflexive. I have turned "God . . . himself" into "God . . . Godself." I admit I do not like neologisms, but I find that, with use, "Godself" becomes less abrasive and reminds me that I am speaking of a God who is more than masculine. The easy way is to avoid the reflexive altogether, but I am fond of speaking of God as giving Godself to us (as in the sacraments), and nothing other than a reflexive is strong enough to say that adequately.

With regard to humans, we have many possibilities. I do not find it strained to double pronouns; I do not mind saying "he or she" or "hers or his" or "him or her" every time a third-person pronoun is necessary. I do not like "he/she" or "s/he," as one does not speak slashes. Written language, in my opinion, should correspond with spoken, not vice versa.

There is also a wide variety of instances in which it is not awkward to say "women and men." In Chaucer’s time the words "brethren" and "sistren" were both used, but the latter was lost (about 1550), to our impoverishment. More inclusive terms ought to be used if it is clear that such is intended ("poet" and "Jew" rather than "poetess" and "Jewess," which happen to be diminutives). Words that now clearly indicate sex ("man," "mankind") should be balanced with their parallels ("woman," "womankind"). If such exclusive terms cannot be balanced, then it is better to avoid them in preference for single inclusive terms such as "people" and "humanity."

It should be clear that we have just begun to explore new possibilities both in God-talk and people-talk. There are no ready-made answers. Some things will sound awkward for a while, just as, not so long ago, addressing God as "you" did. Familiarity soon makes novelties sound natural. "Godself" may not bother us for long, or we may find a better reflexive. But I am convinced that we cannot remain content with "God himself" much longer.

A search which begins because of the imperative of justice may have major side effects in helping us come to a more profound knowledge of God and the people of God. Such a search can stretch our concepts and understanding of God in unexpected ways. And it can put us in deeper contact with our own humanity. We may find that, in trying to give others their due, we ourselves receive as much in return. The concern about sexist language is a major means for changing attitudes.

There are plenty of nonverbal changes needed in worship -- some as elementary as moving beyond preaching robes with padded shoulders (an irrelevant masculine image of ministry), using women and children as ushers, and electing female bishops. But words are certainly among our most important formative elements. The present birth pangs of the church are a sign of health. We must move to language that affirms both women and men. Together, both constitute the world that Christ came to save.