Expansive Language

208777_5423868189_597598189_149036_1206_nWhat does it mean to be the Church in the 21st century?

How are we called to be the Church in an urban setting?

How do we express the timeless truths of God’s good news in language that can be understood in our particular time and place?

How do our prayers and sermons, our hymns and anthems reflect and form our experience as a faith community?

The Episcopal Church of Saints Andrew and Matthew is a congregation of celebration, discovering the joy of openness to God’s Spirit. We are constantly experiencing the liberating power that breaks down barriers among us. In our life together we are being called to new dimensions in our faith and new challenges to service.

In seeking to express our spiritual journey together, we have become increasingly aware of the power of language in liturgy. We have committed ourselves to using language that expands our understanding of the God whom we meet in worship and also faithfully reflects the inclusive nature of the gospel message and of the Christian community.

To use inclusive or expansive language is, for us, not based on a desire to be “up-to-date”. It is no mere boarding of a politically correct bandwagon. Liturgical language is important to the Church. “Words and the images they raise up have enormous power. Words define people and things…. Words can hurt and oppress; heal or liberate…. The biases of a society or religion are embedded in its language and imagery.”(1)

Insensitive words can cause suffering. Obvious examples include the use of racial epithets and stereotypes. Careless use of language can also exclude people on the basis of economic status or physical and mental disabilities.

The Church has been particularly guilty of excluding women. “We inherit a language for worship which, whether we are speaking of human beings or of God, overwhelmingly uses masculine pronouns and metaphors, as if these were neutral in their effect on those who pray … For a growing number of women, to be surrounded by exclusive language is a repeated encounter of rejection, precisely in the place where we seek acceptance at the deepest level of our being.”(2)

Language is also an important issue in the education of children. “Child development studies indicate that youngsters think in concrete terms until the age of ten or twelve. They are unable to think in abstract terms. Thus the words they use throughout childhood form images, symbols, and pictures in their minds that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. Our reality is constructed by and limited by the words we use.”(3) The language of liturgy and prayer is thus a crucial component of Christian education.

Adult perceptions are formed by language as well. “The way we pray really does shape the way we think…. What we sing, pray, hear and see in song, stories and sermons shapes and defines what we believe about God and God’s people.”(4)

Language is an important consideration in mission and evangelism. “The essence of the gospel message is that God loves every human being and seeks to offer us salvation. If that is true, then our explanation of the Gospel and our proclamation of the good news must reflect that fact. All our language … must reflect the fact that all human beings — male and female, black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight, old and young, educated and illiterate, healthy and infirm — are all made in God’s image, loved by God, and invited to salvation.”(5)

The use of expansive language becomes particularly important and sensitive when we are describing or addressing God. Our most familiar images of the Divine are male: Father, King, Lord, Conqueror. These images have deep roots in Scripture and creed, in hymns and prayers. They are also deeply rooted in people’s piety, and they are a precious part of our heritage, from which we continue to draw. What we are attempting to do is not a negation of the rich parts of our tradition. It is rather an expansion of our language about God. The Scriptures, theologians, poets, musicians and artists provide other overlooked images of the Divine. These are often feminine or gender-neutral.

“God’s nature … is beyond human conception; certainly beyond description in human language. All language about God is analogous, which means that we are always describing God in human terms like father or mother…. We describe God as having human emotions like love, anger, sadness. Almost everything we say about God is in the language of metaphor. Rather than limiting our knowledge of God to concrete prepositions, metaphor opens our minds and hearts to an ever-expanding understanding of God.”(6) We are finding that the more ways in which we try to understand and speak about God the more deeply we are open to reverence and praise. “Words are only a vehicle for the worship of God, so that we might reach for the things beyond the words in the language of the heart.”(7)

We recognize that a commitment to using expansive language and images challenges the Church, because it is unfamiliar. “It may be safer to stick with the known and familiar. But if we are serious about praying for God’s Kingdom to come and God’s will to be done, then we must be … alert to the movement of God’s Spirit here and now….

“This means that, imperfect though we are as a part of the Christian community (here at SsAM), we already contain seeds of what we are supposed to be. We are sacred, holy, not just because of what came before us but because of what we are becoming…. For us this means that God is alive, God is active, God is sanctifying human society in ways we cannot imagine. This can mean that what we want to call sacred sometimes ends up being merely old, and what we call secular and new-fangled turns out to be the way in which God’s will is done.”(8)

We believe that our commitment to expansive language is a response to God’s Spirit as that Spirit continues to form the Body of Christ at 8th and Shipley.

We would raise our alleluias
for the grace of former years;
for tomorrow’s unknown pathway,
hear, O God, our humble prayers.

In the church’s pilgrim journey
you have led us all the way.
Still in presence move before us,
fire by night and cloud by day.

Come, O spirit, dwell among us,
give us words of fire and flame.
Help our struggling voice to praise you,
glorify your holy name.

–Janie Alford

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  1. “The Power of Language”, Supplement to the Blue Book Report, Committee on the Status of Women, Executive Council, The Episcopal Church 2003
  2. “Celebrating Women”, Janet Morley, Hannah Ward, 1986
  3. Blue Book report, op. cit.
  4. Blue Book report, op. cit.
  5. “Inclusive Language in the Church” – Nancy A. Hardesty
    Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1987
  6. op. cit.
  7. The New Zealand Prayer Book
  8. “Inclusive Language and St. Paul’s Social Teaching”, Sermon by John Armes at St. John’s Church, Edinburgh, July 28, 2002.

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Prepared by the Expansive Language Task Force, appointed by the Liturgy and Special Events Committee of The Episcopal Church of Saints Andrew and Matthew