There have been a lot of hymns in my life. I love singing, and I am blessed to be serving in a church with wonderful accoustics. I’m becoming increasingly aware of the language used in hymns to talk about God. More specifically, I’m finding that very gendered language is starting to grate very badly.
Not so far back in time, in the English language, “man” was used in places where “human” or “person” might be used today. As a fan of the Book of Common Prayer, with its poetry and cadences, I’m well accustomed to doing the mental translations… ” who for us men, and for our salvation” includes me too. So I don’t have too much of a problem when old hymns talk about man and men. Occasionally I’ll substitute another word as I sing, if I can make it scan. “Folk” covers both genders, but is a word which some people can’t bear.
However, it is noticeable that most hymns also refer to God as “He”. I don’t mind, when the reference is to God the Father, or God the Son – it would be odd to refer to the father or Jesus as anything else. But I was looking at the hymns chosen for our Easter Service for the local primary school next week. Written in 1998, “His world”….”God is to be found when you seek Him”… what does this say to children about God? They aren’t growing up in a world where “man” translates as “human”, or where “he” means “he, she or it”. You may feel I am getting my knickers knotted unnecessarily. But language matters. When I do an assembly, I introduce prayers with the words “if you want to make this prayer your own, join in with me at the end saying ‘Amen’ “. Schools take language seriously. We have laws against being racist, ageist or sexist – and quite rightly. And I believe we should take language seriously in church too – if we can argue about translation of obscure New Testament Greek words, but ignore the way our own language changes and evolves, then we are missing a vital point.
So how do we refer to God? Our pronouns don’t work terribly well – these days ‘he’ and ‘she’ are gendered, and the gender-neutral ‘it’ is, I feel, demeaning. I end up in all sorts of linguistic contortions in an effort to avoid pronouns. That works fine when I am preaching, because I can arrange my sentences to do so, but it is less simple when we have a hymn book, and when words are known. Substitutes must scan and make sense. I suspect I’ll be wrestling with this for a while.