Naming God

IMG_3190There 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.

4 responses to “Naming God

  1. I’d also say that this is an issue that is re-emerging with many “newer” hymns, that they have reverted to the older language forms

  2. I think that individual priests have overcome the gender issue with the BCP Words by either omitting the word MAN or substituting gender neutral words for it. I believe that we could on a local basis amend the words by issuing printed versions of contentious hymns with the words substituted. One church I have been too does exactly that.

    I see your point when relating to children and the younger generation that using patriarchal language is difficult to overcome, whereas my generation have no problem with it at all – having grown up with it. And, even now when the celebrant omits or changes the word MAN in the creed or elsewhere in a BCP service I continue to use the words as given whatever others might do – Am I just an old reactionary or do I just prefer the cadence of the words used over 4 centuries in Anglican prayer? I suspect a bit of both. A liberal crusty 🙂

    • Then I’m a crusty liberal too – if people want BCP, then I take the view that they can do the mental translations, and do the words as originally written. But I don’t think that holds for the generations in school at the moment.

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