Gender and Expanding our Worship Language

In the next few weeks, we will once again update our liturgy with seasonal changes for Pentecost and the season following.  We at St. Alban’s are going to expand our liturgical resources to include gender inclusive and expansive language.   

When I was in Sunday school, I remember reading Matthew 4:19.  Jesus said, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” We discussed this passage. One of the girls in my class jokingly raised her hand and said, “What about women?” Our teacher gave us a grammar lesson about the use of masculine words being used to refer to the entirety of humanity. She was certainly correct. Subsequent Bible translations translate this passage “fish for people.” 

However, the gender issue doesn’t stop with this one passage or grammar example. How about the story of Noah where the author names all of Noah’s sons and forgets entirely about the wives? They are nameless. How about the feeding of the 5000? Scripture tells us Jesus fed 5000 men. Women are not counted in the number of those fed. Unfortunately, even with the understanding of ‘men’ meaning all humanity, this has supported a mindset that negates or erases women in our sacred stores and faith communities. 

Scriptures are given to us and we are to use them along with our tradition, reasoning and the Spirit’s guidance to shape and inform our faith life. While we cannot change the fact that the authors of scripture followed their culture and chose not to record the women’s names. We recognize that this is not the case in 2021. Therefore, we can hold ourselves to a high standard of Biblical literacy and interpretation and recognize that women are, in fact, not always erased.  There are plenty of important women in scripture, Deborah, The Virgin Mary, Pheobe, Dorcas, Lydia, to name just a few.  

Beyond that, did you know that God is referred to numerous times with feminine imagery in the Bible. We have just been enculturated not to see it or honor it.  

In the very beginning of our faith story God creates man and woman in the Divine image. This is possible because God is not bound to the limitations of human descriptions of gender or expression of gender. Instead, Gender reflects something of the Divine nature and who God is. It is both masculine and feminine, and not bound by this binary.  

This continues throughout scripture. Genesis 1:27; Hosea 11:3-4; Deuteronomy 32: 11-12; Deuteronomy 32: 18; Isaiah 42:14; Psalm 131: 2; Matthew 23:37 plus many, many more.  

In recent years The Episcopal Church and many, many other denominations have begun using both these Biblical images and modern syntax in worship. 

There are two approaches to gender pronouns and identification in worship. The first is to make references to God entirely gender neutral.  

Examples include changing the word “Lord” to “Savior” or simply “God.” 

The other is to expand our language to include more images and gender descriptions. Enriching our Worship, a worship supplement approved by our Bishop, gives us opportunities to do this in our worship for The Holy Eucharist Rite II and for other rites of the Church. 

In my experience, it is best to expand rather than reduce language, because in reduction oftentimes we lose intent and meaning. As a result we lose descriptions of God’s nature. For example, there is a big difference between the words “Lord” and “Savior.” There is a difference between “kingship” and “kinship.”   

Here are a few examples of expansive language at work in worship.  

In addition to the BCP opening acclamation:  

“Blessed be God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (+)  

Enriching our Worship gives us the option to use  

“Blessed be the one, holy and living God.” (+)  

Both find a grounding in scripture, both are approved for our use by our bishops, and both teach us something about the nature and life of God. 

Another example: 

At the end of the liturgy the priest blesses the congregation:  

A priest may say a traditional Trinitarian blessing that states “Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be with you now and remain with you always” There are additional blessings that use gender neutral language. You may have heard me use “Holy eternal Majesty, Holy Incarnate Word, Holy abiding Spirit, Bless you for evermore. Amen.” Both of these examples are Trinitarian and both have a scriptural basis.  

There are other options some of which use feminine images. These too are scriptural and theologically sound.  

Here is an example: May the blessing of the God of Abraham and Sarah, and of Jesus Christ born of our sister Mary, and of the Holy Spirit, who broods over the world as a mother over her children, be upon you and remain with you always. Amen.  

You may question why this expansive language is important and why it is helpful include new words into our worship. Here’s why. Praying Shapes Believing.  If you’ve been in an Anglican / Episcopal Church you’ve probably heard that expression  To take that one step further believing also shapes behavior. What beliefs are being formed about women’s roles in the church and larger society if we only discuss the masculine attributes of God without mentioning the feminine?  

For that matter, what about the aspects of God that transcend both? St. Paul writes in Galatians “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”  

We, as followers of Jesus, are called to recognize the Divine image in all people regardless of sex and gender so that we might love and serve all people. Our society struggles to honor the gifts of and the Divine image within women and our trans siblings. We have a duty to set a better example. This example comes not from our own intellect, political persuasions, or views, but from the nature and will of God.  

Our praise and worship of God should honor and express this. 

It is my prayer that, with these additions to our liturgy, we may come to envision and show others a God who is larger than our words and more expansive that we could ever imagine. I hope our worship will lead us to honor the gifts of a multitude of holy women in ages past, and also the sisters in Christ who sit next to us in our pews- all faithful ministers of the Gospel.