The Language We Use

I served on the board of directors of the United Church of Christ homeland missions organization from 1985 through 1993. This term coincided with the development of the UCC’s New Century Hymnal, copyright 1993. The New Century Hymnal (NCH) was created at the direction of the General Synod of the United Church of Christ and was intentionally planned to be a hymnal that expanded its use of language about people and about God.

My small role in the publication of what we were fond of calling ‘the first hymnal on a new shelf’ was exciting and challenging and it nurtured my lifelong interest in language, including but not limited to the language we use when we speak of God’s own self. I have been interested to read in recent months about actions about language about God taken by a couple of church bodies.

(Continued from Messenger…)

The first action I noticed was reported in the Guardian November 24, 2017. “The Church of Sweden,” I read, “is urging its clergy to use gender-neutral language when referring to the supreme deity….” The Church of Sweden, a national Evangelical Lutheran church, is taking this action, which goes into effect on Pentecost, May 20, to update “a 31-year old handbook setting out to clergy how services should be conducted in terms of language, liturgy, hymns and other aspects.” In discussing the move, Archbishop Antje Jackelén said, “Theologically … we know that God is beyond our gender determinations, God is not human.”

Then, on Thursday, February 1, I read about the Episcopal church in the Diocese of Washington DC. At its 123rd Convention, the diocese passed a resolution “…to stop using masculine pronouns for God in future updates to its Book of Common Prayer.”

Churches like the United Church of Christ grant clergy and lay worship planners much more freedom than is the norm in either the Evangelical Lutheran church or the Episcopal church. I have experienced such freedom here at WHUMC, too, although I am not sure if that is characteristic of this congregation or a quality of all United Methodist churches. I DO know that changes in worship are fraught with angst for planners and worshipers alike, and that all language is metaphorical.

More to the point of encouraging readers’ reflections on their own spiritual lives – one of the goals, after all, of my writing here – I am interested in how raising the topic of the language used in worship to speak of God intersects with the way we image God in our lives with God and in God. What language do we use when we speak to God in prayer and praise? When we speak of God? What difference does it make? I have resources if you’d like to explore further.

Wishing you peace and productivity as Lent begins.

See you in church,
Rev. Dr. Martha Robertson