This is the third of a three-part series of articles on women in
The United Methodist Church in celebration of Women’s History Month
12:30 P.M. EST March 25, 2010
Lyrics from the United Methodist Hymnal printed in 1989 share inclusive
language options for music dating back to the 19th century. UMNS photo
by Kathleen Barry.
View in Photo Gallery
Thirty years after the United Methodist General Conference launched a
study on language about God and Scripture, clergy and laity continue to
struggle with issues surrounding masculine, feminine and gender-neutral
images of God.
For some, changing “mankind” to “humankind” is a seamless effort.
Others say traditional masculine language in hymns and worship best
meets their spiritual needs.
Take the word “father,” for example. While it stirs positive images
for persons who grew up with a loving male parent, it can elicit a
different reaction from someone who did not.
The Rev. Linda Foster Momsen volunteers at a women’s prison in
Raleigh, N.C. “Most of the women with whom I work have never experienced
a father,” she said. “How are they going to experience God, the Father,
The 1980s church task force said its goal was to witness to the
wholeness of God.
“We have not intended to rewrite or revise the Bible,” members said.
“Rather, we embrace the Bible in all its fullness, including its
diversity of images for God.”
Part of the move toward inclusive language involves education.
The church study culminated in the booklet “Words That Hurt and Words
That Heal” to assist The United Methodist Church in becoming more
inclusive in its language and practice.
While many lay and clergy embrace newer versions of Scripture such as
Eugene Peterson’s The Message, others use the King James Version, which
also includes feminine images of God.
“Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest
them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy
children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings,
and ye would not!” (Matthew 23:37, KJV)
“Inclusive language was certainly more of an issue for those of us
who came out of the feminist movement of the ‘70s,” acknowledged Maxine
Clarke Beach, Drew University Divinity School.
Some Bible passages, including this one from the
King James Version,
offer feminine images of God.
“We still request that our students deal with our desire for them to
use inclusive language, mostly to allow for diversity of images of God
in worship and writing, but it is not enthusiastically accepted by all.”
People find ways to avoid the issue. At St. Paul School of Theology,
“students regularly download song lyrics off the Internet,” said the
Rev. Pamela Couture, “so that even hymns that have been updated in the
hymnal show up on the computer screen as lyrics without inclusive and
There is still a long way to go to offer diverse images of God, said
retired Bishop Beverly Shamana.
“The church is enamored with the images of God as mother as long as
they are confined to parables and sermon examples,” she said.
“Unfortunately, inclusive language has taken a back seat to other
concerns in the church. Frankly, I don't think it ever made it to the
top 10 of women's concerns.”
Reflecting on lessons learned since she was one of the first
executives of the United Methodist Commission on the Status and Role of
Women, Trudie Kibbe Reed said, “One mistake we made was trying to force
change behaviorally like inclusive language without first changing the
heart. If hearts are changed, action follows.”
“My fond hope,” Shamana said, “is that we, the church, will embrace a
deeper and broader concept of the nature of God and reflect it in the
most powerful community gathering—the church at worship.”
*Dunlap-Berg is internal content editor for United Methodist
News media contact: Barbara Dunlap-Berg, Nashville, Tenn., (615)
742-5489 or firstname.lastname@example.org.