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Council revives debate over God language


7:00 A.M. EST August 17, 2010 | CHICAGO (UMNS)

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Image by Wordle.net

Can Christians discuss the language of faith without it becoming a battle over political correctness or theological orthodoxy?

The National Council of Churches hopes so.

To begin the conversation, its Justice for Women Working Group brought 28 people to Chicago in August for a three-day symposium, "Language Matters."

S. Kim Coffing, the lone United Methodist participant, did not know what to expect.

"The issue of how we talk about God and faith stirs up pain for many people,” said Coffing, an executive with the denomination's Commission on the Status and Role of Women.

"From the minute I walked in, it was obvious what they wanted was to listen to us," she said. "This was not about prescribing language or setting policies. They wanted to hear our stories. They wanted to know how the words used to talk about faith and God impacted us."

The Rev. Ann Tiemeyer, NCC program director for women's ministries, said the diverse gathering helped provide a direction for the council’s effort.

"This was the beginning of a process — a time for listening and conversation,” Tiemeyer said. “We do not want to pit people against one another."

Stories of God

The first task assigned Coffing at the symposium: Describe a time when language restricted her understanding of God. She had three minutes to tell her story.

Drawing on a childhood memory, she described a question she posed after her mother bathed her.

"As she was rubbing me dry, I asked, 'Mom, does God turn his back or close his eyes when I'm naked?'"

Up to that point in her life, Coffing had only heard God spoken of as male. She wanted to make sure he was a gentleman.

As she listened to others, Coffing heard people not of one mind on the issues. Yet, their personal stories drew her in.

"I saw how hungry people are to have meaningful conversations that are descriptive of their faith," she said. "They want to connect with other people around these issues. If there was a common theme, it was our need to listen."

God talk

America is more diverse than ever before, Coffing  said. The church draws people from a wide spectrum of races, ethnicities, cultures and customs.

"How does a mother explain the blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus at church to her dark-skinned child?" she said. "Faith language can alienate some people, while rendering others invisible."

As a United Methodist pastor in Duluth, Minn., in the 1990s, the Rev. David Wheeler routinely alternated imagery for God. Later, while serving as a pastor at a Minneapolis church, he encountered language obstacles starting a contemporary worship service.

"We had to rewrite the words to be inclusive since much of the praise music out there was sexist," said Wheeler, who now works with a nonprofit agency assisting people with disabilities.

"I don't want to de-sex God," he said. "But for some people, male imagery and patriarchy gives them a sense of power and tradition. We need to be sensitive about using language that is inviting to people across cultures and faith traditions."

The NCC also says the issues are bigger than gender. It talks about using "expansive" language rather than merely gender-inclusive language.

Changing times

Talking about the words of faith isn't new to United Methodists. It happens in Sunday school classes, Bible studies and other settings.

"We've had an active history in addressing inclusive language," Coffing said. "It's not necessarily a history of agreeing on the issues. But there has been legislation to affirm language diversity and educational materials historically provided."

Efforts to raise sensitivity to language emerged on a large scale among mainline Protestants in the 1970s with the influx of female students and faculty and the development of feminist theologies.

Inclusive language lectionaries and Bibles emerged. Theologians produced a range of books on the issues.

Still, "Inclusive language never really took root in the mainstream," said M. Garlinda Burton, top executive of the Commission on the Status and Role of Women.

Challenging traditional language for God was viewed by some as an attack on their faith.

"It's a volatile issue," Burton said. "Some in the church underestimated the value of having conversations with one another rather than having a policy dictated."

Starting the conversation

For many years afterward, the public conversations seemed to stop.

"Part of the impetus to have a meeting on language is the impression of some observers that the use of gender-inclusive language throughout our NCC member communions has declined," the council said.

News of the gathering excited Heather Morgan Dethloff, though she wasn't invited to attend.

Dethloff, 30, a Lutheran doctoral candidate at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill., requires that students use inclusive language in the classes she teaches. At the same time, in the doctoral dissertation she's writing on the Trinity, she prefers to talk of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

"Father is a relational title," she said. "God is only known as father in relation to Jesus, his son. For me, using inclusive language is not about abandoning all masculine language."

Burton concurs.

"There are people like my mom, who doesn't want the words to hymns changed," she said. "But she's also learning new hymns that don't use father language. You can use old and new."

The council’s working group says the language used to talk about faith is a justice issue -- a view Burton shares.

"Like any other Christian social justice issue, you continue to look at the Holy Spirit for transformation," she said.

*Hogan is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

News media contact: David Briggs, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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