New Hymnal Avoids Sexist Language, And Does So With Amazing Grace


Talking is hard and getting harder, even for those of us who care less about being politically correct than we do about being merely polite.

Who hasn't stammered occasionally in the effort to keep up with the new, as yet unwritten language rules?: "He -- or she -- must decide for himself or herself. . . ;" "Blacks, er, Afro, er, African Americans. . . ;" "My nephew is handicapped, I mean, physically challenged. . . ;" and so on.

What is the late 20th century American who cares about the mother (is that OK?) tongue to do?

Happily, there is good news from the front. The fin de siecle's first book of hymns -- the new "United Methodist Hymnal" -- blends about as well as they can be blended the contemporary concern that the language be inclusive with the traditional concern for felicity of expression.

The hymnal has received widespread critical praise. More important, it has been embraced by the people in the pews. On the first anniversary of its publication, an overwhelming majority of the nation's Methodist congregations have voted to adopt -- and purchase -- the new hymnal for use in their Sunday worship services.

The success of the Methodists, who constitute the largest of the mainline Protestant denominations, is all the more impressive because of the earlier, spectacular failure of the Inclusive Language Lectionary. The lectionary represented the effort of the National Council of Churches (NCC), the umbrella organization for the mainline denominations, to recast the language of the scriptural passages that are used in worship.

Song and Scripture are, of course, the embers of Christianity that glow most brightly in the hearts and minds of believers -- and longest in the memories of those who were brought up to believe but no longer do. Those who have ever been in the church's fold may not remember a word they ever heard preached or a doctrine they ever heard taught (what's that about consubstantiation again?), but they all know that the Lord is their shepherd and that amazing grace is life's sweetest sound.

The centrality of song and Scripture makes the words in which they are rendered vitally important, not just for Christians but for all with whom they come into contact -- that is, for virtually everyone. Somehow, American hymnals and Bible translations must be familiar enough to retain the authority that only memory, accuracy and tradition bring, yet also modern enough so that they are not archaic or unintentionally offensive to people outside the dominant white male culture.

The NCC, offended by the Bible's insistence on, among other things, referring to God as ruler and Jesus Christ as man, made Scripture the object of its reforming zeal. In 1980, the Council appointed an 11-member committee of feminist academics to write a non-sexist lectionary that would be read from the nation's Protestant pulpits on Sunday mornings.

Rendering Scripture as they wished it to be rather than as it is, the NCC committee changed the "Lord" and the "Son of Man" to the "Sovereign One" and the "Human One," respectively. The "Son of God" was transformed, Peter Pan-style, into the eternally infantile "Child of God." And here's what happened to the English language when the committee got its hands on Genesis 2:18, God's decision to create Eve for Adam: "It is not good that the human being should be alone; I will make a companion corresponding to the creature."

The NCC, consulting no one but its own bureaucracy, published Volume 1 of the Inclusive Language Lectionary in late 1983. After a week or so of alternating outrage and hilarity, the larger church abandoned it to gather dust.

In 1984, less than a year later, the Methodists decided to revise their hymnal. Ruing the NCC fiasco, they designed an open five-year process: a diverse, 25-member committee; 800 lay and clerical consultants; and, with unrestricted press coverage of every committee meeting, a vocal audience consisting of all nine million-plus Methodists. (At least it must have seemed that way when the committee, having voted narrowly to exclude "Onward, Christian Soldiers" and "Battle Hymn of the Republic" for being too militaristic, responded instantly to an avalanche of protests and restored both hymns to their much-sung prominence.)

The hymnal that emerged from the revision process is, as the church had hoped, inclusive yet traditional. "White as snow" becomes "bright as snow" in one hymn; "lips grow still" replaces "lips grow dumb" in another. In response to Native American objections, the stanza in which "pilgrim feet . . . a thoroughfare for freedom beat" has been removed from "America the Beautiful," an omission that only readers of this article will notice.

For those who recoil at the sight of modern linguistic constructions such as "s/he" and "fisherperson" as violently as at old ones like "mankind," the Methodists' handling of gender language is exemplary.

As in other contemporary writings, general references to people as "men" or "he" are pretty much gone. What is distinctive -- and instructive -- about the Methodist hymnal is the grace with which these references have been replaced. "Good Christian Friends, Rejoice" is just as good as "Good Christian Men, Rejoice." And "Ye that are brave now serve him" (from "Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus") is better than "Ye that are men now serve him."

As for the divine, God is still King, Lord, Master, Father, even He in the Methodist hymnal: How else could it be? But just as neither God's nature nor the Bible itself is bound by earthly understandings of maleness, neither is good hymonody. One of the new hymnal's greatest joys is the occasional entry that lifts up nonmasculine yet soundly biblical images of God. Singing in church doesn't get much better than R. Dean Postlethwaite's meditation on Deuteronomy 32:11-12:

The care the eagle gives her young,

Safe in her lofty nest,

Is like the tender love of God

For us made manifest.

Are there lessons for the language to be learned from the NCC's failure and the Methodists' success? I can think of two. The first concerns process: as closed, secretive, and single-minded as the NCC's Scripture revision was, that's how open, public, and diverse was the process by which the Methodists rewrote their hymnal. Surely proposed changes in something as universally and democratically constituted as American English will take root only if most people feel that they are somehow part of the process.

The second lesson has to do with tolerance for the familiar. Too often, language reformers act like language police -- interrupting conversations to impose their often bizarre locutions, taking offense where none is intended, making large issues of small ones and so on. The sort of change they desire is likeliest of acceptance when it is least conspicuous and, therefore, most easily woven into the existing fabric of everyday life. There is no reason why what works on Sunday morning at 11 can't work from 9 to 5 on Monday, too.

Michael Nelson, an Episcopalian, is professor of political science at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee.

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