The Center for Congregational Ethics provides resources for Christian ethics education in local churches, including daily reflections on readings from the Revised Common Lectionary and a series called “The Right, The Good, The Happy.” Both resources are available on the Center’s Facebook page. The following interview of Molly T. Marshall and Meredith Stone is part of the Center’s series and was posted on September 19, 2018. The interviewer, Bill Tillman, is the coordinator for the Center. He served Baptist institutions for over forty years, thirty of which were spent teaching Christian Ethics. The interview was published with permission–and in hopes that you will become a reader and user of the Center’s resources!

This interview is in response to one of the latest conversations within the Episcopal Church about possibly revising the Book of Common Prayer to make language gender neutral, especially with regard to God. The interviewees are Molly Marshall (MM) and Meredith Stone (MS).

Center for Congregational Ethics (CFCE): First, what is your general perception about the need for using gender neutral, gender inclusive, language in society, but especially within the contexts of theological education institutions where each of you work?

MS: Language is one of the primary sources of funding for our imaginations. When the language we use about people, and especially God, is primarily male, then the sources for our theological, liturgical, ministerial, and interrelational imaginations are primarily male. Because God, the church, and world is much bigger than “male,” I find that using inclusive language is a significant way that I can help those in my community broaden their imaginations and hopefully the reach of their ministries.

MM: I have long contended that inclusive language is necessary lest we erase women from being essential to the narrative of humanity. Now, we must grow beyond the binary male/female dichotomy with the accompanying stereotypical characterizations. Inclusive language can order human conventions toward a more just society. For nearly four decades in theological education, I have encouraged learners to experiment with inclusive language for humanity—and for God. The language we use for God, usually exclusively masculine language, tends to legitimate patriarchal structures and suggest that somehow men are more like God than women are.

CFCE: One of the negative critiques for changing gender language with regard to God is that such changes will open the way for other language references for those who have been traditionally dismissed with regard to their inclusion in worship. Some label this attempt to be more inclusive as being “politically correct.” Would you agree or disagree with the idea that constantly bringing up “politically correctness” is a kind of political correctness? Why should we be more inclusive, or not, with our language, anyway?

MS: Inclusivity should not be practiced out of a compulsion to political correctness, it should come from our respect for the infinite, mysterious nature of God, and for the essential value of all people made in the image of God. All language for God is metaphorical since the transcendant God cannot be captured by human language. Therefore, we do a disservice to God and humanity by limiting our metaphors to only a few, male formulations.

MM: I don’t like the term “political correctness,” for it diminishes the pursuit of justice that inclusive language represents. It is used to dismiss the genuinely appropriate concern that language not function to marginalize, ignore, or demean. We live in a time when people are seeking to name their experience and insist that linguistic forms reflect that, and I support expanding language in this way. Especially, as we think about human language we project on God, we must move past biological gender. Further, scripture offers a wider range of metaphors for the divine than the restrictive language of the creeds and liturgy (and much of hymnody). Thankfully, many traditions are examining this limitation.

CFCE: Episcopal priests are required to follow the prayer book with the current gender language in place. Baptists and other free church/congregational organizations don’t have such requirements–does that reality make it harder or easier to communicate to theological education students about gender language?

MM: Baptists do have great freedom in our patterns of worship and theological construction, and we should encourage students to explore new ways of celebrating God’s trinitarian history with humanity, a story of creation, redemption, and consummation. A place to begin is to study some of the great works of feminist theology, such as Elizabeth Johnson’s She Who Is. She offers new images for God and persuades the reader that all language for God is a play of analogy. Hymn composers such as Ruth Duck, Brian Wren, and Jane Parker Huber offer fresh words and portrayals of God and humanity that open up new vistas for conceptualization in worship.

MS: While Baptist freedom means that one group of Baptists cannot dictate to another group of Baptists how they might speak, pray, or worship, our freedom is a core foundation of our identity which can provide avenues for creative thought and expression. As Dr. Marshall suggests, being able to access the fresh portrayals of new hymn writers, scholars, and church leaders is an opportunity Baptists have which others may not.

CFCE: Is it possible we do not listen to our own praying, much more others, to recognize how much of our real theology is expressed in our prayers with vocabulary that is dated, irrelevant to our social context?

MM: It has been said that praying is the purest form of theology. What we say is a window into belief. Much of public prayer is irrelevant, provincial, self-interested, lacking the cry for justice, appropriate lament, and global vision. I believe that good pastors teach congregations how to pray through what they model week by week. I find the practice of keeping a prayer journal very constructive in prompting me to examine the language I use. Of course, silence can be a wonderful form of prayer as the Spirit interprets the groans of our heart to God according to the divine will.

MS: I often encourage my students to consider the names of God used in their prayers. When I point this out the students tend to have an “a-ha!” moment and realize that they only use one divine name in their prayers…and often say that name countless times in each prayer. One student said, “I think I said ‘Heavenly Father’ 50 times the last time I prayed out loud!” When I asked the student if they really thought that God was only male and only in heaven and not here with us, or even everywhere, a light bulb went off as to why the language we use in prayer is so important.

CFCE: The #Me Too and #Church Too movements have posited that more than a little of the sexual harassment, abuse, violence that has occurred in congregation or congregationally related settings has happened because gender language with regard to God has driven, consciously and unconsciously, the idea that women are inferior to men. Would you agree or disagree with these observations?

MM: Of course I believe that traditional language for God has led to diminishing women, even giving license for their abuse in order to ensure their submissiveness. Further, the male projection onto God of all powerful, all knowing, etc., accrues such power to men and renders women less than full bearers of the image of God. Also, the pictures of the warrior God usually trump the mothering God. The latter image is seen as an ancillary modifier rather than something essential about God.

MS: I would agree that patriarchal, male-dominant language and power structures within the church have contributed to unconsciously and consciously demeaning the value of women. How could women not think men are more important to God than women when they have only ever heard men “speak for God” in sermons or heard God referred to, prayed to, and sung about as male? An encouragement I would make to pastoral leaders is to begin by modeling inclusive language in your sermons and prayers, and working closely with a worship leader to choose songs with expansive language. By expansive language, I mean expanding our language and worship repertoire to include new images without having to necessarily rid our churches of all male language. The metaphor of “Father” for God is scriptural and has proven helpful to believers for thousands of years, but a metaphor of “Mother” is also scriptural and can become helpful to believers for another thousand years when used as well.

CFCE: The Center for Congregational Ethics is indebted to you for taking time to reflect on these current concerns in the lives of congregations.

Molly T. Marshall is president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary, Shawnee, Kansas. Meredith Hare Stone is assistant professor of scripture and ministry Logsdon Seminary, Hardin-Simmons University, Abilene, Texas.