Divine Particularity

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Author Rev. Stacey Midge

Along with the invitation to write this article about gender justice in the new PC(USA) hymnal, Glory to God, I received a list of relevant hymns. My first reaction was, “Wow, that is a whole lot of hymns with the word ‘woman’ in the title.” It felt awkward, a bit overdone, like someone was trying too hard. I am a proud feminist who dedicates a great deal of time and thought to the struggle for gender equality; I write about it often, moderated my denomination’s (the Reformed Church in America) Commission for Women, and have been a life-long advocate for justice for women within and outside the church. Still, I have to admit that my first inclination was to wonder why it was necessary to explicitly mention women in so many hymn titles.

“So many,” you should know, is nine – and that’s if you stretch it to include obviously feminine words like “womb” and “mothering.” Nine, out of 853. I’ve been begging for years for more gender inclusive human language and a broader range of images for God in our worship music, and yet I confess that seeing nine songs with explicitly feminine titles laid out together was uncomfortable for me. I can only imagine how discomfiting it may be for some who have never thought about gendered language in their hymnody.

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My first inclination was to wonder why it was necessary to explicitly mention women in so many hymn titles. “So many,” you should know, is nine. Nine, out of 853.
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Appendix 2: “A Statement on Language” frames the choices made in Glory to God this way: “The framework of salvation history requires a collection of songs that reflects the full extent of the biblical narrative and also the full array of biblical language used for God–even if that leads us to using words and imagery that go beyond our natural comfort.” A list of hymns that sing of women and a feminine God only begin to hint at the full range of images found within the new hymnal. They are paired, often sequentially, with familiar hymns that use exclusively masculine language. “Womb of Life and Source of Being” (#3) dwells alongside “Come, Thou Almighty King” (#2). “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” (#8) follows “Mothering God, You Gave Me Birth” (#7). “Woman in the Night” (#161), which sings the stories of the women in Jesus’ life, is found near hymns recalling the twelve disciples.

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Miriam by Anselm Friedrich Feuerbach

This lovely play between divergent images of God and stories of male and female biblical personalities is reflective of the broad narrative of scripture–far more accurately reflective, I would argue, than previous hymnals that gave us lyrics for the stories of Abraham and Moses but forgot about Sarah and Miriam. Any discomfort we may have is rooted in unfamiliarity. Most of us have been singing about and praying to our heavenly Father as long as we can remember, but only those who have attended progressive-leaning women’s retreats have done much singing about a Mothering God. Mary the mother of Jesus is the only woman who merits a mention in many hymnals–and then only around Christmas. It wasn’t that long ago that we were all referred to as “men” in hymns. So yes, the word “women” shows up with unusual frequency in the hymn titles in Glory to God, more often than the word “men,” but nowhere close to the number of times it would have to appear to make up for the centuries in which women’s names and stories were entirely absent from Christian worship music.

My own tendency in writing lyrics and prayers and choosing music for worship is to lean toward genderless language: to speak of God without pronouns, to use images that are neither male nor female, and to draw on the history of people of faith in a generalized way, without making an issue of gender. The work of creative pronoun-avoidance aside, this is an easier route, less likely to cause questions or provoke the grief or anger that accompanies obvious change.

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The very particularity of gender in the hymns included in Glory to God serves as a reminder that God’s justice is not an omission of the specificity of gender. Rather, it is an inclusion of the worth and necessity of our uniqueness.
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The committee that compiled Glory to God chose another path, the rockier path of particularity. This hymnal risks offending people. It preserves traditional hymns with explicitly masculine God-language that causes feminists, myself included, to cringe. It also gets specific with feminine names and images for God: womb of life, Mothering God, Sister Wisdom, strong mother God. It tells the oft-heard stories of the patriarchs, male disciples, and biblical fathers. Beside them stand the woman at the well, Mary Magdalene, the woman with her lost coin, Dorcas, the bleeding woman who reached out to Jesus, Martha, Miriam, and a host of other named and unnamed mothers and sisters who went before us. It speaks of labor, birth, blood, and the body in earthy, forthright ways that are rather unusual in Christian hymnody. It doesn’t shrink back into comfortable generalities. It gets real.

Jesus+and+The+Woman+2In its inclusion of the particularities of gendered language (and in other ways that have nothing to do with gender but everything to do with justice), Glory to God will challenge everyone who uses it. The introduction and appendices make it clear that the committee intended it to do so. God’s call to justice is always beckoning us a little further beyond our comfort zones, renewing our vision of who we can be and expanding our perspective on who God is. As the community of faith, we strive to worship justly, so that we may be sent forth to work toward justice.

A just hymnal, it seems to me, is one that reflects both the reality of our world and the hope we hold in what God is transforming the world to be. It honors the language that has nurtured our faith and the faith of the saints who preceded us, while urging us toward greater understanding of the character and action of God. It speaks in broad strokes of the long arc of God’s salvation narrative, where each of us can find a place within the wide community of God’s people. And it recalls the details of individual lives which encountered a God who dares to be intimate with us, encouraging each of us to find our unique role in God’s work.

The very particularity of gender in the hymns included in Glory to God serves as a reminder that God’s justice is not an omission of the specificity of gender. Rather, it is an inclusion of the worth and necessity of our uniqueness.

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A just hymnal, it seems to me, is one that reflects both the reality of our world and the hope we hold in what God is transforming the world to be.
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In the tension between the current reality and the hoped-for future, I offer one hesitation in my wholehearted endorsement of Glory to God in regards to gender justice. No hymnal is a perfect collection that will stand for all time. Good hymnals speak to the best expression of their worshiping body in a specific time and place, and yet still exclude other realities and omit other experiences. Glory to God makes great leaps in the inclusion of women and feminine images of God, and I applaud the progress toward justice in this area. However, the hymnal still maintains a binary view of gender, strictly delineating male and female, that does not reflect the existence or experiences of transgender and genderqueer persons. I find myself hoping for a future generation of hymnody that stretches us even further into an expanded view of human and divine identity. But that, it seems to me, is the nature of justice, always calling us out of ourselves and into God’s wider vision. May this new hymnal challenge us and open us to wherever God may choose to lead the church. Glory to God.

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AUTHOR BIO: Rev. Stacey Midge serves as an Associate Minister at First Reformed Church of Schenectady, New York. She is the former moderator of the Commission for Women in the Reformed Church in America, and is currently a member of the New York State Council of Churches Social Witness Commission, where she is an active advocate against hunger and human trafficking in addition to issues of gender justice. Rev. Midge also engages her musical side singing and playing guitar with the alternative rock band In Flux.

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