“Language used in the worship and work of the church should affirm the wholeness of God and the full personhood of every individual.” So wrote Starr Luteri, in the PC(USA)’s 1996 study paper “Language About God”.  When you think about it, isn’t that what we want the Church to be doing in all areas — not just in our use of language, but in theology, in pastoral care, in mission, and in every aspect of ministry? What is our call if not proclaiming the fullness of God and bringing the Good News to every human being we encounter?
Our choices in the use of language, particularly language that is gendered, may serve to silence or to liberate women. I cannot count the number of conversations I have had with people – both men and women – who have argued persistently that this is not the case. When I have conversations like these, I find my mind wandering to two hymns in particular.
The first, “Sing a New Church,”  by Delores Dufner, seeks to nurture a Church in which both women and men are affirmed and included in the theology and ministry of Christ’s earthly mission. It includes these phrases: “Rich in our diversity,” “Male and female in God’s image, Male and female, God’s delight,” “Weave a song of peace and justice,” and “Draw together at one table All the human family.” The refrain closes with, “Sing a new church into being, One in faith and love and praise.”
The second hymn that comes to my mind is one from about eighty years ago. We need only read the title of this hymn before it becomes perfectly clear that in our day and age, language is not value neutral: “If Men Go to Hell, Who Cares?”  Now, after you have picked yourself up off the floor, whether from the potentially flippant sense of the title, or from the sudden clarity of how gender specificity is part of our contemporary context…consider that this hymn writer’s intention was “If Women and Men Go to Hell, Who Cares?”
While the world rushes on in its folly and sin,
And men go down in despair
To reign where demons are shrieking within,
If men go to hell, who cares?
The reaction of virtually all who hear about this hymn illustrates how our language has already begun to change with regard to people in general. Many of us who lead worship try to use humanity or humankind instead of mankind. We suggest friends, folk, or sisters and brothers instead of brothers, brotherhood, or men. And we cringe at the still-pervasive use of the exclusive versions, not only in the media, but also in contemporary hymns and praise choruses and the liturgies of some of our colleagues in ministry.
Whether the omission is intentional or not, an increasing number of worshipers feel hurt when the male-dominant culture continues to overlook its mothers, sisters, and daughters. For those who have been abused, the practice continues the oppression. Such practice seems especially shortsighted in the PC(USA), which in 2013 counted women as 58% of its active members.
What about women in the Church, in church history, in song, and in Scripture? A search of Glory to God, our new Presbyterian hymnal, reveals that, of 853 hymns, only 18 mention the word woman,16 mention women, and perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a great deal of overlap between those two groups. A bit of good news, however, is that many women from the Bible whose stories have rarely been sung are now featured in hymns to lift up their stories as read and taught in scripture. Let’s consider some of those resources now available:
In the Glory to God index, there are 8 hymns under the topic “Women.” Here are the hymn titles and the women to whom they refer:
- #98 To a Maid Whose Name Was Mary – Mary, Mother of Jesus
- #101 No Wind at the Window – Mary, Mother of Jesus
- #161 Woman in the Night – Mary, Mother of Jesus; Woman with the Hemorrhages, Samaritan Woman, Martha’s Sister (unnamed woman in the three synoptic Gospels), Martha, the Women from Galilee (included by name in Mark: 2 Marys, Salome; also in Matthew: Mother of Sons of Zebedee)
- #201 A Prophet-Woman Broke a Jar – Martha’s Sister (unnamed woman in the three synoptic Gospels), Magdalene
- #229 In the Darkness of the Morning – Magdalene
- #241 Woman, Weeping in the Garden – Magdalene
- #324 For All the Faithful Women – Miriam, Ruth, Naomi, Mary & Martha, Magdalene, Dorcas
- #704 To My Precious Lord – Martha’s sister in John 12:3 (unnamed in synoptics: Matthew 26:6–13/Mark 14:3–9/Luke 7:36–50)
There are at least three additional hymns about women in scripture, that are not included in the index:
- #100 My Soul Cries Out (Mary, singing the “Magnificat”)
- #173 A Woman and a Coin (Parable, Luke 15:8-10)
- #178 The Woman Hiding in the Crowd (The Woman with the Hemorrhages)
This may be the first time the stories of women such as Dorcas and Salome have been sung in church. And yet we have so many more unsung: Deborah, Tamar, Abigail, Eve – the list goes on.
A related issue is that of expansive language for God. “Rock of Ages” and “On Eagle’s Wings” come to mind as among the very few examples of non-gendered imagery for the divine in our hymnody. I’m not aware of any hymns in Glory to God that speak of God as Hen, but Brian Wren has contributed two excellent texts that broaden our conception of God.
In GtG #760, “Bring Many Names,” God is imagined as Mother, Father, old, and young. This wonderful text brings us in touch with what we might call ‘Re-Imagined’ dimensions of God’s character. And in GtG #50, “Deep in the Shadows of the Past,” we meet the God of the Hebrew people, who is “a mystery, invisible, without a name: ‘I am what I will be’”.
We need only read the title of this hymn before it becomes perfectly clear that in our day and age, language is not value neutral: “If Men Go to Hell, Who Cares?”
Language in worship is not limited to hymns: it is also a part of our liturgy, especially those parts that are often committed to memory and which thus shape our vocabulary in subtle and persistent ways. One of the most common liturgical responses is the Doxology, which follows the offering in most worship services. Glory to God offers several doxology options in #606-609. The age-old, classic version of the text (God/him/Father/Son/Holy Ghost) is found in #606, with the rubric that “God” may be substituted for “him” throughout, to make the text more inclusive. However, “helicoptering in” a substitute word is perhaps the most awkward and self-conscious way to improve a text.  An original text by Neil Weatherhogg, already in use by many, is found in #607 and #608 (replacing the above words with God/Christ/Holy Spirit/Triune God). But once again, Brian Wren has offered a more poetic text in #609, to the tune LASST UNS ERFREUEN:
Praise God, from whom all blessings flow.
Praise God, all creatures high and low.
Praise God, in Jesus fully known:
Creator, Word, and Spirit one.
Introducing this text on special occasions, until it becomes familiar enough to use more frequently, can be one simple way to expand our rote repetition into broadened understanding.
For more specific help with inclusive and expansive language in liturgy, I recommend the downloadable two-page brochure, “Well Chosen Words,” at www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/all-women/resources/.
I believe that the hymn, “O God, We Bear the Imprint of Your Face,” GtG #759, makes an excellent close to this topic, blending social reality with Christian theology. Its final line speaks, perhaps most importantly, about the soul of the language we use.
O God, we bear the imprint of your face:
the colors of our skin are your design,
and what we have of beauty in our race
as man or woman, you alone define,
who stretched a living fabric on our frame
and gave to each a language and a name.
Where we are torn and pulled apart by hate
because our race, our skin is not the same,
while we are judged unequal by the state
and victims made because we own our name,
humanity reduced to little worth,
dishonored is your living face on earth.
O God, we share the image of the One
whose flesh and blood are ours, whatever skin;
in Christ’s humanity we find our own,
and in his family our proper kin:
Christ is the brother we still crucify,
his love the language we must learn, or die.
 “Language About God: Short-Term Study Course for Adults,” Frank T. Hainer, ed., and Starr Luteri, writer; (Louisville KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation), 1996, 6.
 “Sing a New Church” is the title of a hymn, text by Delores Dufner, OSB, b 1939, Sisters of St. Benedict; set to the tune NETTLETON, 8787D, from Wyeth’s Repository of Sacred Music, Pt. II, 1813; and published by OCP Publications. This hymn was used at the “Big Tent” closing worship, June 13, 2009, reprinted under LicenSing.org.
 “If Men Go to Hell, Who Cares” by E. M. Bartlett, early 20th century, http://www.hymnary.org/text/while_the_world_rushes_on_in_its_folly_a, found in Favorite Songs and Hymns: A Complete Church Hymnal, publ. 1939, https://archive.org/details/favoritesongshym00morr.
 The term “helicoptering in” came from Brian Wren back in the 1980s. He pointed to the especially unfortunate effect when it is done thoughtlessly, such as the case of “A Mighty Fortress” when “Christ” was substituted for “his” in “His craft and power are great” and “His rage we can endure”… which, in the context of the hymn, refers to the devil!
AUTHOR BIO: Robin is Honorably Retired and now residing in the Pittsburgh area, where she joys in her young grandsons and is seeking to serve a congregation in the capacity of Interim or Supply Pastor. She serves on the Advocacy Committee of Presbyterians for Earth Care (PEC). She is proud of her two grown daughters who have made strides in their professions — one dominated almost entirely by males.
Read more articles from this issue, “Hearing the Voices of Peoples Long Silenced”: Gender Justice 2014!