Sunday, February 6, 2011

Inclusive language: including "Lord."

We work very hard in the PC(USA) to make sure we use inclusive language for people (i.e. not gender-specific so that women don't feel left out) and expansive language for God (i.e. more than just "King" and "Lord" and other such patriarchal labels). We work very hard at Montclair Presbyterian to keep God in a gender-neutral space, although you could accuse us of just being allergic to tradition.

This week we did some spirituals and some other songs that used a lot of "Lord" language. It was occasioned by wanting to include my bassfriend in celebration, and Isaiah Jones' lovely communion liturgy setting. I did some editing of the songs ahead, but although you can easily substitute "God" in for "Lord" in prose, that gets iffy when you get to particular phrases like "Lord our God" which need to have three syllables and a certain musical rhythm. In total syllabic frustration I gave up the efforts at lyrical transposition, and we started talking - at staff meeting - about how (and whether) we could reclaim a positive use for the word "Lord."
After lots of groupthink and collaboration, we ended up printing this in the bulletin:

“Inclusive language is not a fad. It is not this year’s ‘cause,’ to be soon replaced by another. The growing use of inclusive language is the result of serious commitment on the part of many people to use words more responsibly, to speak more precisely, and to communicate more truthfully and sensitively.” (From “More Than Words” by Schaffran and Kozak)
We have changed the words of some of the music in our liturgy this morning to reflect our commitment to inclusive language. The word “Lord” in its traditional use is exclusive and patriarchal. When we use it, we do not use it in the same manner. When we use the word “Lord” in a description of God, we are using it ironically to bring to mind and heart the God who would become incarnate to bring us to wholeness. Our “Lord” -- our “boss” or “master” or even our “king” should we choose to say it – our “Lord” is the one who voluntarily gave up all forms of domination and power, who became the weakest of the weak, and whose greatest power is love. We do not give this respect to anyone who coerces it or demands it; we only give it to the one who subverts and transforms the very idea of power, and who gently loves us into our own strength and empowerment.

What do you think? Does that work? Are you comfortable with applying the word "Lord" to God, despite its connotations? And if so - how do you think of it?


  1. This is a great topic. I think even "God" has male overtones due to traditional/past images of the sacred. I think we have to add in language such as "God she. . . " in order to move even that word to a more inclusive place. Gender neutral does require some adjusting, including use of plural instead of singular. But it is worth the effort. I work with too many people whose "fathers" make the use of that image one that is negative. Thanks for keeping us thinking about this issues

  2. I agree that gender-inclusive language is not a fad, but don't think that discomfort with traditional language is all that productive a place to be. Are we also uncomfortable with ancient art? Or music? Or scripture itself which contains a lot to offend our sensibilities?

    I am in favor of a "use it all" approach. Change it up. Use traditional language sometimes and get wild and creative with your language other times. It is true that we have some work to do to open our imaginations and should perhaps err on the side of using the feminine and other types of language MORE than words like "Father" and "Lord", but I'm also not going to steal the Lord's Prayer from my octogenarians who get immense comfort from having said the same words their entire lives.

    Furthermore, with the word Lord in particular I think the theological implications are too vast to jettison. Perhaps King/Queen/Boss/Master/President could be substituted at times but most possibilities still contain issues of patriarchy and sound odd or inadequate. Saying Christ is Lord is just too central to the whole of the gospel to drop it.

  3. I don't think that "Lord", used in the traditional sense, is any less ironic than your use of it actually. Depending on what you mean by "traditional". But the early church was calling a person "Lord" and "master" who was tortured and executed as a criminal; who washed his followers feet; who dramatically gave up Davidic kingship, turning the whole idea of kingship on it's head. The said "Lord" when it was a capital offense to use the word that way. I think that, at the time, it had both irony and power, both of which it lost when it was adopted by Empire.

  4. very true, very true, the centrality of "jesus is lord" shouldn't be ignored. and YES to doug - "lord" was irony-laden at the beginning, and people "got it." .... and the same thing has been very clear at other points in history, but as for now - when it's not clear - how do we get out from under that nasty yoke of Empire that has ruined so much?
    With the "father" thing - yes - just keep mixing in the "mother" as well as the non-parental images. it's so important!