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Rev. Winnie Varghese Headshot

Whatever Happened to Inclusive Language?

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Earlier this month the General Synod of the Church of England decided women can become bishops. Earlier this year the Church of England celebrated 20 years of ordaining women as priests. The Episcopal Church is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the first ordinations of women this month as well.

I think there is one significant negative impact of women ordained in The Episcopal Church. We, as a church, have become sensitive to anything perceived as an innovation. We seem to want to claim traditional and orthodox more than faithful, just or compassionate. As though traditional or orthodox equals unquestionable truth, not simply what was done or thought in the past.

The most obvious place I see this is in our worship services in The Episcopal Church.

Neo orthodox is how some of my friends define themselves. It is a real and serious thing, apparently, but in practice in The Episcopal Church it has come to mean "we want to be inclusive, because we're not bigots, but we aren't sure we have permission to think too hard about much else." I can't stand it, probably because to some degree it describes me.

I was in England for most of July and realized while there, as all good Anglicans do, that I had a lot to learn from the mother ship, errr. Mother Church. She was innovative, pastoral and locally present. I had expected to be bored or entertained, instead I was deeply moved.

There is a long history of writing prayers for public worship, including for Eucharistic services, in The Episcopal Church. Fifty years of the same prayer book will do that. If you don't believe me, find a very old Episcopalian. Our current rubric fundamentalism from people who aren't necessarily conservative in any other way is an innovation.

So, this is my plea to encourage liturgical renewal and creativity.

Increasingly, we are talking about God to people who aren't fleeing another more conservative or less liturgical tradition. We are talking to people who have no preconceived notions of faith or worship.

If we are starting fresh with Good News, obscure or obsolete terms are not necessarily the only way to do it. Arguably, not much of a way at all if you consider what we are communicating by doing it, that God and the church are archaic, sexist and anachronistic, -- come be a part of it. Yes, that ship is sinking.

With the ordination of women, the new prayerbook and the struggle over church wide Civil Rights work in the late 1970s in The Episcopal Church, we entered a period of profound conflict that concluded in many ways with the election of Gene Robinson as the first out gay bishop and Katharine Jefferts Schori as the first woman to be the Presiding Bishop. That was more than 40 years of tearing at ourselves to find a way forward. It makes sense to me that those of us raised in that time, want to go back to a better time, that we have heard about, before we were born. I think Annie Dillard says it best --"there was never a holier time." Speaking a beautiful truth today that does not require a code breakers manual or breaking out your vintage misogyny specs is possible, even preferable.

Inclusive and expansive language means I get to hear the poetry of today and yesterday and my capacity to imagine God at work in the world expands. I wish the new generations of clergy in The Episcopal Church would take a page from the mother church I witnessed this week. Every service I attended, from cathedral to royal peculiar to parish church was pastoral and creative in its prayers. The language was modern, the prayers written for the occasion, the images rich.

What if our rigidity is why we are failing? By failing I don't mean declining numbers in the church, but failing in being a church engaged in reconciliation within ourselves and in the world. There are implications to limiting our language for God.

Maybe we are insecure in the church in the U.S. So many of our clergy are not raised in the church and were drawn to it by the liturgy, and do not feel empowered to shape it. As some congregations decline in membership, clinging to what is familiar might be instinctive, although arguably an effective leader could point out that doing what is familiar is what has gotten us to this point.

For those of us who were raised in the church in times of conflict and find ourselves in leadership now, I pray for us that on these anniversaries, we shake off a little more of the fear that followed the church moving towards equality in leadership. Equality isn't a political position in the church. It is a theological understanding of the fullness of the body of Christ reflected in the leadership of the church that seeks to follow him.

Sometimes we in the church behave as though we are terrified of being everything those that left us said we were.

Well, what if they are right about us?

Some of us are women, people of color, and queer. We believe that God is at work in the world and that means we might need to be looking out into the world to find God. We believe the gospels demand justice.

Linguists, sociologists and psychologists teach us that language profoundly impacts how we form the ideas that frame our understanding of the world, how can we not be moved to use these insights in how we are forming our communities?

Yes, we are the church the traditionalists told us we were as they left, and in my little corner we are flourishing.

It is up to us, the leaders of the church to lead the gathered towards a vision of reconciliation that we have not yet experienced. That is what common prayer is, the visions we cast for the common good.

Here's the blessing that shook me up last Sunday: descriptive, evocative and teaching. May it be a blessing to you.

"May the God who shakes heaven and earth; whom death could not contain; who lives to disturb and heal us, bless you with power." -- Janet Morley.