Yesterday we celebrated the Third Sunday of Easter and we heard a reading from the book of Revelation:
I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice,
“Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!”
Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing,
“To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”
And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” And the elders fell down and worshiped (Revelation 5:11-14).
Although the book of Revelation isn’t normally one of my “go to” books when I’m looking for scripture to comfort me or raise my spirits, this particular passage is lovely and is a perfect example of how one might write something using what is known as “bias-free and expansive language.”
Look at the scripture again. Notice there is no gender mentioned anywhere in the passage. Not for the writer, nor the angels, living creatures, elders, the Lamb, or the one seated on the throne. Now notice how the use of this type of language allows us to see the whole universe as completely united in its praise of our Creator.
In February of 2018, the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, president of the House of Deputies, appointed a 47-member special committee to draft proposed legislation on sexual harassment and exploitation. This followed a letter to the Episcopal Church in January from Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and Jennings, calling for the church to “examine its history and come to a fuller understanding of how it has handled or mishandled cases of sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse through the years.”
The special committee, sometimes dubbed the “MeToo Committee,” proposed more than two dozen resolutions on topics ranging from changes to the canons on clergy discipline to issues of clergy compensation and pension equity for lay employees. Other resolutions touching on issues of gendered language and clergy employment were proposed by deputies from outside the committee. The full report from the special committee is available.
General Convention adopted many of the proposed resolutions including three dealing with changes to Title IV canons on clergy discipline, four addressing the needs of women in society, and several resolutions dealing with changes to structures inside the church. Resolution D067 is one of these resolutions:
D067: Bias-Free and Expansive-Language for God and Humanity
Resolved, That the 79th General Convention acknowledges as has the Society of Biblical Literature Book of Style, that “bias-free language respects all cultures, peoples, and religions” and encourages the use of inclusive and expansive language for both God and humanity; and be it further
Resolved, That the 79th General Convention in the spirit of effective evangelism and proclamation of the Gospel affirm the use of “bias-free language” defined by the principles below:
– Eliminate the perception of conscious or unconscious bias by the distracting use of biased language when not central to the meaning of the text.
– Avoid the generic use of masculine nouns and pronouns which is increasingly unacceptable in current English usage.
– Avoid the use of language that perpetuates stereotypes based on characteristics such as race, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, and gender identity or expression.
– Avoid the assignment of gender to God, except when required by the text.
– Respect all cultures, peoples, and religions by sensitivity to the uncritical use of biblical characterizations such as “the Jews” or “the Pharisees” that can perpetuate religious and ethnic stereotypes.
– Structure sentences to communicate clearly while using gender-neutral language, for example:
Omit the pronoun.
Repeat the noun.
Use a plural antecedent.
Use an article instead of a pronoun.
Use the neutral singular pronoun “one.”
Use the relative pronoun “who.”
Use the imperative mood;
And be it further
Resolved, That the 79th General Convention urges that the Executive Council, the Office of General Convention and the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society give priority to using these guidelines in all published communications; and be it further
Resolved, That the 79th General Convention exhort dioceses, congregations, institutions, and organizations affiliated with the Church to follow these guidelines in all published communications.
The explanation for this resolution offers some helpful resources and understanding:
Our language matters. A website, printed bulletin, or sign is often the first engagement a newcomer has with the Episcopal Church. These guidelines will equip our congregations, dioceses, Episcopal institutions, and all Episcopalians to provide a generous welcome and avoid unintended bias.
The Society of Biblical Literature is a widely-respected international organization of 8,000 biblical scholars who study the Bible from diverse perspectives. The Chicago Manual of Style is a venerable guide for writers of English. In a survey of guidelines in Episcopal seminaries, Nashotah House and Trinity School for Ministry commend the use of the SBL handbook, and Nashotah House also encourages use of the Chicago Manual of Style.
From the Society of Biblical Literature Handbook of Style, second edition (2014), section 4.3.1:
– Bias-Free Language. The generic use of masculine nouns and pronouns is increasingly unacceptable in current English usage. Historians must obviously be sensitive to the requirements of their sources, but in many cases the assignment of gender to God is best avoided.
– Bias-free writing respects all cultures, peoples, and religions. Uncritical use of biblical characterizations such as the Jews or the Pharisees can perpetuate religious and ethnic stereotypes.
– For writers and editors who need help in finding language that avoids sexual, racial, and other types of bias, we recommend The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing, by Casey Miller and Kate Swift, 2nd ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1988) or Guidelines for Bias-Free Writing, by Marilyn Schwartz and the Task Force on Bias-Free Language of the Association of American University Presses (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995).
From the Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition (2017), sections 5.251-5.260:
– Maintaining credibility. Biased language that is not central to the meaning of the work distracts many readers and makes the work less credible to them. Few texts warrant a deliberate display of linguistic biases. Nor is it ideal, however, to call attention to a supposed absence of linguistic biases, since this will also distract readers and weaken credibility.
– Gender bias. Consider the issue of gender-neutral language. On the one hand, many reasonable readers find it unacceptable to use the generic masculine pronoun (he in reference to no one in particular). On the other hand, it is unacceptable to many readers (often different readers) either to resort to nontraditional gimmicks to avoid the generic masculine (by using he/ she or s/he, for example) or to use they as a kind of singular pronoun (but see 5.48). Either approach sacrifices credibility with some readers.
– Other biases. The same is true of other types of biases, such as slighting allusions or stereotypes based on characteristics such as race, ethnicity, disability, religion, sexual orientation, transgender status, or birth or family status. Careful writers avoid language that reasonable readers might find offensive or distracting—unless the biased language is central to the meaning of the writing.
– Bias and the editor’s responsibility. A careful editor points out to authors any biased terms or approaches in the work (knowing, of course, that the bias may have been unintentional), suggests alternatives, and ensures that any biased language that is retained is retained by choice. Although some publishers prefer to avoid certain terms or specific usages in all cases, Chicago’s editors do not maintain a list of words or usages considered unacceptable. Rather, they adhere to the reasoning presented here and apply it to individual cases. What you should strive for—if you want readers to focus on your ideas and not on the political subtext—is a style that doesn’t even hint at the issue. So, unless you’re involved in a debate about, for example, sexism, you’ll probably want a style, on the one hand, that no reasonable person could call sexist and, on the other hand, that never contorts language to be nonsexist.
While it may seem to some that the use of gender-based pronouns (most frequently male-neutral) is a trivial matter in the scheme of things, it’s not a trivial matter to the children in our congregations who are listening to what’s being read and learning what is acceptable and what is not, what is valued and what is not. Using language that does not reflect equality between people of all genders may lead our children to grow up believing they are either more or less valuable than the person sitting next to them. In order for them to believe they matter, we need to speak to them as though they matter. Because they do! Because this is the Way of Love!
Let us pray –
A Prayer for Justice
Loving God, you hold us in your hands for we are all made in your image.
Help us to celebrate our differences.
Help us to use our diversity to share with each other the richness of our many cultures, languages, genders, and backgrounds.
Help us to dissolve the barriers of race and gender and work for a just society in which none are despised and discriminated against on the basis of false divisions and in which each is valued for their true humanity.
We ask this in the name of Jesus, who saw beyond all human divisions and reached out to the good within each person. Amen.
(Adapted from brochure of Ideas for Action to End Racism published by the Diakonia Council of Churches and also used in worship service at the World Conference Against Racism organized by the Diakonia Council of Churches)
~ The Rev. Diana Walworth, Resolution Review Committee, Diocesan Council