WHAT’S WRONG WITH INCLUSIVE LANGUAGE?
It is often naively imagined that current conflicts and tensions over what has become known as “inclusive language” are merely familial, if bitter, disputes that periodically take place within the Church. “After all,” says the reasonable, well-meaning parishioner, “aren’t we just talking about words? Isn’t God bigger than the words we choose about him/her/it?”
I will argue in this article that to accept such moderate and seemingly equitable advice (so loved by Anglicans fearful of causing offence) is nothing less than a fatal compromise with a belief system whose roots are essentially pagan. In other words, the current attack on the received way in which the Church talks to and about God is an invasion into the Church’s life of an antagonistic world- and life- view which cannot be handled in the usual Establishment ways of compromise and concession. In writing in this way I realise that some people may call me extreme. But I hope to demonstrate that those who are busy promoting inclusive language concerning the Godhead are radicals whose agenda is nothing less than recasting the very essence of the God of the Bible.
First it has to be remembered that what has motivated this onslaught is the general perception that women have been oppressed by the Church for some two millennia and that the exquisite cruelty of this oppression has been most fostered by the Church’s use of language. It is argued, for example, that constant references to “man” and “mankind” have the certain and predetermined effect of defining for women what it means to be human. On this basis it is claimed that when the Nicene Creed asserts that Jesus came down from heaven for “us men and for our salvation” this implies that he did not do so for women, or that if he did, he did so only incidentally.
Now, it may be conceded, given the radical’s approach to the English language which fails to recognise that the generic use of the terms “man” and “mankind” include women, this might be the case. Certainly it is clear that some find this sort of language insulting and therefore some of the things that are being maintained as far as some can see do seem to have some measure of plausibility. In which case it is better that a rigorous course in the English language be undertaken rather than tampering with ancient liturgical or biblical texts.
I say this because it is becoming increasingly clear that even if the Liturgical Commission was to use “inclusive language” in all those instances where it is obvious that the meaning of the text applies to both men and women, this will by no means prove to be satisfactory. For such is the oppressive nature of the Church’s complete domination of the female sex that women are even marginalised and excluded by the very fact that salvation is offered to them by the man Jesus Christ who then proceeds to inject his Spirit into their hearts whereby they are forced to cry, “Abba Father” and, in certain circles, receive the sacrament from a male priest who then proceeds to give the blessing in the name of the Father and the Son.
Consequently, so the argument goes, by invariably using masculine pronouns and adjectives with reference to the Deity, masculinity is absolutised and men are thereby given the “right” to rule and subject women. As Mary Daly so cogently expressed it, “Since God is male, the male is God.”
What, then, is the answer to this intractable problem? Some have gone so far as to suggest that in all new liturgies, references to God as “He” should be avoided, and this has largely been achieved in the American Prayer Book. That this makes for agonisingly bad English is beside the point so long as it fulfils the canons of political correctness. Others have suggested that if the male pronoun is no longer to be used then it also becomes increasingly anomalous to use any overtly strong male images such as Judge, King and Lord – and if this path is the one that is going to be followed in our liturgical texts then, of course, the “sexist” nature of Scripture is ever more highlighted and so attempts have then to be made to bring Scripture up to date.
Obviously such compromise is absolutely catastrophic for it grants the premise upon which the revolutionary agents of change are working; namely the conjecture that the language we use about God is the language that we have chosen to use about Him and the reason that we have chosen to use masculine language is because, until recently, the control of religious discourse has been regulated by men. Such a supposition runs counter to the whole tenor of Christianity. Christians have always understood that the Christian faith is a revealed religion. It follows then, that the reason Scripture uses masculine language for God is not because its writers were horribly sexist male chauvinist pigs and could not help writing in the way that they did, but rather it is because that is the language in which God has chosen to reveal Himself. The Church has always claimed that it has no knowledge about God beyond the knowledge that God has given of Himself through His words and deeds, and supremely through the words and deeds of His Son Jesus who taught his disciples to pray saying, “Our Father, who art in heaven.”
Moreover, it should also not be forgotten, that if we are free to name God as we choose, then we are in danger of creating our own gods who are really not gods at all. For if we capitulate to the pressure to recast God into a female deity through the use of feminine language, we shall soon find it very difficult to resist the figures and images of pregnancy, child birth and suckling. Then God is very quickly perceived as the Mother who gives birth to creation, which not only annihilates the Biblical teaching of creation ex nihilo but it also destroys the great distinction between God the Creator and the rest of His creation. For if creation has issued forth from the deity’s body, it also shares the deity’s substance. And if all of creation shares this new goddess’s substance then all is Divine and we are free, not only to worship the sun, moon and stars, but also each other – for we will end by finally making ourselves gods and goddesses. This is the ultimate theological end to which we shall come if we continue to pursue the doctrinal implications that lie near the centre of the contemporary cry for inclusive language.
Nigel Atkinson is Warden of Latimer House, Oxford.