Liturgical Music and Inclusive Language

When I was a freshman at Georgetown, Father von Arx, a history professor, handed back my first paper marked with the following:  “May I suggest you try using inclusive language?”  Now, I didn’t have the slightest idea what he meant by that, and I didn’t find out for years.  And a good thing, too, since that’s a suggestion I mostly don’t care to follow.
I tried to find a good definition of inclusive language but the problem is that the defnition is slanted based on the opinion of the source providing it.  I will attempt to be objective and say we use inclusive language when we use words like humankind instead of mankind, chairperson instead of chairman, and he/she instead of he (most people are resorting to using “they” as a singular, however).  Proponents of this approach say that women are excluded by the usual words, which are reflective of a male-dominated society.  Opponents say that inclusive language is clunky and sounds stupid and that these people are making a mountain over a molehill.  I say that even if we start using inclusive language from now on there is no reason to go back and rewrite old songs and even re-translate the BIBLE to fit in with modern ideas of what is appropriate.
And here’s some of what one of my favorite authors (Madeleine L’Engle) had to say:

[The] generic his and he, [is] not exclusively masculine.  I am a female, of the species, man.  Genesis is very explicit that it takes both make and female to make the image of God, and that the generic word, man, includes both . . .Therefore I refuse to be timid about being a part of mankind . . . Nor do I want to be stuck in the vague androidism whcih has resulted from the attempts to avoid the masculine pronoun . . . language is its own creature; it evolves on its own . . . it does not do well when suffering from arbitrary control.  Our attempts to change the words which have long been part of a society dominated by males have not been successful.  Instead of making language less sexist they have made it more so . . . To substitute person for man has ruined what used to be a good, theological word, calling up the glory of God’s image within us.

Sorry for the long quotation, but I certainly cannot say it so well.  I don’t think of myself as a typical feminist.  Men and women are not equal.  If I had to pick a superior sex, I’d pick the female, frankly.  We have proven ourselves capable of doing just about everything men can do just as well, and we have more endurance, are emotionally stronger, AND bear children.  Men are physically stronger and can parallel park better.  No contest, right?  I don’t see how being referred to as “he” or part of “mankind” diminishes my power in any way!
But a lot of people feel that way, and have convinced others that this is the “politically correct” and “sensitive” way to feel.  They are in the ascendance, and they have changed our songs.  They have, in my opinion, mutilated our songs, changing not just words but meanings and turning some of them into nonsense.  Let’s look at a few, shall we?
Let There Be Peace on Earth is one of the few songs I remember fondly from the 70s–it’s so fun to sing, especially as it crescendos dramatically toward the end.  I chose it for the recessional at my grandmother’s funeral.  Needless to say, we sang it the “right” way.  The line that was changed originally read: “With God as our Father, brothers all are we. Let me walk with my brother in perfect harmony.” (Okay, the poetry was never the best.)  The powers that be changed it to “With God as our Father, neighbors all are we.  Let us walk with each other . . .”  I think we can all agree that brother is a stronger word than neighbor because it implies a closer, familial relationship.  But what is even more annoying to someone who delights in the English language is that the new phrase is nonsense.  Having God as our Father makes us brothers, or brothers and sisters if you must, not neighbors.  Therefore I have spent the last ten or more years singing (under my breath) “With God as our Landlord, neighbors all are we.”
Apparently someone finally realized the problem and attempted a new rewrite.  Newer versions say, “With God as our Father, we are family.”  Come on!  Can anyone take this seriously?  Is there anyone who doesn’t think of Sister Sledge when they hear that?  It takes me right out of the song every time.
Here’s another one that has been ruined.  I Am the Bread of Life is hated by the people who make the worst hymns lists anyway, because it features the people singing the part of God, apparently a big no-no.  But it’s biblical, and the congregation sings it loudly and well, and I always enjoyed it pre-change.  Now I dread it.  Why?  They replaced every instance of the pronoun “he” with “you” but that’s not the worst of it.  I always loved this line:  “No one can come to Me, unless the Father draw him.”    I loved it because of the oh-so-rare use of the subjunctive mood, even though most people substituted “draws” in practice!  Here’s the new line:  “No one can come to Me, unless the Father beckons.”    Am I the only one who sees a problem here?  Aside from the lost subjunctive, isn’t it obvious that “draw” and “beckon” don’t mean the same thing?  The original line connotes the power of God pulling one toward Him irresistibly.  The new line is more like, “Yoo-hoo!  It’s Me, God!  Come on over here if you feel like it.”  Yuck!  Can you tell I feel strongly about this?
How about Be Not Afraid?  This is not the only change, but the line that once read “and if wicked men insult and hate you” now reads “and if wicked tongues insult and hate you.”  One amusing thing is that when other parts of this songs were changed, this line was originally left alone, as though it were okay to specify “men” as long as they were being wicked!  But eventually someone must have realized that wasn’t really fair, so now we have this nonsense.  I’ll buy tongues insulting, but hating?  What, do Christians taste bad or something?
These three are the worst examples that come to my mind, but inclusive language subtly changes the meanings of many songs.  I just discovered that The Servant Song, sung ad nauseam at my parish, loved by most and loathed by me, wasn’t quite as bad before it fell prey to inclusive language.  It used to be “Brother, let me be your servant”  instead of “Will you let me be your servant.”  See the difference in tone?  And in the second verse it once said “We are brothers on the road” where it now says “We are travelers on the road.”  Lots of people are traveling on the road.  So what?  Saying they are brothers makes ALL the difference and then the following lines make sense:  “We are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load.” (Sadly, it doesn’t help the poetry or the icky way the words don’t go with the music, but that’s the subject of a different post!)
Finally, worst of all are the songs that have eliminated the use of “He” to refer to God, awkwardly saying “God” over and over again to avoid it.  For crying out loud.  Do any of us really think that God is an old man with a beard?  Don’t we all know that God must have feminine qualities if all of us are made in His Image?  Have we forgotten that Jesus Himself called God Father?  Do we really need to change “I am He that comforts you,” to “I am God that comforts you” to make some point? (If we really want to change those lines from Turn to Me–which has inclusive language tampering in almost every line now–we’d do better to exchange “that” for “who” to make it grammatically correct!)
Plainly, I could go on for days on this topic.  I probably will return to it from time to time.  Please feel free to share in the comments your feelings about the changes in your favorite hymns.  And look with a more critical eye at the changes the next time you notice them at Mass.

18 thoughts on “Liturgical Music and Inclusive Language

  1. Kim Neighbor

    Thanks Leslie for this great article. I agree and wish people could just leave the composers words alone. They have put thought and hard work into writing these hymns.

    1. Thank you! Yes, on top of everything else I said, it’s not like words are interchangeable! People pick the words they do for lots of reasons–to fit the melody, to rhyme, and to say what they mean!

  2. Julie

    This post is great. You made me laugh out loud at my desk. I write for a living for the government and get oh so tired having to write “chairperson” or “fireperson.” I also get tired of having to write everything on a sixth grade level, but that’s a topic for another day.

    1. I aim to please! 🙂 So glad you enjoyed it. Government writing is deadly to read; I imagine it must be just about as bad to have to write! Would love to read a post from you on that!

  3. Emily

    Nice! I really like the quote from Madeliene L’Engle. It offers a really good explanation for objecting to inclusive language, which sometimes is hard to explain.
    Also you made very good points about the lyrics. Changing them unneccessarily just takes away from the meaning of the song.
    Also this was funny. Keep being funny!

    1. Thank you! I do try to be funny. I read that quotation from Madeleine L’Engle, or something very like it, years ago–I was younger than you. It probably helped me formulate some of my own ideas on the subject.

  4. Justine

    Leslie i love your writing.
    i agree with you about changing somebody else’s writings to make songs etc inclusive but disagree in general regarding inclusive lang. to have both in liturgical writing is important – kids are literal.
    keep the older stuff that has it and don’t tamper with it for all of the reasons you said but today’s authors can /should use inclusive writing, even trading back and forth. If kids like hearing story books with charcters who share his/her name then it seems logical that if every song is about brothers at some point a girl will look at a brother and think the song is for someone else. At least I remember feeling left out – but back inthose days I was told quite plainly that I could not be an alter boy because I was a girl. I alsomet young men studying to be priests, they told me that no woman not even their mother was allowed to enter their dorm – temptation.
    The church has nt always been so inclusive in practice – my mother was not allowed to attend my baptism it was not her place, my godmother did eveything we see mothers do at the baptism langugae does do alot to include and invite. to me it is not surprising that less inclusive langugae is from a less inclusive time but I appreciate well written inclusive songs (Jesuit education – my favorite songs were written by MU profs)
    Having inclusive language is a reminder for all those literal people out there or people in general who need reminding or teaching.

    1. Thank you, Justine. If a modern song is well-written, I don’t think I would even notice the inclusive language issue, you know? It’s trying to go back and “fix” the old songs that sounds so awkward and false. Think of, for example “Glory and Praise” which begins “We, the daughters and sons of Him . . . ” That sounds just fine and natural.
      Why was your mother not allowed to attend your baptism? Was she not Catholic? My father was not Catholic and so my parents had to be married at the altar rail rather than on the other side of it. He also had to sign papers promising to raise us Catholic.
      As a Jesuit alumna myself, I am still quite fond of the SSLJ songs even though they are out of favor with many, but more on that later. I’m going to write a post on songs I actually like at some point and hope others will chip in with their favorites! Thanks for continuing to read even if you don’t always agree with everything I say. It makes a better conversation and I like to hear other perspectives.

  5. Justine

    No,mom was born and raised Catholic but as the birth mother she was not allowed at the baptism, interfered with th e god mother getting her responsibilities I guess. Maybe this was just at our parish in Long Island maybe pre Vatican II stuff I don’t know.
    It comes up in conversation when we talk about my two youngest brothrs’ baptisms because the babies were always being passed off to people. The priest would tell my mom to hold the baby and she would always pass it off to the god mother.
    Who knows?

  6. Justine Martin

    So here is a question that has been coming to mind over and over. I agree changing old songs can be damaging, I can accept your argument about words like “man” being a synonym for human.
    But … are these songs ever used in underdeveloped countries, in English? I remember watching a movie about E Roosevelt and how she was instrumental in writing the Decalration of Human Rights. There was a scene where an Indian woman raised the concern about the word “man” in this declaration of human rights. In the conversation she and Elanor (and the other women from around the world at the meeting) discussed this vocabulary. Eleanor explained how the word man encompasses both men and women, and the Indian woman explained how regardless of the word’s (men) meaning the word “man” in India does not include women. For women and children to be seen as deserving of these rights they must be listed.
    I worry that in parts of the world where English is used as a unifying language, unchanged songs may actually accidently unintentionally aid in the unequal treatment of women.

  7. Miss K.

    Re: Inclusive language around the world.
    Just think, if only the church used more Latin! Then we wouldn’t have the clunky English issues we have. Everyone could not understand the words together, equally!
    As for the mother who couldn’t attend the baptism of her child – – it made me think of the old custom of “churching of women”. I realize it has nothing to do with that, just an interesting aside.

  8. Richard Mansfield, Prince George BC Canada

    I did the music for Mass last year and just told Father that using inclusive language meant you didn’t believe in God the Father, so you weren’t Christian. I was only there because of a traditional Catholic friend I trusted, but as a Christian /Gospel musician I was totally out of character there. When I was finally asked to leave, it felt like I had been totally conned and lied to, and I got no sympathy from neither the traditional people, nor the Liberal Catholics. Atheists are much easier to evangelize and are better musicians because they can usually play their instruments and show up for practice.

  9. Richard Mansfield

    I had a big argument with the Catholic sister who looks after the Mass vessels, alter, etc. here at Holy Rosary Cathedral in Prince George, BC where I play guitar for Mass. I told her that if one doesn’t name God the Father, but use terms like Godself, and never use the pronoun He, that one is worshipping something other than the Christian God. I was horrified at what I had just said because it implied that all she did at the alter was not even Christian. Unfortunately, I have come to believe our Mass is invalid because of all this Godmother talk and I no longer play guitar there – I have a beautiful Taylor guitar and people really liked it when I sing there by myself because I play Christian music, not inclusive language. So now I have to leave. The diocese of Vancouver uses the Adoremus hymnbooks which do not use inclusive language and I am going to go to Mass there when I am next there.Again, the difference between a terrorist and a liturgist is that you can negotiate with a terrorist. Inclusive language to me is just another cult.

    1. Funny you should mention this today as on Sunday we sang one of the songs that has been butchered in exactly that way, to remove all references to God as He. It’s ridiculous. I usually just sing along with the right words!

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