Monday, July 09, 2018

Contractive Language

So, it appears that my church is about to have "expansive language" thrust upon it. This, for those of you who are behind the liturgical times, is the successor to "inclusive language", and as it is appearing in the current General Convention motions, it means specially trying to get away from the male language about God that is part and parcel of scripture. Anyone who has read much of this blog can probably guess that I am not a big supporter of this. But to be clear on that, let me list a few issues:
  • It is alienating from scripture. There are, to be sure, passages where God is talked about in feminine terms, but too many crucial passages use conspicuously male words— and I specifically abjured the use of the word "imagery" there, as I will make clear in the next point.
  • It is inconsistent with its own principles. I am dubious that current dogma on "gender" and "sex" is going to survive in the long run, but at any rate the rule that a person gets to determine how that are to be talked about is, I would argue, being violated in this program. Of course, you can always go ahead and deny the inspiration of scripture (by calling people who do take it seriously "inerrantists") enough to ignore the language it uses, but if Jesus is using "Father" and "he", it's going to take some serious exegesis to worm out of taking this as a divine preference.
  • It is paternalistic. they know better than you do. Really.
  • It is churchy. We're setting up yet another way that church people don't talk like normal people, but use instead their own special language.
  • It is wedded to theories of human psychology and sociology which are also unlikely to hold up. The strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is pretty much dead at this point, and while linguistic relativism is to some degree inarguable, the notion that we can reframe thinking about sexual/gender roles simply through word choice is extremely dubious. After all, it has failed to help with race; what has happened instead is that use of the "right" words has tended to function as an in-group marker more than anything else, and hasn't made inroads in getting rid of the most deliberately offensive words. In the case of my church, we act as if we have a moral/religious authority which everyone is expected to heed, when it is plainly obvious that we lost whatever power and prestige we had years ago. Heck, for the first time in our country's history there is no Episcopalian on the Supreme Court, if you want an objective marker of our decline.

A resolution has been presented to permit an expansive language version of Rite II to be used immediately. From a procedural point of view, this is essentially an end run around the whole revision process: the rite proposed is not something that people have had a chance to review, and GC is (almost by design) not the place where such review can reasonably take place. It has at least one obvious liturgical novelty which has nothing to do with god-language: eliminating the filioque from the creed is simply not something we should be doing without explicit discussion of the matter in its own right, but it just slides right in alongside all the other changes.

And some of those specific changes also need discussion on their own. Eucharistic prayers we have invariably addressed to the Father, but these prayers equally invariably address them simply to "God", implying address to the godhead as a whole. What is the meaning of this? Why was it done the other way before? there is a lot that needs to be said about this, pro and almost certainly con, but it hasn't happened. Likewise, the suppression of the word "Lord" has to deal with the issue that it is generally used as a placeholder for the Divine Name. Is that erasure justifiable?

A quick scan through this rite shows that it at least lacks some of the more egregious faults of Enriching Our Worship; for example, it fails to repeat the "pro omnis" error in the institution narrative. But the changes leave us with a trinity which is out of balance. We can talk about the Spirit as much as we want, without any changes other than avoiding "he"; we are forced by the nature of Jesus to use "son" perhaps more than some would like; but "Father" appears only where it absolutely must. The language is thus not expanded; it is contracted. The changes are marked not by what we can now also say, but almost entirely by what we now cannot say.

It's strongly reminiscent of the problems with the readings in the same-sex union proposed rite, namely, that a lot of the marriage readings were plainly unwelcome in that context. That problem is being solved in the proposed changes to the marriage rite by suppressing the more blatantly marriage-is-a-man-and-woman-thing readings, but nothing is to be added that's specifically relevant to same-sex marriages. I think the situation isn't as difficult for expansive language, but still, what we see when nothing is added, is that something is definitely lost.

And for all those women with domineering if not outright abusive fathers, there is some percentage of both sexes who had to deal with mothers who exhibited the same "faults". There is a subtext, particularly apparent when words about kingship and the like are dealt with, that the stumbling block isn't the maleness of God so much as it is the power and authority of God, and therefore the problem becomes not fatherliness, but the divine parent of whatever gender. And in a religion where the origin of human alienation from God is found in human disobedience, this is a hugely problematic stance to take. And thus it is hugely ironic that the whole thing is so paternalistic on the one hand at the same time it is rebelling against church tradition.

And in a religion where the central act of worship is anamnesis, the willful attempt at amnesia here is problematic. How do we know what to forget?

Assuming that this diminished Rite II doesn't make it, and assuming we are saddled with the revision Process, we need to take time on this. As it stands, we don't have much of a path towards a language that isn't actually a diminishing of the language we have through tradition while avoiding expanding out into heresies we already ought to know to avoid.


Anonymous said...

"eliminating the filioque from the creed"

do you have any idea what the motivation here is? As you are well aware, this is the way the Eastern Orthodox say the creed

C. Wingate said...

I presume that is the reason, which on one level is pointless, since we have gone in a direction that ensures reunion cannot happen. But really, the point is that the draft gives no motivation for the change; it's just there. We need to talk about a change that has been causing division for nearly a millennium rather than just slipping it in among a bunch of other changes.