'Words Matter'

August 16, 2010

"For slightly less than half my life I was an intentionally de-churched person. Although the faith of my childhood had been a source of great comfort to me I also found that church to hold a very narrow view of God. My own prayer life suggested to me that God was much more expansive than the church was teaching me."

So began my own story at last week's ecumenical "Words Matter" gathering on expansive and inclusive language in the church, hosted by the National Council of Churches' Justice for Women Working Group at Cenacle Catholic Retreat Center in Chicago.

Through the power of stories, the 25 people -- ordained, lay, gay, straight, women, men, Native American, African American, Latino, white, Asian -- called each other to expand our cultural attentiveness, understanding that language speaks differently in different contexts.

NaKeisha S. Blount, of the United Church of Christ and the National Council of Churches, described the huge cultural difference she often moves between."Truth be told, there are those who are opposed to language like 'God the Father' because they didn't have a father, or had a distant or abusive father," Blount said, using a common example in discussions of language.

"Truth be told," she continued, "there are those who are deeply grieved over the loss of 'God the Father' because they didn't have a father, or had a distant or abusive father."

The stories told by the group showed us that in an environment created through respectful intentional listening, compliance to rules about specific words was not as helpful as commitment to understanding the impact of the power of language. "There was no list of forbidden words created; rather, we pursued a consciousness of how language shapes our own experience as well as the experience of others," remarked Inez Torres-Davis, who serves as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's director of Justice for Women.

This kind of commitment can lead to real, meaningful analysis of systems of power that oppose the Gospel; extending a life-affirming hospitality within the church and community.

Sue Hedahl, a professor at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, explored the difference between "compliance" and "commitment," agreeing that understanding what is at stake in the language we use is more valuable than simply following a list of rules.

The stories told by the group also called for spreading the conversation to as many different places as possible. In beginning to think about how to spread these conversations, the participants acknowledged the need for a variety of methods including listening, dialogue, liturgy and hymnody, humor, story-telling, art and social media.

The Rev. Dr. Ruth Meyers, chair of the Episcopal Church's Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, and Hodges-Haynes Professor of Liturgics at Church Divinity School of the Pacific said this, "While the Episcopal Church has been at work on expansive language texts for over two decades, the extent of their use varies. I'm delighted that a new resource is being created to encourage dialogue about this important topic."

What was learned at this gathering will be shared with the NCC Justice for Women Working Group to discern the next steps to spread these conversations as broadly as possible. Participants were invited to be an ongoing part of the process. Torres-Davis, also a member of the working group, said "Our hope is to have such conversations occur in congregations, pericope studies, classrooms, forums, Sunday schools, pulpits, and so forth…The scholarship on expanding language has been done... It is now time to begin applying this knowledge."

-- The Rev. Terri C. Pilarski is a supply priest in the Diocese of Chicago and a member of NCC Women for Justice Working Group's Expansive Language Committee.

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