Monday, July 4, 2011

How Sweet, How Heavenly

Side note: I wrote this from my desk, which I don’t recall using since I moved into this house in September 2007.

Several months ago in chapel, we sang “How Sweet, How Heavenly,” a hymn that celebrates unity among believers. It praises Christian unity and genuine community in which people truly know and care for one another. I’d sung this hymn many times, but this particular time, the second and third verses kinda rubbed me the wrong way:

When each can feel his brother’s sigh,
And with him bear a part;
When sorrow flows from eye to eye,
And joy from heart to heart.

When, free from envy, scorn and pride,
Our wishes all above,
Each can his brother’s failings hide,
And show a brother’s love.

Now, maybe I was feeling particularly sensitive or feminist or critical that day. And I know the song was written in the 1700s when songwriters didn’t care about gender-inclusive language. But I still felt a little excluded from the song and, therefore, from the community with whom I was singing it. These verses paint a beautiful picture of what Christian community should be: deeply sharing each other’s joy and pain, and loving one another despite each one’s failings. But all the Christians in these two verses are male. I find it sadly ironic that this song about unity actually excludes half the members of the community.

Since I was already distracted, I indulged my imagination, wondering what would happen if that masculine language had been written as feminine:

When each can feel her sister’s sigh,
And with her bear a part;
When sorrow flows from eye to eye,
And joy from heart to heart.

When, free from envy, scorn and pride,
Our wishes all above,
Each can her sister’s failings hide,
And show a sister’s love.

My suspicion is that one of the following things would happen: 1) we wouldn’t ever sing the song in church—it would be one of those songs that no one is quite sure how it made its way into the hymnal; 2) we would still sing it, but only the first, fourth, and fifth verses; 3) women would occasionally sing the full song at women-only gatherings (women’s retreats, women’s Bible classes, mother-daughter banquets); or perhaps 4) we would occasionally sing it corporately as part of a woman-focused service, such as on Mothers Day.

And if we sang those verses with feminine language, I suspect that the vast majority of the men present would (understandably!) feel the song didn’t fully include them because of the exclusively feminine language.

If it were just this one song that was infused with exclusively masculine language, I would be mildly annoyed but would move on fairly quickly. But it’s not just in this one hymn. It’s in many of the hymns/worship songs we sing corporately. It’s in our translations of the Bible. It’s in ancient writings and prayers of antiquity. It’s in our sermons, our communion thoughts, our everyday conversations.

I wonder (worry about) what we as a church can do about this. Even if we all agreed that gender-inclusive language was important and formative, how would we incorporate it into our worship services that include songs and prayers that are rich with history and filled with non-inclusive language? We can’t just turn “Faith of Our Fathers” to “Faith of Our Fathers and Mothers” or “Faith of Our Ancestors.” Not only do the inclusive options contain too many syllables, but changing these words penned in 1849 just feels wrong. It would feel weird to suddenly alter the words of songs we’d grown up singing a particular way. (And don’t even get me started on the use of gender-inclusive language for God, because that affects pretty much every song in the Christian tradition.)

This post has gotten far too long. So I’ll end by asking your thoughts. How can we use more inclusive language (particularly in our songs) without compromising the rich history of these songs (or throwing them out altogether)? Especially given the reality that not everyone in our churches is on the same page about the importance of inclusive language.

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