Appendix II: The Dangers of Inclusive Language

By Rhea Bright


On the secular level, the matter of non-sexist, or inclusive, language is scarcely an issue any longer. To most people, a discussion on inclusive language, particularly one that expresses opposition to what is commonly understood by that phrase, would seem like beating a dead horse. Even the most stubbornly conservative of us are, at the very least, sensitive to the issue, and have become accustomed to the use of non-sexist terms, such as ‘person’ to replace ‘man’, and ‘human beings’ for ‘mankind’. Many of us even allow ourselves to be forced into awkward, and even ungrammatical, constructions for the sake of not offending the sensitive.

In the liturgical realm, however, the issue is still far from dead. The Book of Alternative Services uses inclusive language in a relatively conservative way, much as it is commonly used in the secular world. However, in the Episcopal Church of the United States, the Inclusive Language Liturgies that have been accepted for trial use have begun to speak of God in ‘inclusive’ terms as well. And yet these liturgies are still too conservative for many. In the New Zealand Prayer Book, such inclusive language can already be found. It is a major issue at present in England. Here in Canada, although we have, as yet, no approved Inclusive Language Liturgies, it is nevertheless the practice in many parishes to use inclusive language in reference both to human beings and to God. I have little doubt that the next revision of the Book of Alternative Services or the Book of Common Prayer will seek to incorporate these kinds of changes. Therefore, this is far from a dead issue for us.

What I would like to do in this paper is first to explain why the so-called exclusivist language of the Prayer Book is a problem for some, and then to consider what is really underlying the present changes, where they are leading, and why they are much more dangerous than a cursory inspection might suggest, or than our Church authorities would have us believe.

The whole subject of inclusive language has been very much on my mind since a conversation I had with a friend this summer, someone I have had little contact with for a number of years. At one time, we were members of the same parish and worshipped together according to the Book of Common Prayer. She did so then quite happily and with apparent appreciation. But in the intervening years, she has been thoroughly and effectively educated against the Prayer Book, principally because of its use of excluding language. (It is, by the way, intriguing that for over 30 years she was unaware of this exclusion which she now feels so keenly. It required someone else to point it out to her.)

But now she has a genuine problem. As soon as she hears the words “Dearly beloved brethren”, Morning Prayer is ruined for her. She is so hurt and offended by the exclusion of her sex that she perceives in the word “brethren” that she cannot pray and worship in a spirit of charity and peace. Yet the solution seems so simple: replace “brethren” with a gender-neutral word like “people” or “friends”, or just drop it altogether. It is not uncommon, in fact, for even staunch Prayer Book clergymen to do so, out of charity for those, like my friend, who find such language offensive. Such a change is very minor, and it involves no change of doctrine. But it is not true that it makes no difference in meaning.

The authors of the Prayer Book certainly did not consider ‘brethren’ an exclusive word. They were following what has always been the practice in the English language of using the masculine term in an inclusive manner. The word ‘brethren’ is used in this context as inclusive of all those present – clergy and lay, male and female, old and young. It is, indeed, more than inclusive; it is totally equalizing. All those gathered together to worship God are equal before him. They stand in a special relationship to God and to each other by virtue of their baptism into the Body of Christ. It is through Christ that we become (dare I say it?) the sons of God by adoption, and therefore brothers one to another. No other word – not “people”, not “friends”, not even “beloved” – expresses the relationship implied in “brethren”. One solution might be “brothers and sisters”, but that phrase is divisive rather than unifying. Such mutually exclusive terms imply a distinction between brothers and sisters which does not, in this case, exist. Only “brethren” is truly inclusive and also expresses the special relationship Christians have to each other and to God.

This is only one example. But there are many others. For instance, replacing “son” with “child” doesn’t work either – the immediate identification with the son is lost. Moreover, “child” does not necessarily imply that it is one’s own child in the way that “son” does. Likewise, the generic “man” is irreplaceable. There is no other word that is at once universal and individuated. “Human being” is too particular; “human nature” is too abstract.

What is the problem with traditional Prayer Book language for people like my friend? In the Prayer Book, we frequently encounter “man”, “men”, “son”, “forefathers”, “brethren”, and so on, to refer to people of both sexes. The intended meaning, when these are met with an open mind, is always clear. The context tells us whether these masculine words are being used exclusively, to refer to people of the male sex, or inclusively, to refer to both genders. So what’s the problem?

The problem is the very fact that this is the custom of the English language. Feminists would argue that this is an indication of the patriarchal structure of western society, that these words are not truly inclusive, and that their use in this way shows that only men are regarded as significant members of society. The only important function of women has been the procreation and nurturing of more men. By virtue of their superior physical strength, which is enhanced by keeping women pregnant, men have been free to pursue their lust for power and domination and keep women in submission. The Church, they say, has not only allowed this, but has actively promoted it, by encouraging married women to produce as many babies as possible, and by denying women active, decision- making roles in the Church.

It has only been in the 20th century, because of the wonderful labour-saving devices of our technological advances and, even more important, because of reasonably effective birth control, that women have been able to liberate themselves from this oppression and, to use a feminist phrase, “become empowered”. Since language both reflects and forms how we think, an essential part of this liberation process must include a change in language usage. As long as we continue to use the masculine terms as inclusive, as though the female sex were somehow subsumed under the male, which alone thinks and acts, women will not be truly liberated from this unjust domination.

The English language allows for two possible strategies to achieve this feminist goal. One is the use of balancing, or mutually exclusive terms, like “he or she”, “men and women”, etc. In the liturgy, this strategy is most often employed in reference to God, so that the concept of God as Mother is given equal emphasis to that of God as Father, for instance. I will say more about that later. The second method is the use of gender-neutral words – “man” and “mankind” become “people” or “human beings”, and “sons” become “children”. God is de-personalised. For instance, instead of “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost”, we have “Honour and glory to the holy and undivided Trinity, God who created, redeems and inspires” (Supplemental Liturgical Texts, Prayer Book Studies 30, Church Hymnal Corporation, New York, 1989, p.13) or the words of Barbara Harris, Suffragan Bishop of the Diocese of Massachusetts: “Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier”. Such changes will, it is argued, recognize women as active, thinking, and equal members of society.

While I do not hold this feminist view of history – which, by the way, has so permeated society that it is held by many who do not identify themselves with feminism – there is some truth in what has been said. It has, after all, only been in this century that Canadian women have been able to vote, and that women have been admitted to Church vestries. Science and technology have freed women from much of the drudgery of housework and made it possible for women to enter the workforce without giving up marriage and family life. There has been much that has been good in these changes, and, in any case, they certainly are not going to go away.

What I would argue with, however, is the contention that the language of the Prayer Book and Scripture is in opposition to these changes – or at least to what is good in them. On the contrary, I think that the truth we find in Scripture, and reflected in the Prayer Book, about the relationship of men and women to each other and to God is precisely what we need to cling to in order to guide US through this time of rapid social change and uncertainty. The direction that the feminists are taking is ultimately destructive of Christianity in both Church and society. Many of them freely admit this. The Christian understanding of the relationship between men and women, and between man and God, cannot be maintained in a feminist world. The new “inclusive” language both reflects and reinforces this.

How Christianity understands the nature of the relationship of men and women to each other can best be described, I think, through a brief consideration of the account of the creation of man in Genesis. This is one instance, by the way, in which the story makes no sense without the generic use of the word “man”. Even in Hebrew, Adam, which means, man, is used both inclusively (to refer to mankind) and exclusively (to refer to the male person). In Genesis, we are told that God creates man in his own image; that means that he is rational, capable of knowing good and evil. Now this Adam, the first Adam, if you will, is not a creature of one gender. That is not the meaning here. This Adam is truly inclusive; he is prior to the division into sexes. This is man, the rational creature, having that common human nature in which all particular men and women share. In Genesis 1:26:

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

Also in Genesis 5:1 & 2,

….in the day that God created Adam, In the likeness of God made he him; Male and female created he them; and blessed them, and called their name Adam, in the day when they were created.

There is a sense in which they are one. They are one creation, Adam, man, in the image and after the likeness of God. And there is a sense in which they are two, male and female. The difference of gender is not an accidental difference, on a par with a difference in physical appearance, or race, or such. God created man, Adam, male and female. And he did that, Scripture tells us, for their sakes, that they not be alone, but have an help meet – “and they shall be one flesh”. (Genesis 2:24)

It is, then, by God’s own act of creation, by his will, that all mankind stands in a common relation to him – made in his own image and after his likeness – a rational creature. Men and women share alike in this common humanity, and do not differ, by virtue of gender, in ability or inclination to know and love God.

Yet this same act of creation divides humanity into two sexes. It is impossible for human nature to exist apart from its being in a particular man or woman. God’s very act of creating mankind, also sets the structure of human society. In creating man male and female, he has created them for each other, that they be one flesh, not alone – that is, for a union of love, marriage, and for the natural outcome of that union, the family.

It is no accident that society’s rejection of traditional Christianity has seriously undermined this structure of marriage and family. Indeed, the more radical feminists are not content with undermining this relation of man and woman. They actively seek to destroy it. For feminists, the traditional family is an institution of male domination and female oppression. Women do the dirty work while men call the shots. The liberation of women, they say, must also include a separation from the family unit. Individuality is the key – self-fulfilment, self-realisation, self- sufficiency. Such notions as self-giving, self-sacrifice, subservience to a higher good are abhorrent to them – despicable signs of weakness. In this view, there really is no good higher than the individual self.

But without self-sacrifice, there can be no community of love. Love is impossible without giving oneself up to another. The basis of the Christian religion is submission to the Divine Will. “Whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.” (Matthew 16:25) Humility, obedience, and sacrifice, which modern society despises, and of which Christ is the epitome, are essential for the Christian. Without a willingness to give oneself up, to acknowledge and obey a higher good, marriage and the family fall apart, and the Christian religion is in disarray.

The move for so-called inclusive language comes out of this feminist spirit. But the interesting thing about inclusive language is that, in the end, it is not inclusive at all. When “man” must always be balanced with “woman”, and “he” with “she”, an assumption is clearly that there is no prior unity. Men and women exist, at worst, in opposition to each other, and at best, in a tenuous balance of power. Without the generic use of the word “man”, it is impossible to express the notion of the common rationality of the human race. Yet, the other inclusive language strategy, which tries to do away with gender distinction, ultimately fails because gender distinctions are undeniable. We are not simply a collection of individuals, of persons. We are male and female individuals created in the image and after the likeness of God. Only traditional language, traditionally understood, is able to express adequately the diversity of gender and the unity of nature without losing what is proper to each.

When this so-called inclusive language is applied to God, a similar thing happens. It becomes impossible to express the existence of the diversity of persons in the unity of the Godhead. The doctrine of the Trinity – God’s revelation of himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, a self-related community of perfect love – is at the heart of the Christian faith.

The Commentary that accompanies the Inclusive Language Liturgies in the U.S. declares that these are “our images, not pictures of God in the reality and fullness of the divine being.” (Commentary on Prayer Book Studies 30 containing supplemental Liturgical Texts, The Church Hymnal Corporation, New York, 1989, p. C-8.) It goes on to say that God as Father is only a metaphor of human imagination, given undue emphasis by a male-dominated church, and we ought, therefore, to give the metaphor of God as Mother equal validity. This directly contradicts Christian teaching that God as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost is God’s own revelation of the reality of his being. If traditional Christian doctrine is wrong on this matter, we have nothing left but inadequate metaphors and images of our own creation. God is, then, ultimately unknowable. The other strategy employed to describe God “inclusively”, the depersonalising one (e.g. Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier), accentuates this unknowability even further. God is reduced to the activities of creating, redeeming and sanctifying or inspiring. He cannot be known in Himself, but only by what He does.

Thus “inclusive language” leaves us with a God who is either removed totally beyond the scope of our understanding, or reduced to earthly images. Now there is, of course, a sense in which this is true. Our human minds cannot know God in the fullness of His being until we see Him face to face – and we can do that only by the activity of His grace. But traditional Trinitarian doctrine – because it comes from God Himself, through the Word Incarnate, recorded in the Bible, and thought about for centuries by holy men – gives us an insight into God’s nature and our relation to Him that “inclusive language” cannot express.

Describing God in terms of the three activities of creating, redeeming, and inspiring does not name the three persons of the Trinity. It tells us something about what God does in relation to us, but it tells us nothing about God in His self-relation. It does not tell us that God is a “community of love” (Leonard, Graham et al., Let God be God, Darton, Longman and Todd, London, 1989, p.78) self-related and whole, alone self- sufficient.

Moreover, if we speak of God only in metaphors, images of our own creating – God is like a father in this way, like a mother in that way, like a rock, like a shield, and so on – if God can be known only as compared to aspects of creation, then he cannot be known in the Unity of the Godhead. This God, the God of the inclusive language advocates, is neither knowable nor lovable.

This is a rejection of the revelation we have received through Christ. It is Jesus who teaches us to pray to Our Father. He does not say that God is like a father; he says, over and over, that God is his Father, that he is the Son. It is only through Jesus, through his Son-ship, that we become the sons of God by adoption and can pray to God as our Father. This God is neither an abstraction, nor the creation of our own imaginations. He is a very personal God, revealing himself as a God of love, our Father. Through Jesus we know him as Father, Son and Holy Ghost, and are united with him in love.

But this relation of love with God depends on one thing – our submission of our wills to His – obedience. Jesus says:

As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you: continue ye in my love. If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love. These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full. This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you. (John 15:9-14)

Our joy, our fulfilment, can be found only in God through obedience to his will. This is not a doctrine of male domination; nor is it about the acquisition of earthly power. It is a doctrine that teaches us that true liberation can be found only in and through the self- giving and sacrifice of love.



For a more extensive critique of inclusive language liturgies, see: David Curry, “Inclusive Language Liturgies: The Renunciation of Revelation”, The Churchman, Vol. 105, No. 1, 1991 (Church Society, London, England). See also the article “Feminist Theology and Spirituality” in the PBSC’s November 1991 Submission to the BAS Evaluation Commission; and “Balanced Language?” by Michael Carreker in The Machray Review, Issue 4, 1994.

For a further consideration of Scripture and Doctrine in relation to contemporary issues in theology, see the 1988 Theological Conference Report, The Scripture and Modern Christian Teaching, in particular, David Ousley’s “The Teaching Tradition: Scripture and Liturgy”, and David Curry’s response. Contact St. Peter Publications in Charlottetown, PEI for more information on the Conference Reports: P.O. Box 713, Charlottetown P.E.I., Canada, C1A 7L3, Phone & Fax: 1 (902) 368-8442, e-mail:, or online at: