Language matters; how we speak and the terms we use to describe ourselves, others, and God. So, the language of our worship matters enormously. It sets the tone which in turn shapes us, especially for those of us who use this language all the time.
On Thursday, at Evening Prayer, our lectionary gave us Psalm 137. This is the one that begins “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Sion”. It is a song of lament for an exiled people, who mourn their lost land and lost city. They wonder how they can sing the Lord’s song in a strange land. It then gets dark at the end. The anger, the visceral anger comes out and the last verse is shocking. It proclaims how happy they would be to see their oppressors’ children dashed against the wall – their heads smashed in and dead. This Psalm popped up on the same day that Russian forces bombed a maternity hospital in Ukraine. It was too much to say it – we cut it, as I have long thought we should do as a matter of course. With safeguarding and decency, it’s not a line to sing in worship. And that’s a debate in cathedrals – what we do with the horrible verses in the Psalms, cut or keep? There are valid reasons for both approaches.
The early twentieth century theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the Psalms ‘the Prayer Book of the Bible’. They express our deepest hopes, our joys, our longings, our pains and sorrows, fears and anxieties, abandonment along with praise and adoration. All emotions and experience are contained within them including our darkest secret thoughts, the ones we almost dare not name. By naming them we can bring those terrible thoughts into the open and realise just how bad they are. The flip side is that without a different lens to hold that through, we think this is normal, it’s OK because it’s in the Bible. Not everything in the Bible is meant to be taken as exemplary and to be copied. There is quite a list and those of us who read it daily will know just how awful it can be at times.
It’s a very long time now since I first discovered the movement for the language we use to be inclusivised, something like 40 years ago. I am a child of the 1960s and 70s and so was born and grew up in an age that was incredibly sexist. That meant that this wall had to be overcome before that discussion could break through and I’m pleased to say it did, mainly through the interactions that shape a person. It makes me bang my head on the table when I see signs 40 years on that some of this stuff is still current and not always seen. The assumptions are still there. A good friend of mine, Ellen Clark King, who is the new Dean of King’s College, London, has written an article on this which appeared on the blog site “Via Media” yesterday.
I’ve come to see over the years that just changing the words doesn’t actually on its own change how we read something. So, a passage, a hymn, can carry assumptions in other ways that just changing ‘men’ to ‘people’ or ‘him’ to ‘them’ doesn’t tackle. Read the stories of the feeding of the 5,000 and tell me how many people are present. The answer is obvious, 5,000, surely. But it’s not. Luke, earlier on from our reading this evening, tells us there were 5,000 men (Luke 9:14) mirroring Mark (6:44). It is Matthew who gives the game away, telling us there were “5,000 men, besides women and children”, who were not counted (Matthew 14:21). What or those we don’t count, don’t count, something I tell those who enter numbers in service registers or don’t enter them in. We’ve recently standardised the words of the hymns here along with the most recent ‘Hymns Ancient and Modern’ (2013). This draws a line somewhere around 1950. By and large texts before that it leaves alone because we need to be clear it comes from a previous age and inclusion and exclusion are just one of the issues with the text. Those after, it thinks should know better, or a fair game to be adapted, and so makes small changes where it can, generally in line with the poetic sense.
Language shapes us, as does who we see upfront doing things. If we can’t see ourselves we don’t fully feel included and so organisations like the Society for Women Organists and Anna Lapwood’s #PlayLikeAGirl, still have work to do and you don’t need me to tell you how sexist churches can still be. Emma told me recently that the girls here see that there is no job in the church they couldn’t do – sing, play the organ, be Cathedral Warden or Bishop. Big tick and we’ve come a long way from when I was a chorister in the 1970s, but it still feels radical to change how we refer to God from male assumptions to be more expansive. If we don’t do it, we assume God is male and that does none of us any favours. And it’s not that new. Mother Julian of Norwich called God our Mother in 14th century, echoing Jesus using the image for him being like a mother hen gathering her children to her. How long it takes for some words to be heard.
Our first reading this evening (Jeremiah 22:1-9, 13-17) was about justice. Justice is a word easily used but it goes very deep. Justice and inclusion, honouring the inherent dignity of us all, are foundational. Honouring, means that we don’t just tolerate but embrace, don’t just recognise as being in the room (though that’s a start) but count, have an acknowledged presence, a voice and are heard. It requires us to change, budge up and recognise space needs to be made. To fail in areas of justice is a very serious matter. Our passage cut off just before we find out what is to happen to Jehoiakim for his misdemeanours:
“With the burial of a donkey he shall be buried, dragged off and thrown out beyond the gates of Jerusalem” (Jeremiah 22:19).
That makes justice very serious and not a nice to have, add on extra, but core business.
Language matters, the images we feed ourselves with matter. And when we face images which dehumanise, oppress and make injustice sound like the norm may we hear the demand for justice which is at the heart of our faith.