Why There's Nothing UnChristian About Inclusive Language

Should the Church get used to inclusive language?

For many Christians, gender-neutral language is just about politeness. The days when a speaker could address a mixed group of people as "brothers" have long gone. If anyone repeats the Nicene Creed and says, "For us men and our salvation" it grates unbearably (and I write as a man). Why should half the human race be denied an acknowledgment of their existence because of the language we use in public discourse?

For others, gender-neutral language is an assault on the foundations of Christianity, and an act of connivance with the forces of Godless liberal feminism. This is particularly true when it comes to translating the Bible. There are conservative evangelicals who watch this like hawks. A few years ago Zondervan, publishers of the New International Version, released versions in 2002 and 2005 that aimed to translate the Bible, where appropriate, using gender-neutral terms. So where "people" instead of "men" was clearly meant, that's what it would say. This Today's New International Version infuriated conservatives including Wayne Grudem in the US. A successor, in 2011, didn't fare much better; the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood released an 'Evaluation of Gender Language' in it that concluded 75 per cent of its "errors" remained.

Politeness is one thing. Where most evangelicals do draw the line, however, is changing how we talk about God, who in the Bible is masculine. While everyone acknowledges that the Bible talks about him in feminine terms sometimes, addressing him as female is a revision too far; there's too much going on there, theologically and philosophically. (There's just as much going on when we talk about him as male, but somehow that's different – isn't it?)

So news that Wycliffe Hall, the impeccably evangelical CofE training college in Oxford, was not only making its students and staff use that gender-inclusive NIV, but was dropping the word "He" in relation to God (use "the one who" instead, it is supposed to have said) is rather alarming. It was a Times story on Sunday, but it turns out to be quite startlingly untrue. The "new" inclusive language policy is in fact three years old, and a stern rebuttal from the college says that "there is no suggestion that the traditional gender pronouns concerning God should be altered in any way. Indeed the Hall's policy reaffirms that we should continue to speak of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, as Christians have always done."

Wycliffe's inclusive language policy, in fact, looks eminently sensible. It notes that language changes and that while once it was common to talk about mankind, man, every man, we don't do that any more.

"The biblical writers used these terms with the intention to mean everyone. In society now terms such as 'human', 'humanity' (or 'humankind') and 'every one' are used to convey this idea of inclusiveness which the biblical writers sought to convey," it says.

The patriarchal masculine, it says, "has become a form of alienation for many women and indeed many men" – so don't do it, in sermons or writing or how you talk to each other or in the examples of conduct you choose.

And yes, it does use that gender-inclusive Bible translation that caused such a row in 2005. Refreshingly, it also says Wycliffe will carry on using old hymns and the Book of Common Prayer. 

This attitude toward gender-inclusive language is largely uncontroversial in the UK Church, at least at a theoretical level. That's not to say that there aren't plenty of jaw-droppingly insensitive remarks by male preachers in pulpits around the country every Sunday, but generally speaking I think we do our best.

What seems to be more of a pressure point is when this principle of politeness starts to affect how we translate the Bible. Is it because evangelicals are wedded to a literalist, word-for-word translation and are suspicious of anything that looks as though human beings have a role to play? Might want to think about that. Is it because the traditional masculine language subtly, or not-so-subtly, backs up the traditional male norm of authority over women? Is it because when evangelicals talk about gender it's usually in the context of homosexuality or transgenderism, with all the culture-war baggage that tends to bring along? Or is it because once you start talking about 'people' instead of 'men' and 'children' instead of 'sons' you're on a slippery slope to Goddess-worship?

Any and all of these might be true. But it's worth saying that recognising the existence and equal worth of one half of humanity in the language we use is one thing, and changing how we talk about God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit is another. The discussions are not unrelated, but they are not the same. Christ died for us, not just for us men, and we shouldn't be shy of saying so.

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods