Our superintendent, Yvonne, has instituted a new programme at our Local Preachers Meeting (for Americans and non-Methodists, the British Methodist Church relies on lay preachers to fill appointments on Sundays because ministers are not in each of their churches on each Sunday). She calls it Further Development (I think). Anyway, the aim is to get the Meeting to discuss further aspects that relate to our leading of worship. Tonight, my Blackburn Circuit colleague Jim Jones led the discussion on what we normally call ‘Inclusive Language’. He opened with a story recounting an experience at a restaurant. His party ordered four coffees, two decaf and two caffeinated. The waiter returned and with two saying, ‘These are the “normal” ones.’ Jim asked the meeting (not the waiter), ‘What would that make the other two?’
That was the perfect way to begin this session. He wanted to change the way we talk about issues surrounding this in two ways. 1) Rather than talk about ‘inclusive language’ and make that the aim, he wants us to think about using ‘inclusive language’ as our starting point and try to eradicate ‘excluding language’. He said we sell ourselves short by saying we need to be more inclusive in our language when we ought to be looking at how our language excludes. 2) He wants to move this issue beyond gender issues and look at how we might be excluding others. The example I remember him using was one anyone can see in numerous churches: ‘Come and join us’. It takes the separation of the sheep and the goats and puts it on the notice board! I hadn’t thought of it that way, but I think he’s right on this. In our discussion groups, we also mentioned how the word ‘family’ can be exclusive. When I was a single person, I hated to see that word used at church (e.g., ‘Family Night Supper’). It made me and many other single people feel somehow less included or worse as less than people because we had not been married yet. (Of course when you get married, then they start asking, ‘When will you have children?’)
I like the distinction Jim made tonight between saying that ‘we ought to use inclusive language’ and ‘getting rid of excluding language’, especially the use of the verb form of exclude rather than the adjectival form (exclusive). The verb form emphasises the impact of what our words can do. Our starting point in our language, as well as in what we are doing in the mission of the church – to preach a message of God’s grace to all. The implications may be difficult to implement. Not because of opposition (I don’t think anyone there raised any, and Jim didn’t start a debate – it was assumed), but because of how we use language that we normally do. Earlier in the evening we had talked about using written prayers or praying extempore. One of the reasons I don’t often pray extempore is that I grew up with the androcentric language I have been immersed in, and I may jump to it automatically. The difficulty also recognises that I don’t know what each person in a congregation is experiencing. How often do we use ‘blind’ and ‘seeing’ metaphors when there are people with visual difficulties? Those are questions that don’t need to be shirked from, but talked about and at least recognising that they exist, rather than ignoring them.