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My interests include veganism and vegetarianism, health, ethics, politics and culture, media, and the environment. I have three kids; I teach college part-time, study piano and attempt to garden. I knit. I blog on just about anything, but many posts are related to my somewhat pathetic quest to eat better, be more mindful of the environment, and be a more responsible news consumer. Sometimes I write about parenting, but, like so many Mommy bloggers, my kids have recently told me not to. :) Thanks for reading.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Then I Opened My Big Mouth...

So...I got myself elected/appointed "Parish Education Chair" at church.  I'll skip the story of how THAT happened and just say that technically, I'm kinda helping to oversee ALL education this year -- from preschool to adult.  This also means I'm now on church council.

Joy.  (They are very nice people, but the timing of the monthly meeting -- third Wednesdays at 5:30 -- is less than ideal, in fact WAY inconvenient.  What would be wrong with, say, 7:30?)

It's one of those things I cannot change -- there are other things that go on on Wednesday nights and really, other things that go on EVERY night and this is, well, the established time and theoretically the most convenient for the most people.  But not for me. 

I'll live.

Back to topic -- at the first meeting I mentioned that there were a few things on MY agenda that I think are relevant to parish education.  First?  Gender inclusive language to refer to God.  Get rid of "Lord," "He," "Father," "Kindgom," "King".  Replace with such phrases as "Our Loving Creator," "the Almighty" "Our Parent," "Realm," "Ruler".  In the last two churches I belonged two (the previous SEVENTEEN years prior to coming to this church), this was already done.  Prayers had been rewritten to get rid of patriarchal language; hymns and creeds as well. A statement as to WHY this was done was in EVERY bulletin, EVERY week, as well as in the church information available in every pew.  The reasoning?  God is NOT human, does NOT have any genitalia that we know of and continuing to refer to God as male continues a tradition of lifting men above women -- something *most* people these days think is wrong.  Whether or not this is explicitly stated is irrelevant -- when that which is MOST HIGH is referred to as male, people get the image that males are higher or better than females.  It's inherent in the structure of the concepts, which is precisely why the language should change.

So in the first meeting, I mentioned that at the very least, we should get the teachers to refrain from exclusively referring to God as "He" or "Father" in Sunday School classes. Get the kids to talk about various ways of imaging the divine and get the older kids to talk about the patriarchal culture that has dominated religion(s) and how that limits how we think of God.

Lead. Balloon.  One guy said that his daughter is not so insecure as to think that one must refer to God in gender neutral terms in order to feel good about herself.  He also said to me that "if you need a more liberal church, you should go to a more liberal church".

I'll get back to THAT in a minute.

Referring to God in gender neutral or gender inclusive terms is as "normal" to me as eating breakfast in the morning.  I don't think of God as human; I do recognize that Jesus was an historical  figure and a male one so I do not mind referring to *him* as *he*.  But not God.

So being in a church that does NOT use inclusive language (one pastor told me, when I discussed this with him briefly last year, "Well, THAT will never happen") is increasingly intolerable.  It's not enough that *I* generally change the terms when I recite the creeds or prayers or read in front of the congregation.  It really bugs me that so few in the church think as I do.  (If they do, they are mighty silent about it.)

A few weeks ago, I was the reader in church.  I changed words such as "kingdom" to "realm" and "He" to "God" and I also changed the traditional ending, "The word of the Lord" to "Here ends our lesson".  (To which the traditional response is "Thanks be to God," something that does not need changing.)  The one pastor for whom this is blasphemy pointed to me my "mistake".  Uh, no.  Not a mistake.  (The changes had been cleared, by the way, by the director of children's and family ministry and by the senior pastor, though it is entirely possible that the younger pastor did not know this.)

The point?  I don't know how much longer I can take this, yet here I am, appointed Parish Education Chair.

As if the whole rigmarole about inclusive language isn't enough (the senior pastor thinks of it as "optional," meaning that readers may change the words if they want to), I then had another "brilliant" idea.

Every year, our church has a Blessing of the Animals Sunday (Oct 3 this year).  Lovely tradition.  Everybody brings their pets (or pictures of their pets -- no horses have yet to show up at church) and each one receives a blessing and a treat.  The kids, in particular, LOVE this Sunday.  Pets (at least those unlikely to have an accident) are even allowed in the sanctuary.

So, it occurred to me that the previous Sunday (Sept. 26) would be good to have an animal theme for adult education hour.  I mentioned that one of the challenging issues of our time is animal rights and that it would be a thought-provoking discussion (NOT SERMON) to have and we could tie it back to two church traditions -- the Blessing of the Animals Sunday and the church task force, Caring for Creation (which has presented on such topics of supporting local farmers and reducing food-to-grocery-store-miles).  We could even briefly explore how the Genesis command of "have dominion over all" has perhaps led to some things we should re-think. 

Logical?  I think so.  Could I do it without proclaiming that everybody go vegan?  Yes, I could.  Am I willing to?  Again, yes, even though I think going vegan is the logical conclusion to the facts about animal suffering, HUMAN health, and environmental degradation.

So, what was the initial response?  A few people said yes (and by the way, I *do* have the blessing of the council to do the talk).  But two people were less than responsive -- one guy (who used to run the adult education hour) said that I have to "present the opposing side".  What is that?  As my (omnivore) husband joked, "the NRA".  Even the senior pastor (in a separate meeting) joked, "the opposite side is 'let's kill the animals!'".  (His daughter is vegan; I suspect that little fact makes him immediately see the ridiculousness of requiring the "opposing view".)

What REALLY gets me, though, is that I've NEVER seen any other speaker during adult education hour have to present anything other than what he or she is there to present (end of life decisions, archeology in Israel, missionary trips, history of Handel's Messiah, etc.).  WHY should *I* be required to do differently? 

It's a tough topic -- thinking that animals HAVE rights is revolutionary and I'm the first to admit that it still makes me a bit twitchy.  But it's a great topic BECAUSE it isn't easy.  It's also a great way to let people know what's involved in those eggs or meat or milk that they routinely purchase.

There is always a tension between fighting the good fight in a place that arguably isn't ready for it or joining those who have already fought it.  Once, back in Divinity School, I asked Professor Krister Stendahl (former Bishop of Sweden), whether or not one should bring up controversial topics in church or whether one should be more quiet about them.  He looked at me and said, 'Well, sister, some people fart on the inside and some fart on the outside.'  I *think* that means there's no clear answer and some people are destined to push the envelope and others are destined to walk away to a place that is more comfortable for them.

Holy Moly.  I am SO wishing I hadn't volunteered to do this talk.  And that guy who suggested maybe I should find another church?  Maybe he should know that idea isn't too far from my mind.


  1. as an educator and Catholic myself, living in a fairly conservative community, i have found it's just better for myself and my family for me to not get involved with church bureaucracy and leadership

    i know that i'm not going to change the bureaucracy, and unfortunately many people that practice a religion, particularly the dominant Christian faiths, are not liberal thinkers

    i do not have a problem practicing my religion in the way i do (which is a similar philosophy to what you outline in your post) while practicing in a community of faith that might be different from my personal philosophy

    really, i could go on and on about this

  2. As a practicing Catholic, I think it's unfortunate that some folks you are encountering are saying concern for animals and for more than half of the human world is a "liberal" issue, as if to dismiss you.

    Granted, the external structure of the Catholic church is patriarchial in that only men can consecrate bread and wine, but in no other Christian sect have I found such a reverence for holy women, started with Our Blessed Mother. I am delving deeply now into the life of S. Joan, and there are so many others: S. Catherine of Siena, S. Therese of Lisieux, and so on.

    God doesn't have a gender, and neither does the Holy Spirit. Jesus was a man, yes, but who was the first to witness and share his resurrection? S. Mary Magdala.

    As for caring for the earth and animals, one need look no further than Franciscan spirituality. Also Elaine, check this out:

  3. Thanks guys. Just to clarify for my readers -- the two of you are Catholic but I am a practicing Lutheran (just a smell or bell away, but might be relevant for readers to know). :)

  4. In the words of Monty Python as he faced that most vicious rabbit in The Meaning of Life, "Run Away! Run Away!". I don't think even the Holy Handgrenade will save you from church politics. D. Petras

  5. Although I agree with your stances on both issues...you may want to think about which battles you will take on, then when and how very carefully. Does the (He) language matter or the intent of the prayer most? What if God is a he? Who really can say? You'll have a laugh with HIM about this someday won't you if it is a HIM! I also think they got He from the scripture about being created in God's image. It doesn't matter to me if God's he/she. It seems irrelevant to the point of it all anyway. For me it's the divine connection with God I feel in my Spirit not the words. Education is about presenting ideas/questions and letting the student come to their own understanding and beliefs. I'm sure you will be very respectful in the way you address this. If you reassure them that you are presenting information and not the right or wrong of it all maybe the reception will be better.
    April :)

  6. My religious school committee meets at 7:30 pm. :)

    I feel your pain. I'm a reform Jew (mostly -- more non-denominational, but you have to go somewhere; that's a whole other topic), and our movement started moving into gender neutral terminology for G-d in the 1980s. It did encounter some resistance, but even the resisters knew their resistance was mostly because the new ways didn't sound or feel right because it wasn't what they were used to. So the movement made the decisions using fairly open processes, committees that had rabbinic and lay input, etc., over a period of time. Then when they published the new editions of the prayer books, the gender neutral language was there. Since then, an entire generation of Reform Jews has grown up feeling just like you do -- that it is gendered references to G-d that are weird and incorrect.

    I hate to say it, but if you continue to receive this level of blow-back, and if that is not balanced by at least the same level of "thank you, thank you, thank you!!" the creep is right -- you probably should find a more liberal church.

  7. "There is always a tension between fighting the good fight in a place that arguably isn't ready for it or joining those who have already fought it."

    What an apt observation. I can relate - I'm a vegan living in the very heart of dairy country in a rural province; I've made this choice for myself after living in what is arguably one of Canada's meccas for vegan living (Victoria BC). I feel out of place here, but also that there is work I could do here, instead of just following the crowd and the easy path. But I can utterly sympathize with your dilemma (though I don't have much insight on church politics). I think the key is making connections with the people around you; if they already know and like you, they will be more willing to hear the revolutionary messages you are trying to spread.

    By the way I really like the idea of gender-neutral language for God. It's true, isn't it - Jesus was a man, but God is unknowable; so why should our concept of God follow the patriarchy?

  8. hey! this comment isn't related to your article (sorry!). i didn't know how else to send you a message, so i hope you don't mind i'm using this comment board to do so. i have been letting people i know about a school scholarship i am trying to win (requires essay votes) and thinking about how to get more exposure and more votes, i thought: the vegan community! so i was wondering (and you can say no at any time, no hard feelings from me), would you mind helping me spread the word on your blogger and/or facebook account? if you want to read more about the scholarship, why it's important to me, or the actual article, here's the link to my blogger piece that talks all about it:


    i really hope i'm not imposing. my apologies if i am! let me know what you think.
    melissa (aka simply vegan)


Politeness is always appreciated.