Why we need a guide to Inclusive Language

18 March 2022

As the Methodist Church in Britain launches a strategy for Justice, Dignity and Solidarity, managing editor Catherine Smith explains why inclusive language matters.

 ‘We begin a period of silent reflection.’ How does that sound to you, in the context of a church service? Absolutely fair enough, and partly what you came to church for? Or does it strike dread into your heart because either you, or someone you care for, is unable to follow that instruction?

After that announcement, imagine a four-year-old child playing with rainbow bricks, screeching with pleasure at her game. As the organist begins a gentle, reflective hymn her voice intensifies, as she loves to hear the music and wants to join in. Heads begin to turn and the disapproving looks begin. If her mother is lucky, she’ll get away with just the looks. But every now and again, someone says something. “Can you keep her quiet?” “It is communion, you know.” “People are here to pray.” Four-year-olds aren’t renowned for their ability to remain silent, and for those who are neurodiverse it’s even less likely. But nobody knows that little girl has additional needs and it wouldn’t occur to them to ask how they can help. They’re only upholding what they’ve been asked to do, after all. She is being noisy. She should stop.

But for too long, too many people have remained silent, so keen to fit into the directives of the church building that they repress their ability to be fully themselves, to express the beauty and diversity of God’s creation by being who they really are – part of the body of Christ. This is why inclusive language matters.

Imagine that shortly afterwards, the priest says, ‘we stand to hear the Gospel.’ Sarah has had a knee injury for months and after walking to church she is already in pain, but she stands just the same. How would it look if she were to remain seated after that instruction? In front of her, a man leans heavily on his walking stick. She wonders whether he’s in pain too.

During a sermon, the presbyter refers to marriage as ‘a covenant between a man and a woman.’ Mike and Stan, sitting in stoic silence, endure another reminder that, although their commitment to one another has lasted longer than some marriages, their love isn’t considered quite acceptable. They don’t hold hands here. Why fuel the fire?

The language we use, in church and outside of it, matters enormously. It doesn’t just reflect the world, but creates and sustains the status quo. And language isn’t just a matter for editors in ivory towers; it needs careful thought from anyone and everyone involved in a church environment.

The Methodist Church is pioneering a conscious effort to make church more inclusive with its Strategy for Justice, Dignity and Solidarity, offering various tools to our members, leaders and ministers to help them consider the way they run their services and groups, and the language they use in their communications. This isn’t in order to forbid certain turns of phrase or to punish anyone who might unknowingly use offensive or demeaning language. It is about acknowledging humbly that even today, there are too many people who feel rejected or excluded by the language and atmosphere of the average Christian church service, and whose overriding impression of the Church is one of judgement, not love.

At the 2021 Methodist Conference, President Sonia Hicks, the first black woman to be elected to the role, shared a poignant story about her great-aunt Lize, who arrived from Jamaica with her Methodist Membership card, only to be ejected in no uncertain terms from a Methodist Church. That this happened within living memory is testament to the systemic racism and discrimination that still exists both within the church and in wider society.

The theme for this Connexional year in Methodism is A Place for All, and as the Revd Sonia Hicks said in her opening speech at the conference, ‘As Christians we are to mirror the grace and mercy of God. We are to find ways of issuing God’s invitation of acceptance to those we meet on a daily basis.’ One aspect of this is to think about the language used in services, in groups and in written or printed communication.

Is there a Biblical case for inclusive language? The most obvious parallel is probably the story of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit gifted the disciples with the ability to speak in tongues in order to share Jesus’ message with all people: ‘All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability… And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?”’ (Acts 2: 4, 6, NRSV.)

The first Pentecost may be a long time ago now, but it’s difficult to argue that the work begun in Jesus’ lifetime is done. There is still a long way to go.

Some would dismiss efforts such as inclusive language guidance as the church following a secular ‘woke agenda’, or perhaps certain people just being too easily offended. But all too often, those most excluded by the current church environment aren’t even there – they’re walking on past the church doors, certain that there isn’t a place for them. Or perhaps they’re in the pews but silenced by the weight of tradition and judgement that needs to be undone. If church is only for ‘insiders’, then we haven’t yet done enough to usher in God’s kingdom.

A strategy for inclusion and a guide to inclusive language are only steps on the way, but as Methodists lead, who else will follow?