Does it actually mean me? : excluding language

The Communion of Saints, the Holy Souls

All Saints and All Souls always make me notice the Lectionaries’ choice of excluding language.  This is in spite of the names of the feasts, which are comfortably non-gender-specific.  The whole point is surely that we are praying for and with all saints and all souls.  Most congregations seem to contain (several) more women than men, but of course there aren’t any at the altar.  It seems perverse to insist on ‘the just man’ always as our paradigm, especially when it is not necessary.   Using a translation like ‘Such are the men who seek your face, O Lord’ (Psalm 23/24, for All Saints) deliberately excludes more than half of the people present, but it is possible to find acceptable alternatives (see the CAN or OZ version of the psalm in question).

Some Christians are female

Practically speaking, what can a church musician do?  It’s probably not an option to alter the words of the Response as given in the Mass books, as this will sow confusion, which immediately stops people singing with commitment.  So for the Response we are dependent on the bishops’ seeing the light; but you can tweak the cantor’s words slightly.  You don’t want to upset anyone or spoil the rhythm (and even I would put those things in that order), but it is possible to make the language less excluding, and this is desirable.

woman with finger over mouth
No need to be silent about the women
Languages with gender

English is a gendered language (though less so than many others), and there is nothing we can do about that.  Our scriptures come to us from a time where human rights were not regarded as belonging to women as well.  You can’t help to write a faithful narrative if you aren’t allowed to learn to write. History has been presented in a particular way, and the language in which we talk about anything has been affected by it. If ‘man’ and ‘men’ were genuinely inclusive terms, we would not have so much gender discrimination, and women might even turn up for those weekends inviting ‘men’ to discernment of their priestly vocations…..and maybe even be allowed in (now there’s a really terrifying and radical thought).  ….And the US would not have needed the nineteenth amendment, because ‘all men’ has in fact only ever meant ‘all men and no women’.  (…..And hurrah for New Zealand which got its act together before anyone else on women and the vote.)

Practical considerations

I can’t change the world, or the Church, or even my own parish, but I would like to discuss some of the practical problems of the language of the psalms and its need not to exclude.  At the most basic level, ‘man/men’ is a strong single syllable, and ‘people’ is two syllables, the second one weak.  This is very important in the psalms, where rhythm and cadence are crucial, so it can be necessary to be slightly more creative rather than simply going for substitution.  To go back to All Saints, this is why the CAN version works so well : it translates the idea rather than the word, and it does it with style.

Psalms better than many other texts

I am glad that I am usually working with the psalms rather than the other readings, because so much of the my text is in the first or second person. ‘I’ is not gendered, and ‘you’ has neither gender nor number in modern English, but in some ways, this makes it all the more shocking when you suddenly come up against something like ‘Such are the men’, because it has not been an issue before.  I have been feeling included in these prayers; suddenly the door is slammed in my face.  I am excluded; I don’t feel that I am part any longer of the company that loves to seek the Lord’s face.  Let’s see what might help.

Hurrah for adjectives

Adjectives can stand alone quite comfortably for a neutral sense : ‘the just’, ‘the poor’; so it’s possible often just to leave out ‘man’ where it occurs.  I should not need to say this, but I am not doing this in order to exclude ‘men’, but to include everybody.  I like men, I even married one, and I have sons as well as daughters.  I want everyone to feel that they are included.

No need to throw the men overboard
The pronoun problem

The big problem is pronouns.  We don’t have neutral pronouns for people in English (because it is a gendered language, just as Latin is), so if the sentence goes on after ‘the just’, ‘he’, ‘his’ and ‘him’ will keep cropping up.  In an ideal world, you could alternate between stanzas, so half the time it would be ‘she’ or  ‘her’ instead.  That is not going to happen.  It need not be a big deal, but some people would still object (though it’s worth asking them why it is such a problem, as the words themselves are translations of translations and not intrinsically magic).  There are in fact many cases in the psalms where the adjectival noun (‘the poor’ etc) is followed by the neutral plural ‘they’, which is on-trend at the moment.

Try it the other way round

I think it would be a good corrective if, maybe once a year, there were a Sunday Mass where, without making a fuss, each occurrence of the word ‘man’ were changed to ‘woman’, ‘he’ to ‘she’, ‘him’ to ‘her’.  I don’t think you would need to do anything else to make some of the men (the ones paying attention) in the congregation feel a little uncomfortable.  Because many (if not all) women do, nearly every Sunday.  We should not be using language which excludes them.

We can all be ‘sons’

‘Sons’ is a particularly tricky case, as ‘sons’ have legal rights (of status and inheritance) which daughters usually didn’t (that’s why we have that dreadfully clumsy ‘co-heirs’ in the Proper).

Acquiring more rights as a ‘son’

Jesus made us all ‘sons’ of God, so no one is a second class citizen.  Maybe we should put this ‘sons’ in inverted commas, so that its significance is a little clearer.

‘Sons of men’ is an expression which annoys me,  as it is a periphrasis (even a cliche) which means nothing more than ‘human beings’, but it’s made up of two unnecessarily excluding words and it totally omits any reference to the woman who has actually done the labour to deliver the child.  You notice in certain psalms, just as in other certain sets of prayers at e.g. Morning and Evening in the Divine Office, that certain writers like to use such expressions repeatedly (Psalm 11/12, for example, Ps 28/29), and it can become a little wearing.

Moving from exclusion to inclusion : Psalm 28/29

To take a specific example : in Psalm 28/29, I’d be very tempted to replace ‘you sons of God’ with ‘children of God’, which has the same syllable count and just needs the stress shifting slightly.  It’s a call upon everyone to praise God; why on earth (sic) should it be gendered?  With good will, this does not need to be a problem, and I do know that it is not the most important thing; but Jesus was all about inclusion, especially of those who might be overlooked by other people.

Jesus talking with woman at the well
The Lord bravely including a woman in the conversation
Age is no excuse

‘Brethren’ is almost archaic enough not to matter, but not quite.  It’s just like addressing a group of students as ‘gentlemen’, something I am old enough to have experienced personally;  nowadays, it’s rude.  ‘Brothers and sisters’ is fine when speaking; when singing, you can substitute ‘people’ for ‘brethren’.  Same syllable count, same stress pattern.

Location can make a difference

Different countries do handle this differently, and if excluding language is bothering you, it might be worth checking the other versions of a given psalm.  There is a sad lack of follow-through, however, and sometimes a psalm starts well and then flounders.   An example from All Souls is the CAN version of Psalm 102/103, which starts so well with ‘children’ and ‘those’, moving on to ‘we’ and ‘us’ as pronouns. Then mid-verse it suddenly switches to ‘he’, ‘his’, and ‘him’, which is disconcerting.  I’d stick to ‘we’, ‘our’ and ‘us’.

The Church thinks in centuries, we are told, and is still to catch up with Jesus’ ease of manner when dealing with women.  We don’t so much need a separate theology of women as a realisation that what the sexes have in common is far more than what divides them.  Women are people too.  We can all be people!  Our liturgical language won’t be perfect for a long time yet, it’s a work in progress; but let’s try to make it including rather than excluding where we can, and remember our sestren as well as our brethren.

we can all sing together if no one is pushed out

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Author: Kate Keefe

Kate Keefe composes music for responsorial psalms, gospel acclamations and the Mass for English speaking Catholic congregations all over the world, using the local lectionary for UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the US and the Philippines. She writes about what comes up in the process, and blogs for The Tablet.

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