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.

For us and for our salvation : inclusive language

Inclusive language

I have been ducking writing this blog because I know it’s an issue which creates heat and not much light. But with the All Saints psalm coming up, that feels cowardly, so I’m going to try and explain why I think the Church has got this wrong.

Unlike some people whom I respect, I do follow the official line on non-inclusive language as given when I am writing tunes for the Psalms and Gospel Acclamations.  For the website to be reliable and useful, I have to follow exactly the words as given in the relevant Missal.  I do not change things, or leave words out; but I do wince quite often.  If I am reading at my church, I check with the parish priest whether he is happy for me to add ‘and sisters’ to the exhortations made to ‘brothers’.  Mostly it’s not a problem, although a couple of years ago one priest said to me that there were far more important things to be concerned with in the readings.

Why does it matter?

And of course he was right.  The substance is what matters.  What he didn’t understand though, and what I think the authorities in the Church have equally failed to grasp, is that if you deliberately exclude what is usually the majority of the congregation, this is a stumbling block for many of them, and they can’t engage with the substance because they feel as if they have been told that it is not meant for them.

Women as a small minority in the past

When I went to university, women were a relatively small minority.  I remember being addressed, at lectures and seminars, as ‘gentlemen’.  One didn’t react.  Politer and more aware (maybe less myopic) lecturers gradually became the majority, though it took some time.  When I was doing postgrad research my supervisor consulted me about what to do with a new (female) student who burst into tears whenever criticised.  I suggested sending her to a female don, which completely nonplussed my supervisor, as the college he belonged to, though it had female undergraduates, did not have any women on the teaching staff.

Woman wearing knitted beard - one way to be inclusive?
This isn’t me; but maybe this is what I should have done

That’s a while ago now, and thank goodness the situation has improved.  But the issue of inclusive language (or rather of non-inclusive language) is still a painful one for (most) women Catholics.  Even more damagingly, a wholly male hierarchy does not even notice that half the body of Christ is being excluded, because the language actively misrepresents the reality.

Awareness of language, inclusive or not

I am very language-aware, I always have been.  It’s like having an acute sense of smell, something you are born with.  Because of writing music to go with a fixed set of words, I think I have probably become even more sensitised.  I look up pronunciation on-line to check whether the US ‘toward’ is one or two syllables (it’s one, and there’s a man who spends seventeen minutes explaining it). I understand how the UK psalm can have ‘power’ or ‘heaven’ on one note, but you need two for the US – and I’m still trying to find out which side of the fence Canada and Australia come down on.  I have to arrange the melody so that ‘tormented’ is stressed on the first syllable for the US and Philippines, but on the second syllable for UK, Ireland and OZ.  (The same is true for ‘frustrated’, but luckily that’s not a word that comes up in the psalms, only in Saint Paul’s Letters.)  I look at the words really carefully, and work on them for some time.  It is an enormous privilege to be able to do this, and I love it; but shoddy translation makes me cross.

It’s not Latin’s fault

I’m lucky enough to be also comfortable with Latin.  I grew up with it, partly because our parish was a very old-fashioned one, so even after Mass in the vernacular had been introduced, we were still having a lot of it in Latin.  I studied it at school.  I can sing chant, I can do Credo III and Salve Regina without book.  I’m not trying to boast or show off here, just explain where I’m coming from.  Crucially, I know that ‘homines’ is not the Latin for ‘men’.  It means ‘people’.  In French, it’s the difference between ‘les hommes’ and ‘les gens’.  So ‘for us men and our salvation’ , to go back to my headline example, is simply wrong.  You might well not want to use the word ‘people’ because it has two syllables, and disturbs the rhythm.   You could just leave it out.  This should offend no-one.  It includes all of us.  Because there is time for a tiny break after it, it actually helps to make you think about what you are saying.  ‘For us men’ is quite deliberately excluding.   And in Latin it would be ‘propter nos viros’.

The Church isn’t even consistent on this.  If ‘men’ means ‘men and women’, why do the advertisements for vocations to the priesthood always invite ‘men’?   Any woman aspirant would be rebuffed at a very early stage and told it did not mean ‘and women’ at all.  ‘Man’ is slightly more tricky, because we don’t have (unlike Czech, Serbian and no doubt some other languages) a genderless noun for a human being except for ‘person’, which has a special weight of its own.  ‘Homo’ and ‘vir’ both translate as ‘man’.  I am a ‘homo’ but I am not a ‘vir’.   For those who get agitated about in persona Christi, Jesus was made man: ‘homo factus est’.  He happens to be a ‘vir’.  I have no problem with that.  We are both ‘homines’.  As the hymn City of God says, ‘we are sons of the morning, we are daughters of day’, a very fine example of inclusive translation (Cf. ‘You are all sons of light and sons of the day’, 1 Thess 5.5).

(Non-)inclusive language in the Psalms

Moving on to the Psalms, the situation becomes clearer, because there, our translations distinguish between ‘man’ (‘What is man, that thou art mindful of him,’ (Ps 8/9) and ‘a man’ or ‘the man’, but a lot of the time, the psalms are so direct that it isn’t a problem: we are using ‘I’ and ‘you’.  When the discussion is between God and the psalmist, we can all use the words of the psalm without any obstacle.  When, however, the psalmist discusses other people in general terms, we do have a problem, as he tends to talk only about ‘the just man’ and ‘the wicked man’.  As soon as the word ‘man’ has an article, definite or indefinite, it seems to be talking to only half the human race and ignoring the other half.

Woman wearing fake beard - you don't have to go this far for inclusive language
Here’s another one, better than the real thing
But these are the words in the Bible

Some of the translations I set are aware of the problem and try to work around it.  ‘Man’ is a single syllable which can be difficult to replace.  ‘The just one’ (occasional, US) is a bit clumsy, as is the use of ‘their’ for a singular subject (occasional, CAN) to avoid ‘his’ (but probably better than ‘one’s’, unless you are the Queen of England).  The recommended wedding psalms nearly all focus on the joys of the just man, with his wife as an occasional desirable add-on, and this is why I would myself choose a different sort of psalm, one which speaks to both central figures.  (Have a look at my earlier discussion on wedding psalms, if you are interested.) Here is where the psalms’ directness is very helpful : ‘May the Lord give you your heart’s desire’ excludes no-one and is highly appropriate (Pss 19/20 and 36/37).

The Canada translations vary wildly, sometimes trying really hard to be inclusive and sometimes seeming deliberately to avoid doing so.  The UK/Ireland translations, being closest to the original Grail versions, are of their time, as of course are the Psalms.  Now, changing the Grail versions is difficult, because they were ‘Englished’ (and that’s her word) by a genius woman, Philippa Craig, who understood not just her own language but also that the psalms were meant to be sung, so the rhythms are good;  and if you upset them, you must produce something at least as good (this is why a lot of nineteenth-century hymn word revision is poor).  And the psalms are really old; Christianity has been around for two thousand years, but the psalms were already old when it started.  They are the product of their time, their culture, their context…….

So can we change them for the Lectionary?

…….but they are also new for us every time we sing them. So a bit of careful alteration can be justified, I think, and determined non-alteration is wearing on the ear of (some) female listeners.  All Saints always brings this topic to the front of my attention.  The Responses for the All Saints psalm are interesting. US and OZ (sorry, technical term for ‘Australia and New Zealand’) have ‘Lord, this is the people that longs to see your face’, which is OK.  The UK/Ireland version is taken directly from the text: ‘Such are the men who seek your face, O Lord’, which is not good. The Canadian one is inspired: ‘Lord, this is the company of those who seek your face’ – good rhythm, arresting, leaves no-one out, neat allusion both to the Church Militant and the eucharistic community; but then, sadly, subsides into the same verse words as OZ and UK, ‘the man’ and ‘he’. The US has ‘the one’ and ‘he’, but substitutes ‘race’ for ‘men’ in the last verse (which is where the UK Response is from).  I respect the effort, but that’s not a good alternative.  All four Lectionaries do adapt the psalm words quite freely when they choose, including the UK one, so keeping it exact is not a justification for exclusionary language.  I think it is justified to change the words slightly for a psalm that is designed to be sung by the whole congregation, especially in the Response because it is repeated.

I want to walk in Jerusalem just like John
Other writings more problematic

The Psalms are not (usually) the problem at Mass for those of us with sensitive ears, though I reserve the right to point out where alterations could easily have been made (I need a good picture, like my mediaeval Yoda for when the US psalm words are too inverted, but I haven’t found one yet).  So much of the language of the psalms is simple, direct and uses ‘I’ and ‘you’ rather than the third person, which is where the problem usually arises.  We could make better use of adjectives, which are gender-neutral in English : ‘the poor’, ‘the just’ etc.  The bigger problem is paradoxically in the more modern translations of prayers where non-inclusive language has been retained or even put back.  When you see translations of Vatican documents or Papal sermons or prayers in Morning and Evening Prayer (one of the worst offenders) which use the word ‘men’ (or sometimes ‘sons’ or ‘brothers’),  it is rarely necessary.  It could just be ineptitude or shoddy translation, but it often seems to be part of an agenda.

I have been at many Masses where the congregation was almost exclusively female, or even where it was all nuns except me and the priest.  ‘For us and for our salvation’ is a better version of the words, and not just in those situations.  It is what I say.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2017. 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.